The only thing we have to fear …

Zenpolitics is what it says on the tin – it is about politics. The day-to-day, policy issues, political economy, all feature, but what’s always intrigued me is how people engage with politics – how they can best connect with politics in an open and constructive way. That’s where Zen comes in. We need the ability and the time, to step back and evaluate. To gain distance before we judge. And we need to be aware of all the pitfalls: where antagonisms and fear and anger and conspiracy take over, where we assume the worst before we look for the best, where cynicism overrides good sense.

Zenpolitics is wary of 24-hour news. The focus is the long term. Long roads, targets which may be distant and watchfulness all along the way, and obstacles of all and every kind.

See how this works out in what follows.

(Christopher Clark, writing in the London Review of Books, on a new biography of the 19th century Austrian statesman, Count Metternich) In a sympathetic reflection on Metternich’s political thought, [Henry] Kissinger identified what he called ‘the conservative dilemma’. Conservatism is the fruit of instability, Kissinger wrote, because in a society that is still cohesive, ‘it would occur to no one to be a conservative.’ It thus falls to conservatives to defend, in times of change, what had once been taken for granted. And – here is the rub – ‘the act of defence introduces rigidity.’ The deeper the fissure becomes between the defenders of order and the partisans of change, the greater the ‘temptation to dogmatism’ until, at some point, no further communication is possible between the contenders, because they no longer speak the same language. ‘Stability and reform, liberty and authority, come to appear as antithetical, and political contests turn doctrinal instead of empirical.’

This is, in broad terms, where we find ourselves now. The deeper divide, the more we fear the ‘other’, the more ready we are to assume the worst of people and organisations – however mainstream, and however, until recent times, considered to be more or less ordinary.

(Daniella Pletka, senior research fellow at the right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, from an article in the Washington Post)  I fear the grip of Manhattan-San Francisco progressive mores that increasingly permeate my daily newspapers, my children’s curriculums and my local government. I fear the virtue-signalling bullies who increasingly try to dominate or silence public discourse — and encourage my children to think that their being White is intrinsically evil, that America’s founding is akin to original sin. I fear the growing self-censorship that guides many people’s every utterance, and the leftist vigilantes who view every personal choice — from recipes to hairdos — through their twisted prisms of politics and culture. An entirely Democratic-run Washington, urged on by progressives’ media allies, would no doubt only accelerate these trends.

Remember the famous Roosevelt quote: ‘The only thing we have to fear… is fear itself.’

And where might fear, and those who play on our fears, take us?

Let’s turn to the Murdoch-owned Fox News, under the editorial control (as it was) of Roger Ailes (if you haven’t seen the movie, Bombshell, make it a priority to do so).  Deborah Friedell writes in the London Review of Books as follows:

For Ailes, the election of Barack Obama was the ‘Alamo’, ‘the worst thing’ that could happen to America. If you watched Fox News, Barack Hussein Obama (they liked using his full name) was a racist with a ‘deep-seated hatred for white people’, who as a child in Indonesia had been indoctrinated at a madrassa funded by ‘Saudis’. While he was president, a Marxist-Islamist takeover of America was always imminent. On Fox and Friends, Trump would ask questions about Obama’s birth certificate – did it exist? In the afternoon Glenn Beck would suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be building concentration camps to house Obama’s opponents. Beck eventually walked that back and was rewarded with a series of death threats … In the years that followed, there was no Trumpian scandal that Fox News presenters couldn’t explain away. Impeachment was said to be a deep state coup to undo the presidential election. Children separated from their parents at the southern border were being held in ‘summer camps’ – that’s if they weren’t, as Ann Coulter alleged, “child actors”.

New-wave Republicans find conspiracies everywhere. It’s become the default position. Courtesy of Trump, conspiracy is assumed to be the Democrats stock-in-trade, at root a conspiracy against the American way of life.

In the UK before Brexit we individualised (at least the Tory right-wing did) our scapegoats – the cheap matching of strivers against skivers and scroungers. The BBC being a ‘state’ institution, however hands-off, was always a target, and under Cummings direction has been even more so. Likewise the ‘metropolitan elite’ – from being descriptive, it’s now a term of abuse: we’re one step short of organised conspiracy against ordinary folk.

Covid has taken conspiracy to another level: 50% of Americans would refuse to take a Covid vaccine, I recall seeing in one recent poll. Back in July one in six UK citizens said they’d refuse a Covid vaccine. There must always be doubt about efficacy, and concern over possible dangers, and the public needs all the evidence they require to have full confidence in a new vaccine. Introduce even the possibility of conspiracy, doubt is venomised, and opposition so easily becomes toxic.

If only we knew our history better. We’d understand how conspiracy theories have always functioned: Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the ‘New World Order’ (an elite conspiring to totalitarian world government); the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana; and at whole other level the fictitious Protocol of the Elders of Zion, which fed into anti-Jewish sentiment, with terrible outcomes.

We tread dangerous ground. The conspiratorial right walk it with a sublime disregard for the consequences. There are, just this month, a few hopeful straws in the wind. The election of Joe Biden (but witness yesterday’s big ‘voter fraud’, pro-Trump march  in Washington DC); the ejection of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street (surely he should have departed with nothing – what was in the infamous box?); the Daily Mail finally acknowledging their appalling error in supporting Andrew Wakeford’s linkage of MMR vaccination and autism. As a recent Mail leader put it, ‘Knowing what we all know now, it should never have been given such credence – and that is a matter of profound regret.’ They have now embarked on a strong pro-vaccination campaign – and all power to them. Today we have Labour arguing for emergency laws to ‘stamp out dangerous’ anti-vaccine content online.

Tempering that we had, on the Andrew Marr show this Sunday morning, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, arguing a no-deal Brexit case. The motor industry and agriculture, and Northern Ireland supermarkets, to name but three sectors, would, their leaders argue, be hugely impacted by no-deal tariffs, but it would, according to Eustice, all somehow come out OK in the wash. They were wrong to be concerned. Did he have any inkling of how foolish he looked?

And finally, another Brexiteer insider (time now, post-Cummings for Johnson to some selective culling?), the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden. He is, according to the Telegraph, beginning fresh negotiations with the BBC over the licence fee. There will be a new panel to assess the future of public service broadcasting. Dowden suggest in an article that there is a genuine debate over whether ‘we need them at all’.

Maybe post-Cummings we will see an end to this idiocy. Compare the BBC and Fox News. Fox demonstrates down what unholy avenues unaccountable media in private hands can take us.

The BBC has to answer to the British public – Fox only has to answer to Rupert Murdoch.

Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)

**

Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?

**

We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

How will they see us fifty years from now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—- —- —-

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

VE Day 2020

8th May 1945 – 8th May 2020 

One striking statistic marked the day. We’d a quiz via mobile phone in the afternoon and Miles, my partner’s eldest grandchild, asked us how many people died in World War Two. Mine was a massive underestimate. MiIitary deaths were  21-25 million, including about 5 million deaths in captivity.  Include civilian deaths and the number rises to 50-56 million. Add in deaths from disease and famine, and that makes a total of 70-85 million. From the ambitions of the over-mighty came brutality and holocaust.

We had just returned from a wonderful walk up into the woods and back across the Common. From speedwell and periwinkle, via ground ivy and vetch, to bugle and early purple orchid, the abundance of flowers is mind-blowing. Chalk milkwort is rare, with white touches around the tiny blue flowers. Prevailing easterlies always bring clearer air, and pollution levels are hitting new lows. Sun and clear skies and clear air – the flowers just seem richer this year.

After the quiz we’d a street party, suitably socially distanced. Our neighbour had sat quietly with her two young children at 11am. She’d explained what the silence was all about, about how people had died, and how they celebrated on VE Day. The children listened, and kept silence. They will remember, as I remember the Queen’s Coronation, as a six-year-old in 1953.

Families everywhere are home schooling, and VE Day has been a focus for studies. Schools would normally have provided that focus. In times of lockdown it’s been family.

We’ve all got used to silence in recent weeks. We are fortunate. We have open country nearby. There’s one place deep in the woods, where the wild garlic spreads its widest carpet, and the birds never stop singing. Forget the morning chorus. This is 2.30 in the afternoon. The leaves of the beech trees are thick enough now to achieve full woodland shade, so the patches of sunlight in the clearing beyond stand out more sharply.

War and silence. I’ve been reading Anne Frank’s Diary. We’d visited the annex where the family had shut itself away last October. They could hear the Allied bombers overhead, they knew about the concentration camps. They must keep silence, and they did, remarkably so, for more than two years. In these coronavirus lockdown times that beggars belief. They knew the Allies would win. But would they be able to hold out? What hits home so terribly hard is that they were betrayed.

The big and terrible picture of war, set against the close observation of nature. The noise and joy of VE Day, and the (relative!) quiet of a street party under lockdown.

Not a day I’ll forget.

 

 

Big ideas for the future

There are big ideas about the future out there, about seizing the moment – now is the time for radical change. Two of many examples:

The Committee on Climate Change would like the much lower carbon emissions during lockdown as a stepping off point. And Wolfgang Munchau argues in The Spectator for a bout of creative destruction. Letting ‘failing’ industries and businesses go to the wall.

The aviation industry would be in the firing line on both counts. We’ve already seen Flybe go the wall. And Virgin withdrawing from Gatwick, while BA has stated that ‘there is no certainty as to when or if these [Gatwick] services can or will return’.

Nick Timothy in his new book, ‘Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism’ (reviewed in the London Review of Books by Colin Kidd),  has a different take. Both Boris Johnson and Timothy ‘would claim to want to revamp the interest of the British economy in the interests of workers as well as bosses’. That is indeed very much the mandate on which the current government was elected. But creative destruction can’t take account of workers’ interests. So we’ve a clear and present conflict here.

The Thomas Cook collapse was a recent example. How many businesses, I wonder, would be allowed to go the wall? How much unemployment could the government countenance? Where would the new jobs, many if not most at the high-tech end of the spectrum, be located?

Munchau damns the EU for being ‘good at protecting existing interests’, and for ‘stifling innovation in the process’. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would hold back ‘an unparalleled opportunity for the artificial intelligence industry’. Again, we’ve a conflict – between the interests of the wider public and an open-field approach to AI.

We owe the term ‘creative destruction’ to the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It is in the very nature of enterprise and capitalism. New businesses opening up new territory. Old businesses go the wall, and workers lose their jobs.

But Munchau and his like treat creative destruction as a gospel. Likewise commentators in the Telegraph. Brexit is the great new opportunity to throw off fetters. New businesses will rise up and even as the world turns in on itself we will find major new markets which will transform our economy. The theory is excellent. The practical outcome is likely to be disastrous.

What I would like to see is a new dispensation at a European level. Retaining data privacy. But encouraging innovation – with new market opportunities open to all member states. For the UK radical approaches to innovation are far more likely to work out operating at a European level than worldwide. For Europe and the EU trading relationships are in place. On our own we’ll be one amongst a plethora of countries potentially pursuing radical business ideas, and it won’t be easy to stand out from the crowd.

Munchau fears that the EU will put constraints on, for example, an innovation fund he’d like to see set up. He may, or may not, be right. That indeed is the challenge for the EU. I don’t want to re-fight Brexit here. But I do want to see punctured some of the pie-in-the-sky hopes that some, including Munchau, have for a WTO (World Trade Organisation)-rules post-Brexit world.

Above all, his hope that UK industry unshackled from the EU and newly ‘energised’ will finally break out of the cycle of low productivity. This involves a multitude of presuppositions. If we do break out it certainly won’t be because we’ve waved a Brexit magic wand. 

The assumption now is that with an economy in crisis we’re already halfway to a new radical dispensation. But this isn’t like World War Two. People will be expecting their old jobs back, and government won’t be wanting to have them as a drain on resources any longer than it can help it.

My gripe against Nick Timothy is another one, an old one. He’s a Brexit go-it-aloner. The enemy: ultra-liberals and international elites. (‘Citizens of nowhere’, the phrase with which he landed Theresa May, he now claims refers to that elite – not to Remainers. If that’s the case he didn’t tell Theresa.)  Let the new Tory party identify with the working class, not assume that everyone’s aspiration is to rise out of it. It’s ordinary folk who should call the tune. I’ll go along with him on that. (With strong reservations about how opinion is manipulated.) Cameron conservatism assumed people would live with the elitism implicit in its attitudes. Brexit proved they won’t.

His book was written before the Covid crisis but let’s assume that he too sees big opportunities now post-crisis. They will bring a new statist, big-spending, austerity-a-dirty-words approach to the economy. Social conscience won’t be a dirty word. But social conservatism will be the dominant mood. A closed-world mentality at one level, Global Britain at another. How this will play out, who knows. The Conservative party has an old and dreadful habit of equating its own interest with that of the nation. But which interest? The market economy and the old Ayn Randian ideas, on the one hand, pitched against the big state of Joseph Chamberlain and his avatar, Nick Timothy, on the other.

Chamberlain was the great advocate of imperial preference. That idea is still there. A touch of the old divine right. But post-Brexit it will be a hot sweaty world in the engine room. We no longer rules the seas. And big ideas too easily run aground.

Big state will be important post-crisis. So too big ideas, big innovation. Building out from a world which may or may not be changed forever. But if we imagine we can do this alone, without Europe, we’re badly mistaken. Yes, we could become a fifty-first state. Some may prefer this. But going it alone should never be an option. We need that agreement with the EU by 31st December.

Munchau argues that ‘compared to the great lockdown, the effect of a WTO Brexit would be small’. True, but it assumes people at large will be prepared to accept that the economy doesn’t get back to its pre-virus levels. That they won’t mind us limping along for a while, in the vague hope of a new wider prosperity further down the line. It looks to me dangerously like using the virus as a cover for the economy under-performing.

We’re on dangerous ground here. But an economy and overseas trade operating on WTO rules looks to be what we will have unless a new wisdom prevails before the end of the year.

A great sadness will be that we miss the great opportunity of working with like-minded people across Europe to build a better post-Covid world. Anyone who imagines a sudden tiger-economy-style breakthrough is simply in cloud-cuckoo-land.

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.

 

 

 

Where do we go from here?

This is a long post, and I apologise for that. But there is a lot of ground to cover. The 12th December election was a turning-point. I want to establish points of departure. To put down, issue by issue, policy area by policy area, where we are now, as I understand it. And to take a view, from an avowedly liberal standpoint, on whether the government on the evidence available is competent to handle those issues.

Over the coming months I mean to return to some of the points made here, and see how the government is faring – and see if my judgements are correct. Or otherwise. I will try and be fair!

*

The key issues for the next five years: should we rejoice, be angry, or simply despair?

Did I collapse in despair, or rise up in anger? No, I surprised myself. Two days before the election, I’d been talking to LibDem supporters in Cheltenham and they were gloomy: their polling put the Tories 2% ahead. On my drive back home that day I reconciled myself to the reality, that politics would be anything but Zen-like in the years to come. The Tories would win, and handsomely. I could continue to be angry, or I could keep my cool. Hold firm to my ideas, beliefs and aspirations.  Let events unfold, influence them in my own small way if I could, and see where they take me.

Boris Johnson thought Brexit an impossible idea when asked at Davos in 2014. Who knows where we might be in 2024?

*

‘Should we rejoice,’ I ask above. Well, hardly. But let’s be positive. There may be, just maybe, some good news. The Tories will have to tack to the centre, even to the left, to keep on board the support that’s been loaned to them in Yorkshire and the North East. The NHS will get extra funding. But not at Blair-years levels of increase. And will it be thrown at the existing players – GPs and hospitals, when it is health and social care at every level that Tory administrations over the last almost ten years have brought into crisis?

Where are the beds for those well enough to leave hospital, but with nowhere to recuperate? Will the funding be there to relaunch the childcare, daycare and other facilities closed down during the austerity years?  To match the spending assessments allocated to local councils for social services not just to existing expenditure, but to the higher levels of expenditure that everyone recognises are required, not least for support for the elderly? Put another way, will the funding be token – or transformative? Will it be case of, ‘what can we get away with’? Or will commitment be total, and even passionate?

Johnson has promised proposals for later this year, but ‘asked for a date for action to finally be taken to improve social care, Mr Johnson said: “We will certainly do it in this parliament”.’ (Independent). The vagueness is absolute.

*

Infrastructure: big investment is needed, and might be good news, although HS2 is a poor starter by way of priorities. An infrastructure plan needs to be pumping funds into the North-West, well north of Manchester, into the North East, well north of Leeds – and it may be fifteen years before a link to Leeds is completed. And the South-West.  And Wales. The big hubs already have train and air links. The areas in between and at the peripheries should have equal if not greater priority.

Race and gender: there’s no evidence that the Tories will seek to unwind any of the changes of the few decades. But there is a hard core of Tory support that is seriously socially conservative, and wary if not intolerant of change. Arguments will be heated on the subject of political correctness, campus bans and the like. (Social conservatism is a fundamental instinct, and one I connect to. Not all change is wise! How far can we take the absolute liberty of the individual? When is intolerance just that – intolerance?)

Referenda: the curse of our political system. The one-off vote driven by half-truths, lies and misrepresentation, to which we all have to hold as if it is the voice of, the will of the people. The good news – the Tories sure as hell won’t want another for a good few years. They have the parliamentary majority, and it isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Mandate: however much we might query his means Johnson has a clear mandate. From that comes stability. Things can at last get done. And we’ve a sense of urgency, or at least the appearance of one. Will it all in the end be dissipated by the muddle and machinations of Brexit? Will things indeed ‘get done’?

Luck:  Johnson has also had luck on his side. The caution engendered by the financial crisis and austerity has disappeared as in a puff of smoke. A fairy godmother? Does Johnson have one? Is he lucky, or does he make his own luck?  Greased pig was the appellation The Economist gave to him a month or two ago. He slides through obstacles, and nothing sticks to him. Is he that rare thing, a genius, as Charles Moore suggests? Should we give him his head, and see where he takes us?

*

Which takes us to the bad news.  There are vast issues out there, and I touch on many, maybe most, of them below.  There are few signs, as of now, that the new government has the nous or the commitment to deal with them. It is in fundamentals a continuation of what has gone before. Ten years of Tory rule. (The first five years somewhat constrained.) The government would have us believe that it is entirely new, and its ministers a new breed. Taking a fresh look at all problems. A dubious proposition. But let us, for now, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership: Johnson is talking of a Golden Age, when first we have to climb out of a mire which he maybe more than anyone has dumped us in. A leader who took up the cudgels on behalf of ‘the people’, as the tabloid press defined it, against parliament, and against the Supreme Court as well.

So, to return to my question above, do we give him his head? As an opportunist, without any broad understanding public affairs, on all evidence to date, of course we shouldn’t. Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. Compare Churchill, Johnson’s hero, we’re told. Churchill anticipated a crisis and was brought in to resolve it. Johnson was a prime mover in creating our current crisis – and now he’s proclaimed as new Moses to lead us out of it.

The total dominance of one party. The utter incompetence of the main opposition. The side-lining of the LibDems. BBC won the election – Boris, Brexit and Corbyn. Corbyn won it for the Tories. All the other Far Left madcaps who think that all they need to do in time is somehow infiltrate the institutions, take over the system. Achieve ‘cultural hegemony’.  (This was Gramsci’s term. Gramsci was a Marxist, but it has a resonance for a few Tory ideologues as well. See below.)

Education: more money, but if that old Govean (Michael Gove ‘deserves an adjective) shibboleth of choice continues to hold sway then money will go to the good and excellent schools, and the free schools. Schools only registering satisfactory or below will find funding reduced still further on a per capita basis. Pupils from disadvantaged areas will continue to be disadvantaged.

Four years, maybe five, maybe longer: that’s the period of time Brexit has dominated affairs, and taken out minds off all the big issues we should have been focusing on. Important issues haven’t been addressed, important legislation has simply never happened. It will be hard to catch up.

Meritocracy: social mobility will get lip service and no more. The ordinarily well-off, the top quartile maybe of the population, will make certain they hang on to what they’ve got. Independent schools offer big advantages. Rather than their abolition (which simply at a practical level would be massively damaging) and trading down we have to focus on the state sector trading up. But there’s little sign of it happening. No government in recent times has come anywhere near getting the measure of the problem. State education may be marginally better funded under Johnson. But the benefits of the best teaching, the best preparation for university, good contacts when you leave university – they all work, and will continue to work, to the advantage of the affluent.

Social justice: where do you draw the line between ensuring people have incentives to work and providing safety net in the event of misfortune? George Osborne muddled austerity with cutting back benefits. Skivers were a popular theme in the press. Benefit fraud. Benefit tourism. Universal Credit has been implemented with a startling lack of understanding of its consequences, or the suffering caused. The bedroom tax was a mean spirit incarnate. There are no plans for any of the cuts in benefits to be re-instated. What I don’t see in the new Tory dispensation is much sign of compassion for the underdog. If Johnson wants to be a one-nation conservative he needs to strike a better balance between enterprise and compassion than his predecessors. This is difficult territory. But the bottom line has to be – compassion. Without it, all else that governments achieve is worthless.

Enterprise: maybe this should be under the ‘good news’ section above. Cutting business rates, which is in the Queen’s Speech, and maximising incentives for small businesses, are essentials. I’m a great believer in not-for-profit social enterprises, but the pursuit of profit is, for now at least, what drives this planet. The issue is how this can be squared with a vast reduction in emissions, a radical approach to conservation and resource depletion, and a re-balancing of wealth, in a way that improves living standards worldwide whilst avoiding crippling the planet.  The longer-term issue is how the planet can be re-educated away from its delight in profit and ever-increasing consumption. Is, indeed, there a remote chance of it ever happening? Don’t expect to see this government leading that debate.

The media. Johnson is talking of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee. The Tories grumble about BBC bias. So does Labour of course. And the LibDems don’t even get to join the big boys’ debates. (How much did being pushed to the margins affect the LibDems final vote?) Decriminalising will be a first step toward turning the BBC into another pay-TV channel, another Sky or similar. That’s a popular scenario with the Tory right. They have their newspapers, maybe 80% of the press is Tory-owned and wears its allegiance in a very public way. The centre and left have the Mirror and Guardian, and the ‘i’. But they are, in terms of absolute numbers, small players. Check out any newsstand.

The right-wing press will, as they have during four years of Brexit argument, continue to control the public debate through tub-thumping and a cavalier approach to truth. It will take multiple disasters before the Mail abandons its allegiance to whatever prejudice or distortion is likely to have the biggest appeal.

[20th December] The government has now banned cabinet ministers from appearing on the Today programme. (Nick Robinson was an ardent Tory at school.) I guess they don’t want to be interrogated and found wanting. Ensure, with the tabloids on your side, that your press is always favourable. Sky, being Murdoch owned, will never push criticism too far. ITV and C4 have good reasons to be cautious. The Tory take on the BBC is that it’s part of the urban liberal establishment. The rest of us may view it as the last best hope for intelligent debate in the country. But that is, of course, what’s at stake. If the anti-liberal establishment trope really takes hold then plans to scrap the licence fee will become even easier to put into law… That’s the way, no doubt, Tory thinking goes.

[20th December]  Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Kent, came out for Brexit as a populist revolt a while back.  He did his own polling, he tells us. ‘Leavers knew what they were doing,’ as he put it. People were well aware that Brexit involved ‘risks’. So they factored that into their vote for Brexit. But ‘risk’ as we know was played down so as to be almost non-existent in Brexit propaganda. Risk can only be quantified and made real if people see it at work in tangible form in the day-to-day. And poor economic performance is easily disguised: we trundle on as ever. But put us against other countries: we’ve failed by that test already and there’s little doubt based on all independent forecasts that we will slip further behind in future.  (The government promises us the opposite of course: ‘a glorious future’. We shall see.)

There is a further worry. As long as the press is solidly right-wing, and even more now that the press and the parliamentary majority are aligned, there is a real danger that the balance of opinion in our politics, the frame within which it operates, may shift rightwards. (See the reference to ‘cultural hegemony’ above.) Liberal values of openness and equality may be risk if a government forces through a hard-right neo-liberal agenda. The British electoral system, with its five-year election cycle, has in recent times always held parties in check. The electorate has to be persuaded, cannot be bludgeoned. I’m less sure that this will still be the case over the next five or ten years. This could be the biggest and most worrying game-changer of all.

Roger Scruton, the leading Conservative philosopher, died a few days ago. I’ve long recognised him as a redoubtable advocate of Conservatism , with a capital C, and disparager of the values of liberal democracy. ‘The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible, any more than were the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution.’  I’d seen him in fine form at the Cheltenham Literature Festival eighteen months ago. But his obituaries also highlighted his recent receipt of the Hungarian Order of Merit from Viktor Orban, the ever-more autocratic prime minister of Hungary, and champion of ‘illiberal democracy’. Given Hungarian attacks on a free press and the judiciary under Orban this is a worrying connection. We are a long way from an Orban-style democracy in this country, but there is a strand of Conservative thinking that gives cause for concern.

Democracy is also about local government of course. There’s much talk of a Northern Powerhouse. Direct funding for infrastructure. Major funding increases for the NHS and in time we’d hope social care – but this is central government funding. Will any consideration be given to extending local democracy? To involving people more closely with what happens in their own backyard? Or will localities be bought off by a hike in central government funding?

If the divide between right and centre and left in the media was no more than political we could all relax just a little. Focus on the arguments. But fake news and false alarms, marginal opinions consistently given equivalence with mainstream, the disparagement of expertise, they have been Brexit bread and butter over the last four years.

Law and order. There’s already talk of ECJ judgements being brought back under UK jurisdiction, with serious and unthought-through consequences. The Oxford historian Vernon Bogdanor suggests that in a post-Brexit world we will need some kind of British constitution. Sections of the press may for now hold off from further attacks on judges and the rule of law. But legislating for a constitution might open up a vast new can of worms. That apart, parliament and the executive shouldn’t be at odds for a few years. There should be no need for the Supreme Court to be involved. On the debit side there’s a worrying Tory manifesto promise to ‘update’ the Human Rights Act: intervening to achieve the ‘proper balance’ between the rights of individuals, national security and the government. Whatever ‘proper balance’ might mean.

The prison system: building more jails, locking more people up. Prison welfare, and rehabilitation, and increasing the number of prison officers: that’s not the way Tory talk about the system goes. The Tory knee-jerk response to the London Bridge stabbings suggest that we may well move rapidly in the wrong direction. Likewise Priti Patel’s comments on wanting criminals ‘literally to feel terror’ before breaking the law.

I mentioned fiddling the system. Under Cameron there was much discussion about boundary changes. Advocates on the right have claimed the system penalises them. It takes fewer Labour voters to elect an MP than it does Tory voters. I’m not sure that overall figures bear this out, or if they did once, they may do so no longer – but with one party in power for long periods who knows what might happen.

Brexit itself. I thought for a moment Johnson might feel able to sideline MPs the European Reform Group (ERG). Keep open the option of extending the departure date after 31st December 2020. But he’s legislating to tie himself into that date. (Legislation can of course easily be rescinded by another Act.) Is he playing a game here? Playing tough for now, more moderate further down the line, when the ERG have all but gone to sleep? (Unlikely, I have to admit.)

Once upon a time Johnson was a liberal, centrist Tory. Has he cast off this cloak for good? If power is his aim, then principle may be secondary. A cavalier approach to a hard Brexit suggests opportunism, and a ‘beggar the consequences’ attitude. It may on the other hand be pragmatism. Johnson likes sailing close to the wind, and tacking only when he has to. He’s been clever at ensuring that opprobrium doesn’t stick to him. See earlier my comments on his ‘greased pig’ attributes.

Acolytes: I have in particular Dominic Cummings in mind. Who was at Johnson’s side on election night? Dom, of course. With his laptop.  ‘Taking back control’ was a great slogan. No matter that any gain in ‘control’ is minimal, and our loss of influence a disaster. But he’s the kind of guy who does ‘cut through the crap’. I read that he’s been telling senior civil servants what they should be reading. And he has big ideas on military procurement, and wants to take on the generals and military establishment. See below.  And there’s also Isaac Levido, the Aussie who organised polling and research for the Tory campaign. He it was who was behind climate-change-sceptic Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in the recent Aussie election. He may be a decent guy. But supporting Scott Morrison?

Immigration will be based around a points-system. Aussie style. (Aussies again.) We will get only the brightest and best. I haven’t yet heard how we will get our fruit picked, or our hotels manned, or how other concerns which rely on cheap immigrant labour will function. We will be even more nation of parasites: attracting the best from elsewhere, the cost to the countries giving us their trained and educated doctors and technicians and nurses, and whoever else, being of little concern of us.

Immigration control can be dressed up as an entirely necessary response to job losses (for which there is little hard evidence) and EU citizens’ access to the NHS (though immigrants are in reality net contributors). But it is at a deeper level a fear of foreigners, a closing of doors. The UK recast for our time as ‘little England’. (I’m leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland out advisedly.)

Influence. Johnson will make his mark on the world stage through his bluster. But will anyone listen beyond what they have to? Has he – will he have – any moral authority? Will other countries look to him as someone who might lead? Can we regain the influence we had in Europe? Or the UN? Can we justify any more our permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Once we wrote or co-wrote the rules by which the EU ran itself. Now at best we will be lobbyists. To be listened to, or not, as others dictate. To move beyond that is perhaps Johnson’s greatest challenge. If he succeeds, as some believe he might, if he halfway succeeds, that will be a mighty achievement.

Trade: Brexit deals with the EU. Or not, if we can’t agree to align with EU regulations. Forget about services for now. 330 million Americans and a big-stick president. 447 million (not including the UK) citizens of EU member states. 1.4 billion Chinese. 67 million Brits. Wonderful trade deals are guaranteed. The best terms. And if another party wants to cheat or offload or renege or cancel, we can shrug and walk away and find someone else to do business with… There is madness here. And what kind of deal will we ultimately get out of Trump? We have few cards to play, and much to lose.

Business: ensuring that corporate taxes are paid in the countries where sales happen, and aren’t routed though low-tax countries. Issues of pay and business ethics. The priority given to dealing with vast and growing inequalities, as much in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, or indeed the 5%, as in salaries.

Social media and automation: should the big social media companies, Facebook and the like, where there are issues of both taxation and size, be broken up? Where their influence is malign, how can that be tackled? Automation – the other great transformative issue: what will the workplace look like in ten and twenty years’ time, and how can we best prepare when there’s so much uncertainty around the issue.

The European Union: maybe this should have come at the head of the list. But I’d have been re-running all the reasons for not leaving. The question has to be – how to retain what influence we have left, and regain some of what we’ve lost. We have made ourselves look foolish in the eyes of EU countries, and the wider world. Decisive government now will help claw back some credibility – but prestige and influence are another matter. Beyond lip service, does Johnson really want to be good neighbours with the EU? (He and the new Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, were all smiles recently.) Or by preference a nagging offshore critic? How ‘open’ does Johnson want the country to be.

Peter Pomerantsev in the current Prospect has a definition of the European project which I can subscribe to: ‘… a project whose aim is not some woolly cosmopolitanism, but a way of squaring the circle of nationalism and the need for cooperation in a crowded continent. “European” is a way of doing things, a constant effort to understand others and compromise, to smooth polarisation.’

Can we continue to support this idea, without having any direct involvement in its realisation? Is it a project that Johnson and his government can in any way, even as outsiders, subscribe to? We will be big losers if we can’t.

Brexit has seen the EU compared to the 16th century Papacy as a malign force. Free trade as Brexiters interpret it and free trade following the Repeal of the Corn Laws have also had an airing, as if there were a relevant connection. And recently we’ve had comparisons between the gloom about Britain’s future after losing our American colonies and pessimism about our future post-Brexit. If we were wrong to be gloomy back then, then we are wrong to be gloomy now. The logic is overwhelming…  That misuse, misreading, of history, is one of the troubling aspects of the new Tory dispensation.

[20th December]  USA: how will our relations with the USA evolve over the next five years? Does any of this matter? There is a little discussed instinctual divide in the UK – between those who are natural, for good or ill, Europeans, and those who feel more attuned to the American way of life. Johnson claimed in 2016 that he could sing Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth, with the best of us. But that’s not the point. We’re endlessly doused with American popular culture. Not the high-brow stuff. And the American economy is a gung-ho unregulated paradise, isn’t it? Tory free traders have no choice but to love America: all other boats are burnt. A tilt to America is certain to happen: how blatant it is, how much we have to toady to Trump, we will see. And if a Democratic president gets elected next November… well, that will be interesting.

[2nd January]  The American election primaries are about to get underway. I reference a Californian friend in her Christmas letter. She hopes that the hit taken by a hard-left-dominated Labour in our election will get through to an American left seeking to secure the nomination for an Elizabeth Warren, or someone of similar opinions. If the left comes over scary then centrist opinion might yet plump for Trump.

[2nd January]  Defence: where does the recent announcement of the sale of the British defence company, Cobham (aerial refuelling an area where they are world leaders), to the American company Advent fit in the scheme of things? ‘It came [quoting The Times] after Advent proposed a series of legal undertakings designed to mitigate potential national security concerns, including protecting sensitive government information, and giving notice to the government of future sale plans.’ Rarely have I read anything less convincing. (Expressions like ‘mitigate’, and ‘giving notice’.) It is the business secretary, the redoubtable Andrea Leadsom, who announced the deal. Not, note, the defence secretary. Business, to be entirely cynical, comes first. But does it matter if the long-term plan is to tie our defence ever-more-closely to the USA? France and other European nations may see the advantage of an alternative EU defence establishment given an increasingly untrustworthy transatlantic partner. But not the UK of Boris Johnson.

[14th January]  The UK sits on the fence over the USA taking out  Qassem Soleimani. Johnson hedges over support for the Iran agreement of which, with the USA, the UK, France and Germany were co-signatories. ‘Mr Johnson said the Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a superior “Trump deal” – as he shrugged off being shut out of the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani.’ (Independent)

Agriculture: Michael Gove had big ideas as Environment Secretary for a subsidy scheme based around environmental impact rather than acreage of land under cultivation. How this works out now we shall see. The polluter pays principle would be a useful one to enshrine in policy – big farmers/landowners would take a hit. On the other hand sheep farmers and the Welsh rural economy could also be hit hard. I rate Gove’s competence, though not always his ideas – thinking back to his time as Education Secretary. He is of course no longer in charge of agriculture… The jury has to be out on this one. Fishing: there will be a big squabble between the EU and the UK.

Defence [2]: I mentioned above that Cummings wants to take on the generals and military establishment on policy and procurement. With two hugely over-cost mega-sized aircraft carriers … the American strike fighters (with problems of their own) which fly from the carriers not yet delivered … and only three destroyers available to defend the carriers when even the six there should be might not be enough given the capabilities of the long-range missiles both the Russians and Chinese have in development  … You can see his point. If Cummings can help Johnson make better sense of our defences then they will both deserve serious accolades. That is a very big ‘if’. But better the Tories on defence than Labour, who would have been clueless.

Civil service: Cummings also wants to take on the Civil Service. We can all agree that tenures for both politicians as secretaries of state and civil servants as department heads can be too short. We need expertise. But as Matthew Parris and others have pointed out, the difficulties lie more with politicians. The Civil Service has to advise on what’s feasible and what can indeed be actually implemented. The argument is worth making, but Cummings, I fear, is showing off.

Climate change: no such qualification on climate change. Can we have any confidence in the Tories? Maybe Johnson will blaze a trail, show his centrist, liberal, wide-world-aware credentials. But to his right he has the doubters writing in the Daily Mail and Telegraph: the British public we’re told just won’t wear all the disruption that would follow from serious engagement with climate change. Business, a Telegraph writer argued, is taking the lead – when it is increasing pressure from public opinion that’s driving business. Yes, the government is committed to zero net emissions by 2050. But we need to be radically engaged as of now. Carbon trading, support for countries at risk from sea level rise, tighter targets all round. The big issues left unresolved in Madrid recently.  

And what of conservation? The decline of species as mankind penetrates ever further into the last recesses of nature. And the other big issues of our time, closely related to climate and habitat – population growth, migration, and associated resource depletion. Are we now in the hands of a government and ministers who are at the ‘technology can handle it’ end of the spectrum? Trust technology to find a way. Whatever the cost. Or will they seek to take the lead on the world stage – and in Glasgow, at the next climate conference, next autumn. Have no truck with Trump.

There’s one big issue I haven’t mentioned. It could dominate the headlines in a year of two’s time. Scottish independence – the possibility of another vote. If Johnson refuses, how will the SNP, how will an all-SNP city like Glasgow, respond? Scotland wants of course to stay in the EU. As does Northern Ireland: the Irish border may become a big issue sooner rather than later, as for the Northern Irish closer relations with the Irish Republic come to seem a better option than a dysfunctional GB.

And finally, what about values, about who we are as people? Will we be, as is claimed, as open to the world after Brexit as before? Or will our focus be on self-interest, on narrowly defined UK interest? Will equality of opportunity and capability be core values? Social justice. Social mobility, with all its implications for a balancing of education provision and employment opportunities.  The dignity of every human being, in the poorest corner of our own land and every land. That’s easy to say of course, much harder to act on. But it’s not a bad starting-point. When we put care and compassion ahead of fear and anxiety and a closing of doors.

Citizens of the UK, of Europe and the world. Not for Theresa May, but for millions of us that’s who we are. And will remain, EU member state or not. That will for me the ultimate criterion. How we, and how I as a citizen, fulfil each of these roles.

Representative democracy – the best form of government yet devised

I’m following up on my last post (on Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers) with another on broadly the same subject – representative democracy.

It is fundamental to our future.

Hamilton had a nascent Congress in mind, we have the House of Commons. Always a problem, now more than ever, is how ordinary folk connect with elected, representative assemblies. Not least in our own time, when the House of Commons is widely seen as both distant and corrupt. And ineffective.

What we need, put simply, is connected representation, where people feel they are actually represented, and not taken for granted.

Deliberative democracy, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, chosen rather than elected, is often suggested as a way of feeding in a wider range of opinions, and involving people more directly.

Assemblies have a role, but only within existing structures, and I’m thinking specifically of local government. Devolving power to regions and councils. Encouraging local participation. Improving links between councillors and councils and local MPs how best might they work in tandem, and not as separate entities. Power exercised upwards as well as downwards.

That’s where our primary focus should be.

But let’s first look at how deliberative assemblies might work. To quote the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) on the subject:

Much like a jury in a court case. You might have between twenty and a hundred people representing a cross section sample of the population. They spend three or four days hearing prepared evidence from all sides on a specific topic – it could be anything from abortion reform to public spending priorities. This is followed by questioning, investigation and debate. The group then comes up with recommendations, usually based on consensus.

I’m a big supporter of the RSA. But I’m cautious in this case. Just as parliament is swayed by factions, so too will be assemblies.  The criteria by which members of such assemblies will be selected will cause division, before they even meet. And strong personalities will as ever emerge and dominate. There may be a requirement to debate at a parliamentary level, but none to enact.

The one recent example of a positive outcome from a deliberative assembly was the Irish constitutional convention, which recommended action on same-sex marriage, abortion and blasphemy. These were then enacted following referenda and legislation.

See ‘Pot-luck democracy’, in the Prospect December 2019 issue, which highlights the assembly, or ‘fixed council’, which is being trialled in Ostbelgien, a Belgian province.

Assemblies do have a role, and let’s trial then further. But the danger is they could be a distraction. We must look elsewhere if we want to achieve a significant re-engagement of the public with everyday politics.

Better to focus on how the wider population can best feed into existing structures.

And that means focusing on local government. One of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies is a switch of authority and finance away from local to central government. The respect in which local government is held, and the calibre of people drawn to it, have suffered significantly as a result. City mayors and the Northern Powerhouse are much quoted as ways forward, but real democratic progress requires a much greater devolution of power, with local people taking ownership of education, health and social care and transport in ways that are impossible now.

The pathways that link local and central government will need to be much closer. Local councils should be a useful training ground for politicians with aspirations at a parliamentary level. And closer links to local authorities would, almost literally, bring MPs with, maybe, delusions of grandeur down to earth.

When local people bring issues which are best handled at a local level to MPs’ surgeries, that shouldn’t be a problem. MPs and councils would be used to working in tandem. And MPs in turn would be available to discuss the impact of national issues at a local level.

With local and central government more closely linked it might well be easier to accept and understand the benefits of supranational authority. We need to be key players, on the inside, rather than lobbyists, on the outside. A narrow definition of sovereignty is categorically not in our interest.

A European parliament with local electorates fully engaged should function as a direct means of holding the councils and committees of Europe to account.  That has always been the idea – but in the UK especially strident voices in the press have made this all but impossible.

There’s the rub. How do you make the case for representative democracy at all levels when populism is so stridently funded?

First and foremost – argue the cause. In any and all public forums. Not for the old and tired status quo. But for an active and engaged system of connected representation. One where people feel they are actually represented, and not taken for granted.

I’ve not spelt out any detail here. The purpose of this post is simply to put the argument for our existing system(s) of government. We have the most remarkable instrument of government ever designed anywhere on earth in Westminster, and a parallel structure at a local level which likewise has evolved over centuries.

Energising those structures is where our focus should lie.

The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton – and the UK

‘…the best commentary on the principles of government ever written’.  (Thomas Jefferson)

That marvellous musical, Hamilton, has taken me back to the Federalist Papers, not normally the subject for an Englishman. They are remarkable in every way – high principle and skilled argument, without any apparent pressure of faction or dominant individuals (though that was there of course), arguing for a sustainable and, for the standards of its time, remarkably representative republic.  The very nature of the post-revolutionary America was at stake: a nascent republic pitched against a powerful anti-federalist movement.

There were extraordinary men to meet the challenge, not least Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the two principle authors of the Papers.

I quote passages from the Papers below. They are desperately relevant, and readily overlooked, in the USA today. They are also directly relevant to the UK.

Hamilton asks at the beginning of Federalist 1 ‘whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice [my italics], or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force’.

Madison in Federalist 10 argues for a representative body, defined as a republic, as appropriate ‘for  refining and enlarging  the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations’.

What has suffered terribly over the last three and a half years in the UK has been the popular right to representation. We have been obliged by a rogue referendum to marry an emotion-driven and ill-argued and mis-represented referendum with the ordinary process of representative and consultative democracy. The two cannot and will not go together. Support for referenda by the leaders of political parties was predicated on the inevitable victory of their point of view. They were wrong. In the language of the Federalist Papers there were factions at work, not least the popular press and rogue elements of one political party, who demonstrated that faction can stir up a population, and win the day.

None of this is to argue against the real resentments over inequality and alienation felt by wide sections of the population. Representative government has been found wanting – failed in the essential requirement of engaging and looking after the interests of all sections of the population. But it is for representative government to reform itself. There is no other way.

Brexit itself, the severance at worst, long-term disruption at best, of our links with Europe, is a consequence of that failure of government. But in no way can it be an answer to that failure. But to argue this is not the purpose of this post.

I will let the passages from the Federalist Papers speak for themselves.

(Federalist 1, author Alexander Hamilton)

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America … It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

(Federalist 10, author James Madison)

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction … such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention …

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking…

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

(Madison’s second point of difference, highlighting the benefits of a larger over a smaller republic, with the representation of a wide range of interests and points of view, and the difficulty therefore of any faction in disrupting government, is not directly my subject here.  Though always relevant.)

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019 – part two

Back to Cheltenham. It’s now the second weekend and I’ve returned for a few more events, including (and all referenced below):

Simon Schama (as himself)

Booker Prize 2019  shortlist preview

The Times Debate: ‘The best and worst prime ministers’

The Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?

India Now

I’m staying with my earlier theme of language. I have no choice after listening to Simon Schama (promoting his new book of newspaper and magazine articles, from the last few years,  mainly from the FT, entitled ‘Wordy’). He has, as he put it, ‘always loved literary abundance’. He quoted Erasmus, and a book which had escaped my knowledge, ‘De Copia’ (of copiousness), from 1512. Think of words ‘surging in a golden stream, overflowing with an abundance of words and thoughts’. With the qualification that all this abundance should not be confused with’ futile and amorphous verbosity’.  Richness of imagination and elasticity of argument should be the key. 

A strict Zen approach might argue for less is more! But I love listening to Schama, and there’s not a word wasted. He loves lists, and they take you down surprising byways. (For example, the multitude of colours available to an artist’s palette, and their provenance.) Explore these byways, and you learn. Stuff you don’t need to know, or didn’t think you did. Schama has a facility of memory, and a certainty of recall, and a sureness of argument that is unusual. Maybe your dad reciting Shakespeare and readings Dickens to a young child helps a little.

Someone with a similar facility mentioned by Schama is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s love of lists and popular culture can wear you down, but, again, nothing is wasted.

Another event at the festival, the following day, was the Booker Prize 2019 shortlist preview, and Rushdie is on the shortlist. His new novel has a 1950s American quiz show as its setting-off point. Schama chucks in a few references to popular music, but high art is more his focus. On Rembrandt he is peerless.

Talking of lists, Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted book is ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, and that is one long list, each item beginning with ‘The fact is that…’, all one sentence over 1020 pages plus. Surprisingly easy to read, and non-repetitive, but a 1020 pages list is a stretch…

But I’m one day ahead. After Schama I had one of those events that you don’t have to go to. But it sounded fun. ‘The best and worst prime ministers.’ Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist (who I used to read before they put the Times online behind a firewall), Anthony Seldon, biographer of every prime minister since the year dot, including Mrs May, and Deborah Mattinson, one-time pollster for Gordon Brown, and now running ‘Britain Thinks’. And what does it think? How do we define leadership – dominant, assertive, quick-witted, on the one hand, listening, engaged, persuasive, on the other – these may not quite be her categories. But close. You can place PMs on a spectrum extending between the two. Churchill comes out top as best PM, of course, Attlee, in the second camp, not far behind. Blair doing well pre-Iraq. Brown, as Anthony Eden, cursed by an over-long wait, and an urge to make an impact when he finally took on the role. The worst – Goderich, who cried when making his resignation speech after seven months in office. Bonar Law.

Gladstone got a mention – but what about Disraeli? The original one-nation Tory. Jewish, becoming PM against all the odds. The great sparring partner of Gladstone.

What wasn’t directly addressed was the effect that the pursuit of power, and the exercise of power, has on people. Has on prime ministers. Success in politics has a short timespan, it’s normally a response to events – to war, to the unions (in Thatcher’s case), maybe a new vision which the public buys into (Blair). Cameron might have refashioned the Tory party had the imperatives of austerity (as he understood them) not got in the way. Callaghan, the last of the old-school trade unionists politicians, wise, avuncular, but brought down by the unions. Harold Wilson, presiding over a powerful cabinet, but sterling was his undoing, and it’s his ministers who these days get the accolades.

I missed an intriguing panel discussion on PMQ – prime ministers’ questions. The worst, of British politics, or the best? Adversarial, a bear pit … but also a game, and a good one, played within the rules.  But now played out for media soundbites.  And, back to my theme of language…

… what of a PM who uses terms likes ‘surrender’, to the EU, and ‘collaboration’, with an enemy, the EU, and sees no issue with the glib use of wartime language. In the way that Trump uses terms like ‘traitor’ and ‘spy’ of his opponents in the impeachment proceedings. This crosses a threshold.

The one-time (and still?) journalist who is happy to mis-speak, and shrug it off, thinks he can still play the same game in high politics, as PM, no less.

Not only have we lost integrity – we’ve also lost oratory. Does that matter? Back to Schama. The ability to use language, to inspire, and at the same time to put over arguments cogently, and honestly. Passion and intelligence. Churchill had it. Michael Foot had it: you listened, you might not agree – but you listened. Where are they now? The orators. The Obamas. Do we have any? It’s impressive to strut up and down a stage, speaking without notes, but it’s a feat of memory, not oratory. Parliament should be a place for oratory. Maybe not PMQ – but PM and opposition leaders who could rise above point-scoring – that would be a transformation.

Inbetween all this I tried an oddball item. There are many such at Cheltenham. ‘The role of the poetry critic.’ I am no wiser.

Back to politics, and our big event on the Saturday, the Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?’ A pollster from Populus, Andrew Copper, placed parliamentary seats on a grid, with income levels one axis, and social attitudes from liberal to small-c conservative on the other. The analysis was intriguing. ‘Recent polling has shown that voters identify more strongly as Remainers or Leavers than with the two main parties.’ The Tories are now chasing the lower-income socially-conservative vote, they’re on Brexit Party territory, Farage territory. They may win traditional Labour seats, with new-style more socially-conservative MPs – and where then the more open social agenda Johnson talks about. Five, make it six, parties are in contention – more if we include Northern Ireland.

This was simply the best panel discussion I’ve been to – at Cheltenham or Hay. Chaired by Justin Webb, with acuity and affability. Philip Collins provided perspective, and Jess Phillips and Rory Stewart were the politicians. Jess Phillips out of tune with her leadership, but in tune with her constituents in Birmingham. And open and honest because that’s the only way she knows. Leave her party? She’ll hang on in there, hoping it will switch back from its Momentum ways to something still socialist but within the old parameters of parliamentary discourse. Rory Stewart has given up on his party. He’s now standing as an independent candidate for London mayor. Intelligent and totally on the ball. And damn it, like Jess, likeable. And like Jess, not playing games with the audience, and trying to be something he isn’t. As either Andrew or Philip remarked, he’ll get a ton of second preferences, and may win on a run-off as the second-favourite candidate. Sadiq Khan is weighed down by Corbin as party leader, the Tory candidate by Boris. Rory is a free agent. (It seems I’m on first-name terms with everyone!)

As Jess pointed out, she couldn’t do anything like that. Abandon party, stand as an independent. Rory has the dosh. He’s an old Etonian. If he may/may not have the money, but he has the connections. He can build an online base with ease. Jess has no such advantages, save for her political and personal skills. She literally couldn’t afford to re-invent herself.

As someone said – it would be good to see the two of them in the same cabinet. Sanity would prevail. One hopes.

Language – focus on language – in life and politics. The ability to express yourself cogently and honestly. We all fall short.  The danger is now that were all so inured to misuse and abuse of language that we go along with it. With Boris, a small-scale operator, for now, and maybe always too innocent – and Erdogan, Modi, Trump on a rising scale. And Xi Jinping at the top, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ now forming the preamble to China’s constitution.

That takes me to Narendra Modi and a panel discussion on India, entitled India Now, chaired by the director, Robin Niblett, of the think-tank, Chatham House. My friend, Hazel, wa,s in the meantime, enjoying the ‘Sunday Times Culture Discussion with Andrew Lloyd Webber’. Would have been – and was, I gather – fascinating. But politics came first.

The tenor of the discussion was well-caught by the title of book by one of the panel, Kapil Komireddi, ‘The Malevolent Republic’. Modi didn’t come off well. A Hindu nationalist wanting to re-shape India as a Hindu state, creating a hostile environment for dissent, building a personality cult, undermining the open democracy which India has, despite its size and convoluted history, managed to maintain, revoking the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a province, an unconstitutional act, upping the stakes in the hostilities with Pakistan. Playing the populist, embracing, literally, Donald Trump.

It would have been good to have someone on the panel just a little bit more onside with Modi: the growth rate is still 5%, could go higher, he’s strong in infrastructure projects … And we should remember, India will soon be, at 1.4 billion people, the most populous nation on the planet. Put against that – the question I’d meant to ask and didn’t – will India be able to feed itself in future, and water itself – will the rains and aquifers hold out?

Where are we, the UK, in all this? We were advised by the panel that, yes, there’s still a kind of fondness for things British in India, but the idea that the old ties of Empire would help us ease our way to post-Brexit deals with India is patently absurd.

I’ve hardly mentioned Brexit. The festival by and large avoided it. Negotiations this week may or may not conclude with a deal, which may or may not pass parliament. And that is all there is to say.

Cheltenham has been a wonderful few days. It rained and it poured, and the tents fluttered in the occasional big gust. But the place was teeming. And we had fun.