The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Beware converts

(reference article by David Goodhart in the FT Weekend, 18th March 2017)

Beware converts. Or better, conversions. People who change sides, as Ronald Reagan did, and I remember the one-time New Stateman editor turned right-wing commentator, Paul Johnson. And didn’t Melanie Phillips, she of the vitriol and the non-sequitur, once write for the Guardian? To switch abruptly suggests an over-simplification of argument, you switch from believer to atheist, you’ve seen the light, you’re St Paul on the road to Damascus.

The most important corrective is always to see the other side, to take it, argue it, from time to time. You don’t have to be a racist to argue in favour of restrictions on immigration, or an inveterate woman-hater to argue against abortion. Passions run deep in life and politics, especially when you’re young, and if you’re not passionate in your 20s then you ought to be. But if we’re looking to educate young people in citizenship, let’s also make that civility, and more than civility, empathy, and more than empathy, tucking yourself inside the other’s shell from time to time.

Why am I writing this? There’s a fine political commentator, David Goodhart, founder of one of my favourite magazines, Prospect, and he’s just published a book entitled ‘The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics’. He divides the population very broadly into ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’.  Anywheres are more mobile, usually university-educated, they have ‘high human capital, [they] will thrive in open, competitive systems and only be held back by prejudice or protectionism’. Freedom of movement, membership of the EU, will have obvious advantages. Somewheres are ‘more rooted, generally less well-educated… and prioritise attachment and security’.

It’s a helpful distinction. A typical urban community is disparate, and local communication minimal. A suburban or small-town or village community is more likely to be a community – to be more homogeneous, localised – and people talk to neighbours, meet up at sport clubs and the like.

So where’s my gripe with Goodhart? He wrote an essay back in 2004 about the tension between diversity and solidarity, he thought it uncontroversial, but he ‘met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time’. He was even accused of racism. (I’ve my own experience of this left-leaning mentality.) Goodhart now claims to have left the tribe – but he then describes it as ‘the liberal tribe that had been my home for 25 years’. [My italics.]

I’m a liberal, four square, and first and foremost I don’t accept I’m of the left, modern or otherwise.  Nor the right. Nor the ‘centre’, wherever that might be. I’ve long argued for compassion, caring (shared but interpreted differently by left and right) and community. As well as initiative and enterprise. ‘Big society’ ideas left me cold because they were top-down, and community is instinctive, bottom-up. (The downside of London life is the isolation. The upside of village life can be – well, is – almost too much community.)

(The ‘liberal left’ is a popular term. It’s where many people stand politically. But ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ are distinct terms, distinct political placements. And elements of the press love to emphasise the ‘left’, so ‘liberal’ gets pulled off-centre, and damned for being something that it isn’t.)

Goodhart also has this throw-away comment: ‘Ask English people at a middle-class London dinner-party whether they are proud of their country and they will get bluster and embarrassment.’ Maybe his dinner parties, not mine – and don’t rely on dinner-parties for your straw poll!

He sees himself as a centrist, open to ideas from left and right: ‘Indeed I am now post-liberal and proud.’ I’d argue that he’s now achieved liberal status for the first time, having shed old allegiances. He accuses liberalism of an over-reach that produced the Brexit and Trump backlashes. That I think is too easy, too cheap, and a touch cowardly. We’re back to being a convert, taking sides.

Goodhart is taking a risk by pigeon-holing and denigrating liberalism, arguing for a more woolly, inchoate alternative, where people fall back on the instinctive protectiveness of tribes, whether some- or any-where. It’s left liberalism that’s his target, but he’s risking bringing down a wider liberal mindset at the same time.

Liberals, in their Liberal Democrat guise, within and especially away from the big city have a strong community emphasis. That’s why pre-Coalition they were so successful as a local level – and increasingly are now.

Curiously it’s where I think Goodhart is headed. It isn’t a retreat from liberalism, it’s an avowal of all that’s best about it, and he doesn’t need to be throwing sops to the harder elements of the right-wing, which is what I fear he’s been doing.

Abandoning your ‘tribe’ carries big risks. You can easily get tainted by another.

Countering Extremism 

Another remarkable discussion at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This time on countering extremism. How best to handle radical Islam is a contentious issue. And that’s a significant impediment in itself. But first and foremost, we have to be better informed.

Peter Frankopan, who chaired the panel of three (see * below for the participants) asked the audience, a full house in the town hall, how many of us had read the Koran. Maybe two or three put up their hands. We rely too much on opinions, commentators and hearsay, selective reporting and prejudice. Sadly I guess most of us won’t be rushing off to buy and read copies. But we owe it to ourselves, to the Muslim communities in our midst, and to our own futures, to be better informed.

Continue as we are now, and we will continue as polarised communities.

Radical Islamists argue that the West and Islam are incompatible, put a distorted view of Islam up against a immoral West beyond redemption. So young Muslims, already feeling excluded, feel they have to take sides.

As a society, whatever faith or non-faith we profess, we need counter-arguments, and at the core of these arguments must be inclusion – Muslims should be, must be, as much a part of this society as Christians. Prejudice is a conflicting and self-defeating agenda.  Achieve inclusion, and we can make  democracy, liberty, free speech shared values, across all communities.

Inclusion requires commitment on both sides, on all sides. We have a long way to go.

*Chaired by Peter Frankopan, and drawing on the experience of Sara Khan, founder of the charity Inspire, which challenges extremist ideologies in Muslim communities, Peter Neumann, academic and author of ‘Radicalised’, and Hanif Qadir, a one-time recruit to radical Islam now working with young people in danger from radicalisation.

Words, words, words

Words, words, words…

I’ve read the Economist on Brexit, and now the New Statesman. I’ve browsed Daily Mail and Telegraph headlines, watched Panorama. Read the Guardian. Skipped through The Week. I’m gutted and I’m glutted.

A few conclusions, and that means, inevitably, more words.

I remain (in every sense) passionate about the European ideal, about being open and open-hearted toward the world, about influence gained by working with others rather than influence lost by retreating, and pretending we can win friends from behind closed doors.

There are so many narratives out there. One is a narrative of gloom. Reaching wider than Brexit, there’s a sense of a failing world, of which the EU, China, Russia and a USA enthralled by Trump are all aspects. The philosopher, John Gray (writing in the New Statesman), is a good example. ‘We have to throw away the old progressive playbook.’

‘Not for a moment,’ would be my reply. But an acceptance that the progressive road is a rocky one, and for every step forward there might be two steps back – yes, that we must accept.

(Gray is closer to the mark on Labour: ‘Leading Labour figures have denied that the party’s stance on immigration is central to the collapse of its working-class base.’ Look to de-industrialisation they argue. But they’re avoiding ‘an inconvenient truth’.)

Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Remain side, felt so deeply a week last Friday morning. Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Leave side, building up over many years.

On the Remain side we need to be wary of our language, and our emotions, and our surprise. At the same time we can be scornful of the likes of Libby Purves laying into disconsolate Remainers: ‘liberal and lefties weeping into their lattes.’ You don’t have to be liberal or leftie – you just have to European, and an optimist, and open in outlook.

It’s been helpful to run through a few of the reasons given by ordinary people explaining their reasons for voting to leave, on Panorama and elsewhere.

Immigration: ‘no room in schools, not safe in our jobs … a weaker economy a price worth paying… racism shouldn’t be used as a smear against the voiceless.’

‘The bosses love foreign workers… The housing situation is the UK is abysmal… Now to be poor is a sin… One million migrants into Germany…’

We can, on the Remain side, argue for ever that immigration has a substantial net benefit to the UK economy, but there’s no doubt that free movement between countries with different working conditions, radically different levels of pay and welfare benefits has impacted directly on the lower-paid and less-skilled. Free movement is an important (but arguably not a necessary) principle for a free market, but it’s caused significant dislocations. Yes, we should have anticipated this and provided the necessary health and education infrastructure. But we’ve been in a recession, and our focus has been elsewhere….

While there is no gainsaying the impact on jobs and pay, the experience of specific localities has been written up and wilfully exaggerated. This is where UKIP and the Mail, Sun and Express come into play. The fear of immigration, the supposed threat to our national character, has had a major influence nationwide, and helps explain the Leave vote in areas with low immigrant populations. Addressing dislocations caused by immigration will have little effect on this element of the Leave vote. Fear easily becomes prejudice and runs deep. And aligns with a disdain for the political class – also encouraged by the popular press.

There’s another narrative we heard on Panorama – the disappearance of the old shops from the High Street – as if this was a consequence of the EU. So much has been shovelled together and the EU was the first and easiest target – there are no such easier targets in general elections.

Beware referenda – populism is not ‘as it is being used today a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand’. (John Gray.)  Rather it is a chance for the population at large to vent its anger. And there are out there many skilled operators who know how to exploit that anger for their own purposes.

Try de-industrialisation as an argument with ordinary people. Immigration is much easier. Put the two together and muddle it with the loss of sovereignty argument and you have a potent mix.

(To return briefly to de-industrialisation.  The impact of China and global trade hardly gets a mention. And yet cheap imports have driven industrial decline more than any other factor. Trump talks up the issue but it hasn’t featured in the referendum debate. Instead we’ve had a focus on the EU as the source of all our ills. If we seek to revive our industry we should be working with Europe and not stigmatising it. The problem lies elsewhere.)

‘I would love to see the break-up of the EU. Nation states should be free from the voluntary shackles offered by cynical, deceitful, anti-democratic, sneering, control freaks.’  ‘The EU is doomed to fail.’

OK, I’m on the side of the cynical, deceitful… Much of that language one could apply to the manipulators of opinion in the popular press.  (Far from cynical, many of us are idealists – but our idealism is not rose-tinted. More than ever now it has to be practical.)

Deceitful, no, but, yes, the perception that Brussels has reached out too far is widespread, and many who voted to remain share that view. The EU is not doomed to fail. But cutting back on EU directives, worrying less about harmonisation, would be wise. Will the EU pick up on that message?

A comment from a Leaver on the left: ‘…we shall set our own agenda. We shall be able to keep our public services and not be forced to privatise them, and if we chose we can renationalise our industries…’

An awful lot from across the political spectrum can be stuffed into one pot. Many will be disappointed.

And finally, from another source, The Economist, we have the liberal agenda: ‘…liberals need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates in to rising wages… battling special interests, exposing incumbent companies to competition, and breaking down restrictive practices’. Yes, I agree, but that is a long process, and in truth we’re unlikely ever to get there, and en route there will many, maybe too many, casualties, and if there’s one message from all this, from Brexit and all its other manifestations in Europe and the USA it’s that

we have to look out for casualties.

We are in a crisis moment, at a turning-point. The new world we saw emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall has turned a little sour. A new liberal, open dispensation seemed to be within our grasp. Instead we’ve seen the old hierarchies reinforced, new hierarchies emerge, new elites alongside the old, with aspirations to culture, to learning, to the good life, on the one hand – and a liking among too many for extraordinary ostentation…

… while the rest of us look on and maybe we aspire to achieve for ourselves, or we shrug and disregard, or we envy, or we disdain. The new order has brought radical disparities of wealth, at the same time as earnings as a percentage of capital have reduced. There’s a widespread sense of being left behind – a sense of a brave new post-war world disordered and old verities overturned.

For us true believers, we must continue to aspire, to work together, to put our trust in the younger generations – but we must address directly and immediately and with wisdom the big issues we’d turned a blind eye to for many years.

 

 

The EU referendum – two home truths

Discussing the EU referendum debate yesterday I came away with two home truths – two lessons I’d been slow to take on board.

One, personal attacks and slights. It’s easy to get carried away and turn a rejection of a policy or approach into an attack on an individual proposing that policy. A dismissive phrase ad personem damages your argument, because it diverts attention away from the case you’re making. And if others around you don’t share your feelings about that individual, they won’t be won over.

I’ve been highly critical of some right-wing Tories, and the Tory press. In my eyes justified – but it’s  arguments that matter. Doubting the competence or integrity of those who take a different view (from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove downwards) doesn’t help my case and will not change minds.

Zen Master Dogen (writing in 13th century Japan) has useful words on the subject:

‘Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to argue and defeat them… It is best to step back, neither trying to defeat others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively, and let go of the conflict, others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. Above all, this is something you should keep in mind. [My italics.]

In other words, we don’t live in an ideal world. But avoiding competition and conflict if you can will serve your case much better.

The other lesson relates to a specific subject, immigration. Talking to a friend (she herself supports staying in) I was confronted by her experience working two days a week in a local doctor’s surgery. The great majority of nurses and staff support the Leave campaign, and do so with a real passion.

Competition for jobs from immigrants is a key issue, and some have been directly affected themselves. Older workers feel that immigrants who are younger and willing to work for lower wages are taking their jobs. Parents argue that the children of immigrants are putting pressure on the availability of places in the schools of their choice. In other words, the argument for them is not intellectual or academic – broader considerations about the national economy, the European ideal, trade deals – all are secondary.  (Housing is another issue they might have raised.) They are affected at a personal level.

And I, recently retired, am not.

They were not issues that came up talking to teachers and staff as a (retired last year) chair of governors in an local secondary school. But I haven’t since my own children’s primary school days talked at my length to parents, and I think many would have very different views. Not necessarily favouring the Leave campaign, but I’d have heard much more about the pressure on secondary school places.

Why are the polls suggesting a close vote on 23rd June? Yesterday reminded me why that is.

The British Museum – where all cultures and all peoples meet

‘The cultures of the world are at home here, and the people who carry those cultures.’

This was the response of the new director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, lately director of the Dresden State Art Collections, to  the Pegida movement and the anti-migrant , anti-Muslim demonstrations in Dresden over the last year and more. He persuaded the state government to allow long banners to hang outside the main Dresden Museum with the words:

‘The State Art Collection Dresden. Works from Five Continents. A House Full of Foreigners.’

He’s attracted a pretty virulent response and some downright nasty chants – ‘traitor to the people’- and similar, which have unpleasant resonances. But he’s brought people from all backgrounds together, and created by all accounts a special atmosphere (‘open-hearted and warm’) around the place.

He seems to be a bit of a hero. He has an impeccable background as an art historian, but he’s more than that – ‘a citizen of the world’ – and he deserves a big big welcome.

Under Neil MacGregor the BM has already opened itself to the world – almost, given the crowds, too much so! So all power to the museum for recognising that modern museums should be all about reaching out to present and future generations – t0 the wide and not the narrow world – as well as the past.

(I’ve memories from my early teens of my first-ever gallery, the Manchester City Art Gallery, and standing puzzled but vaguely curious in front of paintings by Italian Primitives. Hard to imagine anywhere more fusty, and I was almost – but happily not quite!! – put off forever.)

(With thanks to the Economist for background information on Hartwig Fischer’s appointment.)

Room – the movie 

Thoughts on the movie, Room, which my daughter Rozi and I saw last Monday. Though in itself an extraordinary story there are connections with ordinary childhoods, and that’s what I want to explore here.

Room focuses on a mother, Joy, abducted and kept prisoner for seven years, and the boy, Jack, she gave birth to two years into her captivity – the father being her captor. They’re incarcerated in a garden shed, with a skylight, and a TV, and this is the only world the boy knows, until aged 5, his mother explains (quite a challenge) to him that the world he sees on TV is actually (cartoons accepted) the real world. And she plans an escape. I’ll say no more about the plot.

There’s an intensity about the movie, which needs to be considered apart from the book on which it’s based: the movie can’t cover all the book’s elements or subtleties. It focuses on mother and child, and it’s the strength of their relationship which left an indelible impression on me. Joy gives him her total attention, total loyalty, and while in the everyday world parent-child relationships can so easily be inadequate or fractured, in this case Jack grows up, over his first five years, remarkably secure, and with a strong sense of his own identity. It has to be reinterpreted once he learns that there is a real world out there, and of course when he finds himself actually in that world.

But there is an identity on which he can build – and that is the subject of the second half of the movie.

I remember reading a few years ago about the work of paediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, and his  concept of the ‘holding environment’.  And it all seems very relevant.

Winnicott argued that the ‘mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother’, as well as fostering the ability to experience the body as the place wherein the  child – and the adult – securely lives. The capacity for being – the ability to feel genuinely alive inside, which Winnicott saw as essential to the maintenance of a true self – is fostered by the practice of childhood play. (Quotes courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Joy provides so much of what Jack needs, there is a real sense of ‘holding’, and gives him security, and she encourages play – there’s a lot of play in the early scenes of the movie: children can conjure remarkable world of play out of very little. They don’t need Toys R Us or Hamleys.

As for the father – the movie hardly touches on that. Joy rejects ‘Old Nick’ as the ’emotional’ father of the child. But how Jack connects to men and male role models –  that’s another story, and hardly touched on in the movie.

A movie, far more than most, to make you think.