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.

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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Sunny days and coronavirus

We know that March can have wonderful days. Not this year, we thought. We were wrong. The wind is south-easterly, the sky a deeper blue than we Brits are used to, and the sun is warm, even hot by day, and the nights are chill. Floods are receding, the mud which clogs our field paths is drying out. Should we be exultant? The clocks will change this weekend…

If only. This is crisis time. Coronavirus has invaded all our lives. A time to be anxious, to worry about relatives and friends. If not ourselves. We’ve a wartime, a bunker mentality. We can’t get together to chat by conventional means, so we find new ways.

All those political disagreements, the scars of four years of Brexit enmity, are put aside because we all of us have a bigger, shared agenda.

That may sound positive. But the real world is bleak  For health workers, care workers, anyone travelling by public transport, for people working when they don’t want to, living in towns or cities, built-up areas, blocks of flats, for people who’ve lost their jobs, or the self-employed, people without work or income, relying on promises from government.

Testing kits, ventilators, masks? We haven’t had, and still don’t have, the equipment. Anti-viral kits – available when?

The real statistics – how much worse are the real statistics, with so many untested?

What of the US? Trump believes the tide could be turned, restrictions lifted, by Easter. But New York is battening down. Has Italy peaked? Check the number of deaths there as a percentage of cases. So much higher than anywhere other than Spain. Spain now has more deaths recorded than China.

Reading through the data it is evident that different countries have radically different testing regimes. In the U.K., what about care homes? They aren’t testing their residents – there simply isn’t the equipment.

The available data suggest that France and Germany have far more cases, France twice as many, Germany three times as many, as the U.K. But France has forty deaths per one million population, the U.K. eighteen – and Germany only six. That suggests far more testing in Germany, and a realistic death rate, and far less testing in the U.K., which is indeed the reality. We have far more cases than the available figures suggest.

(The demographics are helpful in contrasting the U.K. and Italy and Spain. In 2018 just 16% of (British) 25-34 year olds lived with their parents, compared with 44% of Spaniards and 49% of Italians.’ (The Economist))

India with only a small number of cases, that is, reported cases, has gone into lockdown. What indeed, would be the implications for a country as open and chaotic as India if the virus took hold? An early lockdown of 1.3 billion makes sense.

Coronavirus has scale. It has entered into very corner of our lives and, it seems, into every corner of the world. We are reminded, as maybe never before, that we are one world, one humanity, open to the same diseases, and with the same capacity for coming together in a crisis.

I try to keep up with wider news. Bennie Gantz being asked to form a government in Israel, though today’s news is that he will serve in a unity government under Netanyahu. The end of Netanyahu?The reining in of settlements? Not yet.

Joe Biden looks odds-on to be the Democratic candidate for president. The opponent Trump didn’t want. And backed by a Bloomberg billion or two. Trump has a remarkable ability to dictate agendas. It may be harder now. Especially if coronavirus heads west and south from New York across the USA.

And what of the USA and China, with their spat over the origins of the virus, and the impact it’s already had by way of expulsion of high-level American journalists from China.

But as for other news, you may search, but you will not find.

When the world does re-open, there will be some big surprises.

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.

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.