Free trade – whatever the cost?

Free trade and a hard Brexit are all but synonymous. There’s an obsessive quality about free traders, men on a mission, who feel their time has come: seize the moment, lest it slip away.

Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson recently helped launch the Institute of Free Trade, arguably duplicating the work of the long-established Institute of Economic Affairs. I’ve always had a sense of vast lacunae between argument and reality among free traders, and I turned to an article on the IEA website, by its chief economist, Julian Jessop, to check out whether this judgement was justified. For the full article see:  https://iea.org.uk/whos-afraid-of-free-trade/

Jessop expresses puzzlement as to why ‘the economics commentariat’ (i.e. most economists) had given a ‘sceptical, with some downright hostile’ response to two papers advocating a policy a free trade once the UK leaves the EU, by Professors Kevin Dowd and Patrick Minford.

It may be unfair to quote passages and not reproduce the whole article, but to my mind they do speak for themselves.

‘… it has been suggested that Prof Minford’s analysis shouldn’t be taken too seriously because his forecasts of the economic and market impacts of the vote itself were inaccurate. As it happens I don’t know what Prof Minford was forecasting in 2016. But nor, frankly, do I care….’

‘Professor Minford’s current and past work in this area has been challenged for using what some regard as a simplistic and out-dated model of world trade. But the ‘gravity models’ favoured by many of his critics also have their flaws. Even if Professor Minford’s numbers are only as good as his models (which is always the case) …’

The phrase, ‘the underlying principles are as sound as any’, is key: there is a millenarianist belief in free trade as a universal panacea, the UK’s adoption of which will open the eyes of the rest of the world, as Britain did once before, in the early 19th century. ‘Gravity models’ refers to the long-established and incontrovertible pattern of a much heavier weighting toward trade with one’s neighbours, than with more distant countries.

Nonetheless, whatever the correct interpretation here, these legal points do not weaken the more important economic argument that the UK would be better off lowering its own trade barriers regardless of how the rest of the EU responds.

Free trade it seems works because it works, regardless of circumstance. In what sense better off – who would be better off?

‘… of course, there would be some losers from free trade among consumers as well as producers …

‘….there would be some losers..’ The reality is that the disruption would be extraordinary.

Others have suggested that trade can never be fully ‘free’, because of non-tariff barriers. But this is tedious semantics. Even if unilateral free trade only results in freer trade, relative to the status quo, that would be an improvement.

‘…tedious semantics’? There’s an impatience here, a touch of the Gadarene swine.

What then about things that we do produce ourselves but where other countries have a genuine comparative advantage? Why should we subsidise domestic producers if consumers can buy better or cheaper products elsewhere?

A few suggestions as to why… Easily disrupted supply chains, sourcing expensively at long distance, security implications, quite apart from the disruption to urban and rural landscapes as industries close and new ones – we would hope – spring up elsewhere. But in the chaos, and the economic disruption, what certainty is there that new industries, competitive on the world stage, would rise up?

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Read the whole article: you may find you’re on his side, not mine.

The Grenfell aftermath – and the future of housing

I was discussing the Grenfell inquiry with friends last night. We were vociferous, and of divided opinions.  But I also wanted to see where we might go beyond the inquiry.

We already have a highly polarised, and political, debate.

The great danger – the more political the inquiry becomes, and the more personal, the longer it will take, and the more ensnared it will become. The local MP has called for the inquiry chair to be replaced: she wants ‘somebody with a bit of a human face’. We recently had the Mail seeking to disparage judges and the rule of law, we now have Emma Dent Coad seeking to do the same. Whoever heads the inquiry needs first and foremost to be impartial.

George Monbiot in the Guardian has damned the enquiry as a stitch-up. I don’t believe it will be – or can be. It will, as did Chilcot on Iraq, develop its own momentum. Monbiot has already decided that the Grenfell Tower disaster is a crime pure and simple. He’s linking it with the government’s Red Tape initiative, intended to cut back regulations, including building regulations. Let the inquiry takes its course – the government’s attitude to regulation is already a big issue – let’s see where the evidence trail leads us.

What we don’t need is calls to boycott the inquiry on the one hand, and the kind of sustained disparagement of groups of local campaigners as agitators (the speciality of the Telegraph) on the other.

But the inquiry should be only part of our response. There’s a wider field in play.

What we need above all is a radical focus on building new homes, and a radical reappraisal of the role of tower blocks in public housing. This was for me the main point of our discussion last night – would any significant change, wider social change, come out of the Grenfell aftermath and enquiry?

I want to see us, see the country, the government, establish a different direction of travel. Policy goals and green papers will follow later. But after forty and more years of failure housing as an issue now needs to become centre stage.

Put in simple terms, we need a radical increase in the building of new homes: new homes for the young; new homes in areas of rapid population growth; but above all new homes for the urban working-class, who have been shovelled into ill-kept tower blocks for far too long. Ultimately and long term I’d to see high-rises, with all their empty space around, replaced by something much more low-rise, more community-focused.

Building would need to be of a much higher standard, and funded by local councils to whom the government would devolve funding. Housing associations would be encouraged to build up and not sell off their housing stock.

The Grenfell tragedy has focused minds – we need a rigorous, impartial inquiry – but we also need to look beyond.

Austerity versus stimulus

Don’t let anyone say I avoid the big subjects!

Whatever one’s instincts, where lies truth? Is there any definable ‘truth’ when it comes to this debate – stimulus versus austerity. A good starting-point is a book of that name, just published, a collection of essays edited by Robert Skidelsky and Nicolo Fraccaroli.

The question, as Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower argue, ‘is whether Britain should be compared to Greece… Britain could, the Keynesians argue, continue to expand its debt with no risk of lowering confidence in the economy, as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. But does high government borrowing push up interest rates and inhibit private investment? – Friedrich Hayek’s argument.  Is there a danger that people will lose faith in the management of the economy? – Niall Ferguson.

The UK national debt will peak this year at 89% of GDP, the biggest since the 1960s and up 36% from a decade ago.  (Paul Wallace, Prospect, July 2017.) I’ve seen figures for the first quarter of 2015 indicating that the annual cost of servicing the debt was £43 billion, but a third of the interest in that debt is the government paying interest to itself – the result of quantitative easing. On the other hand interest rates are currently very low, and could rise, and in  Paul Wallace’s words, ‘The Treasury is right to worry about maintaining fiscal headroom to respond to a future downturn.’ But if we take out that one-third which the government is paying itself, then it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Comparisons with other countries are helpful, and confusing. My data isn’t up-to-date, but the USA debt was over 100% in 2011, and  Japan’s debt is approaching 200% of GDP. Paul Wallace quotes the IMF, which puts our public debt as the sixth highest of 26 advanced economies. The CIA World Factbook ranked us 18th internationally.

And what about total public spending, another key indicator? Down from 45% in 2009-10 to 39% now – which is its pre-crisis level of 2007-8.  Wallace points out that in the late 1980s Britain spent virtually the same on health and defence. Today we spend nearly four times as much on health.

What this tells me is that there’s a case to be argued on both sides. For stimulus and for austerity. But I’m a Keynesian at heart. Keynes understood that confidence is everything, investment and not retrenchment is the key, and that the private sector is the driver of all successful economies. At the same time there is nothing intrinsically wrong or to be frightened of when it comes to public expenditure.

I think the phrase I quote above is key, ‘as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. So – just one example, but an easy one – scrap HS2. Any growth benefits will be miniscule compared to the benefits from investing the money elsewhere – not least in other infrastructure projects.

Where does this leave the NHS? Real spending on the NHS increased at a rate of 1.1% under the coalition, compared to 4.1% a year over the past few decades. In addition, much of social care is in crisis. Benefits will be pared back further in the coming years. Prisons are too often scary and ineffective places…. This where increases in current expenditure have to be focused. Not on re-nationalising energy supply or the railways, whether such goals are worthy or not. As for scrapping student loans – a contributory scheme, an adjustment to rather than a scrapping of the scheme, may be one way forward. Paying off existing loans would not be a sensible use of resources. And what of scrapping the 1% pay increase limit for public sector workers – a highly inequitable restriction, enforced for four years – and now the subject of very public bickering among cabinet members?

This takes us to current arguments about increased taxation, and how effective that might be. Could it be increases in VAT, and /or a mansion tax (highly controversial) – where revenue streams would be certain in a way that that increasing the top rates of tax or hiking corporation tax wouldn’t be.

With continuing impacts from globalisation, and automation, the future is massively unpredictable. My only sure conclusion at this time is that austerity, as currently enforced and anticipated, is unnecessary and counter-productive. But how we spend wisely – and at the same time promote investment and encourage business and international trade – that is another matter.

What is absolutely certain is that we don’t need the tomfoolery of Brexit. And we do desperately need a competent government.

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.

UK election 8th June 2017 – where do we go from here?

I’ve resisted for a little while any comment on last week’s election. It was a seismic event, watching at 10pm on election night, and knowing by 10.01 that it looked likely we’d have a hung parliament. Then watching till 4, rejoicing in seats gained, sadness in one or two cases at seats lost, but a sense deep down that at least the terrible tide the referendum prompted, and the vote confirmed, was finally if not turned then stayed. For too long there’s been a sense that the tide had overwhelmed the liberal attitudes of old, and we against all better judgements were set on a catastrophic Brexit course.

London and other cities, and above all the young, spoke out. Some extraordinary vote registering had gone on below the radar, press and opinion polls were hardly aware. May was a disaster, and remains so, the Tory campaign and manifesto likewise, and Corbyn came out of a shell many of us thought was the real Corbyn to reveal a performer, yes, a performer, with a sure touch, and a degree of ordinary human sympathy, and humour, which struck a chord with me and many another.

Talk to the under 30s and most, almost to their surprise, were voting Labour. Not just the Corbynistas who took to the barricades two years ago. I could have voted Labour, voting tactically, living as I do in a constituency where the Lib Dems have little chance, but old loyalties held me back.

Let’s assume we can stay and even reverse the Tory tide. What will replace it?  The centre is recent times has not held, and there’s a pull of gravity to the left that could take us too far.

The gulf between the Corbynite left and the traditional liberal centre is a big one – a gap in practice, outlook, traditions, as well as pure politics. But, accepting all the risks, could a new devil (who may yet cast off a horn or two) be better than the old disastrous devil who has been calling the tune too long – and still of course aspires to. I’ll be returning to these words in coming months, and checking if they are wise, or foolish, or somewhere inbetween.

For my part I’ve little time for the old trade union connections, for industrial warfare which is a hangover from another age, for pseudo-socialist alternatives such as Hugh Chavez, which have over the years drawn Corbyn in. I’ve no principled objection to renationalising the railways, where the free market finds it hard to operate successfully, other than cost. Energy generation and distribution would be a lumbering giant in the hands of the state.

Student loans are a vexed question: I’ve supported the principle until recently (and indeed in an earlier version of this post), but it’s more than apparent that the system needs radical reform. Levels of debt are spiralling. The rate of interest, 3% above RPI, is now 6.1%, and average debt on graduation £44,000. To quote the Independent, based on a lower debt on graduation of £33,000, ‘a graduate on a salary of £55,000 at the end of the 30-year period (after which loans are written off) will have paid back just over £40,000 on £33,000 borrowed, with a remaining £58,000 unpaid.’ The debt is extraodinarily high when you’re starting out, and you carry it with for thirty years. Then any balance is cancelled.

The state will lose vast sums because many loans will simply be written off after thirty years. Graduate debt in the UK is higher than in any other country in the English-speaking world. Scrapping the whole damned system is one option. A contributory system, with lower levels of interest and repayment, is another.

What I don’t know is how Corbyn proposes to replace student loans. But I can see very clearly why it’s a major issue for young people.

As to Labour’s tax proposals, they transparently won’t bring in anything like the revenues the Labour manifesto suggests. Higher tax rates for the affluent have natural justice of their side, but aren’t likely to be effective in raising significant revenue, and taxing companies – increasing corporation tax – can easily be counter-productive. But I don’t for a moment share the Tory obsssion with tax reduction at all costs.

So why support Corbyn – albeit a tentative and watchful support ?

1] Relax the austerity obsession. Improved infrastructure (not including HS2) can only improve economic performance. And cuts to social welfare have to be pared back, and the NHS funded maybe on LibDem lines – an extra 1p in the pound on income tax. The national debt (approx 82% of GDP) looms large, fed each year by a budget deficit, the elimination of which keeps being postoned – Brexit being the latest culprit. Far better to prime the economy, and as a consequence increase the tax intake, than pursue the black hole of the May/Davis nexus.

2] Bring compassion back into politics – bring the poor, the unemployed and the disabled back into the heart of things. They have been stigmatised too long, though the fault is not with them. The dependency culture is in great part a right-wing figment, an excuse for putting them both out of both mind, and as far as possible, out of sight. The budget deficit has driven cuts in recent years – but a highly inequitable treatment of the less fortunate cannot be the answer.

3] Enlist and keep on board, as Corbyn has done, the young, to counter-balance all the caution and backward-looking disposition of the over-60s who to their shame have closed minds and ranks in support of a spurious UK – or English – identity.

4} Support the immigrant population, and allow future immigration to be dictated by the requirements of the economy – from Europe, from India, and elsewhere. Not least students coming to our universities. To be open to refugees, to be open instinctively – which doesn’t mean we open our ports, but it does mean our first response is to help and not to stigmatise.

5] Implicit in so much of the above, to maintain our close ties with Europe, with the EU, with EU institutions, maintain our trading links, and that wider humanity, concern for the individual, for rights, for equality, for the environment, which is so much the European tradition. We and Europe are so much more effective in a world of big power blocs (USA, China, Europe) if we speak with one voice.

6] Related to the above, maintain our influence in the world, which Brexit would, in the name of a spurious sovereignty, surrender: where better to exercise our sovereignty than within a continent where we’re listened to, where we share traditions. What chance when we argue our case on our own, a small island with an inflated idea of regaining glories which belong to vastly different world?

Corbyn is wary, more than wary, of globalisation, more than wary of big business. His old socialist instincts worry me. But it’s chance I’ll take. The Brexit route is guaranteed to bring disaster, and I don’t believe that the Labour right, or the wider country, would, come a future election, allow a luddite Corbynism to prevail.

But there is risk here. Under Corbyn we might find ourselves pursuing a new identity politics, where we close our minds to the impact of automation, try and hold on to old industrial practices, hold back the rise of new companies and new industries, and resist the changes in communication and trade that business, and big business, will inevitably take forward. Getting the balance right between the old and new will be vexed and require all our attention, and debate, and financial support for those who suffer. Likewise keeping our focus on the environment, and climate change, and the population and resource issues which have to be addressed.

The Trump and Le Pen agendas are there to remind us what could happen – and Corbyn will surely be well aware of the dangers of trimming in that direction.

But I have to trust that the young, the under 30s, the under 40s, will haul him back. It is their world, even more than mine, and we have to trust them to make it work. Who will lead when Corbyn is gone, and will she or he will retain their support – they are big questions. But a ball has been set rolling, and while I don’t trust all the routes that it might take, we do finally have a counter-course to stay the Brexit obsession.

Politics will never take the course we anticipate. Never has and never will. But we can work to set a direction, and argue both in political and practical terms to hold that direction as best we can.

No mention here of the Lib Dems, where I remain a member. They will pull strongly to sanity and to the centre, and will now be under a new leader. Their role is this regard will be similar to the Labour right, the new Labour rearguard. Just how the centre of British politics works out in the year, and years, to come is another of the great imponderables.

But to quote Nigel Farage, at least there are signs we might yet ‘get our country back’. Farage of course had never lost his – he’d conjured a country which simply didn’t exist.

The Hay Book Festival 2017 

It’s May 2017. The Hay Book Festival surprises yet again. You know it will, one of the great joys is turning up to talks you may have booked in advance – but you never quite know what to expect.

And what you can do of course is not book in advance, head for the box office, see what’s still available, which is most talks, if you’re early enough, and simply take pot luck. Serendipity can have big surprises in store, and rarely disappoints.

Hazel and I took in some talks together, for others we split up and compared notes afterwards.

For anyone interested in getting a flavour of Hay Festival, and not averse to reading something of the ideas and arguments, and the sheer variety of subjects, and the passionate advocacy of many of the speakers – please do read on!

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Wednesday 31st May

11.30. I began with Cambridge historian John Guy on the subject of Thomas More. He traced the remarkable history of More’s ‘Utopia’, its influence worldwide, and disabused us of the notion that More was a serial torturer. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, hagiography of the Protestant reformers who suffered in Catholic hands, had a vested interest in accusing More. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall follows Foxe, but Guy holds back from criticising her too harshly. Like all of us he’s in a little in awe of her ability to brings characters to life. Guy is also an admirer of Paul Scofield in ‘A Man for all Seasons’, but he stressed that More as a man with an individual conscience that he could not deny (Robert Bolt’s spin on More in his play) is a misrepresentation. More belonged in a 1500 year old Catholic tradition, and his conscience was formed within the church’s teaching.

Why did More write ‘Utopia’? A radical democrat? The reverse is closer to the truth.  He was an elitist, who feared the demos, just as Plato had done, and saw a guardian class as the natural protectors and rulers of the land.

Hazel skipped Thomas More and took in Artemis Cooper (biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, author The Cazalet Chronicle, the wife of naturalist Peter Scott (when she was still a teenager) and Kingsley Amis, and lover of Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee. Sounds like someone it would have been interesting to know….

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1pm. We followed with Alistair Sawday, famous for his Special Places travel guides. What struck me above all is Sawday’s ability to talk in a relaxed conversational way, and I could imagine him talking to hotel and inn owners all over Europe, charming, enthusiastic, interested. Pulping 25,000 copies of an early travel guide almost brought the company down early on. He’s an enthusiast for earth closets. He fears that special places, which aren’t smartened up and denuded of character, are getting fewer. But they survive. Telling a wider world where to find them is a double-edged sword – great for the hotels, helping them survive, but a wider awareness and clientele can damage that sense of places apart.

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2.30. My day’s highlight was Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey, in conversation with Andy Fryers. ‘From Global to Local.’ Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable?

Livesey puts up powerful counter-arguments, well summed up in one comment: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity [as opposed to the linear nature of globalisation, long lines of travel across the ocean] and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of these ideas across industry.’ In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), Livesey’s comment finds an even sharper focus. Industry around the world, we must hope.

Hazel took in Mary Aiken on The Cyber Effect, on how human behaviour changes online, taking in the impact on the developing child to teen sexting. Quoting the Hay programme: ‘She examines the acceleration of compulsive and addictive online behaviours (gaming, shopping, pornography) and the escalation of cyberchondria (self-diagnosis online), cyberstalking and organised crime on the Deep Web.’

Hazel was impressed – wished I’d been there. An example of how you can’t be everywhere at Hay!

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4pm. We ended our afternoon with Hazel listening to Roy Hattersley talking too fast and quietly about his new book in The Catholics, ‘history from the Reformation to the present day’ – and I took in (Thomas More enough for me for one day!) Jeanette Littlemore, professor at Birmingham University, with a talk entitled The Way You Tell It. Her subject being non-literal expression, in this case metaphor, metonymy, irony and hyperbole, in everyday life. College students who don’t have English as their first language can radically misinterpret metaphor. Parents can enjoy themselves on touchline shouting encouragement to their children – but do their children understand? Advertisers have thought it through rather more – one example was a wonderful Boddingtons ad from the 70 with the head (appalling froth to the modern ale drinker!) combed into a quiff, with a comb nearby.

She brought in a wide range of research findings, could have been too many, but she was mistress of her subject, and handled questions brilliantly. Makes you all the more aware of the way we use language.

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Thursday 1st June

We stayed down in the Usk valley, amid pasture and woodlands, with a trip in bright morning sunshine through the Black Mountains back to the Wye valley and Hay. Valley to valley…

11.30. We began our day with an inspiring talk by doctor and pyschiatrist Lynne Jones on her work with her work in disaster zones from Bosnia, to Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Jungle in Calais. The title of her talk (wait for it!): Outside the Asylum: a Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry. PTSD and counselling is what a lot of funding goes into, but Jones provided ample evidence that listening, patient listening, is what’s required more than anything else. She recalled how a Bosnian man apparently objected to her taking photographs – it turned out he wanted his photograph taken, in front of the ruined house where his mother had been killed. He wanted someone with whom to share the experience. Where there are real and serious psychiatric problems it’s above all medication that’s needed.

Jones has a history as a passionate activist, doctor, psychiatrist. She was probably the highpoint of our Hay visit. She is only happy when involved, when engaged, and she puts politicians who rejoice in a narrow homeland focus to shame.

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1pm. Jeremy Bowen talking about his many years as BBC Middle East Editor was next. Title: Our Man in the Middle East. He’s informed, wide-ranging, tolerant, a natural talker, and I’m sure a listener, and one of the wisest voices on the BBC. That came over strongly. I’ve been critical of (sometimes angry at) the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East over the years – too much focused on immediate calamities and picking up the latest Western government line, which has often been too much focused on the horror of it all, and apportioning blame, at the expense of hard and difficult talk about solutions. Talking to a Hay audience Bowen allows himself a broader understanding, the Saudis in Yemen and Assad in Syria both perpetrators of appalling violence – taking sides and demanding retribution something he avoided. Bowen has to practise his trade in a world of instant news which sometimes runs counter to a proper understanding of the issues – and he copes with this probably as well if not better than anyone else. In short – he’s a good guy.

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4pm. Hugh Warwick, on Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, was our next port of call. Passionate and amusing, he’s probably our greatest expert on the hedgehog which for him is an emblematic animal, which has suffered more than most from our practice of dividing the land by way of roads, canals and railways. Hedges, walks, ditches and dykes are a man-made but natural landscape in which wildlife flourished. Take out a hedge and build a fence and wall – and don’t expect to find hedgehogs in your garden. Warwick is passionate about raising awareness, and optimist about solutions such as the wild areas left by motorways along which wildlife can travel, and green areas left on the margins of cropped fields in which plants and habitats can flourish. He argues passionately against the fracturing of ‘wildlife habitats into ever smaller and increasingly unviable habitats’.

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5.30. At the end of the day Hazel headed for ‘Countryfile star and visionary farmer’, and all-round good guy, Adam Henson, on the subject of his Cotswold farm park, set up by his father (‘Like Father, Like Son.‘) And I went for something TOTALLY DIFFERENT! Physicist Roger Penrose talking to Marcus du Sautoy about string theory, which posits too many extra dimensions to be convincing for Penrose, though he’s a fan of the theory, as a theory… about quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics and their incompatibility when it comes ‘reasonably massive objects’, and the predilection among many scientists that it must be Newtonian physics that ultimately must adjust (must they be compatible?)… and about cosmology, and the origins of the universe, and his own theory that mass may ultimately simply fade away, with only photons surviving, and at that point the universe returns to a singularity, out of which a new universe is born, and that process is beyond either birth or death of the universe… I don’t claim reliability or accuracy for my summary!! Roger Penrose is like Stephen Hawking a marvellous example of mental acuity remaining as sharp as ever with advancing age. And good to see Marcus du Sautoy, who took over as Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science from Richard Dawkins, and whom I’d not come across in person before.

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Saturday 3rd June. We decided two days were not enough. So on a brilliant sunny morning we took the road to Hay in time for a coffee and then three more talks.

10am. We began with Nick Crane and a talk based around his new book, The Making of the British Landscape. We’re back post Ice age, after the Younger Dryas period, 9,600BC and a time of rapid warming, then almost 4,000 years in the blink of an eye to the major inundation (possibly the result of giant landslides which saw 180 miles of Norwegian coastal shelf slip into the North Sea) which finally put the Dogger Bank under water, and turned us into an island. An island of only 12,000 people, on one estimate, no towns, so Roman towns were a radical landscape change. I’ll have to read the book to discover how he thinks villages changed the landscape, and to compare with WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, which has always been my bible in the subject. One question I tried to ask – but you have to be aggressive waving your hand! – was whether he thinks the proposal to make the Lake District a World Heritage Site is a good thing. George Monbiot in a powerful and I think misguided piece in the Guardian argued against. Monbiot fears stasis, and would like to ‘re-wild’.

Crane, intentionally he said, didn’t mention either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. He put his reason in the context of politicians misrepresenting history. I should have asked a question – I am of course with him all the way. I’m assuming the issue for him is too-easy and misleading labelling.

*

11.30: Hazel checked out a hero of hers, Noel Fitzpatrick, Channel 4’s Supervet, on the subject of ‘Global Health in Man and Animal’. He’s arguing passionately for ‘a single shared medicine linking human and animal health’. Cancer in a dog is almost identical to cancer in a human. Medicine would be shared between species, not one species exploiting another for its own gain. How this might work in practice I don’t know – again, wish I could have been there.

Instead I chose almost on a whim to head off to hear the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak talking about her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. It was an inspired choice. She talked brilliantly about Turkey, about the language (modern Turkish has been pared back to exclude Persian and Arabic words, to its great detriment), about liberals and academics operating in a hostile world where loss of job or imprisonment could follow any kind of mis-step. (Turkey she pointed out has long had a sense of being threatened by hostile countries on all sides, which puts recent events in an interesting context.) English is a third language, and yet she writes her novels in English – writing in a foreign language heightens your awareness – translating, from my very limited experience, does likewise. But Shafik is operating at a whole other level.

Her novel has three Turkish girls, brought up in Istanbul, studying in Oxford. She describes,a seminar where the lecturer tries to separate the pursuit of an understanding of God from religion. Without success. I’d have asked her about the Sufi tradition in Turkey had I had the chance – how it links with the current resurgence of Sunni Islam. Shafik had earlier brought the 12th century poet and mystic Ibn el Arabi into her talk.

If you think that all this suggests she lives in a rarefied world, you’d be wrong. She’s a powerful advocate of feminist and minority including LGBT rights. A long queue formed for her book signing: when we returned to the bookshop 1 ½ hours later she was still signing – and still talking.

*

1pm, positively our last talk! QC and human rights lawyer Dexter Dias talking about his new book, The Ten Types of Human. Trying to illustrate some of the ten types in response to questions from an interviewer initially made it hard going. What Dias has done is use the structure of the ten types, all the product of human evolution, to produce a 800 page book passionately arguing for our engagement – the engagement of all of us – with human rights. The case he took up for the mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in custody, the victim of prison officer violence, was his starting -point for both his advocacy of human rights, and for the book.

I found this summary online of his work, and it’s very helpful as background to a remarkable man: ‘As Queen’s Counsel, he has been involved in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, has briefed and written reports for the UN around gender-based violence, and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern day slavery, human trafficking and Violence Against Women and Girls.’

It’s encountering people such as this, and being inspired by them, that’s one of the glories of Hay.

**

And that’s it. Another Hay, another year. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you – and well done. If you not a Hay habitue, then do head off there, one year, some time soon.

Hay’s slogan this year is Hay 30: Imagine the World. Hay is thirty years old this year. But Hay does more than encourage us to imagine – it inspires us to change it. Advocates of the status quo, or turning inward, of identity politics and self-interest, would get short shrift.

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.