The new buccaneers

A curious piece, tongue-in-cheek, but neat, in a recent edition of The Economist.

‘Mr Johnson understood intuitively that the financial crisis had ended the neoliberal consensus…No mere Trumpian wrecking ball he is trying to reshape globalisation in the mould of Britain’s buccaneering maritime past, rather than in the European Union’s bureaucratic pettifoggery.’

Buccaneering. How do you ‘buccaneer’ these days?

Container ships could be the new buccaneers. Where once we had tea clippers and cargo ships. We’ll need a bit of the old aggression, against Chinese and indeed the Americans if we’re to capture markets, and of course against our old friends, the Europeans. Piracy would help. Conquest shouldn’t be ruled out.

Or if that’s beyond us, overseas markets will least welcome a bit of the old imperial chutzpah. It will be as if we’d never been away.

The EU’s ‘bureaucratic pettifoggery’. But isn’t it what successful free trade requires, a bit of pettifoggery? Small print. A few regulations, so we’re all on the same page. In olden times, we wrote our own. It was easier then. (Yes, regulations need to be reined it: it was always thus.)

You need the high seas and a big reach if you’re to buccaneer. But ‘big reach’, also known as globalisation, isn’t really that fashionable at the moment, beyond our shores. Buy American is the watchword over the pond. China is focusing more on its internal market, and on its Belt and Road for which there’s no equivalent here in the West. China on its doorstep bludgeons with overwhelming economic power. We negotiate as best we can.

We had our own strong internal market, just twenty miles away over the Channel, twenty-eight countries strong, but we gave it up, and put stop-gaps and confusion in its place. And hide our confusion with hyperbole.

Liz Truss’s article on the Politico website back in March is a fine example. A few quotes:

‘We will work together to reshape the rules of global trade to reflect our core values…The U.K.’s values-driven policy has already delivered successes in trade negotiations….Just as free trade made the U.K. great in the 19th century, we can be even greater still in the 21st by becoming a global hub for services and digital trade.’

We’re back to being … buccaneers. And nowadays the world’s awash with buccaneers. We could find ourselves with brief spells of comparative advantage, where we outperform our rivals, or corner a niche in the market, only to find we’re overtaken as other countries seek to build advantage for themselves in the same areas, which could be digital, medical or services. As a mature economy we specialise at the high end. As other economies mature, so will they.

Free trade in the highly fluid modern world can’t remotely be compared with the 19th century as a driver of community prosperity. That was built on certainty, and the confidence born of certainty, and it was even then a long, rocky, risky and highly uncertain road. Politics in the wrong hands deals in simplicities. History hits you hard with a reminder of just how extraordinarily complex is the reality.

Strong communities and long supply lines can be a poor mix, with little connection between businesses tucked away in business parks and nearby towns and villages. Community in its widest sense requires shorter, more guaranteed lines of supply, with industries which can sell strongly into local markets, or into UK-wide markets, or indeed into EU-wide markets. We need a different and wiser mindset, which focuses in developing our UK and European markets, and which, while promoting trade with China, Japan, India and the ASEAN countries, avoids obsession.

We’ve also had Johnson’s 15th July ‘levelling up’ speech.

‘We are turning this country into a science superpower, doubling public investment in R and D to £22 billion and we want to use that lead to trigger more private sector investment and to level up across the country so that we have hubs or research and innovation like the one we are in today which is actually driving battery technology.’

All this is admirable. But is this government competent to deliver? Have we any reason save their bluster to believe them? Our best hope lies in the local mayors of cities lie Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, also Teesside. Labour and Tory – they do have the competence.

We simply have the wrong people in power to get close to addressing, let alone solving, the issues of our time. We’ve over the last twenty years seen the disappearance of men and women of calibre from our politics. Johnson has ensured that the old high-calibre politicians won’t touch his party. On the other side, Corbyn didn’t help. The way back isn’t proving easy.

And so the Empire lives on….

I visited Daylesford in the Cotswolds yesterday, famous for its farm shop, and explored its vast and well-tended (woodland and pasture and water meadow) estate. How many I wonder connect the estate to Warren Hastings, famous, or infamous, as the 18th century governor-general of India, and subject of remarkable impeachment proceedings (beginning in 1788) when he was labelled by Edmund Burke among other epithets as ‘shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious’.

The East India Company in the 18th century was the forerunner of the Raj. But it was back then in essence a trading company, militarised under Robert Clive, not least to combat French influence on the sub-continent. Trade brooked no rivals. The moral conscience of the nation was stirred, but trade had its own momentum. In Burke’s words, ‘(the Company appears) more like an army going to pillage the people under the pretence of commerce than anything else’.

Ten years later (1799) victory over Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, ensured control of southern India. ‘Scarcely a house in the town [Seringapatam] was left unplundered,’ Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, wrote to his mother. The loot was extraordinary. It overwhelms our museums.

How, I wondered, does trade morph into empire, when the exigencies of trading relationships are replaced by the subjugation of whole populations? Local agreements with Indian merchants required local representation, which in turn required residence, and defence of person and property, and of commercial privileges – which extended so easily into a pretence, and then a reality, of empire.

William Dalrymple’s monumental history of the East India Company (‘The Anarchy’) is marvellous on the subject. Also worth reading is Sathnam Sanghera. He’s the Wolverhampton-born son of Sikh immigrants, and a journalist on The Times. His new book, Empireland, pulls together in one short volume many of the elements of our imperial legacy – loot, immigration (‘we are here because you were there’), identity, legacy, amnesia, trade and slavery.

Trade is to the forefront today. Literally today. The commission appointed by Oxford’s Oriel College to review the college’s decision to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has decided against its removal, and the college has concurred in that decision. The protest group ‘Rhodes must go’ is up in arms. But the ground has shifted even in the last year. The government’s proposed legislation would have had all plans to remove statues called in, and probably overturned.

The growth of Empire was linked to specific products. Rhodes is associated with southern Africa and diamond mining. He founded De Beers. The slave trade and the sugar plantations of the West Indies were synonymous. Cotton textiles were one of the mainstays of 18th century East India Company trade.  The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 prohibited their importation, but not raw cotton, opening up later in the century to the import of raw cotton from slave plantations in the southern USA, and creating the conditions for the rapid development of the cotton industry in late 18th and 19th century Lancashire. India became a major market for Lancashire cotton. Indians had no choice in the matter. The connection between slavery, trade, and the industrial revolution is direct.

I speak as a Manchester man, proud of his city. Do I feel guilt? No, that’s not a helpful emotion. And if we apologise – who would do the apologising? And who to? Look over the Channel and see the quandary the French have over North Africa. Macron described the Algerian War as a crime against humanity. But no apology as such has been – or I guess will be – forthcoming. You could argue that those who should be apologising are those of us who still maintain some kind of ‘imperial mindset’. Who still have some notion of British exceptionalism. Look across the pond to America, where ‘exceptionalism’ is also rife.

Brexit evoked comparisons with 19th century free trade and revoking the Corn Laws. But back then we controlled our markets, controlled the seas, and enforced tariff-free trade, always to our advantage. We crushed domestic production in India to create a vast market there for our own goods. I’m researching my great-grandfather’s business in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – cotton country despite being over the boundary from Lancashire. Did his business, as a merchant tailor with a wide reach, extend beyond Manchester to overseas markets?

There is a curious reverse colonial mentality among some well-known supporters of Brexit. The EU is turned into a surrogate empire, and the only way we can reassert our status is by turning back the clock. And so the British Empire lives on….

The subject, as Sanghera found, is vast, and I’ll limit myself here to one further comment, on the subject of religion, and muscular Christianity, and the role of the missionary. I recently read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It’s a short, and remarkable novel, drawing on Achebe’s own family’s direct experience, which, despite having sold twenty million copies worldwide, had passed me by. Missionaries find their way to a Nigerian village, and the old customs of generations are undermined. The old gods don’t stand a chance. One missionary employs a softly softly approach, another brings in the might of the district commissioner, and you realise how imperial power married to a religious conviction re-casts a proud people as inferiors.

Nigeria was still a colony in my early childhood, and we collected for the work, as a teacher, of a local lady who’d been a missionary in Nigeria all her life. I claim to be a Christian. Can I apportion right and wrong here? Can I have any sympathy for a tribal society in which superstition and shamans called the tune? One God better than multiple gods? Of course. But hand in hand with mission work went subjugation. Subjugation dehumanises.  That is a terrible consequence of empire. It also took root, after more open-minded beginnings, in 19th century India.

We were by that time, in the UK, moving beyond the slave trade. The campaign for its abolition was led by William Wilberforce. But Wilberforce was deeply religious and Indian religions were for him no more than superstition. Conversion was a Christian duty, and implicit is the sense of superiority which characterises the missionary. ‘They’ lack something that ‘you’ have. An attitude in the Raj that had terrible consequences, not least the Indian Mutiny, and more than sixty years later the Amritsar massacre.

I’m a child of empire, and I’d love to think that my children’s generation could see the last of them. But old attitudes live on, and America and China are sharpening up their spheres of influence. How empires of the future might differ, are already differing, from the empires of the past, is another story.

A little bit of lobbying – revisited

(If you read my last post you might want to miss this. It is simply a shortened, and updated, version. Last time there was too much Adam Smith, however fascinating he might be.)

We have finally put austerity behind us. We’re no longer frightened of deficits, here or in the USA. $1.9 trillion is Biden’s rescue package, and then some. More than ever, in these times, we need financial probity. How government interacts with the private sector, in all its aspects, is a key issue for our time.

As a convenient reminder, we have the lobbying scandal involving Cameron and Greensill Capital. And in the last two days we learn that, in March last year, Boris Johnson was exchanging text messages with his friend and Tory supporter Sir James Dyson. We needed ventilators quickly, Sir James could provide, and Johnson promised (‘“I will fix it tomo!’) no negative tax implications for Dyson staff who came to the UK to help.

It was a time of crisis, Johnson argued in the House of Commons. That doesn’t excuse. It only exemplifies how government without proper supervision, of the kind exemplified by the government’s plans to reduce the scope of judicial review, can operate via back doors and personal contacts. Whether ‘cronyism’ is the appropriate word I’ll leave for the reader to judge.  

I’ll skip direct quotes from Adam Smith, but will include a pivotal quote from Jesse Norman’s book about Adam Smith: ‘Yet as technology spreads big data, insider knowledge, digital technologies, there are increasing dangers of a new tech-enabled crony capitalism: a self-reinforcing cycle in which greater insider power encourages the development of bent markets…’

What intrigues me is that Jesse Norman is a Tory MP and Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and like Cameron, an Old Etonian. He will, I trust, have been making his views on crony capitalism widely known.  (There was, quite co-incidentally, a curious spat between Cameron and Norman over House of Lords reform back in 2012.)

‘What me, guv?’ I imagined Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. Market forces as experienced by ordinary consumers are one thing.  Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans.

Greensill Capital, advocacy for which got Cameron into trouble, was a clever financial idea (I wondered about the term ‘ruse’) where business bills are settled immediately for a fee, assisting thereby with the issue of late payments.

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, stood to make a lot of money. Big share options were on offer. I sense he simply got out of his depth. That’s the kindest thing one can say.

And finally (as I mentioned in my last post) …I was intrigued to see how the Daily Mail is trying to turn the lobbying scandal into a plot by Labour anti-Brexit insiders within the Civil Service trying to blacken the government. It goes with Palace ‘insiders’ telling us what really went at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

As always with the Mail, don’t believe a word of it.

A little bit of lobbying on the side

Remember Philip Hammond desperately trying to balance the books as Chancellor? Now all the talk is of how foolish Osborne was to batten down for so long. And it looks as if Hammond wasted his time. Expansion and big rescue packages and capital spending are the order of the day. In the USA, the same. Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package. And big plans for infrastructure. The debate in the USA is whether it will cause inflation to get out of hand. The Economist is putting out dire warnings on the one hand – but supporting a big spending approach for the EU on the other.

How government interacts with the private sector will be more than ever in the spotlight. The lobbying scandal involving David Cameron and Greensill Capital is just one example of how this relationship can go wrong.

Adam Smith provides context. He tends to be associated, by way of a selective reading of The Wealth of Nations, with a freewheeling free-market philosophy. By which bad behaviours might be somehow balanced out by good. Not so, as his ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ reveals. ‘It carries within it a crucial Smithean insight, that innumerable human interactions can yield vast but entirely unintended collective consequences – social benefits, yes, but also social evils…’ (Jesse Norman, ‘Adam Smith, What He Thought And Why It Matters’)

There is a good, and ‘Smithean’, argument to be made as follows. In a commercial society we are all merchants. The pursuit of wealth is of itself a good thing (depending on how ‘wealth’ is defined). The desire for human betterment drives that process. War and violence have, for all of history, brought about division. Commerce binds us together.

But over-accumulation, growth for its own sake, inequality, the pursuit of self-interest, the handing-on of wealth from one generation to the next – wealth for its own sake and not as the driver of a society’s welfare – they are among the great enemies. The fact that David Cameron’s activities were ‘legal’ exemplifies, all the more, how easily the pursuit of wealth as an ultimate social good can be corrupted.

Jesse Norman, who is incidentally an Old Etonian, and Tory MP (read into that what you may), has an intriguing paragraph in his biography of Adam Smith: ‘Yet as technology spreads big data, insider knowledge, digital technologies, there are increasing dangers of a new tech-enabled crony capitalism: a self-reinforcing cycle in which greater insider power encourages the development of bent markets; these in turn create popular demands for more government regulation, create more complexity and opportunity for lobbying, a further boost to the power of insiders, and so on.’

‘What me, guv?’ I can imagine Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. We’re, many of us, wary believers in market capitalism, where market forces ‘drive prices down and quality up, and consumers have a very wide choice’, in Norman’s words. We’re talking of food, clothes, everyday items.

Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans. (They were of course unknown to Adam Smith.) Greensill Capital, advocacy for which got Cameron into trouble, was a clever financial idea (I wondered about the term ‘ruse’) where business bills are settled immediately for a fee, assisting thereby with the issue of late payments.

Now, as much if not more than ever, with big money and big contracts in play, we have a whole new raft of opportunities for crony capitalism, re-working old business and school networks, rent-seeking, inside knowledge, and conflicts of interest. More than ever we need to be wary – to be aware.

Heading off at a slight tangent there’s a paragraph from an American author*, writing on the subject of meritocracy, I’d like to quote: ‘Someone who wants an elite income … must do one of a narrowly constricted category of jobs, heavily concentrated in finance, management, law and medicine.’ Teaching, public service, ‘even engineering’ don’t get a look in. (How medicine and money came to be quite so conflated is a uniquely American story.)

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, wanted to be part of that big-earning brigade, with big stock options on offer.

Many had a high regard for Cameron. He will be wondering how he surrendered it so easily.  

And finally …I’m intrigued to see how the Daily Mail is trying to turn the lobbying scandal into a plot by Labour anti-Brexit insiders within the Civil Service trying to blacken the government. It goes with Palace ‘insiders’ telling us what really went at the funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

Don’t believe a word of it.

*Daniel Markovits, ‘The Meritocracy Trap’, quoted by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books)

A year-long foreign-policy review has come to this …

The government’s year-long foreign policy has come to this. The UK’s focus will shift focus towards Indo-Pacific countries, described as ‘the world’s growth engine’. This, Boris Johnson asserted in parliament today, will guarantee our future economic prospects. And – at the same time – justify Brexit.

We will also, according to Johnson, have to ‘relearn the art’ of competing against countries with ‘opposing values’. Which speechwriter I wonder thought up that apparently clever phrase, ‘re-learning the art’? To be cynical, we’ve managed it pretty well to-date with Saudi Arabia. And China’s values haven’t been ours for a good few years.

(I will leave aside for now the government’s plans to increase the cap on the number of nuclear warheads to 260.  It had been due to drop to 180 under previous plans.)

This is all simply nonsense, grandiloquent nonsense. Keir Starmer, wary of Brexit-constituency MPs among his backbenchers, appears not so far to have called it out. I trust he will – we need a clear distinction to be made between the government’s damn-the-consequences hard Brexit and the close relationship with the EU which a soft Brexit would have allowed.

This EU hatred is absurd and deeply damaging.

‘Shifting focus’ is Brexit speak, an attempt to cover the disaster of turning our backs on Europe, our own backyard, which was and is and remains our best guarantee of future prosperity. Our focus has to be on Europe and the Far East. Quite apart from neglecting the vast opportunities which lie close at home this new ‘strategy’ overlooks the much higher risk in trade with the Far East. Brexit was in part predicated on a trade deal with China… that isn’t likely to happen. And stretched supply lines are fine – if you shored up your supply lines close to home.

A further consideration – will any Far Eastern country give us a better deal negotiating on our own than we’d get negotiating with Europe? There’s this false notion that the EU is somehow laggard in this area.  There will be much analysis of this switch in our national priorities over the coming days – at least, I trust there will be. But let’s call it out now for what it is – nonsense.

I note also that the government wants the UK to become a ‘science and tech superpower’ by the end of the decade. As I do. Other countries will be pursuing the same goal. We have remarkable levels of cooperation across Europe at the moment, which are currently under serious threat. Do we really think we can go it alone?

I heard this morning our Foreign Secretary asserting that we are still held in the highest regard around the world… and that may be, despite the current government’s best efforts to undermine that reputation. We will re-instate, Johnson tells us, the 0.7% of GDP assigned to foreign aid ‘when the fiscal situation allows’ – as if this was some kind of policy success. 

There’s much more to be said. But will it be? Media and parliament are sadly emasculated. Who will challenge?

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’.

Mill country – from Hebden Bridge to Stroud

[The first paragraphs of this blog originally appeared as the blog, ‘One cheer for enterprise and two for poor’. I’d taken my cue from EM Forster’s short book from 1950, Two Cheers for Democracy. I’ve decided rather late that both title and allusion are too obscure – but there still is a story to tell.]

Back in 1907 there was a creditors’ meeting in Manchester. A low-key winding-up. Not such an unusual occurrence. In this case it was ‘Mr Joseph Spencer, carrying on business… as tailor and outfitter’. He was my great-grandfather.

You saw an opportunity, you seized it, ‘set up shop’, a mill maybe – or literally a shop. That’s what Joseph Spencer did, in Hebden Bridge in Upper Calderdale, that hybrid seriously-Yorkshire but edging-Lancashire area which, with the Rochdale Canal sneaking through the Pennines, linked to Manchester as much as Halifax, and manufactured cotton goods (especially fustian) which traded on the Manchester Exchange.

In the 1890s he looked west, across the border, and opened further shops in Burnley, Accrington and Oldham, and in 1901 transferred his main business to Deansgate Arcade in Manchester. His son, my grandfather, Thomas, aged 22, stayed behind to run the Hebden Bridge business.

I will need to research further whether Joseph simply over-traded and ran out of money, or whether there was a wider slump. Either way, it’s in the nature of enterprise. Our lives run on enterprise, our own, or that of others. Small traders live on the edge, big businesses ossify. Get taken over, or in extremis, they collapse. Shipbuilding and steel. Coal. BHS, Arcadia, Debenhams.

My house in Stroud, in Gloucestershire, is next to the old Severn-Thames canal. An abundance of Cotswold wool, fast-flowing rivers in the ‘five valleys’ and, later, coal brought up the Severn, drove a multitude of mills, many of which, re-purposed, still survive.  It seems I can’t escape from mills, though it was wool in Stroud, and cotton (and especially fustian) in Hebden Bridge.

Across the canal from my house a mill turned out military uniforms, and a few yards to the west two mills co-existed with the railway viaduct which sweeps over both the canal and the river Frome. To the north, up on the hill, was the workhouse, a substantial structure, an ever-present reminder of how the wheel of fortune goes up, and also comes down.

It’s a peaceful landscape now. As indeed is Hebden Bridge. Both places, as I’m finding, have remarkable stories to tell. Once upon a time they were all energy, and noise, the endless working out of success and failure. All has leaked away downriver. (In Hebden Bridge’s case with an occasional big flood. The Frome in Stroud runs a deeper channel.) Downriver – and overseas.

There are many remarkable personal stories to tell. My great-grandfather’s being one. He was fortunate. He wasn’t brought low by his bankruptcy. But it’s a useful reminder to me (if Covid wasn’t enough!) how fickle fortune can be.

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.