Summer in the English countryside

Zenpolitics takes a break …

The wind is blowing strong this morning, the cloud is heavy and there’s drizzle on the wind. It’s August and we’re waiting for the summer to return. Sunshine has been the default since mid April, and we’ve had 3 1/2 months of almost drought, with temperatures holding steady above the 80s (Fahrenheit of course!) for much of July.

But with so much winter rain, and so late, the land held its water well, and wild flowers have been abundant. We searched them out in the meadows and the hedgerows of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as never before. Orchids in May and June, with the pyramidal orchid hiding amidst the common orchids. Bugle by the Thames at Kelmscott – one of these flowers I’d wondered about but never identified before. The name intrigues: as if it wants to sound its colour across to the further bank.

Early July, and one corner of the field above the trout farm was all betony, a mass of purple on long spikes: I thought they were orchids until I knew better. Knapweed and devil’s-bit scabious were ever-present. But the drought took hold, and as the grass yellowed the omni-present clover all but disappeared as well. August has seen a little rain and a light greening here and there, but flowers are now singular rather than overwhelmingly plural. A single knapweed. A left-behind clover. The wild marjoram, a relative of oregano, flowers abundant and late, but that’s passed over.

The ground has been so hard, and dead patches snake everywhere, greening up with the rain, an in-between, not-one-thing-or-the-other state. Aerial photographers have had a great time, recording cropmarks – the outlines of mounds and ditches, walls and buildings dating back to Roman times and earlier.

Once upon a time I searched out deserted villages in the Oxfordshire countryside, with churches standing lonely in the midst of fields the easiest identifier. This summer has made it so much easier – but a plane has advantages over a Morris Minor.

Photography has revealed prehistoric crop marks associated with burials and a settlement near Eynsham, a few miles from Oxford. What you miss from above is of course any sense of a lived-in landscape. Scrabbling through hedges won’t get you there either. But sit in a churchyard, they’re often on a slight elevation, and look across the land. You may be in good company: some churches don’t cut back ‘God’s acre’ until August, and wild flowers and summer grasses engulf the graves.

Meadow flowers don’t have a long lifespan. Don’t stay away for too long. Villages operate on a different timescale. Tucked away in Cotswold valleys you sense they’ve been there for ever. But when change comes, for villages as well as flowers, it comes quickly. New estates are built, and local towns extend out and absorb. Back in medieval times it could be rapacious landowners, enclosure, plague, weather. Change could be abrupt, often accompanied by penury and starvation.

There is no finer place on earth than a rural English landscape on a perfect summer’s day. The whole world it seems is God’s acre. But we know it won’t last. Even the villages. Even the towns. So a little humility is also the order of the day. My own lifespan is a little longer than the flowers, somewhat shorter than the villages.

The sun’s now broken through the clouds, and the edges of the lawn need trimming, and that’s my job, it seems. So this short blog ends here.

Hay Book Festival 2018: David Miliband

David Miliband was there, in Hay,  in two guises, as president and CEO of the International Refugee Committee, and …  no surprise, as a politician, otherwise engaged, and yet, we all want to know what he thinks. A king over the water?

The title of his conversation with Jim Naughtie was ‘Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time’. The IRC does extraordinary work, and Miliband focused on the long-term problems posed by displacement, and specifically, health, welfare, safety and re-settlement. The IRC has an annual operating budget of over $700 million. The main focus of the IRC’s work is inevitably women and children. A core issue is the long-term nature of displacement: as one example, 100,000 of the 330,000 in camps in Kenya have actually been born in Kenya – not Somalia, their parents’ home country. But the great majority of refugees live not in camps but in cities (more than 80%), which puts aid and support in a very different context.

Miliband had praise for the Department of International Development, which is in his words a ‘smart aid’ donor. The UK’s continued commitment to foreign aid of 0.7% of GDP is a source of pride as he travels around the world.

For more on the IRC see Miliband’s book, published last autumn, entitled (similar to the title of the Hay event) Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of our Time.

He reminded us that his own parents came to the UK as refugees.

The IRCs work is impacted in directly by the populism and that’s come so much to the fore in recent years. Miliband recognises the failure of liberal democracy to protect its ideas. Complacency on the one hand, a failure to recognise how inequitable globalisation can be on the other.  ‘The forces driving inequality are stronger than we realised.’ He quoted John Kennedy from back in 1962, on 4th July, making a ‘declaration of interdependence’. There’s no problem putting yourself first, but Trump puts the dangers first, and fails crucially to recognise that international agreement- interdependence – makes countries stronger.

Brexit and other attacks on EU were ‘ripping out the underpinnings of the social market economy’. Brexit ‘is squeezing the life out of politics and its ability to address precisely the concerns that drove people to vote for Brexit in the first place… There is no legislation on social care, there is no legislation on housing and homelessness, there’s not even legislation on immigration.’

Referenda, Brexit and parliamentary votes were the main concerns for the rest of the conversation. Jim Naughtie has had too much experience presenting the Today programme not to assay the occasional provocative question. So too the audience. I won’t give Miliband’s responses here. Save to say that Brexit crops up in so many guises these days, and Hay was no exception. Sadly. It would be wonderful to escape. If only we could. My final talk of the day was the Oxford professor, Timothy Garton Ash, talking on… Brexit. I’d hoped for much more on the subject of free speech, on which he wrote brilliantly in a recent book.

Would that Miliband had been able to talk only about the refugee crisis. That is the subject on which we ought to be focusing.

Looking out over the ocean in the small hours

Saturn and Mars are in Sagittarius, above the centaur’s bow targeting its arrow at the scorpion’s heart. The ocean lies below: follow it in a straight line beyond Scorpio and there’d be no disturbance before Antarctica.

The stars sit in their own perfect harmony, and long ago we imposed our own small skirmishes. Another centaur (there are two centaurs in the sky, Sagittarius and Centaurus – blame the Greeks and the Sumerians, each with their own stories), low and to the right of the scorpion’s whiplash, prepares to kill, aiming a spear at the heart of the wolf (the constellation Lupus).

Adjacent to the scorpion’s head lies Jupiter. Extending down behind them runs the Milky Way. Above lie the eagle, lyre and swan. They rest easy in the skies, as if disdainful of the violence.

The proximity of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn to each other tonight is a happy accident.

All the while, on the low rugged cliffs below, the shearwaters call, groan and wail into the night, I’m told it’s a mating call, an unreal sound, owing out of the silence. There seems to be no special time of night for the shearwater. They open up when they will, only quieten as dawn approaches.

Last night there was a small church service, maybe eight people singing hymns to tunes on a soft harmonium which had a quiet almost valedictory quality. The average age of the audience would be late seventies, and the lady leading the service of similar antiquity. I thought maybe unkindly that it wouldn’t be too long before they were joining the silence of ocean and sky.

As I write the Turks are strengthening their hold on Afrin, and under semi-desert skies the stars I’m watching now circle as they have done on timescales unimaginable to human conflict. I chanced last night (ask not why) on descriptions of the burying alive of whole armies by the victors in the period of the Warring States which ended in the victory of the Qin dynasty. We’re talking of China, over two thousand years ago.

The Chinese poet LiPo caught the same mood:

The bright moon lifts from the Mountain of Heaven/In an infinite haze of cloud and sea,/And the wind, that has come a thousand miles,/Beats at the Jade Pass battlements…./China marches its men down Baideng Road/While Tartar troops peer across blue waters of the bay….

A point of difference: no moon tonight. And no Tartar hordes.

A satellite on a circumpolar orbit moves slowly overhead, flashing maybe every five seconds, the brightest object in the sky. I assume it’s rotating slowly, with a mirror side that picks up the sun’s rays.

Other nights there have been small single-manned fishing boats out on the night ocean, revealing themselves every so often by a bright light, soon extinguished.

The stars circle on a time scale imaginable to modern man, and millennia ago we placed our own small-scale conflicts in the sky, bearing arrows and spears, taking on the scorpion , keeping it well away from the heels it could sting. Modern conflict is brutal and earthbound, and has no place other than the hard earth, and the dust of the debris.

Irreversibility – and the British experience

History is, arguably, about continuity, but there are discontinuities, irreversible events which turn countries and civilisations before their due time.

Take, for example, the sudden and irreversible though predictable demise of Constantinople, taken down by the scimitars of the Ottomans, the last great assertion of Islamic power which finally ended before the gates of Vienna in 1685. 1685 could have been another irreversible event. Almost a thousand years before, what if the Muslim invader had won at Poitiers in 735?

What of Carthage, Nineveh, and many another ancient city, destroyed by invaders who tore down walls and buildings determined that none should rise again? The Sassanid empire, its borders and eminence taken over by Islam. ….

The slow demise of empires, most famously the Roman Empire, frontiers slowly eroded. Empires that had long sown their own seeds of destruction. We could add Christian Russia, or the Chinese empire under the Qing dynasty. ….

Countries, or, better, peoples, which we might consider blameless, who suffered in the backwash of history, Hungary, at Versailles in 1919, Greece post 1922. Hungary had the misfortune to be second string in a great and tired empire. Greece thought its moment had come, invaded Asia Minor, and reaped a whirlwind.

Greece’s was a catastrophic error of judgement. So too the British attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal in 1956. If any event symbolises the end of the British Empire, that was it.

And we have another, a very British category. Humdrum by comparison. We could argue a British speciality. Self-willed catastrophic errors of judgement. Misreading the current world order and our place in it, and misreading history, cocooned within notions of imperial sway and influence which simply are no more, failing to recognise that we operate today within spheres of influence, economic and political.

The current vehicle for such unwisdom – one could say stupidity – a referendum. Which by definition is irreversible. Maybe the greatest British contribution to the world has been reversibility. Policy has to persuade, cannot be implemented by diktat, can always be reversed. Compare Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Putin, all with their own imperial aspirations.

We gave to the world, and we now take away, by our own hand.

Anger, #MeToo, charities and a whole lot else

Too much anger out there. Too many hardened positions. We’ve focused down on issues which polarise, divide families. If it came to war, would we fight each other? We did in our own English civil war, in the USA, in the Balkans.

We’re never so confident in our own opinions, if we’re on our own, most of us anyway. But find support within a group, and there’s an identifiable ‘severity shift’ to use the term that Daniel Kahneman and others have applied. And it’s not just opinions: ‘We don’t know how we feel until we see how other people feel.’ (Tim Harford, FT.) Feelings and opinions are elided.

Opinions and feelings have always differed radically, but we’ve mostly kept our more extreme opinions to ourselves. Not least our xenophobic attitudes. But post 2016, post referendum, post Trump, the gloves are off. Referenda are yes and no, and no comeback. You’re the victor or the loser. No live-to-fight-another-day – no next election four or five years down the road. And Trump – it could have been a referendum, was a referendum, on two ever more polarised approaches to life. We’re also now feeding off America. We’ve our own rust belt, though we’re spared the bible belt.

We’ve happily talked of social groups down the years. Now we talk of tribes. Tribal loyalties. Without the common ground the share space inbetween politics is a whole lot more risky. And if money piles in…

I’m thinking race, refugees, immigration, resistance to globalisation, ideas of sovereignty…

But there are other issues, including gender, sex and charities, out there, generating strong opinions, new divisions, new solidarities, and the press piling in often with little regard for rational examination or perspectives.

#MeToo – we have Weinstein, a serial offender. We have Woody Allen put alongside him, on the basis of an offence where he’s been cleared by two enquiries. Which isn’t to say he’s not guilty… But he is being damned by association. Likewise his films.

But – as a man – this is one issue where I tread carefully. The severity shift (see above) is reaping big dividends. When the individual is reinforced by the group, and finds space to speak out as they never did before. Sometimes this works for good. Minor offenders get swept up, but it was ever thus.

But what of charities, and Oxfam in particular? Damned out of sight by many, reported as if sex and charity were interwoven. Aid workers generally, not least Oxfam aid workers, do extraordinary work, under sometimes extreme conditions. The same human impulses, individuals mapping out their own space, finding a role, exercising power – they will always exist. Sex is another matter altogether. Oxfam in the Haiti case dealt with that, but not ruthlessly enough. But who imagined running an aid agency was easy? This is not for a moment to excuse – but it is to argue for, to demand, that we employ perspective, and not ride too readily with an eye-catching story.

There’s another side to this of course – the excuse it’s given to many with axes to grind on the subject of foreign aid to pile in, using scandal to try and subvert the whole process – arguing that countries would be better off without subventions from outside, without the help of aid workers. There have long been arguments over how aid should be distributed – whether through governments, or channelled direct to local industries, at one level – and as emergency relief, at another level. The sex scandal is now being used to attack the whole aid edifice. We’re back to the closed border, devil-take-the-refugees, approach that corrupted Brexit.

I argued in my last blog for reason and the pursuit of reason, and the importance of compassion to drive that pursuit. I fear reason is being misapplied, and compassion is running short. But that of course is one trouble with ‘reason’. It can be used to support both sides in an argument. The more we know about a subject often means not a wiser more balanced view, but a more strident approach – the information you choose and use to support your argument has been gathered for just that purpose. It’s called confirmation bias.

I argued in my recent post on Orwell for perspective and self-awareness. But they are in short supply just now. Confirmation bias has always been out there, but surely never as stridently as now.

“The people have spoken”

There’s much talk in Britain about sovereignty, about the “will of the people”, and “taking back control”.

Can the will of the people, as expressed in a referendum, be overturned by Parliament? Do we have any clear understanding of what sovereignty entails, and who the people might be, and who will gain control when we take it back?

For many of us, who we mean by “the people” is self-evident. The ordinary person in the street … the silent majority … anyone who isn’t part of the “establishment”, however that might be defined … the “somewheres” as opposed to “anywheres” in David Goodhart’s definition (see Goodhart’s “The Road to Somewhere”) … the readers of certain newspapers … the electorate.

There are many definitions, many ways in which ‘the people’ identify themselves. Putting the issue in an historical perspective may help.

**

We think of Periclean Athens as the first experiment in democracy. It was short-lived and the definition of the people as stakeholders in society was in any event radically limited by notions of status, property ownership and patriarchy. The Roman republic was in theory government by the people, but effectively by a patrician class, only occasionally challenged by “champions of the people” such as the Gracchi brothers and Gaius Marius.

Insofar as power was vested in the people it was at the behest of, on the whim, of a ruling class. 1500 years later Hobbes, Locke and later Rousseau focused on consent – individuals giving consent to government. In the case if Hobbes, to a ruler who held power out of necessity, a necessary constraint given our brutish natures. In the case of John Locke, to constitutional government. Rousseau took the idea of consent a step further: sovereignty lies in a community of citizens co-existing on a free and equal basis within a republic, governed by laws which are founded on the general will of the citizens.

We’ve moved beyond the idea of a royal prerogative, or a divine right to rule, or a simple brute assertion of power. Hobbes focused on a power as necessary constraint, Locke and Rousseau on citizens giving their consent.  The practical expression of consent is engagement in the act of government. The Christian focus the uniqueness of the individual before God with all rights and obligations that implied found expression in a secular context.

Over the last three centuries those who count as individuals in a political sense, as enfranchised citizens, has greatly expanded. But our status as citizens, freely giving our consent, freely engaging in political life, has brought to the fore basic concepts of representative government which we are still wrestling with now – now as much as ever.

We may imagine that active citizenship will ultimately allow us, in the language of the utilitarians, to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But who dictates what happiness is? The individual, or the state? Is there any way in which the general will of the citizens can be expressed in a way to which all citizens and all interests can consent?

Happiness at the individual and community level are not the same thing, as John Stuart Mill made clear. One of Mill’s early essays, Bentham (1838), reflected his utilitarian background, arguing for ‘rationality, system, moral calculation’, and the other, Coleridge (1840), argued for ‘imagination, intuition, moral feeling’. That dichotomy survives today: how willing are we to subordinate our own imagination and liberties to the wider requirements of the state? (See Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea.)

We’re faced with a fundamental question: when we use the term, ‘the people’, who do we mean? In theory the people are individual citizens acting in aggregate. But what form should that take? The people are not the state, nor can the definition be narrowed down to a section of society, be it the working class, the middle class or the old propertied class. No single part of society has any majoritarian rights over another.

In the broadest terms, socialism has identified ‘the people’ with the working class: capitalism alienates and the working man, redefined as the people, will in a recognisably near future come into his own. But there’s a catch: some individual or group must arrogate the right to themselves to determine a socialist agenda, and there can be no guarantee that they or their successors will ever relinquish power.

The conservative mentality on the other hand looks to tradition and custom tied to the land and in more recent times to the paramountcy of the free market. Social experiments and transfers of political power to a wider population carry inherent risk.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy writes in the Journal of the RSA (Royal Society of Arts):

“Our charge is not simply to redistribute wealth but to restore power to those who rightfully own it and, in doing so, offer hope and security in a society that cares more, looks far into the future, is less closed and rigid and, as a consequence, is less closed and rigid.”

Nus Ghani, a Conservative MP, writes in the same issue:

“We need to demonstrate how we understand the country’s problems, what we think about the role of government in people’s lives and how we will use politics to solve everyday problems, using Parliament to ignite debate…”

For Nandy, the prime issue is to restore power to the people; for Ghani, it is how they, as Conservatives, can act as agents of change.

There is a third powerful tradition in British politics, broadly defined as liberal, which takes the individual citizen as its prime focus. It recognises the variety of individuals and aspirations that make up any society, and seeks to give them full expression, while taking into account all the conflicts of interest of daily life. It aims to maintain the distinction between individual citizens and the people as an aggregate, easily open to manipulation.

Francois Guizot, a historian and politician influenced by events in France in the post-Napoleonic period, warned of the dangers of manipulation. (Quotes here are from the excellent summary of Guizot’s ideas in Fawcett, cited above.) While our ideas may be coherent, people are not: we have to work with people as they are. We should treat with great caution any idea of the people as sovereign. ‘The only sovereigns in politics [are] law, justice and reason.’ The people shouldn’t have the final say: ‘public argument about decisions should never stop.’

At the same time, as a conservative liberal he argued for restricting the franchise to the propertied class, for which more radical liberals never forgave him. Likewise, John Stuart Mill, an early advocate of giving women the vote, argued for universal participation in government, but not yet – not until further social change had taken place.

Today we have an unrestricted franchise. Every individual, in theory, has an equal input and benefits from equal outputs. In practice we have an established and broadly liberal elite locking horns with a new and upstart moneyed elite which exerts wide influence through the popular media.

We may have the outward forms of elections and ballots but democracy is about more. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, insists in The Idea of Justice that democracy is “government by discussion”, a term which includes “political participation, dialogue and public interaction”. For Sen the terms “public reasoning” and “democracy” are interchangeable.

The term “the people” can all too easily be localised to an interest group, which may be an elite, a majority or a vociferous minority. It may ride on the back of short-term popularity and seek to make a temporary dominance permanent. In Britain’s 2016 Referendum on leaving the EU the “will of the people” was applied to a 51.9% majority, and that majority was treated as sacrosanct. Even Parliament hitherto seen as the sovereign power could not override it.

Guizot argued that the only sovereigns should be law, justice and reason. Parliament as law-maker has recently been challenged, so too justice: we’ve seen the UK Supreme Court attacked for upholding the rights of parliament by newspapers arguing for the supremacy of a referendum vote over both parliament and the legal system.

Law, justice – and reason. None of us has a monopoly of reason. Both sides of the referendum debate need to be reminded of that. But reason does require debate, continuous debate (“government by discussion” or “public reasoning” to use Sen’s terminology). While arguments can be overturned, the right to debate cannot. And debate is time-consuming, detailed analysis is a slow process, and short cuts are dangerous.

Which side are you on?

Or, put another way, do you need – do we need – to be taking sides at all?

We muddle along in democracies, more or less getting along with each other, tolerant in the sense that we don’t enquire too deeply about each other’s opinions, and preferences and prejudices. We give each other space. Some of my best friends are Tories, or Marxists, Corbynites, or liberals, or whatever…. Then some event comes long which polarises, an event with an emotional charge which takes us by surprise. And if we hadn’t realised before, we know then which side we’re on. We don’t have Civil Wars, inspired by tribe or religion or ideology, or simply survival…. But we do have Brexit.

Brexit is about many things, but maybe the most fundamental is identity. An exchange of letters to The Times involving Roger Scruton and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill puts this neatly into focus. Scruton hopes that Brexit will restore a sense of patriotic identity ‘in a place of belonging which we can identify as our home, where the inhabitants can be trusted, and which is protected by a single sovereign power’.

What’s remarkable about this hinges on one word, ‘restore’. This assumes a loss of identity, and if that’s what in Scruton’s mind, then that’s where it is – in his mind. There’s been an extraordinary amount of press focused on a divide between the UK and Europe, and when it comes to refugees and foreign aid, between the UK and the world. But I don’t for a moment believe that at a deeper level, certainly on the Remain side, we have lost our sense of patriotism.

Scruton is well-known as a philosopher and specifically as a writer on conservatism, the person I’d turn to first for a deeper understanding of the conservative mind. I can connect even if I don’t agree. Hearing him speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival recently I found him affable, gently humorous and lucid in the spoken word in a way he isn’t always in the written. In other words, I want to be on his side.

But I, and countless others, millions I assume, need to explain to him, to insist, that patriotism doesn’t equate with insularity. We patriots are happy in our skin, in our own land, but we’re happy also sharing it with others, and their lands with us.

There is of course another phrase in in Scruton’s letter, quoted above: ‘[a sense of patriotic identity] … which is protected by a single sovereign power’. Maybe there’s the rub – how best to share sovereignty, widen our sovereignty if you will, in an ever more globalised world. But let’s not for a moment elide sovereignty and patriotism, which is what Scruton is doing. It takes us on to dangerous ground.

Wallace-Hadrill quotes a 5th century Roman Orosius, proud of his ability to travel: ‘Among Romans I am a Roman; among Christians a Christian; among humans, a human.’

He continues: ‘Like Orosius I feel proud of my country, but I also enjoy the fact that I can travel freely in Europe as a fellow citizen, and feel a European among Europeans.’

For Orosius the freedom he enjoy was soon to disappear, with barbarian invasion threatening. We will be also be losers, if we exclude ourselves from the EU, and this would be of our own making. The barbarians (and who might they be?) are within the walls.