A not-so-warm welcome for our new PM

As we change prime ministers, a few thoughts.

Let’s start with integrity. Journalists at the self-described ‘right leaning’ GB News weren’t like the BBC, ‘because at least they got their facts right’. This was Liz Truss a few weeks ago. A throwaway line from one of the candidates in the Tory leadership debate. No more than that? Or Truss, in pursuit of Tory member votes, peddling a ‘fake news’ agenda.

Emily Maitlis just now setting up her own podcast with Jon Sopel is good on the subject. Politics she argues has changed fundamentally and journalism and broadcasting haven’t caught up. ‘We haven’t realised that when people say fake news they are trying to disorientate you and demean your work, so they can ignore any scrutiny you put them under.’

I jib at calling the new incumbent ’our PM’, just as I did with Johnson. Playing the ‘fake news’ game is, let’s not beat about the bush, pretty base. Not that she would understand for a moment the deeper implications of what she said. She’s doing no more than her predecessor did during the Brexit debate. Plus ca change…

Another cheap line from Truss: the jury is out on whether ‘Mr Macron is Britain’s friend or foe’. A quote from the poet Ian Duhig’s ‘Fauvel’s Prologue’ applies:

‘De Gaulle would snigger; he well knew
The tactic of imperialist Brits
Who ruled by inculcating splits.’

Tories of the current dominant persuasion have this preference for enmity over amity, for two fingers rather than a handshake.

Facts are one thing. What about opinion? Maitlis is also good in this subject. The BBC back in Brexit time tried to balance argument. But their notions of balance were politicised.

‘Balance is a word we always used at the BBC but balance is complicated. If it takes me five minutes to find ten economists who think Brexit is a terrible idea, and five hours to find an economist who says it will be absolutely brilliant, then having one of each side isn’t balanced.’

The Daily Telegraph carried an interview a few days ago with someone who might claim to be ‘the one economist’. (Though to be fair there are a few hanging out at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange and the Adam Smith Institute – low-tax ‘free-traders’ all.) I’m thinking of Patrick Minford, one-time advisor to Thatcher. He rails against the Treasury’s short-term rules ‘in which borrowing mustn’t happen’.

But with massive support about to be announced for energy bills, £100m or more, and built-in increases in health and social care expenditure, and defence, and other areas, which will push borrowing to an even high level, maybe unsustainable as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has warned – how and where do we cut?

Borrowing as a proportion of national debt was 41% in 2007 and 74% in 2010, and it’s 99% now. But Minford remains cool. ‘Solvency doesn’t mean we should be paying off debts tomorrow. It means a long-term strategy in which state spending is consistent with our tax revenues…’ Minford argues for the importance of infrastructure, health and education, ‘but ‘state spending has to be controlled’.

‘The NHS has to be made more efficient.’ One good example. For Minford and far right opinion more generally this is an ancient mantra. And we can all agree. But they see it in market terms. The competition-led Lansley reforms under Cameron were a miserable failure. So where now for ‘efficiency’. The focus should have been then and must be now on the better integration of health and social care. What chance Truss?

A recent Telegraph leader laid into Matthew Taylor, CEO of the NHS Confederation, for highlighting the impact of the energy crisis on the NHS. Focus on reform and leave the energy crisis to others was the deeply unhelpful conclusion.

Taylor, policy advisor to Tony Blair, author of a key report for Theresa May on employment practices, and for fifteen years chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, is one of the people to get behind to help reform the NHS, someone with a skill set and experience way ahead of anything the government, or a Telegraph leader writer, could offer.

Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank, reminds us of the wider context. ‘Public spending that yields clear economic and social returns, including spending on the welfare state, enhances the performance of the economy, but beyond a certain point the cost is greater than the return and government spending begins to crowd out private sector economic activity and the tax base that public spending depends on.’

It’s an old-as-the-hills mantra. ‘Crowding out the private sector.’ And it might have applied in the days of mass nationalisation. But the state these days works, and has to work, in different and much more productive ways – working with the private sector.

Ultimately, we’re back to the old small-state low-tax trickle down shibboleths. Free traders argue that recent Tory governments pushed up taxes and obsessed about borrowing. The wrong targets they think. They argue for a diametrically opposite approach. At the same time they miss altogether the real focus, which has to include maximising opportunities in markets close to home – far more important than the Antipodes. Also, the Chinese aren’t a bunch of free traders. And the Americans have a vast internal market. We’re 70 million, and on our own. We need to get real.

Let’s see how the next year or two pan out. I think Truss and her team will find that they are radically disconnected from realities. Also, that they simple lack the ability to carry their policies through. They’ll jib at Civil Service resistance – from people who have to be cautious because they know the implications of foolishness.

They’ll also increasingly divorce themselves from the levelling-up cohort within the party. To argue that levelling up has to come from improved economic performance will not cut the mustard. The regions have been promised some evidence of jam now, or in the foreseeable, and they won’t get it.

Truss is also on record as saying that people outside London don’t work hard enough and, going back to a book she co-authored in 2012, that British workers as among the ‘worst idlers in the world’. ‘If you go to China it’s quite different. There’s a fundamental issue of British working culture.’ Yes, we are falling short compared to our neighbours on measures of both growth and productivity. I’d agree absolutely we need a more entrepreneurial spirit in this country. But blame the workers??

From all I’ve seen I have to conclude that Truss is simply unqualified for the job, a woman lacking the experience and the ability, and connection with realities, that we have a right to expect from our prime ministers. The same applies to her cabinet, a right-wing rump which has self-excluded the wisest and brightest in the wider party.

Do I (and so many others with me) misjudge? Time will tell. But I thought I’d put marker down, against which I can judge her in future time.

The Tory leadership debacle

How can we best create a compassionate and enterprising society, that functions for the benefit of all? That, surely, is a question we could all agree on as a reasonable starting point.

But not the Tory leadership candidates. All they talk about is a smaller state, alongside low taxes and their assumed natural concomitant, high growth. Compare Denmark, Sweden and Finland: all outperform the UK despite higher levels of taxation. And check out the Legatum Prosperity Index, with its wide-ranging criteria: the northern European countries come top, and we are thirteenth.

Only one candidate seems to recognise that there is a big price to pay for tax cuts. In an inflationary environment any stimulus, in the form of lower taxes, is more likely to lead to higher prices than higher incomes. Inflation pushes up interest rates… We have a growth crisis, that’s where we should be focused, and at its core is our low productivity, historically, and compared to other countries.

[‘Between 1995 and 2007 output per worker grew by around 2% a year, roughly matching the rate in the 25 richest members of the OECD. But during the next 12 years that figure for Britain was a dismal 0.4%, compared with an average of 0.9% among the rest.’ The Economist]

Moving on. You’d have thought arguing for an education system which reaches down to all levels, which achieves that balance between science, technology and culture, not just maths and English, on which a successful civilised country has to base itself – you’d have thought that might get a look in. Has anyone mentioned education? (We’ve had six education secretaries in the last six years, the longest in post a mere two years. Any good ideas come from the Civil Service, not from government.)

One benighted candidate has argued for 20% cuts across the board. NHS? That would be operating expenditure. Nurses, doctors, technicians, cleaning staff…

Or we avoid cuts, but still cut taxes, and build up deficits in the same gung-ho way that’s now argued on the Republican side in the USA. Civil service: reduce by 20%. That’s existing policy. But remotely deliverable while retaining efficiency in government? This old notion that cuts somehow generate efficiency. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ as it’s described (unless it’s the increased numbers of civil servants required to handle Brexit, no longer needed now that the damage is done) is long gone.

Climate change and conservation. The most important issues of all last autumn…. now hardly mentioned. Levelling up: of minor concern to most Tory members, so sidelined. Income redistribution: leave that to ‘grumblers’ like Thomas Piketty.

That wonderful word, ‘cakeism’. Having your cake and eating it. Small state, low taxes, and economic nirvana.

Two rallying points, both highly contentious. Brexit and immigration. Brexit: a ‘done deal’, yet half the nation still against it. Though accepting that up to a point it’s ’irreversible’. (We have a minister still seeking out those mythical mini-beasts known as ‘Brexit opportunities’.) EU cooperation: for the birds, if you believe Liz Truss, our over-promoted foreign secretary. Immigration: appalling policy, and a brutal Rwanda ‘solution’.

Arrogance, cakeism, scandal, self-interest (who really cares about levelling up?). They should guarantee that the Tories will lose the next election, if Labour and the Lib Dems (the one up north, the other down south) don’t mess up.

(The Economist reminds me of that famous quote from the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus. ‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ We have to make very sure that we never inhabit the land of the blind, however much the right-wing press might seek to lead us there.)

Candidate selection procedures it seems automatically exclude the brighter, more socially committed, more hard-bitten real-world candidates. Would anyone of real ability want to put themselves forward? He or she, more likely than not, would have to deceive any selection panel should they have wider goals or a broader sense of our shared humanity – shared across all classes, all races, all countries.

So we’re back to that wider issue – our shared humanity. Who we are in the world. Not just as a nation, but individually. The financial crash, Brexit, Trump, Covid, Johnson. The old certainties challenged.

And now with Ukraine – under existential threat. Just 1,300 miles away.

Humility. A difficult concept for the Tory tight. A little would go a long way. We might then come up with serious answers as opposed to all this embarrassing braggadocio.

‘Avoid anyone with ideas’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A man without trust’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old order was already under terminal threat.

*

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

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

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

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

The Mandate of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Putin, Russia and the West’

The series ‘Putin, Russia and the West’, dusted down by the BBC, has been compulsive viewing over the last three weeks – the last episode was on Wednesday night. Made in 2012 it was highly controversial at the time. It was described by the UK-based Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky as ‘nothing less than a party political broadcast for Putin and his United Russia party’. An article in the Moscow Times suggested that the makers of the series viewed ‘Putin’s anti-democratic crusade [as] largely a legitimate reaction to the hostile policies of the West, especially the United States’.

It’s ten years on, and that’s not remotely how I’d describe the series.

The USA under George Bush does come over as being naive, and outwitted by Putin – in that first episode. (Bush argued that he had been able ‘to get a sense of Putin’s soul.’) The many interviews given by Russian government ministers were all very plausible. But they all fell then, and even more so now, into line behind the boss.

Episode two tells a different story– 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin is shown as being devious in the extreme, and still he lost out. Georgia, and its attempts in 2008 to reclaim the secessionist and pro-Russian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is the subject of the third episode. Russia held all the cards, Georgia could be wiped out militarily if it chose, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, was more than rash to take him on – however justified it might have seemed.

Honours even, maybe, up to that point. But if you watch nothing else – watch episode four. Medvedev is president, and new president Obama reaches out, and it’s all smiles and mutual understand. You get to like Medvedev. He signs a new START agreement with Obama. We have brinkmanship on both sides. But Medvedev signs.

He and Putin had, however, an agreement – one or other would be president after the next election in 2012, and Putin won their United Russia party over to his side. Medvedev’s attempts to open up Russia to the West, to Silicon valley, to Western-style media – all sidelined, ultimately crushed by Putin.

What is so galling – we, Russia and the West – we got so close.

By the end of episode four you know the die is cast. The invasion and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas came two years later. Now even the Russian Orthodox Church is arguing the cause of Mother Russia: ‘God’s truth’ is on Russia’s side.

A rapprochement with Russia would have been an example to the world, with very practical consequences in the case of Syria, and for China given the unholy alliance it has now forged with Russia. That said, how much it would have reduced the Western world’s obsession with its own self-interest is debatable. Many if not most of the world’s problems would be as they are now, albeit in a different form.

There is one overriding conclusion I’d draw, and that is the danger of ‘great men’, or ‘strongmen’, to use Gideon Rachman’s term in his new book, ‘The Age of the Strongmen’*. They can come to characterise a nation, as Putin is now attempting to characterise Russia. And we are tempted to judge the Russian people as we judge him.  When we make judgements, draw up sanctions and cut economic ties we need to keep this in mind. Why ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon if they are avowed opponents of the regime? Why stop playing Russian music?

Putin is Rachman’s archetype for the ‘strongman’. Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary all fit the bill. All maintain friendly relations with Putin. And Marine Le Pen?

Remember Dmitry Medvedev? My final image has to be of Medvedev, at a session immediately before the invasion of President Putin’s 30-member security council, of which he’s now deputy head, parroting his master’s insistence that Ukraine is a natural part of Russia. He looked strained, and his other recent pronouncements suggest a degree of brainwashing.

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

* ‘The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World’.

Reading the Telegraph

Buy a newspaper you don’t normally read ….

Last Monday (11th April) it was the Daily Telegraph. The headline of an article by Tim Stanley had caught my eye: ‘The French establishment is not fit for purpose.’ In this context it is the French ‘centre’, and Emmanuel Macron, he’s referring to.

That word ’establishment’ again. A club no-one owns to being a member of. Think … the MPs’ expenses scandal, think Brexit, think ‘us and them’, with the Telegraph, the ‘us’ brigade par excellence, trying to kid ordinary folk that they, the Telegraph, represent ‘them’, the outsiders, the done-down.

I turned to the centre pages. To the left, an article by Theresa May’s old right-hand, Nick Timothy, and indications of Tory infighting. He agonises about complacency in the Tory party. That Johnson, he suggests, should survive is absurd. The Party is deluding itself. ‘Johnson has deliberately formed a third-eleven cabinet, to avoid creating powerful rivals.’ (Having played third-eleven cricket when I aspired to the first eleven, the analogy hits home.) Timothy is talking sense.

Only so far – he indicates support for the government’s despicable plan to despatch asylum seekers to Rwanda.

To the right, a typical Telegraph, gung-ho, latter-day-Thatcherite leading article. Under Thatcher a ‘defining characteristic’ of the Tories had been ‘an unashamed celebration of self-made success’. The Left derided this as a ‘loads-of-money’ fixation with wealth. ‘Right’ and ‘Left’: this dumb polarisation of Right and Left. We have, it seems, to be one or the other, when most of us are somewhere in between. But the Telegraph and the right wing of the Tory party aren’t comfortable without an enemy. 

Read on. ‘The government is ‘fearful of doing anything that might benefit moderate or high earners’. It is ‘like Labour obsessed with the distributional impact of its policies’, though the fuel tax cut in Sunak’s recent budget would suggest otherwise. If there was any (re-)distributional element in that budget it passed me by.

At the bottom of the page we have the article I mentioned above, by Tim Stanley, about France and last Sunday’s French election. The centre in French politics is it seems ‘zigging about like a jelly on a wild horse’. Marine Le Pen has been ‘detoxified by the French establishment’. It seems the centre and the establishment are, once again, one and the same. That old trope. With an immigrant issue that has been massively politicised by the hard Right, one hand, and a radical left galvanised by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Bernie Sanders of American politics (that may be unfair on both of them!) on the other, the centre in France, if it is to hold, has a fight on its hands.

Le Pen has said that she ‘would quit NATO’s integrated military command and seek a closer alliance with Russia if she were elected’ (New York Times)

That’s where a better and wiser journalist than Tim Stanley would be focusing his attention.

Trespass – good or bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world de-mystified

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

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

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

The world has been thoroughly demystified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Dawkins comes to town

Saturday morning, 10am, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Richard Dawkins has been woven into our lives if not our rainbows for a few decades now. I can still remember reading The Selfish Gene. It’s somehow associated with a bus from up north heading down to London, sitting near the front, with big views either side of the motorway. Yes, it changed how I view the world.

Before last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I’d not heard him speak in person. Interviewed by Matthew Stadlen, who he knows well, it seems, not least from previous interviews, he was as direct and blunt as I’d expected.

One cheerful discussion was around whether ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’ would have been a better title for that famous book. But it wouldn’t have had much of a zing to it, but there’s certainly a good case for arguing that genes are operating altruistically, since our survival, and progression up the evolutionary ladder, is tied intimately to our genes. Where they go we follow.

Genes have our interests at heart, though watching The Mating Game last night I was rivetted, as, accompanied by David Attenborough’s whispered, I-don’t-want-to-interfere’ voice, a male praying mantis manages to get its head bitten off by a larger female and yet, abdominally alive for several hours, still manages to mate. At the same time it provides the female with sustenance to feed the brood which will in due time follow. The male is allowed no time to rejoice in successful procreation.

Back from the jungle to Cheltenham. What I miss, and I’m more aware of this from a front-row seat, so not more than a few yards away, is the absence of a human dimension in his projection of himself as a scientist. Human beings of social, cultural, mixed-up, error-prone, imperfect beings. The human dimension doesn’t get a look in.

Take religion as the classic example – and Dawkins’ favoured territory. For my part, it’s so closely tied with ideas of love and compassion, and security, and re-assurance, and atheism does such a bad job of providing any substitute, that you’re throwing out a great chunk of human civilisation if you dismiss religion. The easy target of a personal god is only one manifestation. The instinct to believe or, if not to believe a such, then find re-assurance somewhere beyond ourselves, is innate to human beings.  Science, you could argue (and it would be interesting to do so!), is skeletal without it.

On climate change there was something similar. Dawkins didn’t mention the human dimension, and all the actions that will be required of us if the no-more-than 1.5% increase above pre-industrial levels is to be achieved. (‘What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg’ would have been a good question.) He accepts Global Warming, and responded (I read) positively to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If only, he once commented, Gore rather than Bush has won the presidential election in 2000. A few hanging or dimpled chads changed the world. But his focus last Saturday was only on the science.

We have the surveillance state that is China on the one hand, and the spectre, so appealing to one section of Republican opinion in the USA, of scary Peter-Thiel-style libertarianism on the other. We need to promote the human dimension across the board, at all times, in all things. The religion-versus-atheism debate is old hat. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists – we’re all in this together. Science must be and remain the servant of humanity, and without that context it can become so easily, as China demonstrates, the instrument of an authoritarian state.

(I’d like to chip in here with comments on Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality. But I haven’t dipped into it yet. One comment from a Guardian interview from last month: ‘If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life.’ There’s the rub, of course. We don’t reason ‘properly’, and the application of reason doesn’t always lead to the same conclusions.)

Dawkins signed off with his thoughts on the transgender debate. Men and women are defined by their chromosomes and whether or not they are born with a penis. That is the biological definition. How they define themselves to themselves and to others is up to them.  No questions from the audience, so no debate ensued. But Dawkins had been clear, as always – the science must prevail.