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.

Why?

Kabul has fallen. What can I say that doesn’t sound trite. Listen to the ex-solder Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan, speaking in the House of Commons, and I’m minded to hold back.

But there is one question I keep on asking myself, the big question, the ‘why’ question. Why did Joe Biden allow it to happen?

I thought I’d check what Barack Obama has to say (in ‘A Promised Land’) about the discussions they had within his newly-elected administration in 2009. The USA, he writes, already had 30,000 troops there, plus 10,000 troops from other countries, and the military were pressing for the deployment of another 30,000. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned of unintended consequences that could follow from rash actions.

In Obama’s words: ‘Unless we established limited and realistic objectives, he [Gates] told me, “we set ourselves up for failure”.’

Obama continues, ‘Among the principals only Joe Biden expressed his misgivings. He had travelled to Afghanistan on my behalf during the transition and what he saw and heard on the trip – particularly a contentious meeting with Karzai – had convinced him that we need to rethink our whole approach to Afghanistan…he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay deployment, suggesting it would be easier to put troops in once we had a clear strategy as opposed to pulling troops out after we’d made a mess with a bad one.’

Biden has been by his lights entirely consistent. American strategy over the twelve years since he became Obama’s vice-president has been focused on nation-building, and putting that new nation on a secure basis, and guaranteeing that security. That simply hasn’t happened. The Taliban never went away. Warlords guarded their patches. Bribery remained endemic. Kabul, with many of the trappings of a big Western city, was the exception. And why should we have ever supposed that an Afghan government army drawn largely (I’m assuming) from outside Kabul would ever stand and fight against a single-minded and often brutal Taliban insurgency?

China and the ex-Soviet republics lie to the north. Taliban-sympathising Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west. What chance was there of guaranteeing Kabul, let alone Afghanistan, a Western-style democratic future?

Only if the US retained a big military presence – and the American public, 70% in one poll I’ve seen, wanted out.

Jon Sopel on the BBC website suggests the Americans could have delayed their withdrawal to the winter season, when no-one fights in Afghanistan. But that wouldn’t have made much difference in the end. Kabul would have fallen.

But not in such a catastrophic fashion.

Did Biden really believe the Afghan army would put up strong resistance? Was he just badly advised? Is this just another, and terrible, example, of that American insensitivity, that lack of awareness, which has so bedevilled its foreign policy ventures since World War Two?

This one matters. Women in Afghanistan face an uncertain future. It may be a terrible future. Kabul is far more than another political catastrophe. It could be a humanitarian catastrophe of an extreme kind.

Big decisions need fallback positions. Halting the withdrawal, or maintaining full air cover for the Afghan army, at the very least. All or nothing is no strategy.

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 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.

Cities: a matter of life and death

‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London.’ (Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, addressing the House of Commons, 1943)

We prize our buildings. We fight to save buildings we love. There are preservation orders on old buildings, but likewise on the best examples of Brutalism. But further afield we lose whole cities. We bomb whole cities. Think of the souks of Aleppo. Or Raqqa: its obliteration a necessary price for ousting IS. And the Russian and Syrian bombardment of Idlib.

Had Obama brought the USA in against Assad, would old Damascus have survived assault?

I’ve been reading about a new American approach to command and control: ‘Joint All-domain Command and Control, or JADC2’, a network that links ‘every sensor and every shooter’ wherever they might be. It’s been tested with fighter jets, ground-based artillery, surface-to-air missiles and ‘hunter-killer’ drones. Is it re-assuring to know that it could ‘inform a commander that a building to be destroyed could first be emptied by an ability to activate its fire-alarm or sprinklers’? (The Economist)

My starting-point for this post was the fabric of cities, and by far the greater evil is the taking out of populations. But people and buildings and centuries of history are all intertwined. Fabric and culture are, in war, every bit as dispensable as populations. 

World War Two took obliteration to whole new levels. Coventry, and the London Blitz. Retaliation when it came was brutal, born it was argued of military necessity. Think of Dresden, and above all Hiroshima. Military necessity – or war crime?

Revenge also played a part. I’ve a been looking at newspaper cuttings, saved by my father, from World War 2. A headline from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post of January 21st, 1943 struck me.

‘M.P.s CALL FOR THE BOMBING OF ROME. Anthony Eden addressed the House of Commons: ‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London. [Mussolini enthused about bombing London, but no Italian bombers got anywhere near London as far as I’m aware], and we should do so to the best of our ability, and as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful.’

The report continues: ‘The House was full at the time and an enthusiastic cheer came from the crowded benches.’

From the Manchester Guardian of April 1st, 1944 – curious it is this date, but it was no April Fool. The press cutting was kept because Orde Wingate, leader of the British Forces in Burma, had been killed. Below and to the left of the Wingate report is the headline: ‘BITTEREST AIR FIGHT OF THE WAR. R.A.F.’s Three-Hour Battle in Great Attack on Nuremberg.’ 94 aircraft were reported as lost. Of about 1000 in total – that was the number of bombers involved in earlier attacks of Leipzig and Berlin.

How much of classical Rome would have survived? Would we have had a firestorm, as wiped out Dresden? As for Nuremberg, this was the old city of Albrecht Durer, and the Meistersingers.

It has always been thus. Carthage was taken off the map by the Romans after the Punic Wars. Was this genocide? Jerusalem was destroyed by first by Babylonian forces and then the Romans. There are too many examples.

In the last few months we’ve had Armenians fleeing cities ahead of Azerbaijani forces. Turkey and Russia, which could have intervened, chose not to.

Looking to the future, awareness is everything. I trust we never again have, in the West or anywhere, I trust anywhere, the imperatives, or the blood lust, which lead to destruction of whole cities and whole peoples. Never again the enthusiasm shown in the House of Commons for bombing Rome. Or indeed Dresden … but that wasn’t put before the Commons as far as I’m aware. Or Hiroshima before Congress. Democratic accountability is a casualty of wartime.

I’m avoiding retrospective judgements. The truth is powerful enough on its own. But could there not now be a new and universal commitment, encompassing Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and the wider Muslim world, to spare all centres of population?

Maybe in the age of JADC2 and drone warfare, which has its own horrors, military strategists might find this easier. Maybe.

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.’

Serial incompetence

‘The only conclusion is serial incompetence,’ were Keir Starmer’s words when replying to Boris Johnson at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Every government makes egregious mistakes – hovers on the brink from time to time. But incompetence has never been institutionalised, as it is now, from education across to foreign policy. Theresa May’s government hovered close, but she at least had six years as Home Secretary behind her. Johnson’s cabinet has various skills, not least first-class degrees in economics and PPE. But little or none when it comes to government. If competence is the left hand, then the right hand is flair. There is little of that either – maybe one senior minister, and he shall be nameless.

Theresa May relied on Nick Timothy. She wasn’t fully her own person. Boris Johnson relies on Cummings. The last Tsar and the Tsarina relied on Rasputin. Leaders should be their own men, or women. Merkel, Macron, Shinzo Abe are all good examples.

Erdogan (Turkey), Orban (Hungary), Kaczynski (Poland – I’m staying within EU boundaries) are their own men, you could argue. And at another level Xi Jinping and Trump. But they are out and out nationalists, all with an interest in restricting or, worse, suppressing rather than expanding debate.

But if we believe in representative and accountable democracy then it’s the Macrons and Merkels we need. Even a Cameron.

Accountable. That presupposes open debate. A press that presents and represents all shades of opinion. A society that welcomes ideas, and values expertise.

We’ve never been happy with the notion of an intelligentsia in this country. For Michael Gove, attacking expertise, it was an open goal. Universities are a target. Intellectual debate does indeed go down some odd byways. The likes of Douglas Murray find easy targets (post-structuralism, cancel culture), and disparage the wider institution. (15th August, Telegraph headline: ‘British universities have become indoctrination camps.’) If it’s not universities it’s chattering classes.  The problem is elites. We don’t like elites. I wouldn’t argue against that. But when ideas and informed debate are characterised as elitist – then we should worry.

That gives the opening to populism. Single ideas. Single identities. In our case, of course, it’s Brexit. We can’t, it seems, agree on fisheries policy, or state aid. David North is out there not-negotiating hard for a no-deal Brexit. (And as of today there are suggestions the government might renege on the Northern Ireland protocol in last year’s withdrawal agreement.)

Single ideas and identities are by their nature non-negotiable. Finding common ground, working with and not against others, is an alien mindset. Anger drives debate or negotiation. An instinct to confront and disrupt dictates.

Barack Obama set out in 2009 with an agenda of bringing countries together – new agendas for the Middle East, for Africa. Finding common ground. He discovered how difficult that could be.

Coming together in politics is so much harder than pulling apart. The Arab Spring brought that home, and the Syrian outcome was brutal. Obama could claim rapprochement in Cuba and indeed Iran. But it was a small reward for much effort.

The US economy under Obama had recovered well from the 2008 financial crash. It was at the very least (though Republicans of a Trumpian persuasion would disagree) a competent administration with good intentions.

But competence is not enough. Emotion and instinct behind single and easily assimilable ideas set their own agenda. Competence is non-essential.

That said, thinking of the UK, a government characterised by incompetence does at least give its opponents an opening…

‘Ah ’opes tha drops down de’ad’

Back in 1920, Neville Cardus, legendary writer for the old Manchester Guardian on music and cricket (a fine combination) reported on a Lancashire victory in the Roses match at Sheffield. It had been a famous against-the-odds victory.

‘Ah suppose tha’s feelin’ pleased with thisen?’ a Yorkshireman he meets at the station comments. ‘And tha’s goin’ back to Manchester…?’

‘Yes,’ Cardus replies.

‘Well… ah ‘opes tha drops down de-ad before thi gets theer.’

Compare political squabbles in our own time. If only humour could help us.

Anne Applebaum (an American writer married to Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski) refers in her recent book, ‘Twilight of Democracy’, to a dinner party she held back on New Year’s Eve 1999.  They were a group of people, as she describes them, broadly of the right, liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.  

‘Even those who might have been less definite about economics certainly believed in democracy, in the rule of law, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union—an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.’

‘Nearly two decades later,’ she comments, ‘I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. … In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half.’

Brexit brought the same reality to the UK. The right fractured.  The rest of us carry the can. Carry on as best we can. How we got there has been analysed and re-analysed, and the two sides can never agree. What we have is bad blood, which before 2016 simply wasn’t part of our politics.

Disruption, Cummings-style, is a fool’s game. It takes out the middle ground. You have to take sides.  (See my last blog on Orwell.)

*

Not always easy, as a big issue of the moment, would-be immigrants trying to cross the Channel, demonstrates. 4000 so far, hardly an invasion, but turned by the right into a defining issue. I’m on the side of the immigrants. Their bravery and determination is extraordinary. But it isn’t, as much of the press portray it, a ‘yes/no’ issue. I’m not in favour of unrestricted immigration. And I’m no fan of people traffickers. A door once open will be an invitation to others to head north across France. Heart and head don’t take me in the same direction. But I’m not looking out for the UK Border Force. Or Priti Patel.  I’m looking out for the immigrants.  

We’ve had TV programmes in recent months on Dominic Cummings, Rupert Murdoch and Fidel Castro. All excellent, so too a five-part series on Iraq, seen through the eyes of Iraqis. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is also much in the news.

Let’s see where they take us.   

Iraq: no issue there. I was always adamantly against the second Iraq War. War never delivers what the instigators imagine it will. Any status quo is a balance of a multitude of interests. Break that balance, and you reap the consequences. Watching Baghdad being torn apart by arson and violence while American soldiers, without a brief to intervene, and therefore powerless, will stay with me for ever. Blair was culpable to a high degree.

Murdoch: how closely the New Labour interest, and Tony Blair, were tied to Murdoch!  A shared enjoyment of power overrode differences. Murdoch’s third wife openly fancied Blair. (Is this relevant, you ask?) This is the Murdoch who in 1996 set up Fox News, which later took up the Tea Party obsessions – and fed the half- and un-truths that opened the way for Trump. And now that free-market Murdoch and protectionist Trump are no longer on the same page, we have the even worse and more mendacious and new Trump favourite, the One Americas News Network. ‘Coronavirus may have been developed in a North Carolina laboratory.’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug…’ See ‘Lexington’ in  The Economist for more on the subject.)

So, yes, you can be worse than Murdoch. But how about Murdoch on climate change. The Murdoch media have been strongly criticised in Australia over their attitude to recent bush fires and the link to climate change. Murdoch claims to be a sceptic, not a denier. There’s something more fundamental here, shared by much of the right – we don’t need to change, we only need to adapt… and if that means re-siting cities and people further from the ocean, then so be it.

Andrew Bolt, a political commentator for News Corp’s Australian newspapers, recently ‘criticised politicians who said carbon emissions needed to be cut to avoid future fires. “As if that would stop a fire. You’d have to be a child like Greta Thunberg to believe that fairytale.”’ (Quoted in The Guardian.)

*

Before I get to Cummings, there’s Rishi Sunak. I admire the guy. Almost. He’s bright, and on top of his brief, uniquely so it seems among the current shower that masquerade as a cabinet. Curiously, given the Brexiteers loathing of expertise and specifically the Oxford PPE degree – that was Sunak’s degree. He didn’t join the Tories at Oxford, but chose the Investment Club instead. He’s a natural wheeler and dealer. Sailing quite close to the wind working for hedge funds, though of all hedge funds the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) wasn’t a bad one to be involved with.

As an example of his mindset, he’s long been a proponent of free ports, where goods can be shipped in, and shipped out, and turned into finished goods in the meantime, without incurring tariffs, which isn’t likely to increase overall revenues or employment, but may shift our manufacturing locations around a little.

Free ports sounds good, they’re an easy sell. But it’s the hinterland, the old industrial heartlands, the off-the-radar towns and cities, on which we should be focusing.

Free ports would be impossible under EU rules. But, surely, not a reason for leaving the EU…

You could say he’s the right guy for improvising short-term measures, but the wrong guy for a balanced vision of where the country might be headed. But, to be fair, let’s say the jury is out on that one.

Sunak wrote a paper on free ports for the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank, back in 2016. As a brief but significant aside – another right-wing think-tank, Policy Exchange, launched a new research project, ‘History Matters’ this June.  It featured a poll in which 67 % of people opposed Churchill’s statue being sprayed with graffiti. (See William Davies’s article, ‘Who am I prepared to kill?’, in the London Review of Books.) People were also asked if British history is ‘something to be proud of’ or ‘something to be ashamed of’?

‘Yes/no’ questions of this kind serve no purpose other than to polarise.

This isn’t a game played as far as I’m aware by Sunak. His lack of interest in politics at Oxford suggests that he may not be a born-to-the-role polariser.

*

Which brings me to Dominic Cummings, the subject of an excellent BBC documentary (Taking Control: the Dominic Cummings Story) presented by Emily Maitlis.

What came through is that if there is any skill he has above all others it is mis-representation to achieve a particular outcome.

First, back in 2004, there was John Prescott’s attempt to establish a regional assembly in the north-east of England. Cummings organised opposition to the referendum on the issue on the basis of distrust of politicians. ‘The equating of money spent on more politicians instead of doctors resonated … It isn’t about, to the penny, what slogan you use about the NHS. It’s about the principle of it,’ as a Nesno (North-East Says No) video put it.

Cummings’ campaign was one of calculated mis-representation. Allowable, he might argue, in a greater cause. After a few wilderness years he found himself in cahoots with the arch-opposer of any expertise save his own, Michael Gove – and the debacle which is free schools was the result. And the appalling stigma they tried to plant on the teaching profession at large, employing an expression borrowed cheaply from the USA – the Blob. And then Brexit, and taking back a ‘control’ we‘d never lost, and losing far more in the process. Easy notions of disruption.  A government of innocents led by an all-knowing arch-innocent.

And as far the other BBC documentary I mentioned above, on Fidel Castro: I was rooting for him. Not because of what Cuba became – an almost police state. But because of what it avoided becoming – an offshore version of all that’s worst about big-spending America – exploiting and using smaller nations. The USA’s record from Guatemala to Chile was appalling.

Anti-Cuba rhetoric appeals to the big number of Cuban expatriates in Florida – so is always a part of presidential campaigns. Biden if elected will revert to Obama’s more conciliatory policy.

From Cummings to Cuba, to Florida, to the US election, to a trade deal with the USA, which our government has no choice but to prioritise as trade with the EU, and with China, falls away … and we get to where Cummings and the old free marketers always wanted to be – a US-style open market, only it will be rather smaller than they imagined, and in the eyes of the world we will be much-reduced, as indeed we already are.

So, yes, we have to take sides. And avoid at all costs the blandishments of Murdoch, and a few other newspapers, and so many others on social media, who make it all seem so black and white, and so easy.

How will they see us fifty years from now?

Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.

American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’

She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.

We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.

The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations

(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)

Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels  of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.

There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions.  Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.

Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.

Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.

But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.

The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.

Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)

Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.

Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.

Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk.  The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *

Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.

Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.

—- —- —-

* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’.   The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  We should indeed be engaged deeply  in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.