The British press – a view from the Netherlands

I’m not claiming what follows is original in anyway. I’m quoting extensively from an article in the November edition of Prospect by a Dutch writer and journalist, Joris Luyendjik.

He writes with real insight on Britain in Europe, or Britain out of it, but it’s his comments on the British press that strike home. It’s what many of us in the UK think, but too few dare to say. If we do, we invite confrontation, and too many of us are too nice and too polite, and the press ride roughshod.

He and his family came to live in London ‘as fellow Europeans, but when we left this summer to return to the Netherlands we felt more like foreigners: people tolerated as long as they behave. At best we were “European Union nationals” whose rights would be subject to negotiations—bargaining chips in the eyes of politicians.’

He quotes a working-class mother, the day after the referendum:

‘She had used the referendum to try to smash that expensive middle-class toy called the EU and it had worked. At last, for the first time in decades, those who felt like life’s losers openly defied the winners, and carried an election. Now her country would have £350m a week to spend on the number one worry for people like her: the NHS…’

He continues:

‘…that scene on the morning after the referendum encapsulates my disappointment with the country. Not only the division, but also the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about “foreign judges” and the need to “take back control” when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?

Before coming to Britain I had always thought that the tabloids were like a misanthropic counterpoint to Monty Python. Like many Europeans, I saw these newspapers as a kind of English folklore, laying it on thick in the way that theatrical British politicians conduct their debates in the House of Commons. Newspapers in the Netherlands would carry on their opinion pages articles by commentators such as Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash—giving the impression that such voices represented the mainstream in Britain. Watching QI before coming to the UK, I remember seeing Stephen Fry banter with Jeremy Clarkson and imagining the former was the rule, and the latter the exception. Living in London taught me that it is the other way around. George Orwell is still correct: England is a family with the wrong members in charge….

Until the tabloids are reformed and freed from editorial interference by their plutocratic owners, the rageful misunderstanding that I saw in the school playground will not go away. Tabloid readers will sometimes see through the bias on particular issues and against particular people, as many did when they voted for the demonised Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in June. But when it comes to Europe and the world beyond, the campaign of chauvinism has been so unremitting, over so many decades, that it is much harder to resist. And as things stand, the journalists at those publications could never come out and admit that they have misjudged Brexit—that would mean not only losing face, but very likely losing their job. Indeed, where is the investigative reporting about the exact quid pro quo when Rupert Murdoch or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre come out in support of, say, Theresa May? Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.’

It’s worth repeating that last line:

‘Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.’

Luyendijk also brings our entrenched inequalities into his argument, our class system, along with our adversarial culture (true of many, but not of all), our superiority complex… You don’t have to agree with everything he says – though there’s substance to his arguments.

But on the British press, he’s spot on.

The fantasies of free trade

Walking and swimming, conjuring turtles (see my last post) and building castles… since the Brexit vote politics have been more a burden, less a pleasure – how we (as country and individuals) might hold on to our sanity while others attempt to build castles in the air.

Brexit has many castles, most of them air-borne, from the immigrant threat to free trade. Closing down on one, on the free movement of labour, runs directly counter to a fully libertarian approach to free trade – if this was a board game, or a novel, I’d want to see how it all worked out. As political reality, I hope not to.

Focusing on free trade, last week we had ‘From Project fear to Project Prosperity’, a report from the free-trading supply-siders ‘Economists for Free Trade’, chaired by one-time Thatcher adviser, Patrick Minford. Matt Ridley in The Times (21st August) pours praise upon them. We hear the old shibboleth, ‘Fortress Europe’, curiously used to describe 28 countries which have taken down the barriers and practise the four freedoms – goods, capital, services, and labour. Ridley argues that ‘external barriers are pure self-harm’, and you’d have thought that he’d take the EU as a shining example. Instead he focuses on the tariffs the EU imposes on non-EU countries – apparently the tariff on unicycles is 15%. What he totally and wilfully fails to recognise is that free trade isn’t a level playing-field, but self-interested countries seeking common ground on which they can co-operate – not for another’s interest, but for their own. We hear from Brexiters about countries keen to reach trade agreements with the UK – but on whose terms? On ours, on the UK’s?

Garvan Walshe on the Conservative Home website is helpful on the subject. (There is an awful lot of sanity still left in the Tory party – but the sane too often these days are the quiet and the cautious.) In trade between countries, ‘the distance relationship is paramount’.

The effect of that decision [the referendum]  is to forego [the EU’s] economic benefits, and they can’t be replaced by shallower trade agreements with other countries, because they are too far away. And while there could, as Minford suggests, be economic gains from deregulation, they won’t happen while Britain´s politics is moving leftwards … Far from bringing benefits through other trade deals, leaving the EU erects an enormous trade barrier with the rest of our continent. Economists for Brexit should have renamed themselves Economists for Protectionism.

Back to Matt Ridley: ‘…after Brexit, Britain should try unilateral free trade, no matter what everybody else does’. This would Economists for Free Trade argue benefit the British economy by as much as £135 billion a year. (Compare the NIESR – leaving would cut our total world trade by a quarter.) The Minford report assumes that we’d reach an agreement with the EU broadly comparable to what we have now, and a level of de-regulation which simply won’t, and shouldn’t, happen in the current climate.

Ridley is also guilty of a selective use of history, an old bete noire of mine. He quotes Sir Robert Peel in the 1846 Corn Law debate – ‘we should cease haggling with foreign countries about reciprocal concessions’. He argues that ‘the closer countries get to free trade, the more they thrive’ – and quotes Britain in the period 1846-80, and Hong Kong and Singapore today. In all three cases the circumstances are radically different – Britain in a period after 1846 when we could dictate the terms of world trade, and two city-states (treating Hong Kong a city state) operating as low-tariff entrepots.

Ridley also attempts a distinction between the Roman civil law ‘prescriptive, rules-based system’, and a ‘better’ common law (and distinctively English to his mind) approach, ‘which is principles-based, outcome-focused, consumer-friendly’. He continues: ‘Because of our history and the nature of our economy Britain can be an effective champion of this challenge.’

The risk is all ours.

We are back, happily for my argument, to ‘castles in the air’. There is no hard evidence that ‘free trade works’, no hard evidence that supply-side economics will deliver any of the benefits (above all increased tax revenues on higher output, and collective benefits deriving therefrom) it claims.

And finally… Adam Smith. Ridley tries to corral him into the Leave camp: ‘As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.’

‘…describing the European Union in advance…’ – this is populist and emotive junk.

The founders of the Adam Smith Institute don’t do much better: ‘We both take the view that the UK now has the chance to trade freely with the rest of the world, since it will no longer be locked inside a protectionist bloc of diminishing economic and political significance.’

The EU isn’t doing too badly at the moment, and it carries political clout – the ‘diminishing economic and political influence’ will all be ours if Brexiters have their way.

Taking time out

Time for taking time out from writing this blog. If I put that down, in writing, then maybe I won’t renege on it.

And why take time out?

Politically we’ve reached another point of stasis. Theresa May is calling for cross-party cooperation which she doesn’t deserve for a nano-second, and won’t get. Corbyn has amazingly a significant lead in the opinion polls. Brexit is anyone’s guess. Which way will the worm (yes, worm) turn?

When I started this blog I’d hoped to bring in a little bit of humour from time to time. Politics could be fun as well. But that seems like another age. That’s another reason for taking a breather.

A third reason, and maybe the best – summer holidays are upon us.

And, as for me – I’m about to move house, to a wild corner of Gloucestershire, where Labour ousted the Tories last month. There’s a canal, and steep hills, streams cut deep, and a hundred years ago Laurie Lee was growing up in the Slad valley maybe two miles away. If I write over the coming months it will be of birds, bees and flowers (we shall see!), and sunrises, or the Cornish coast path, if I escape that way. Any discussion of politics is out.

There was a R4 discussion (one final comment!) this morning about critical thinking. They referred to the fact that rolling news can be the enemy of critical thought but couldn’t understand why one young person preferred not to listen. Not listening or watching is the answer. Don’t get wrapped up in the big roll.  Find other ways to access news – take it in at your own pace, with time to assimilate.

That’s what I will do over the summer. It’s what I do already.

When I can, when furniture and books are unpacked, I will chill out. Walk the hills, or run, or get myself a small boat and a paddle, or a motor, and row or chug down the canal. That would be a good summer.

 

Out on the right wing

Reading the press in recent days I’m struck by how out-of-touch the old-style Tory commentators are. They influence, and reflect, opinion. It’s a closed circle. They have long been part of the problem.

There are other closed circles of course, more than ever within social media, as we build up our friends and followers, creating and extending groups of the like-minded. Not of itself a bad thing of course. But many on the left don’t have, and don’t wish to have, an understanding of the business world.

Back to the Tories …

Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph talks about giving the young more of a stake in the free-market system: he suggests building more affordable houses, and giving away shares.

What’s missing is any sense of the social divide, social justice, the importance of inclusion and opportunity, the focus on individual human rights. Corbyn voters to Lynn’s mind need to be weaned away from the hard left, but arguing about the benefits of the free-market system is not going to get him there.

Affordable homes aren’t some kind of panacea. They have to be part of a wider social action agenda.

Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph, an old blinkered warhorse of the right, thinks the ‘public’ are in the mood for idealism, and looking for a bit of passion in their politics. ‘The spirit of Michael Foot has returned.’  The Tories she thinks have made little effort to combat ’old-fashioned state-socialist’ arguments, ‘perhaps because they think the arguments are self-evident’ – they need to explain how higher corporation tax would kill job growth, hurt the people Labour wants to help – the right must make a moral case.

The realities are rather different.

The young, people in their 30s, the millennials, haven’t suddenly seized on idealism and state socialism.  Idealism is an essential part of growing up, and losing it is, I’d argue, the worse thing about growing old. Patronising arguments about corporation tax aren’t going to butter any left-of-centre parsnips. (Labour proposes an increase to 26% – it was 28% in 2010, lower than many European countries, much higher than Ireland, at 10%. The extent corporation tax is linked to ‘killing’ job growth is not a question I’m competent to address. Nor I suspect is Janet Daley. But see teh current Economist -which suggests the jury is out on whether cutting corporation tax makes any significant difference.)

That said, I’m very wary of where Corbyn might take us should he suddenly find himself with untrammelled power. Many Corbyn supporters have a negative view of business, and that can easily slide into a form of ‘state socialism’, a pejorative term for many, but not for Corbyn or John Mcdonnell.

Again, back to the Tories….

There are wiser voices on the Tory side, and Tim Montgomerie (of Conservative Home), writing in the Evening Standard, I thought would be one. (Not least becasue he’s writing in London’s newspaper – it would have served him better to remember his audience isn’t made up of diehard Tories.)

Montgomerie also belatedly into building more homes in the south – and infrastructure up north. His main concerns are finding a new leader as soon as possible, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit.  (Note the way he equates the two.) And his reasoning: ‘With both established there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn.’ The argument it seems is how best to stop Jeremy Corbyn. Building houses might just do that. As a device – not out of a passion for social welfare. I’ll leave aside the idiocy of devoting energies to Brexit. If you want to connect to the young, Tim, get Brexit out of your system.

All three, Lynn, Daley, Montgomerie, need to spend more time on the front line. They are talking party politics, maybe understandbly given the current crisis in their party. But they won’t gain any friends in the wider world that way.

Above all, they need to engage, and Montgomerie did at least mention this, with social renewal. The big argument now and for the future is how to balance social justice and enterprise, the one interacting with the other. Yes, it’s the old liberal, the old social democratic argument. Not of the London dinner party kind, but the everyday kind – social action, commitment, linking enterprise and wider social needs.

Take a look at the new apartments sprouting up in Vauxhall, south of the Thames, built to the highest specifications, priced far out of reach of local people. They are a powerful example of where we’ve gone wrong.

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!

Beware converts

(reference article by David Goodhart in the FT Weekend, 18th March 2017)

Beware converts. Or better, conversions. People who change sides, as Ronald Reagan did, and I remember the one-time New Stateman editor turned right-wing commentator, Paul Johnson. And didn’t Melanie Phillips, she of the vitriol and the non-sequitur, once write for the Guardian? To switch abruptly suggests an over-simplification of argument, you switch from believer to atheist, you’ve seen the light, you’re St Paul on the road to Damascus.

The most important corrective is always to see the other side, to take it, argue it, from time to time. You don’t have to be a racist to argue in favour of restrictions on immigration, or an inveterate woman-hater to argue against abortion. Passions run deep in life and politics, especially when you’re young, and if you’re not passionate in your 20s then you ought to be. But if we’re looking to educate young people in citizenship, let’s also make that civility, and more than civility, empathy, and more than empathy, tucking yourself inside the other’s shell from time to time.

Why am I writing this? There’s a fine political commentator, David Goodhart, founder of one of my favourite magazines, Prospect, and he’s just published a book entitled ‘The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics’. He divides the population very broadly into ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’.  Anywheres are more mobile, usually university-educated, they have ‘high human capital, [they] will thrive in open, competitive systems and only be held back by prejudice or protectionism’. Freedom of movement, membership of the EU, will have obvious advantages. Somewheres are ‘more rooted, generally less well-educated… and prioritise attachment and security’.

It’s a helpful distinction. A typical urban community is disparate, and local communication minimal. A suburban or small-town or village community is more likely to be a community – to be more homogeneous, localised – and people talk to neighbours, meet up at sport clubs and the like.

So where’s my gripe with Goodhart? He wrote an essay back in 2004 about the tension between diversity and solidarity, he thought it uncontroversial, but he ‘met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time’. He was even accused of racism. (I’ve my own experience of this left-leaning mentality.) Goodhart now claims to have left the tribe – but he then describes it as ‘the liberal tribe that had been my home for 25 years’. [My italics.]

I’m a liberal, four square, and first and foremost I don’t accept I’m of the left, modern or otherwise.  Nor the right. Nor the ‘centre’, wherever that might be. I’ve long argued for compassion, caring (shared but interpreted differently by left and right) and community. As well as initiative and enterprise. ‘Big society’ ideas left me cold because they were top-down, and community is instinctive, bottom-up. (The downside of London life is the isolation. The upside of village life can be – well, is – almost too much community.)

(The ‘liberal left’ is a popular term. It’s where many people stand politically. But ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ are distinct terms, distinct political placements. And elements of the press love to emphasise the ‘left’, so ‘liberal’ gets pulled off-centre, and damned for being something that it isn’t.)

Goodhart also has this throw-away comment: ‘Ask English people at a middle-class London dinner-party whether they are proud of their country and they will get bluster and embarrassment.’ Maybe his dinner parties, not mine – and don’t rely on dinner-parties for your straw poll!

He sees himself as a centrist, open to ideas from left and right: ‘Indeed I am now post-liberal and proud.’ I’d argue that he’s now achieved liberal status for the first time, having shed old allegiances. He accuses liberalism of an over-reach that produced the Brexit and Trump backlashes. That I think is too easy, too cheap, and a touch cowardly. We’re back to being a convert, taking sides.

Goodhart is taking a risk by pigeon-holing and denigrating liberalism, arguing for a more woolly, inchoate alternative, where people fall back on the instinctive protectiveness of tribes, whether some- or any-where. It’s left liberalism that’s his target, but he’s risking bringing down a wider liberal mindset at the same time.

Liberals, in their Liberal Democrat guise, within and especially away from the big city have a strong community emphasis. That’s why pre-Coalition they were so successful as a local level – and increasingly are now.

Curiously it’s where I think Goodhart is headed. It isn’t a retreat from liberalism, it’s an avowal of all that’s best about it, and he doesn’t need to be throwing sops to the harder elements of the right-wing, which is what I fear he’s been doing.

Abandoning your ‘tribe’ carries big risks. You can easily get tainted by another.

The sleep of reason (2) – Goya

I mentioned ‘the sleep of reason’ in my last post. I had in mind Goya’s Los Caprichos print series, and specifically plate 43, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’. Owls gather above the sleeping artist’s head, no owlish wisdom here, just confusion, compounded by bats swarming behind – the owls lit, the bats unlit, and below two cat-like creatures look out, lynxes maybe, one directly at us, black and ominous, drawing us in.

By 1799 when Goya published Los Caprichos the high hopes of the Enlightenment had faded – his time maybe not too similar to our own.

Sleep of reason

Goya is clear that we cannot live by reason alone. ‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

We have in recent times been short-changed on both. Imagination looking back not forward, reason pilloried as ‘expertise’. And for many us, for the first time in our lives, we feel the tide of human improvement, I won’t say progress, is running against us.

Can music help? Leonard Cohen’s words from his song, Anthem, have helped me. (I love singing it!) Simply the idea that there’s a crack, however formidable the surface textures might seem just now, there is a crack. A crack in everything.

Rings the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Applies to the whole Brexit edifice. And the Trumpian. We haven’t come so far that we could now go back. Surely not.

I see that the artist Sarah Gillespie has made ‘the crack in everything’ the title of a painting. Maybe I’ll make it the title of a poem.

And another artist, Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in the RA Magazine: ‘ …this amorphous, right-wing, nationalist sentiment … has become the central issue of world politics …how, as a sort of avant-garde artist, do you engage with the number one political subject?’

How does an artist respond? Or a writer? A musician?

Propaganda has its place, but propaganda and art are not easy bedfellows. Caricature if it points up absurdity, gross behaviour and the like has a powerful role to play. But not if it only appeals to the already converted. In the hands of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray caricature becomes an artform in itself. But we must tread carefully.

What we can’t do, in our anger or frustration, is allow ourselves to abandon reason, to let reason sleep awhile.

‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’