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.

The new buccaneers

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

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

Buccaneering. How do you ‘buccaneer’ these days?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so the Empire lives on….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April, and no politics

It’s 26th April. We had snow three days three weeks back, and we’ve had sunshine since then, often brilliant sunshine, days on end, and the sky’s been a Siberian blue. But it’s not been enough. Not enough to tempt the blossom to really get going. True, the blackthorn which so brilliantly belies its name has been bursting white for several weeks. Only now is the green peeking through on the lilac and the rowan and the laburnum in the garden. The early beech leaves are that so-perfect lighter shade of green. Oak is poking, reluctant, slow.

And the ash is nowhere to be seen. It’s always late of course. Some branches have a few desultory flowers. But how much will they leaf this spring?

And yet…

Yes, it’s chill. But I’m enjoying ‘slow’. I want to lock in this April, its blue skies, and long-drawn out sense of promise.

I’m even listening to the news. At 8am and 1pm. And Channel 4 at 7pm. It’s not winding me up as it has through these torrid and foolish Brexit years. April has worked wonders.

Ted Hughes maybe overstates it, but I’ll go with

A soft animal of peace/Has come a million years/With shoulders of pre-dawn and shaggy belly

Has got up from under the glacier/And now lies openly sunning/Huge bones and space-weathered hide.

We’re up on the moors, grazing sheep, lambs maybe, above Calderdale where Yorkshire meets Lancashire. Ted Hughes country. Also my grandfather’s.

Imagine, also, if we could hear as once we did the cocks crowing across the morning:

I stood on a dark summit, among dark summits –/Tidal dawn splitting heaven from earth,/The oyster opening to taste gold.

And I heard the cockcrows kindling in the valley/Under the mist –/They were sleepy,/Bubbling deep in the valley cauldron.

Then one or two tossed clear, like soft rockets/And sank back again dimming.

(Others join in, ‘challenge against challenge’)

Till the whole valley brimmed with cockcrows,/A magical soft mixture boiling over,/Spilling and sparkling into other valleys….

Sadly, not into my valley. But we can imagine…

Fog and politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mill country – from Hebden Bridge to Stroud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporting back

I was determined to be philosophical two months ago, after the election. Judge the government by how it handled the issues. Don’t pre-judge…

We’re past Brexit day, Independence Day, 31st January, and we limp on as before. No celebrations of any significance on the day, because as Fintan O’Toole remarked – who are the ‘people’ being liberated. The UK is four nations, and multiple ‘nations’ within. We’ve had a brief majoritarian moment, a reaction to issues of immigration and sovereignty, and a desire to get the shenanigans over and done with, at whatever cost. And we’re now back to normal. Nothing has happened. We haven’t actually left yet. The borders are open. Brexit without Brexit, the ideal situation one might think. But we’ve 31st December to deal with, full-regulation deals and regulation-lite Canada-style deals and no deal, all in play.

There’s much talk of not signing up to European regulations. The current refrain from the Telegraph and elsewhere is that we already have in many areas stronger regulations in place than those laid down by Brussels, so why the alarm. A curious argument given that a bonfire of regulations has long been a Brexit refrain, and a tragedy because Britain has done much to raise workplace and environmental standards across Europe. And we will henceforth be without influence.

Migration hardly gets a mention. But let’s go back a few years. Britain we were told was full. The world’s poor were about to invade. Remember the Turkish hordes.  ‘In the YouGov poll weeks before the referendum, when anti-migrant press coverage was at its zenith, 56% thought immigration and asylum were the most important issues facing Britain.’ (Roy Greenslade) Taking an average of 24 polls in 2019, ‘the average number of people who believed immigration was the key issue was 23%, with the latest total standing at just 20%.’

Instead, as a new priority, we have the BBC, and the licence fee, which Dom wants to do away with. Disruption for Dom is a free-thinking, free market, libertarian (with an egalitarian overlay)  landscape. You are welcome to join him, the only proviso being that you think like he does.

The papers tell me that Dom is against HS2. Well, I’m with him there. He doesn’t have a London mindset. And that matches Conservative Party imperatives for the moment. Keeping places such as Sunderland and Leigh (in Lancashire, and home to my Collier forebears back in the 19th century) signed up. What we don’t have of course is any devolution of power to the North, any more than we did under the Northern Powerhouse initiative. All is tightly controlled from the centre. (Sad to see the Economist clip its own wings and fall into line, supporting HS2 – citing commuters in and out of Euston, as I recall. Freeing up space for freight. At a cost of £100 billion plus. This simply isn’t serious analysis.)

David Goodhart argued, several years ago, that voters could be divided into ‘somewheres’, with deep local roots, and ‘anywheres’, who were happy anywhere, and had the skills to carry with them. This has been taken up by commentators as a convenient divide. There are indeed advocates for a ‘provincial tilt’ in the Tory party, but I’ve a strong suspicion this is expediency, and not any kind of sea change. Brexit and Corbyn drove the electorate in the Tories’ arms.

Arguing against this, and widening out the ‘somewhere’ notion, is the way social conservatism has come to influence the debate. Tory and old working-class mindsets are aligned. Identity is tied to the past, memories of perceived greatness, Empire, a people apart, gender, where we were comfortable within the old definitions, race – we are in the last analysis Anglo-Saxon (aren’t we?), the small town against big city, university education…  ‘68% of voters with a degree chose Remain in 2016, while 70% of those who left school at 16 voted Leave.’ (William Davies, in the London Review of Books.) Commentators on the right blame universities for the radicalisation of young people.  It depends on which end of the telescope you use…A university education is likely to leave you better informed. Or so one would hope. More aware of history. Of gender issues. Of the harsh realities of a world where China’s Belt and Road initiative is marching across Central Asia toward us, when the USA no longer sees its own interests as ultimately those of the wider world. Where China opens, America closes. Aware of climate and conservation imperatives. Of the importance of change, adapting, finding solutions – not closing minds and closing borders.

My philosophical mindset, post-election two months ago, is, indeed, being sorely challenged. Recent sackings of ministers suggest Dom and Boris want a government of one mind and one voice, where criticism and self-criticism and the awareness that comes from contrarian debate are banished. And banished from the Civil Service as well. (‘Disruption’ can also work as censorship.) Remember free schools, and the Blob, Cummings’ term for the education ‘establishment’ when he worked with Michael Gove, when Gove was Secretary of State for education. Free schools, the flagship policy, fooled many, but didn’t begin to touch the real problems of under-achievement – they only did harm.

We’re up against a fundamental issue – what really is Conservatism? And how much will ‘Conservative’ ideas get free rein under a government with what should be a secure mandate for five years. I remember puzzling over why the late Roger Scruton could argue so virulently against something as fundamental as social justice. Kenan Malik in the Observer helped a little: ‘The ideal society (for Scruton) was built not on values such as liberty and equality but on obedience.’ Obedience is, in Scruton’s own words, ‘the prime virtue of political beings, the disposition that makes it possible to govern them. In the good society one accepted one’s station in life.’ Prejudice and exclusion and inequality were part of the natural order of things.

Ferdinand Mount refers, in an article in the London Review of Books, to an indictment drawn up by Scruton and David Starkey which accuses the ‘liberal elite’ of foisting five abominations on the ‘long-suffering British people, who asked for none of them ….: membership of the EU, mass immigration, devolution, the introduction of human rights into English and Scottish law, and the Supreme Court.’

Was I wonder the BBC, with its 80% support from the public, also foisted on the British people?

This helps us to see where this government may be headed. Where are the older and wiser Tories, expelled or silenced, hanging out?

The landscape is quiet.

 

 

 

Making the case for rebellion

My last blog made the case for silence. I argued that silence needs to be more active, more pro-active. Can I now make the case for rebellion? I’m thinking of Extinction Rebellion. Yesterday at the Hay Book Festival I listened to Mike Berners-Lee discussing his new book, ‘There is No Planet B’, and to a panel discussion involving three Extinction Rebellion activists. There’s optimism in the Rebellion ranks, much greater caution from Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee advises businesses. He’s well aware of the abject failure of the fossil fuel industry to invest more than paltry sums in renewables. But what of the consumer? As the recent Committee on Climate Change Report made clear in its recommendations, changing public behaviour is key to meeting its ‘net zero’ emissions target by 2050.

Individual targets (for example, setting your thermostat in winter at 19 degrees) catch the eye. But far more important is the national mindset. By that I mean the extent to which the public accepts the need for a fundamental and wide-ranging change of attitude, in the way that attitudes to gender and to smoking have changed radically over the last forty years. There is a point where the consensus tips the other way.

Extinction Rebellion I love for its enthusiasm, and self-belief. The Economist sees problems with its ‘inchoate enthusiasm’. It matches another, opposite problem, cynicism. A false opposition in this case, they have this wrong – but they highlight a danger.

I’m on-side, and accept its methods are eyecatching and have helped change the mood and generate debate. But there is, and I’m speaking in the most general of terms, a faith in human goodness, almost a sense of a new age dawning, which takes me back to the 1960s and the Age of Aquarius, Hair and Woodstock. That degenerated into disillusion, cynicism and at worst violence in the 1970s. It took on an overly political ‘them vs us’ aspect and fostered an anti-capitalist agenda. It has been agitating out on the sidelines ever since. Never getting close to the mainstream.

My concern, my interest, has always been how we how we work within existing systems. To effect change, and it could be radical change. But you have to build and maintain consensus if change is to embedded. Obamacare is an example of a battle between an old and new consensus, now being fought through the US courts.

We may sense that opinion on climate is changing, that the consensus is moving toward radical action. But how confident can we be in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro, carbon champions both, that high-minded sentiment will win out over national governments in alliance with big business?

Trump has undermined the Environmental Protection Agency, and is busy signing new executive orders to facilitate the building of pipelines.  Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro aims (I quote the New York Times) ‘to open up the rain forest — which has already lost 20 percent of its cover — to new development.  …. Satellite data shows that deforestation has grown steadily since his victory in October. In the first month after his election, deforestation increased more than 400 percent, compared to the previous year.’

The news from Australia has been equally depressing. The right-wings Liberals were hit hard in the cities but (quoting The Economist) ‘in the end the election was won in Queensland, a state full of marginal constituencies. Global warming is exacerbating its frequent floods and droughts…. But the state’s economy is dependent on exploiting natural resources, notably coal, and many of its voters are wary of environmental regulation.’

Climate is indeed up there as an issue as never before, but the battle lines of old are simply being built higher. The battle is – to win and hold the public consensus.

And that is where Extinction Rebellion might just be different from the old Aquarians. But they should hold to the issue, and avoid adding anti-global or anti-capitalist agendas to the mix. Which won’t be easy. Too wide an anti-establishment agenda and all agendas could be swept aside, climate change among them.

Maybe not surprisingly one of the objections of old-guard journalism, supposedly echoing the views of ordinary people, is that we, we Brits, have nothing to gain by going alone – we will simply be disadvantaged compared to other countries. The argument may be false but it strikes a chord. We also have to deal with market enthusiasts, who may accept that the market needs to be primed a little, or nudged – we can be nudged to insulate our homes, or use less plastic, but that should be the limits of our interventions, The market, it’s argued, is ultimately the best guarantee of effecting environmental change. The fact that it may be far too laggardly doesn’t get mentioned.

Trump and Bolsonaro notwithstanding, climate change now has a wide acceptance as a stark reality. But don’t we have other priorities, more pressing? The effects on us as individuals are minimal… and what, in any event, can we really do? The planet will go its own way.  And we won’t, we older folk, be around anyway.

Indifference, ideology, entrenched interests – there is much to rebel against.