Beyond the Red Wall

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

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

Applied to the UK, how did this work out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good books, bad politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back down to earth…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tory leadership debacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Putin, Russia and the West’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

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

Decline of an empire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.