More thoughts for the day

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has the nation in mourning. We have something we, most of us, agree on. He was a good man, who, as Prince Albert before him, used his position to advance a wide range of good causes – the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme above all. He was also a fine cricketer, which does count for something.

And Rachael Blackmore won the Grand National quite brilliantly: the first woman jockey to do so.

The BBC ran tributes across all stations to the Duke. But elsewhere…

Hungary: ‘The last radio station that is critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is due to go off the air.’ Poland: ‘Media freedom …now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media … ‘ Both reports are dated February 2021. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia the independence of the state broadcaster is also under threat.

As for the BBC, we’re used to grumbles from left and right about bias toward the other side. Now the left, obsessed by its own squabbles and with a wholly outdated understanding of the working man, and with minimal support in the popular press, has lost all influence. Murdoch, on the other hand, that happy paragon of all that’s best in Aussie and American, is unchallenged. The Sunday Times on the Greensill collapse and David Cameron: hammering the Tory old guard might just suit Murdoch’s politics. Should I be suspicious?

Maybe now, with arch-disruptor Cummings consigned to outer darkness and Covid and the Red Wall north and big spending to focus on, the government will worry less about the BBC. They can burnish their social conservative credentials by insisting refugees go through official channels, as if any refugee has access to such things. They can espouse freedom of speech (in the face of ‘no platforming’) and mock wokery, but legislate to limit freedom of assembly. We will see how far they go.

I referred to ‘an outdated understanding of the working man’ on the left. That takes me to Red Wall seats ‘up north’, and the smart housing estates that are popping up everywhere, where houses are cheap, by comparison to London, and the standard of living, despite lower wage and salary levels than down south, relatively high. That is the new north, and it’s this that is probably driving the big increase in the Tory vote.

The old working class before the WW1 was instinctively conservative and Tory. They knew their place. The new prosperous working class has more confidence, they doff caps to no-one, and they’ve bought into what may or may not be the fiction that they have in the new Tory dispensation a recognised and valued place.

I’m reading Jesse Norman’s splendid biography of Adam Smith. Why would someone of Norman’s obvious sanity be serving in a government where pragmatism and the wide sympathies as evinced by Norman can be in short supply?Norman, on the way Friedmanite economics distorted and still radically distorts what Adam Smith really stood for, is revealing. Peter Kellner in the current edition of Prospect has a letter which suggests we should see the Tory party in terms of a Vann diagram, with old-style conservatism overlapping the new ideological variety. Norman maybe is the true conservative, and he needs to be in there to make certain the ideologues don’t take over.

And, finally, how the 18th century prefigured the 21st. Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, which had been a major port serving Europe for hundreds of years. His father was Comptroller of Customs for Kirkcaldy. The big switch over to Glasgow and the Clyde, and the American trade, not least tobacco, was already happening. By the 1750s Glasgow was importing more tobacco than all the English ports combined. It was the American economy that intrigued Smith. He looked west, not east. We have that dilemma to this day. Do we look west, or east? Glasgow ironically is now a stronghold of support for Scottish independence, and the Scot Nats look to Europe. England on the other hand would love that US trade deal….

Flying the flag

In yesterday’s news we had government minister Robert Jenrick ‘flying the flag’ on UK public buildings (the government will be making it a regulation), and displaying the flag prominently behind him in a BBC interview – and gentle comments from BBC journalists about the prominence of that flag being turned against the BBC. All staged in the cause of the new hard-right Tory jingoism.

Cass Sunstein’s new book This Is Not Normal is just out. Timely: it’s what Jenrick and other revanchist (meaning ‘recovering lost territory’) Tories are about. Trying to change the ‘normal’. Taking us back. Politics as a battleground. He won’t change the younger generation, so why polarise other than for electoral advantage – unless he really believes that we can turn back history by endless harping on about the past.

I’ll give no ground to anyone when it comes to pride in country – and that means patriotism. I’m English, and I’m British.  But I’m not lost in past glories, nor do I believe that we as a nation are better than other nations. What I want our focus to be on what we can offer other nations – and what they can offer us. Bringing the world closer together, while retaining our identities.

We polarise at our peril. We desperately need shared conversations and shared conclusions.

Zen is about being comfortable in the moment, and that means not grasping on to something – ‘grasping’ is a good word here. Not craving something you can’t have – in this context, the past. Or trying to define the future in terms of the past.

You can’t go back there. You can prop up all the ancient statues, send demonstrators down for ten years according to new draft legislation – but you can’t go back to the past.

Statues commemorate ‘heroes’ who died a natural death. Let their statues do the same. They occupy some important public spaces. Maybe a 50-year year max lifespan before they’re taken down – a hundred years for a big hero?

I’m being fanciful, but life is so much more fun that way. I came upon the following from a Buddhist commentary yesterday:  

‘But, if you have genuine insight and see clearly this bundle [life in all its aspects], constantly changing, now laughing, now crying, now being afraid, now having the silliest notions, now being quite sincere, now being very willing, now being compassionate: and you will see this bundle constantly changing through life; well, that is how it will go on.’*

I also read about a monk who would  ‘without breaking stride … gently close a gate that had blown open, and carefully pick up things that had blown down’. ‘Without breaking stride.’ Not easy I appreciate, but there’s a message here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.

A quote from Sam Harris (see his app, ‘Waking Up’), an ardent secularist who learnt much from his stay in a Buddhist monastery, also caught my eye: ‘It’s in the nature of everything to fall apart… everything from our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our understanding of the world … everything requires continuous maintenance…’

What struck me was that phrase, ‘everything requires continuous maintenance’. That’s what parliamentary democracy, deliberative democracy, open democracy, or whatever you call it – that’s what it’s all about. We’re in the here and now, and there’s much work to do here, not in some distant dream world.  

*from a commentary by the Venerable Myokyo-ni on ‘The Record of Rinzai’

Poetry and politics out of San Francisco

Ferlinghetti and Hirschman, and remembering also the Turkish writer, Ahmet Altan

Back in the 1950s and 60s people were living on the edge, as they are now, in Covid times. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. And by the 60s many of us were engaged in a fully-fledged protest movement. But we could be out there, talking, drinking, smoking, demonstrating. And a whole lot more.

I’ve been reading two San Francisco poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman. Back in 1953 Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights Bookstore, and in 1956 he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and after he was prosecuted famously won a court case asserting the right of free speech under the First Amendment. Some forty years later, in 1998, he was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate. Hirschman, in 2006, was the fourth.  

I had a Hirschman book on order… this was last Monday. The following day there arrived an email from a friend over in the States with a PS – had I seen the news, Ferlinghetti had just died. Aged 101. I’m sad, really sad, he’s gone. Amazed he was still alive.

Remember Howl? OK, you don’t remember. We weren’t alive or we were too young. But it’s a manifesto for anarchy, of a very 1950s and 60s kind. Not the destructive anarchy of the New Right of our own time. It’s the dream anarchy that the world will somehow set itself right. It’s just that ‘America’ is getting in the way.  Ginsberg celebrates ‘the best minds of his generation’, they’re ‘angel-headed hipsters … who poverty and tatters and hollowed-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’. It’s political – but it doesn’t have a prospectus. It just wants you to know that it scorns the whole crazy moneyed apparatus of society.

Ferlinghetti also had the anarchist instinct but he was a practical guy. Founded the bookstore, published Howl, won that court case. But he also knew how to hit home: his is a ‘concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness’. (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958)  Come 2007 he was more relaxed, the gentrification of San Francisco a big issue. But he was still campaigning for ‘poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that’s news’. Maybe the mass media might just print it, if it was ‘a new kind of news’. Though maybe ‘poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they’re saying what our materialist, technophiliac world doesn’t want to hear’.

He was also asking that big question – what exactly what is a poet? He’s like an acrobat ‘on a high wire of his own making/ … a little charliechaplin man/ who may or may not catch/her fair eternal form’ when she comes swinging toward him. That’s from ‘A Coney Island’. His ‘Challenges to Young Poets’ from forty years later keeps it simple: ‘Write short poems in the voice of birds.’

Hirschman was something else, a Street not a Beat poet, a radical communist. (His book, ‘All That’s Left’, arrived yesterday.) ‘It was the Street poets who united with common causes…’ He celebrated SF’s Cafe Trieste, where you’d find ‘local radiances like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’, and ‘the older Beats and Baby Beats and the commies, the surrealists, the anarchists, the socialists, the jazzmen, the urban screwballs, the walk-in weirdos’. From another age he remembered ‘Federico, who would die for poetry’ – Lorca was a hero. ‘The sinking house of the setting sun’ was how he characterised New Orleans after Katrina. And, remembering the Virginia Tech massacre of thirty-two people, he wrote, ‘and now you know what a market/in old Baghdad feels like.’.

By contrast, the latter-day Ferlinghetti could be whimsical, a poet to smile and relax with in poems such as the ‘Green Street Mortuary Marching Band’. But he was still the same man. ‘To the Oracle at Delphi’ talks of America as a ‘new Empire … with its electronic highways/carrying its corporate monoculture/round the world’. (San Francisco Poems, 2001)

Hirschman never let up – hasn’t I’m sure to this day. You may or may not appreciate his encomium on Fidel Castro. But in the case of Mumia (Mumia Abu-Jamal) he drills his message home. Black Panther background, sentenced to death for murder in 1981, commuted in 2001, still in jail, many still arguing his case and his cause. Mumia has studied, taken a degree, written books, and inspired, all from jail. Hirschman imagines his final victory – ‘your victory will be the priceless uplifting of the human spirit’.

He refers to Mumia as the ‘Nazim Hikmet/of the American grain, that Turkish poet who/spent 26 years in prison…. No amount of bars/or shackles can chain/the revolutionary impulse/of the human heart’.

Mumia’s case still divides America, along party lines, Right and Left. I am, over in the UK, in no position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his conviction. But the reference to Nazim Hikmet does strike home.

In our own time, as some of us are planning holidays in Turkey, we have the extraordinary and vicious incarceration of Turkish journalists and writers (and teachers and lawyers and many others) under the Erdogan regime. One is the writer Ahmet Altan, arrested in 2016, then released and re-arrested the same day. Now serving a life sentence. In his book (smuggled as extracts from jail), ‘Never will I see the world again’, he writes:

‘Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends…I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or to go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze at the sea…’

It’s a long paragraph. And it hit me hard.

Fog and politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A day in the life … in my life – Christmas shopping, Donald Trump, The Economist, writing blogs, workhouses, and a few other matters of consequence

It was an ordinary day. A haircut, and a mid-morning shop on Cheltenham’s High Street. 10th December, a festive time, but it didn’t look or feel that way. Shops with long queues outside, and yet it seemed far too many people inside. We wouldn’t have noticed before, but we do now. We are all watching our step, watching our neigbbours. Smiles would work wonders, but our smiles are masked.

Something else brought me down. Headlines about Johnson and his meeting-of-no-minds dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. The sheer and utter stupidity of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer. In four words – putting party before country.

I was happy to be back home to a bowl of Hazel’s parsnip soup.

I then set about writing a blog. Being a glutton for punishment. Donald Trump, as actor, as a master of theatre, stage manager and scriptwriter and leading actor – the only actor. How his script, ‘fake news’, had literally trumped ‘post-truth’. We have our own news, these days, we’re partisan, and proud of it, and objective criteria by which we might identify what is actually true (as far as that’s ever possible) – well, that’s a mug’s game. And are we all at it – left as well as right of the political spectrum?

Trump is having a last throw in Texas: the state’s attorney-general is seeking to invalidate the votes in four states including Georgia. What would happen, I wonder, if he was successful? If the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, and electoral college votes were put in the hands of Republican-controlled legislatures, and the national vote was overturned. A divided America would be fractured. And just where the fracture lines would fall – who can say?

Good material. But my blog was too wordy, and not punchy enough.

I put it to one side, and listened instead to The Economist editors’ online review of 2020, for subscribers to the magazine. Covid and the way it was reported, competence and otherwise in the way it was handled, the implications for globalism, and supply chains, and future growth. The way the editors’ puzzle over the stories of now, and what could be the stories of the future.  The increased role of the state, something that’s likely to continue. Digital culture and changes in the workplace. The threat posed by China. The US election. Biden. The role of populism. The way the old generations have cornered resources – how underspending on infrastructure and housing and education have worked against the young. And, maybe above all, the importance of retaining and reinforcing our belief in classical English (NOT American!) liberalism – of open societies and free markets. The value of reasoned debate, and competence, and ‘remaking the social contact’, between the state and the people, and state and the market.  

Sometimes I wish The Economist would reach down and get its hands dirty a little more. Be more open to alternative economic models. Speak with more passion. But it does what it does with supreme competence, and I wouldn’t have it, with so much fakery around, any other way.

After that – my Trump blog was binned. Poor fare by comparison.

But my day wasn’t over. I’d volunteered to write up the report on our local history society’s evening meeting – Zoom of course. The subject was the Stroud workhouse, and the speaker a local Labour councillor who’d down some excellent research. Stroud, if you don’t know it, is an old industrial area, focused around the woollen industry, with a long and remarkable history. It’s tucked away in the steep valleys of the western Cotswolds. I’ve lived here now for three years.

Workhouses took over from earlier forms of parish relief following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Having to seek relief became a badge of shame. Couples and families were separated. By the 1930s workhouses had become more or less infirmaries – for the aged and infirm. The Stroud workhouse closed in 1940 and its remaining residents were shipped off to any corner of the Cotswolds that would have them.

I thought of our own times, how Covid has had knock-on effects across all areas of medicine and social care. The backlog of hip operations could take three years to clear. Resources had to be directed elsewhere in World War Two, just as they are now. 1948 finally pulled the curtain down on the old Poor Law, with the establishment of the modern welfare state and the NHS.

What will the post-Covid years bring?   

Time for a late night whisky – Benromach – a birthday present from my son.

Time to reflect.

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.

See how this works out in what follows.

Henry Kissinger, back in the 1970s Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, and a prolific writer on political matters, identified what he called ‘the conservative dilemma’. Christopher Clark, in a review of the 19th century statesman, Count Metternich, is my source for the following:

‘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.

Consider now this agonised passage from 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.

Serial incompetence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ah ’opes tha drops down de’ad’

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

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

‘Yes,’ Cardus replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Let’s see where they take us.   

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zen and democracy

How might Zen, and Zen practice, connect with democracy? 

Let Zen be clarity, clear-thinking. That space, in Zen terms, that original space, before thoughts crowd in, and one thought leads to another, and back, and tangentially to others. We lose track, surrender judgement, make easy moral judgements, and take the short cuts that characterise a cynical mind. Hamlet had it right: ‘… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

Zen, and Buddhism more widely, puts other people on a par with self. Recognises compassion as our pre-eminent instinct. And once you escape self, and all the anxieties that attach, something akin to joy is revealed as innate. Not a manic or euphoric joy. Not a high, which presupposes a low to follow. You don’t have to badger yourself into being positive. It comes naturally

It’s Sunday morning. So let the sermon end here.

How might Zen connect with politics? Must it be political? First and foremost, Zen is democratic. It consults the interests of everyone. Democracy so defined is not the least-worst form of government, but as near to a miracle as you can get. And it is our ultimate challenge. How can we build out from family and locality, where we meet and consult and agree (that of course is a challenge in itself!), to national and international platforms? That will always be our challenge, renewed with every generation, with no neat Social Darwinian conclusion. No paradise, no for-all-time solution, awaits us. But it takes out our biggest enemies – the cynical mind and the lazy mind.

They are not always easy to spot. Julian Fellowes, who we all love as a conjuror of a romanticised past (and I’ll be watching Belgravia tonight), had a rant recently about how ‘the BBC, the National Theatre, the National Trust … have all been speaking with one voice. They are the left-of-centre metropolitan elite.’ ‘A kind of Hampstead voice.’

So easily does good sense get dismissed. But he claims not to take sides in these social battles. ‘I just watch people behave and how they respond… enjoy watching … human situations play out’. So, it seems, our lot takes sides, and they don’t. What depresses me is that Fellowes is a Tory peer. We need Tory politicians of the old school, who engage with ideas. Fellowes too casually allows the new-wave of doctrinaire small-state Tories take over the field. (One of the things that impressed me reading Peter Hennessy’s Never Again, about the early 1960s, is the way Harold Macmillan engaged with issues, and brought to bear the kind of intellect so obviously lacking now.)

Small state – that takes me back to my last post. We’ve a new Labour leader, with commitments to re-nationalising. He may or may not be right. Hard-core free-market economics, notionally ‘rational’ markets, matched against the beneficent hand of the state, which may, or may not, be the slippery slope which Friedrich Hayek warned against in The Road to Serfdom. It may just be that the way forward is that accursed ‘Hampstead’ weighing of arguments, seeking out a middle ground, which allows the wisest decisions – whereby, maybe, we re-nationalise railways, or in some way ‘re-involve’ the state, and subsidise the Royal Mail, but allow public utilities to stay private, under closer supervision. Or more or less, or all or none, of the above.

Big state, or small state. Both are predicated on dominant leadership. Which isn’t the same as strong leadership, which every democracy needs. British democracy is accountable democracy. That’s why it has inspired the world. I read an interesting article (Hal Foster, London Review of Books) recently about Albert Jarry’s wild and subversive play, Ubu Roi. Forgive the Freudian references. I liked it because it took me close to the dangers a cult of the leader can pose for democracy.

Ubu is ‘a travesty of sovereignty… both father and baby, both sovereign and beast; he represents the authoritarian leader as monster infant…akin to the “primal father”, the almighty patriarch who is shame-free to boot … we submit to the leader as authority and envy him as outlaw. Trump is one part Pere Ubu, one part primal father; so are Duterte, Bolsonaro, Putin…’  I’d add Xi Jinping. Boris needs to be wary he doesn’t head down the same path.

Mention of Boris reminds me of his alter ego, Dom Cummings. I’m a believer in disruption. Climate change, conservation of natural habitats and water supply, farming methods, demographics, all need radical and change-making thinking. Such matters are secondary for Cummings. He loves disruption for its own sake, and imagines he has answers where no-one else does. Pride and presupposition are dangerous attributes. Backed by big money and a loud-mouthed media they can turn a democracy. And vested interests then seek to ensure the turning is entrenched, and becomes a new normal.

And finally – the virus. How do you deal with pandemics? We were, arguably, too slow to respond in this country, and thousands of unnecessary deaths may be the consequence of that. The decisions government made were ‘science-based’. But other nations have interpreted the ‘science’ differently and acted more quickly. How much did politics influence the science? Did an instinct natural to this government cause it to delay intervention, ‘with the idea (quoting David Runciman) that hasty government intervention is often counter-productive’. This may, or may not, make for an interesting, and important, discussion in future.

Over the pond we have Trump, worried that damage to the economy could damage his re-election chances. Democratic governors are being pilloried as too cautious. In this country there is a high degree of unanimity about putting public health first. In the USA the virus has become just another part of the Great Divide.

If I wanted to cheer myself up writing this – cheer you up – I’ve failed. Democracy isn’t an easy path. And you can’t simply turn over a stone and find joy bubbling away underneath. But putting the other guy first,  looking for the common ground rather than pandering to someone’s personal ambition – they are useful starting-points.

When the world re-opens

‘When the world does re-open, there will be some big surprises,’ is how I ended my last post. Will we, in this country, be surprised? Or will it be more of the same?

We have deserted city centres. We’re keeping our distance. At the same time we’re coming together. The post-Brexit agenda has been sidelined. Will it, I wonder, resume in the same way? The same desire to separate from countries close at hand and do deals with distant countries in a world which will be even more cautious, looking closer to home, than in recent times?

Go global, with all the risks that involves? Talk up trade with China, and India. Anywhere that isn’t close at hand. Give way to US demands even if they run counter to popular sentiment. Talk down our neighbours. Build barriers, where we least need them.

What is new is the proposed big spend on infrastructure, as outlined in Rishi Sunak’s first budget this month.

It’s probably a fond hope but it just might be that the new focus on community would encourage the government to rein in the current obsession with infrastructure for its own sake in favour of a more considered approach. Who would have imagined a few months ago the Tories switching so abruptly to a big state agenda? Philip Hammond, where are you now?

Manchester and Leeds are big beneficiaries. Liverpool and Hull miss out. Likewise the peripheral towns and villages which haven’t the glamour of the big cities. The focus needs to be more on the detail, less on the big gestures which catch headlines. By that I mean (re)establishing a strong industrial base. Guaranteeing good local communications. A focus on effective local government, and investment focused around local funds going into local enterprises.  Tempering capitalism with common sense. See my comments on Preston below.

Corbin is now claiming the Tories have stolen Labour’s clothes. Labour talked about a people’s quantitative easing. As a strategy that was scorned. The government’s focus on debt is more or less the same thing, and yet the Tory press are silent. (Labour and the Conservatives have of course different ideas on where investment should go, and I’m not attempting to review Labour’s plans here. And they are indeed already history.)

What the Tories haven’t stolen of course is Labour’s social agenda. The NHS may be getting more spending, but there’s no sign of any sympathy for, let alone action on, reversing the appalling impact of austerity on the less privileged in society.

As for how the right-wing justify their volte-face there’s an amusing quote from Jesse Norman, author of an excellent biography of Edmund Burke, linking big sending and Brexit. Tories love to call on Burke to justify their actions. It’s akin to American Supreme Court justices with their strict interpretations of the constitution. Trying to apply 18th century notions to the present day is fraught with dangers. All it does is make Norman look foolish.

‘It’s a Burkean understanding that the nation is a moral idea: a group of people bound together by a moral affinity. It’s that legitimating sense of self that underwrites a nation’s capacity to tax.’ (The Economist, 21st March)

The one thing we don’t have is ‘a group of people bound together by a moral affinity’. Not that I’ve noticed.

There’s talk of renationalising the railways, with franchisees find themselves running out of cash as people work from home and radically cut down on travel.

Also part of the big state are attacks on the BBC and the judiciary, for supposed over-reach. Borrowing this time from the European far right. And at the behest of Dom Cummings.

Reducing immigration: another big state intervention. It assumes that UK-born care workers and workers in the hospitality sector will emerge from the woodwork, just because the government wills it. We’ve also had nonsense arguments about robots. Germany has x3 more robots than we have, South Korea x10. Immigration it seems is to blame. Businesses are deferring investment in robots because immigrants are an easier and cheaper option. This is an argument of convenience, without any semblance of truth as far as I’m aware. But it sounds plausible.

Also within Priti Patel’s remit, a bigger prison population is also part of a bigger state. Money which would better go on community work and rehabilitation is wasted on building new prisons.

Preston, the Preston experiment, highlights the government’s obsessions, and illustrates how opposed they are to genuine communitarian politics.

Preston has over the last few years encouraged ‘anchor institutions’ (councils, hospitals, colleges and the like) with big budgets to use local suppliers. To spend locally. That might seem to fit well with a post-virus localist mentality. But likely to be welcomed by the government? No way.

Johnson on Preston: ‘I am sure they are an estimable bunch but Preston Council are not the locomotives of the economy. We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector that can pay for superb local services.’

Put simply, all Tory talk of big infrastructure spend will be as nothing unless local people, local councils, local businesses are empowered. Preston is not operating a socialist state. But it is seeking to ensure that local investment and expansion doesn’t come from handouts but from local engagement, and self-belief at a local level.

Markets for the government are the ultimate arbiter. Creative destruction the watchword. I’m not arguing against creative destruction per se. Businesses rise and businesses fall. But it pays no heed to community. And what we do not want is a disempowered and disaffected community.

One great lesson of politics, maybe the great lesson, disregarded by politicians, and the current crowd are a worse-case scenario, is that you rarely get what you want. Big spending is high risk, and high risk rarely delivers. Remember, amongst others, two previous chancellors, Reggie Maudling and Anthony Barber, and their ‘rushes for growth’.

However great the crisis we have to be thinking beyond. The big issues won’t go away. But it may be the crisis will lead to a better understanding. So may a new Labour leadership better equipped to challenge the government. We shall see.