Travelling in India …

I began my last blog with a few words which may give a misleading impression.

‘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.’

We returned from a two-week holiday in north-western India six weeks ago.

‘On the surface.’ I left open what might lie below the surface. India as envisaged by Nehru and the Congress Party in 1947 was to be a secular, non-aligned state. Nehru looked to the West, but also to communist Russia. India was partitioned, with terrible consequences, and the tension between India and its neighbour Pakistan is palpable, seventy-five years on, even to short-stay visitors. The army’s presence, in the areas where we travelled, is everywhere.

Over the last seventy years the Congress Party has gone into sharp decline and the fundamentalist Hindu party, the BJP, has taken hold of the levers of power, at a national and increasingly local level. The BJP under Narendra Modi has been in power since 2014.

In 1992 Hindu activists destroyed a mosque, at Ayodhya, on a site widely believed to have been the birthplace of the god Rama. If this act was symbolic of an India reconstituting as a Hindu state, the 2019 decision of the Modi government to revoke the status of Jammu and Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim territory, as a self-governing entity, and the transfer of power to the central government, was, and is, widely seen (outside India) as brutal act of suppression of Kashmiri, and Muslim, aspirations. Also pertinent is the 2019 legislation extending the National Register of Citizens to the whole country which would have the effect of leaving several million Muslims stateless.

Our own sampling of Hindu opinion during our stay in November suggested a disdain toward a Muslim population which is more and more ghettoised as threats and sometimes specific acts of violence increase. The irony of Delhi’s and Agra’s great tourist locations being Mughal and therefore Muslim forts and mausoleums, not least the Taj Mahal, seemed lost on our (otherwise splendid) Hindu guides.

All that said, India remains a functioning democracy of not far short of 1.4 billion people. We were in Shimla on election day for the state of Himachal Pradesh’s legislative assembly. We chatted to a friendly BJP teller outside a polling booth. (The BJP were noisily confident, but in this particular election they lost – and Congress won.)

The mood among the Hindu population was positive, almost aggressively optimistic. The economy is growing fast, and Modi, like him or not, is an influential figure on the world stage. The contrast I made in my last blog between the UK and India is for real.

And yet … quotes from my travel journal are apposite here:

‘Am I soft-pedalling on Modi too much? What of the Hindutva nationalist philosophy of the BJP? The Booker Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy is no friend of the BJP. She writes in a recent book of essays of how “the holy cow and the holy script became of the chosen vehicles of (Hindu) mobilisation”. The “holy script” is Hindi…

… In The Times of India I read about a move to convert Christians among the Adivasi, India’s indigenous tribes, to Hinduism. Shivaji, the 17th century Marathi leader, is celebrated not least in movies as a Hindu proto-nationalist. The Shiv Sena movement, the leader of the local branch of which was shot the day before our arrival in Amritsar, is radical in its advocacy of a pure and dominant form of Hinduism. Muslim culture, and the Muslim population, which existed side by side with Hindu culture for many centuries, is under unrelenting pressure. And yet Bollywood still has many Muslim stars.’

Arundhati Roy, as an outspoken opponent of a regime increasingly hostile to dissent, lives dangerously. She sums up the situation, as she sees it, succinctly as follows. (The RSS is the ideological arm of the BJP.)

‘The abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the promise of a National Register of Citizens, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya are all on the front burners of the RSS and BJP kitchen. To reignite flagging passions all they need to do is pick a villain from their gallery and unleash the dogs of war. There are several categories of villain, Pakistani jihadis, Kashmiri terrorists, Bangladeshi infiltrators or anyone of a population of nearly 200 million Indian Muslims who can always be accused of being Pakistan-lovers or anti-national traitors.’

India has a militant China on its Himalayan border. It needs a strong army and a strong leader. You could argue it now has both. And a growing economy. But the cost in terms of its move away from the secular and open society that Nehru aspired to has been a high one.

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!

‘Avoid anyone with ideas’

Isabel Allende in her wonderful novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, highlights the extraordinary achievement of Pablo Neruda in arranging the transportation to Chile of two thousand refugees from the Spanish Civil War on an old cargo ship, the Winnipeg, in August 1939. The decision on who or who not should be accepted lay with Neruda. He cast his net wide to include ‘fishermen, farm and factory workers, manual labourers, and intellectuals as well, despite instructions from his government to avoid anyone with ideas.’

A cross-section of working populations would today look very different, but there is one category which governments feared, now as then, and that is ‘anyone with ideas’.

The market as understood by neoliberalism, epitomised probably better than anywhere else by Pinochet’s Chile, after the 1973 coup, but still pervading so much of Western, and especially American, society, has little time for ideas. Chile is a classic case where ideas, and freedom of expression, were pitched against market forces, and market forces won.

Tom Clark focuses on neo-liberalism in an excellent book review* in the current edition of Prospect. One point (of many) that caught my attention: ‘….a lot of the neoliberal agenda can be thought of … as akin to the historic enclosures of common land, excluding some in order to strengthen the property rights of others’. Readers of my blog will remember my review of Nick Hayes’ ‘The Book of Trespass’. Tom Clark goes on to remind us of ‘the American intellectual property regime that (prior to a 2013 court ruling) developed to allow 4,300 genes to be patented as if they were inventions’.

At an everyday level we have ‘other audacious enclosures’ which ‘have blocked most Britons from watching live football of TV and obliterated awareness of cricket from the young’. (Recent England internationals on free-to-air channels have been so bad that watching is best seen as an act of penance. Cricket on the other hand has been superb – and should have been out there on free-to air TV.)

Isabel Allende in ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ sums up the situation in Pinochet’s Chile succinctly. ‘The government had decided public services should be in private hands. Health was not a right but a consumer good, to be bought and sold.’

This ties in neatly with Clark’s conclusion: ‘Only with a “property first” rather than a “freedom first” reading of neoliberalism can we …. grasp how [Friedrich] Hayek would defend the 1970s coup against an elected socialist government in Chile, which brought Pinochet’s murderous regime to power.’

The irony is that ‘ideas played an important part in the neoliberal story’. Its great proselytisers, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, thrived in that environment. But in Chile the coup closed off debate, closed out ideas, put an end to freedom of expression. Property (traditional landowners and American-owned mining companies) usurped freedom, when ultimately, in a democracy, the balance has always to be toward freedom.

The ‘audacious enclosures’ referred to above may seem small beer by comparison but as we’ve seen they are part of the same debate. Market forces are part of our lives, they drive our economies, but when they’re allied too closely with wealth, to property in the form of land and investments, as opposed to the incomes each of us earns, on our merits, in each generation, they over-reach – and the challenge lies in containing that over-reach. And for that we need, more than ever, an open market in ideas.

* ‘How the rich ate us’, reviewing books by Francis Fukuyama and Gary Gerstle

‘A man without trust’

See also my last post, ‘The Mandate of Heaven’.

In the West we have no over-arching sense of the political and spiritual spheres conjoined. They have over two millennia been mutually engaged but never (despite the Papacy’s best efforts) combined in one individual. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22, 22.) The divide is clear. Think back to the Papacy versus Empire, in the Middle Ages, or Henry VIII versus Rome, ultimately a marriage squabble, in 16th century England. Secular and spiritual rest uneasily, or at worst, violently, together.

Our politics in the UK have long been pragmatic, mercantile, self-interested. God treated as a justification ex post facto. Our political system, and that of other Western countries, is underpinned not by divine sanction but by the rule of law. Compare the Confucian order, where there is no place for a legal system as we understand it. Confucius believed in moral education as the best way of creating a just society.

However radical their differences it is true to say that at the heart of both systems, Western and Confucian, lies the basic concept and imperative of trust. An acceptance that justice will ultimately be done. Tibet, the Uyghurs, and most recently Hong King, all demonstrate how far China, where moral education is equated with the diktats of the Communist Party, has departed from Confucius.

Michael Wood, in ‘The Story of China’, quotes from the diary of ‘an old Confucian farmer, teacher and mine manager’, Liu Dapeng, writing near the end of his life, and under Japanese occupation, in the 1930s.

‘The superior man must be trusted before he can impose labours on the people….Confucius said, “I do not know how a man without trust can get on.”’

The old order was already under terminal threat.

*

But Confucius does have relevance for us, here in the West. Trust remains a universal requirement of open government and, if we define ‘superior man’ as someone who governs, and with no wider sense, we can see how it might apply to our own time, to our own politics, in the UK, in early summer 2022.

We have no mandate of heaven in our politics. We elect MPs to a House of Commons, we don’t elect a ‘president’ as they do over the Channel, with parliamentary elections following later. The MPs have the mandate. And they need to ensure that the ‘superior man’ is someone we can trust.

This you might argue is no more than a squabble, a ripple on the vast ocean of history. But ripples are indicative of what lies beneath. Without trust in individuals, and more broadly in a political system, people will disengage. Liberal democracy is a balancing act and trust is required to maintain that balance. Take away that trust and the way is open for the apparently simple and crude solutions of the populist.

We need only look across the pond to the USA to see the consequences, actual, and still worse, potential, when trust breaks down.

The Mandate of Heaven

By what right does any person or group rule over any other? Or any dynasty? I thought it worth taking a brief look at China, with the help of historian Michael Wood. See also my next post.

Chinese emperors as far back as the Western Zhou, circa 1000 years BC, governed under a ‘Mandate of Heaven’, linked to a specific astronomical event, a rare five-planetary conjunction that occurs every four or hundred years. A king who acted tyrannically would arouse the displeasure of heaven, disturbing cosmic harmony.

So was born the notion of the sage-king, preserved in our time in the person of Mao, and now Xi Jinping. Challenging that notion in the 19th century were the very down-to-earth British, who speeded the decline of empire in their demand for trading rights. Sea power and weaponry ensured victory in the Opium Wars and humiliation for the empire after the Boxer Rebellion.

Wood’s splendid book, ‘The Story of China’, draws on his remarkable TV series of that name, and provides as close as any history can a visual sense of China as it changed – towns and cities achieving unmatched levels of prosperity and civilisation only to collapse before barbarian invaders – over four millennia.

At the heart of the story lies Confucius, still the great sage as he has been for 2500 years. For Confucius the ideal ruler must be humane and learned. ‘Chinese thought, it may be said, has revolved around two central questions, the harmony of the universe, and the harmony of society, cosmology and politics.’ (I’m quoting from Wood’s book.)

‘As for the role of the intellectual, the key was to determine the Way (dao). When the Way is lost, the sage has a moral duty, above all else, to reform society, to set the away back on track, to define the tradition and advise the prince.’

We have no sage, no Confucius. But we did have Socrates, and indeed Plato, who shared with Confucius the ideal of power vested in a wise ruler, a philosopher king. Karl Popper in the aftermath of World War Two (‘The Open Society and its Enemies’) made clear how damaging that notion has been in the West, and we see in too many countries how dangerous it still is. ‘Wise rule’ descends into tyranny.

Comparisons between China and the West can be instructive. But any presumption on the part of a Westerner that he or she understands China is foolish. We have no notion of a ‘mandate of heaven’, now vested in the Chinese Communist Party, woven into our national psyche. Our ‘mandate’ has to be our democracy, and specifically our parliamentary democracy.

We are the ‘barbarians’ at the gates of China, and they at ours (‘ours’ being the West, broadly defined). Is it too alarmist to say that only one can prevail?

To London, and back (to normal)

The wild garlic is about to flower, acres of it, covering woodland slopes. The first cowslips are opening, the skylarks are ascending, the long tailed tit echoes itself. But yesterday it was London and the long lines of destination-driven travellers always keeping left in corridors below Paddington station. Occasional mask wearers on the underground, otherwise near normal. Normal would be delays and hold-ups, but now we flow smoothly.

My destination – meeting an old friend at the Royal Academy to view an exhibition of the paintings of the Japanese artist, Kawanabe Kyosai. His was a time (he was active c1850 to his death in 1889) of extraordinary change, the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration. There’s a saké-influenced crazy irreverence about Kyosai, his emblematic black crow in stark contrast with armies of frogs battling with bullrushes. I learnt about shogakai, parties where professional painters and calligraphers ‘produced spontaneous creations’. They were not known for ‘their seriousness or sobriety’.

Contrast the major Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, where I headed later in the day. Everything is measured and controlled, carefully worked through in drawings, and the effects precisely and wondrously calculated. Raphael’s workshop was legendary in its time and I can’t imagine alcohol featured. I’m assuming Kyosai sold his work on the open market. Raphael in contrast would be working within the constraints of patronage, not least the church in the form of Popes Julius II and Leo X.  Contrast the endless virgins in different poses with a naked child, studies in affection and reverence, with Kyosai’s long scroll which features a much-more-than-lifesize profile of the Buddha’s face with on its upper lip a tiny Zen Buddhist monk working his way up, an extended parasol in his right hand. ‘Today, once more, saké after saké,’ he captions a painting of a ‘shojo’, a mythical red-haired saké-loving creature out of Japanese folklore.

Later in the day I’m standing in front of an almost full-scale reproduction of Raphael’s extraordinary School of Athens, identifying Euclid and Pythagoras, and joining Plato and Aristotle’s discourse on the nature of reality…

Was Kyosai, in truth, no more than an illustrator? Ephemeral, a commentator in the style of Rowlandson or Gillray? A man of the people. Great art on the other hand belongs in cathedrals, churches, great houses…

Museums and galleries have opened Raphael’s world to ordinary folk, and he’s become part of our wider cultural heritage. Kyosai belongs to his time, his imagination is in your face, he’s a crazy acquaintance, not, maybe, a companion for the long term. If Raphael is for quiet and private contemplation, Kyosai is for sharing – ‘hey, look at this, check it out!’ Not that Kyosai is all comedy, all parody. There’s a sinuous grace to ‘Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain’. But a minute or two later you’re looking at ‘Fart Battle’, which is just that.

The day ends with coffee in the café in the crypt in St Martin in the Fields. No-one pitching you out 5.30 or 6. Graves beneath your feet, brick-vaulted ceiling above. Then the tube and Paddington. Back to open spaces, commons and hidden valleys, where I can run or walk without seeing a soul.

Only the rumble of a distant train, heading to … London.

Trespass – good or bad?

A few thoughts on The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes. Published in autumn 2020 it was released in paperback last autumn.

Hayes has written a remarkable book. He trespasses on some of England’s biggest estates, climbing walls or crossing rivers as necessary. But all his trespasses would be allowable under Scottish law.

His focus is on property, and on how attitudes to property have evolved to accord with (or, put another way, dictated) the status quo in each generation. He’s not advocating revolution or confiscation. The world is as it is. His argument is for open access, and he makes it with learning and skill, and of course the necessary irreverence.

Vast acres of our landscape are the results of enclosures going back to the 16th century. And earlier. He’s good at that break-out into early modernity which followed the Reformation. Captain Pouch, and the brutality that followed rebellion in response to hunger, in the 17th century, is just one example. Hayes’s is an outsider’s view of history, and you learn new things – see them in a different way. All the while he’s gently trespassing and lighting fires and camping out.

One hero is Roger Deakin, another natural outsider. But Hayes for his part has a more  political message. There are so many examples one could quote. The 1824 Vagrancy Act as a response to soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without employment and hungry. He homes in on the Drax family and fortune (the head of the family is an MP) and its origins in slavery. They see no reason to feel any guilt.  William Beckford’s fortune was also based on slavery, his reputation muddled up with his status as a gay hero. Basildon Park and India, and the cornering of trade and disempowering of India and Indians, on which its fortunes were based.   

Early on Hayes brings in then foundational tome of English law, Blackstone’s Commentary, to show how the law was on the side of the men of property. Thomas Hobbes has property as a man-made construct, ‘designed to lift us out of our state of nature’. Grotius considers property as an institution invented by man but once invented it became a ‘law of nature’. For John Locke Locke if you mixed labour, ‘something this is his own’, with land he ‘thereby makes it his property’.  Blackstone asserted that ‘occupancy gave also the original right to the permanent property in the substance if the earth itself’.

We haven’t moved on much from Gainsborough’s gentleman’s idea of the English countryside. We don’t challenge the origins of the great estates. Or at least we didn’t. Which side are we on in that great debate? The National Trust is doing its best to steer a course.  There’s Croome Park in Worcestershire, half an hour from where I live, where the Trust is restoring the park to its Capability Brown glory, with some farming added in. It’s what the public wants and there lies the great irony.

We love the landscapes we’re allowed into, but don’t worry too much about being excluded. Or most of us don’t. We’re urbanised. Open up the country and most of us wouldn’t go there anyway. Hayes’s will never become a great national cause. Landowners needn’t worry. Wilderness, the festival, is safe (less so the real thing, but that’s not Hayes’s subject), despite Hayes’s attempt to fray the edges.

‘Sealing of one part of the world from another’ is Orwell specifically on nationalism. Immigrants as cockroaches. Legitimised superiority by virtue of inherited property, birth and land, blood and earth. Fascist ideas of Blut und Boden. Now we have Putin: like the rest of us Hayes didn’t see him coming.  

Hayes is the forever outsider. At Heathrow or Basildon Park or Windsor Park, he captures the landscape and the mood and the story. If they weren’t there and we were all insiders… but that can never be. (Each generation generates its own breed of powerful men, and maybe women, and they marry into the old money and land. Socialist experiments have got nowhere. Private enterprise allies with land and as liberalism is shoved aside, the boundaries shift a little or as in China radically change but boundaries remain. What do William the Conqueror and modern China have in common?)

Hayes the outsider. But I want to go with him where I can. To the hills above Hebden Bridge, bought as a shooting estate, where the moors are ‘systematically burned each year to increase the yield of new green shoots…’ I can’t see why I shouldn’t kayak on wide stretches of river. Apart from the fact I’m maybe too old. The USA seems to have got river access right early on. I’d like to see multiple footpaths opened up through great estates. And scrap this crazy world of breeding birds and then letting them out on the land for a few months in managed woodlands before shooting them.

Hayes begins with the 1932 Kinder Trespass – that’s my part of the world. Setting in train the idea that ultimately we’ll follow Scotland and open up access. Is he right that once you’ve seen the importance of land rights you can’t unsee them? Once seen, you can’t unsee the cat, as Henry George put it.

I love the ideas of heterotopia, spaces for outsiders forged deep inside society, and ‘third spaces, ‘where real life occurs’. Check them out. My daughter used to work for an organisation called ‘Free Space’, which found temporarily unoccupied spaces in London where arts projects (as I recall) could base themselves.

We need more wildernesses. (But that isn’t really Hayes’s subject. He’s not a romantic, a Muir or a Hopkins, espousing wildness for its own sake.) And charging for Stonehenge – maybe we have to. That means we exclude ‘whole sections of the population’. But is there anyone out there, other than midsummer Druids, who actually feel themselves excluded?  

So I’m with him all the way… only I’m not. And maybe he isn’t either. Turning the world upside down with some utopia at the end of the rainbow is a mug’s game. Anarchy will get us nowhere. Hayes would be lost. He’s happy with his tent and campfires. But a Robert Tombs-style history, upbeat about England and everything English, won’t get us anywhere either – unless it’s deeper into Brexit and petty nationalism. And we’d continue to walk as landowners dictate, and we may find as I have local field paths barbed-wired into the sides of fields, and rights of way diverted at a landowner’s behest, so that he can, as in one case I know, keep the best view for himself.

Apart from anything else it’s beautifully written and illustrated. In its own way it is a wonderfully wise book.

The world de-mystified

We, the people on this crazy planet, seek at one pole to identify, and work with, the world perceived as gaia, the mother of life, and at the other to command it: nature as enemy, to be tamed in what William James described more than a hundred years ago as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. The latter has indeed been the direction of travel for in the Western world for several hundred years, but we were, until even as late as the mid-20th century (if we exclude the USA and Europe), still getting no further than the edges.

Central Asia and Tibet were lands of mystics and Buddhists. There lay ancient paths to wisdom. Now those paths have been wiped by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Britain may have governed India but its impact on Hindu and Muslim culture was minimal. A piece is a recent Economist highlighted how Indian cinema, Bollywood, while as popular as ever is now accessed in rural communities not by showings at the traditional communal fairs known as mela but in the privacy of private homes, which may be no more than shacks, via mobile phone.

The Economist also recently ran pieces on the railways which had opened up the Middle East in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. East briefly met West in conditions of harmony, even if old attitudes to the Orient hardly budged. Tracks now run as far as borders, or have been torn up. Out of connection we brought division. And another piece describes and evokes the last kampong, or village, in Singapore, where the long-established Land Acquisition Act allows unrestricted development, the commercial maximisation of limited space.

The world has been thoroughly demystified.

Now we have Elon Musk seeking to re-make the world, and the solar system, in his own image. Tesla is green. He is scornful of climate change deniers. But he’s also loading the atmosphere with thousands of miniature satellites as part of his Starlink communication programme. From the distance in space where he or his satellites look back in the earth individual citizens are invisible.

Time Magazine made him their Man of the Year. ‘This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.’

This is close to worship. You lose one deity, you create another…

Another aspirant deity out in California is libertarian Peter Thiel. Thiel, David Runciman writes in the London Review of Books, ‘rails against the use of public money for the betterment of people’s lives, especially the poor. Who are politicians to decide how we should live? The state only exists to protect the lives we build for ourselves, including the wealth we acquire along the way.’ Monopoly is the logical aim of any good capitalist.

A favourite book of Thiel’s is The Sovereign Individual (published 1997), co-authored by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, William. The authors predict ‘the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’.

Thiel ‘helped to bankroll the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create independent, ocean-based communities free from all government control.’ He was ‘an early vocal champion of Donald Trump’s presidential bid’. (All quotes are from David Runciman’s article.)

So where does that leave the still small voice of Zen, so optimistic in 2009. Where does the ordinary guy fit in? Likewise, run-of-the-mill limited-term democracy? And the big issues of migration, the armaments race, land use, species survival?

Thiel we can shunt off into one of his Seasteading communities. The state could build it for him.

And let’s have Musk focused literally down to earth, where he’s doing some real good, and could do so much more. But his mindset… he is a commander. He doesn’t do humility. We have messed up the environment and using the same machismo approach that landed in this mess he thinks he can put it right. I don’t share his premise. But we could use his ideas and energy. He could use our humility, but, well, let’s face it – that won’t happen!

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.

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.