Serial incompetence

‘The only conclusion is serial incompetence,’ were Keir Starmer’s words when replying to Boris Johnson at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Every government makes egregious mistakes – hovers on the brink from time to time. But incompetence has never been institutionalised, as it is now, from education across to foreign policy. Theresa May’s government hovered close, but she at least had six years as Home Secretary behind her. Johnson’s cabinet has various skills, not least first-class degrees in economics and PPE. But little or none when it comes to government. If competence is the left hand, then the right hand is flair. There is little of that either – maybe one senior minister, and he shall be nameless.

Theresa May relied on Nick Timothy. She wasn’t fully her own person. Boris Johnson relies on Cummings. The last Tsar and the Tsarina relied on Rasputin. Leaders should be their own men, or women. Merkel, Macron, Shinzo Abe are all good examples.

Erdogan (Turkey), Orban (Hungary), Kaczynski (Poland – I’m staying within EU boundaries) are their own men, you could argue. And at another level Xi Jinping and Trump. But they are out and out nationalists, all with an interest in restricting or, worse, suppressing rather than expanding debate.

But if we believe in representative and accountable democracy then it’s the Macrons and Merkels we need. Even a Cameron.

Accountable. That presupposes open debate. A press that presents and represents all shades of opinion. A society that welcomes ideas, and values expertise.

We’ve never been happy with the notion of an intelligentsia in this country. For Michael Gove, attacking expertise, it was an open goal. Universities are a target. Intellectual debate does indeed go down some odd byways. The likes of Douglas Murray find easy targets (post-structuralism, cancel culture), and disparage the wider institution. (15th August, Telegraph headline: ‘British universities have become indoctrination camps.’) If it’s not universities it’s chattering classes.  The problem is elites. We don’t like elites. I wouldn’t argue against that. But when ideas and informed debate are characterised as elitist – then we should worry.

That gives the opening to populism. Single ideas. Single identities. In our case, of course, it’s Brexit. We can’t, it seems, agree on fisheries policy, or state aid. David North is out there not-negotiating hard for a no-deal Brexit. (And as of today there are suggestions the government might renege on the Northern Ireland protocol in last year’s withdrawal agreement.)

Single ideas and identities are by their nature non-negotiable. Finding common ground, working with and not against others, is an alien mindset. Anger drives debate or negotiation. An instinct to confront and disrupt dictates.

Barack Obama set out in 2009 with an agenda of bringing countries together – new agendas for the Middle East, for Africa. Finding common ground. He discovered how difficult that could be.

Coming together in politics is so much harder than pulling apart. The Arab Spring brought that home, and the Syrian outcome was brutal. Obama could claim rapprochement in Cuba and indeed Iran. But it was a small reward for much effort.

The US economy under Obama had recovered well from the 2008 financial crash. It was at the very least (though Republicans of a Trumpian persuasion would disagree) a competent administration with good intentions.

But competence is not enough. Emotion and instinct behind single and easily assimilable ideas set their own agenda. Competence is non-essential.

That said, thinking of the UK, a government characterised by incompetence does at least give its opponents an opening…

‘Ah ’opes tha drops down de’ad’

Back in 1920, Neville Cardus, legendary writer for the old Manchester Guardian on music and cricket (a fine combination) reported on a Lancashire victory in the Roses match at Sheffield. It had been a famous against-the-odds victory.

‘Ah suppose tha’s feelin’ pleased with thisen?’ a Yorkshireman he meets at the station comments. ‘And tha’s goin’ back to Manchester…?’

‘Yes,’ Cardus replies.

‘Well… ah ‘opes tha drops down de-ad before thi gets theer.’

Compare political squabbles in our own time. If only humour could help us.

Anne Applebaum (an American writer married to Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski) refers in her recent book, ‘Twilight of Democracy’, to a dinner party she held back on New Year’s Eve 1999.  They were a group of people, as she describes them, broadly of the right, liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.  

‘Even those who might have been less definite about economics certainly believed in democracy, in the rule of law, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union—an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.’

‘Nearly two decades later,’ she comments, ‘I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. … In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half.’

Brexit brought the same reality to the UK. The right fractured.  The rest of us carry the can. Carry on as best we can. How we got there has been analysed and re-analysed, and the two sides can never agree. What we have is bad blood, which before 2016 simply wasn’t part of our politics.

Disruption, Cummings-style, is a fool’s game. It takes out the middle ground. You have to take sides.  (See my last blog on Orwell.)

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Not always easy, as a big issue of the moment, would-be immigrants trying to cross the Channel, demonstrates. 4000 so far, hardly an invasion, but turned by the right into a defining issue. I’m on the side of the immigrants. Their bravery and determination is extraordinary. But it isn’t, as much of the press portray it, a ‘yes/no’ issue. I’m not in favour of unrestricted immigration. And I’m no fan of people traffickers. A door once open will be an invitation to others to head north across France. Heart and head don’t take me in the same direction. But I’m not looking out for the UK Border Force. Or Priti Patel.  I’m looking out for the immigrants.  

We’ve had TV programmes in recent months on Dominic Cummings, Rupert Murdoch and Fidel Castro. All excellent, so too a five-part series on Iraq, seen through the eyes of Iraqis. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is also much in the news.

Let’s see where they take us.   

Iraq: no issue there. I was always adamantly against the second Iraq War. War never delivers what the instigators imagine it will. Any status quo is a balance of a multitude of interests. Break that balance, and you reap the consequences. Watching Baghdad being torn apart by arson and violence while American soldiers, without a brief to intervene, and therefore powerless, will stay with me for ever. Blair was culpable to a high degree.

Murdoch: how closely the New Labour interest, and Tony Blair, were tied to Murdoch!  A shared enjoyment of power overrode differences. Murdoch’s third wife openly fancied Blair. (Is this relevant, you ask?) This is the Murdoch who in 1996 set up Fox News, which later took up the Tea Party obsessions – and fed the half- and un-truths that opened the way for Trump. And now that free-market Murdoch and protectionist Trump are no longer on the same page, we have the even worse and more mendacious and new Trump favourite, the One Americas News Network. ‘Coronavirus may have been developed in a North Carolina laboratory.’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug…’ See ‘Lexington’ in  The Economist for more on the subject.)

So, yes, you can be worse than Murdoch. But how about Murdoch on climate change. The Murdoch media have been strongly criticised in Australia over their attitude to recent bush fires and the link to climate change. Murdoch claims to be a sceptic, not a denier. There’s something more fundamental here, shared by much of the right – we don’t need to change, we only need to adapt… and if that means re-siting cities and people further from the ocean, then so be it.

Andrew Bolt, a political commentator for News Corp’s Australian newspapers, recently ‘criticised politicians who said carbon emissions needed to be cut to avoid future fires. “As if that would stop a fire. You’d have to be a child like Greta Thunberg to believe that fairytale.”’ (Quoted in The Guardian.)

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Before I get to Cummings, there’s Rishi Sunak. I admire the guy. Almost. He’s bright, and on top of his brief, uniquely so it seems among the current shower that masquerade as a cabinet. Curiously, given the Brexiteers loathing of expertise and specifically the Oxford PPE degree – that was Sunak’s degree. He didn’t join the Tories at Oxford, but chose the Investment Club instead. He’s a natural wheeler and dealer. Sailing quite close to the wind working for hedge funds, though of all hedge funds the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) wasn’t a bad one to be involved with.

As an example of his mindset, he’s long been a proponent of free ports, where goods can be shipped in, and shipped out, and turned into finished goods in the meantime, without incurring tariffs, which isn’t likely to increase overall revenues or employment, but may shift our manufacturing locations around a little.

Free ports sounds good, they’re an easy sell. But it’s the hinterland, the old industrial heartlands, the off-the-radar towns and cities, on which we should be focusing.

Free ports would be impossible under EU rules. But, surely, not a reason for leaving the EU…

You could say he’s the right guy for improvising short-term measures, but the wrong guy for a balanced vision of where the country might be headed. But, to be fair, let’s say the jury is out on that one.

Sunak wrote a paper on free ports for the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank, back in 2016. As a brief but significant aside – another right-wing think-tank, Policy Exchange, launched a new research project, ‘History Matters’ this June.  It featured a poll in which 67 % of people opposed Churchill’s statue being sprayed with graffiti. (See William Davies’s article, ‘Who am I prepared to kill?’, in the London Review of Books.) People were also asked if British history is ‘something to be proud of’ or ‘something to be ashamed of’?

‘Yes/no’ questions of this kind serve no purpose other than to polarise.

This isn’t a game played as far as I’m aware by Sunak. His lack of interest in politics at Oxford suggests that he may not be a born-to-the-role polariser.

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Which brings me to Dominic Cummings, the subject of an excellent BBC documentary (Taking Control: the Dominic Cummings Story) presented by Emily Maitlis.

What came through is that if there is any skill he has above all others it is mis-representation to achieve a particular outcome.

First, back in 2004, there was John Prescott’s attempt to establish a regional assembly in the north-east of England. Cummings organised opposition to the referendum on the issue on the basis of distrust of politicians. ‘The equating of money spent on more politicians instead of doctors resonated … It isn’t about, to the penny, what slogan you use about the NHS. It’s about the principle of it,’ as a Nesno (North-East Says No) video put it.

Cummings’ campaign was one of calculated mis-representation. Allowable, he might argue, in a greater cause. After a few wilderness years he found himself in cahoots with the arch-opposer of any expertise save his own, Michael Gove – and the debacle which is free schools was the result. And the appalling stigma they tried to plant on the teaching profession at large, employing an expression borrowed cheaply from the USA – the Blob. And then Brexit, and taking back a ‘control’ we‘d never lost, and losing far more in the process. Easy notions of disruption.  A government of innocents led by an all-knowing arch-innocent.

And as far the other BBC documentary I mentioned above, on Fidel Castro: I was rooting for him. Not because of what Cuba became – an almost police state. But because of what it avoided becoming – an offshore version of all that’s worst about big-spending America – exploiting and using smaller nations. The USA’s record from Guatemala to Chile was appalling.

Anti-Cuba rhetoric appeals to the big number of Cuban expatriates in Florida – so is always a part of presidential campaigns. Biden if elected will revert to Obama’s more conciliatory policy.

From Cummings to Cuba, to Florida, to the US election, to a trade deal with the USA, which our government has no choice but to prioritise as trade with the EU, and with China, falls away … and we get to where Cummings and the old free marketers always wanted to be – a US-style open market, only it will be rather smaller than they imagined, and in the eyes of the world we will be much-reduced, as indeed we already are.

So, yes, we have to take sides. And avoid at all costs the blandishments of Murdoch, and a few other newspapers, and so many others on social media, who make it all seem so black and white, and so easy.

Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)

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Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?

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We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

Seize the day

‘And then every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency; new possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society re-emerges and – at least for a little while – shines.’ (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 3rd ed 2016)

We’ve had a week of protest in American cities following the murder of George Floyd. It’s at another level compared to anything I can remember – even compared to Chicago in 1968. Protests continue against police brutality and the wider issues connected with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coronavirus, fear on the one hand, jobs under threat, or already disappeared, on the other, is also a very real, and divisive, issue. And there’s Donald Trump, stoking the fires.

America has again that sense that change might be possible. In 2008, Obama just elected, we’d a sense of a vision which might be actualised. (And maybe it would rub off a little in the UK and Europe. ) Now it’s simply that the need for change must be more than recognised, it must be acted on. I don’t want to look at possible agendas for change. Americans can do that better than Brits. But what we as Brits, and Europeans, want to see is the USA coming together again. Politicians of different persuasions speaking to each other, devising common agendas.

And that is hard, just because the American hard right has pushed a defensive, free-market at all costs, and fundamentally anti-intellectual agenda. A white American agenda. Racism engrained, inherited wealth a sign of blessing, poverty the result of indolence. The courting of the ‘theo-cons’, the religious right, and their supposedly divinely-blessed socially-conservative agenda, with Trump picking up and bearing their standard in the most naked display of self-interest in American history.

What has suffered are ideas and argument and debate. As with all populist regimes, in Europe and the UK. Working in book publishing for the last few decades I saw it coming with the emergence of a new strand of avowedly right-wing publishing in the USA, a reaction to what was seen as a liberal consensus. The ‘problem’ with a liberal consensus is that it is about inclusion, about opportunity for all, and about safety nets, in the best Beveridge tradition, and indeed it seeks consensus. Trickle-down economics as a story gave Reaganite economics credibility for a while. Rising inequality has given the lie to that. In the UK as the USA. No more Peter Mandelson: ‘We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’ (Though, to be fair, he did add, ‘as long as they pay their taxes.’ And that’s another big big issue.)

Argument and debate can in the current climate only get us so far. We now have a desire for change. Not just in the USA. But a wider desire, across countries and issues, as we come out of coronavirus much more aware of who really matters, and what really matters, in society. (We’ve a government which wants to get us back on to the same old rails, as soon as possible, though it’s looking possible, given their incompetence that they might go completely off the rails in the process.)

Status and pay for nurses and social care workers – and, for example, supermarket shelf-stackers, who are also taking risks, as key workers. This requires a new and radical activism. But street demos aren’t an option. Here at least. Only – not so. Thousands demonstrated yesterday in support of US demonstrators, and with their own ‘Black Lives Matter’, here in the UK as well, agenda. It may be that causes can combine, and a wider activism generate real hope and expectation for change. And renewed hope can in turn generate activism.

In this country we’ve also seen the despair, so under-reported, that’s resulted from austerity measures in recent years. However grand the current government’s spending plans are, restoring some of the more brutal austerity cuts hasn’t been been considered.

Now has to be the time to break out. To get active. Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ was first published in 2004, and a primary focus was the anti-Iraq War movement of 2003. The war happened, with terrible consequences, but there have been many other instances where pressure from below, from outsiders, has seeded change. Solnit writes, ‘Activism can itself generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns always from corruption at the centre to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges on your side.’

Climate change already has its heroes. A wider activism will generate a few more. Who they will be in this country only time will tell. And we should include, not exclude. Hard practical agendas as well as wild possibilities. I’ve hopes Labour under Keir Starmer might take a lead. But let’s not exclude renegade Tories. At a street level, there will be new leaders and new movements. As the anti-war movement demonstrated they may get nowhere. But there is now an opportunity, of a kind we haven’t seen for quite a while.

The USA has at least an election coming up, focusing minds as almost never before. We are lumbered with our least-liberated government for a generation or two. But given evidence of an almost unprecedented level of incompetence, and a Brexit agenda radically unsuited to the times, who can tell where our politics might lead.

All we know is we have uncertain times, massively uncertain. And we should not them slip by without turning them to our advantage.

 

Zen and democracy

How might Zen, and Zen practice, connect with democracy? 

Let Zen be clarity, clear-thinking. That space, in Zen terms, that original space, before thoughts crowd in, and one thought leads to another, and back, and tangentially to others. We lose track, surrender judgement, make easy moral judgements, and take the short cuts that characterise a cynical mind. Hamlet had it right: ‘… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

Zen, and Buddhism more widely, puts other people on a par with self. Recognises compassion as our pre-eminent instinct. And once you escape self, and all the anxieties that attach, something akin to joy is revealed as innate. Not a manic or euphoric joy. Not a high, which presupposes a low to follow. You don’t have to badger yourself into being positive. It comes naturally

It’s Sunday morning. So let the sermon end here.

How might Zen connect with politics? Must it be political? First and foremost, Zen is democratic. It consults the interests of everyone. Democracy so defined is not the least-worst form of government, but as near to a miracle as you can get. And it is our ultimate challenge. How can we build out from family and locality, where we meet and consult and agree (that of course is a challenge in itself!), to national and international platforms? That will always be our challenge, renewed with every generation, with no neat Social Darwinian conclusion. No paradise, no for-all-time solution, awaits us. But it takes out our biggest enemies – the cynical mind and the lazy mind.

They are not always easy to spot. Julian Fellowes, who we all love as a conjuror of a romanticised past (and I’ll be watching Belgravia tonight), had a rant recently about how ‘the BBC, the National Theatre, the National Trust … have all been speaking with one voice. They are the left-of-centre metropolitan elite.’ ‘A kind of Hampstead voice.’

So easily does good sense get dismissed. But he claims not to take sides in these social battles. ‘I just watch people behave and how they respond… enjoy watching … human situations play out’. So, it seems, our lot takes sides, and they don’t. What depresses me is that Fellowes is a Tory peer. We need Tory politicians of the old school, who engage with ideas. Fellowes too casually allows the new-wave of doctrinaire small-state Tories take over the field. (One of the things that impressed me reading Peter Hennessy’s Never Again, about the early 1960s, is the way Harold Macmillan engaged with issues, and brought to bear the kind of intellect so obviously lacking now.)

Small state – that takes me back to my last post. We’ve a new Labour leader, with commitments to re-nationalising. He may or may not be right. Hard-core free-market economics, notionally ‘rational’ markets, matched against the beneficent hand of the state, which may, or may not, be the slippery slope which Friedrich Hayek warned against in The Road to Serfdom. It may just be that the way forward is that accursed ‘Hampstead’ weighing of arguments, seeking out a middle ground, which allows the wisest decisions – whereby, maybe, we re-nationalise railways, or in some way ‘re-involve’ the state, and subsidise the Royal Mail, but allow public utilities to stay private, under closer supervision. Or more or less, or all or none, of the above.

Big state, or small state. Both are predicated on dominant leadership. Which isn’t the same as strong leadership, which every democracy needs. British democracy is accountable democracy. That’s why it has inspired the world. I read an interesting article (Hal Foster, London Review of Books) recently about Albert Jarry’s wild and subversive play, Ubu Roi. Forgive the Freudian references. I liked it because it took me close to the dangers a cult of the leader can pose for democracy.

Ubu is ‘a travesty of sovereignty… both father and baby, both sovereign and beast; he represents the authoritarian leader as monster infant…akin to the “primal father”, the almighty patriarch who is shame-free to boot … we submit to the leader as authority and envy him as outlaw. Trump is one part Pere Ubu, one part primal father; so are Duterte, Bolsonaro, Putin…’  I’d add Xi Jinping. Boris needs to be wary he doesn’t head down the same path.

Mention of Boris reminds me of his alter ego, Dom Cummings. I’m a believer in disruption. Climate change, conservation of natural habitats and water supply, farming methods, demographics, all need radical and change-making thinking. Such matters are secondary for Cummings. He loves disruption for its own sake, and imagines he has answers where no-one else does. Pride and presupposition are dangerous attributes. Backed by big money and a loud-mouthed media they can turn a democracy. And vested interests then seek to ensure the turning is entrenched, and becomes a new normal.

And finally – the virus. How do you deal with pandemics? We were, arguably, too slow to respond in this country, and thousands of unnecessary deaths may be the consequence of that. The decisions government made were ‘science-based’. But other nations have interpreted the ‘science’ differently and acted more quickly. How much did politics influence the science? Did an instinct natural to this government cause it to delay intervention, ‘with the idea (quoting David Runciman) that hasty government intervention is often counter-productive’. This may, or may not, make for an interesting, and important, discussion in future.

Over the pond we have Trump, worried that damage to the economy could damage his re-election chances. Democratic governors are being pilloried as too cautious. In this country there is a high degree of unanimity about putting public health first. In the USA the virus has become just another part of the Great Divide.

If I wanted to cheer myself up writing this – cheer you up – I’ve failed. Democracy isn’t an easy path. And you can’t simply turn over a stone and find joy bubbling away underneath. But putting the other guy first,  looking for the common ground rather than pandering to someone’s personal ambition – they are useful starting-points.

Where do we go from here?

This is a long post, and I apologise for that. But there is a lot of ground to cover. The 12th December election was a turning-point. I want to establish points of departure. To put down, issue by issue, policy area by policy area, where we are now, as I understand it. And to take a view, from an avowedly liberal standpoint, on whether the government on the evidence available is competent to handle those issues.

Over the coming months I mean to return to some of the points made here, and see how the government is faring – and see if my judgements are correct. Or otherwise. I will try and be fair!

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The key issues for the next five years: should we rejoice, be angry, or simply despair?

Did I collapse in despair, or rise up in anger? No, I surprised myself. Two days before the election, I’d been talking to LibDem supporters in Cheltenham and they were gloomy: their polling put the Tories 2% ahead. On my drive back home that day I reconciled myself to the reality, that politics would be anything but Zen-like in the years to come. The Tories would win, and handsomely. I could continue to be angry, or I could keep my cool. Hold firm to my ideas, beliefs and aspirations.  Let events unfold, influence them in my own small way if I could, and see where they take me.

Boris Johnson thought Brexit an impossible idea when asked at Davos in 2014. Who knows where we might be in 2024?

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‘Should we rejoice,’ I ask above. Well, hardly. But let’s be positive. There may be, just maybe, some good news. The Tories will have to tack to the centre, even to the left, to keep on board the support that’s been loaned to them in Yorkshire and the North East. The NHS will get extra funding. But not at Blair-years levels of increase. And will it be thrown at the existing players – GPs and hospitals, when it is health and social care at every level that Tory administrations over the last almost ten years have brought into crisis?

Where are the beds for those well enough to leave hospital, but with nowhere to recuperate? Will the funding be there to relaunch the childcare, daycare and other facilities closed down during the austerity years?  To match the spending assessments allocated to local councils for social services not just to existing expenditure, but to the higher levels of expenditure that everyone recognises are required, not least for support for the elderly? Put another way, will the funding be token – or transformative? Will it be case of, ‘what can we get away with’? Or will commitment be total, and even passionate?

Johnson has promised proposals for later this year, but ‘asked for a date for action to finally be taken to improve social care, Mr Johnson said: “We will certainly do it in this parliament”.’ (Independent). The vagueness is absolute.

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Infrastructure: big investment is needed, and might be good news, although HS2 is a poor starter by way of priorities. An infrastructure plan needs to be pumping funds into the North-West, well north of Manchester, into the North East, well north of Leeds – and it may be fifteen years before a link to Leeds is completed. And the South-West.  And Wales. The big hubs already have train and air links. The areas in between and at the peripheries should have equal if not greater priority.

Race and gender: there’s no evidence that the Tories will seek to unwind any of the changes of the few decades. But there is a hard core of Tory support that is seriously socially conservative, and wary if not intolerant of change. Arguments will be heated on the subject of political correctness, campus bans and the like. (Social conservatism is a fundamental instinct, and one I connect to. Not all change is wise! How far can we take the absolute liberty of the individual? When is intolerance just that – intolerance?)

Referenda: the curse of our political system. The one-off vote driven by half-truths, lies and misrepresentation, to which we all have to hold as if it is the voice of, the will of the people. The good news – the Tories sure as hell won’t want another for a good few years. They have the parliamentary majority, and it isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Mandate: however much we might query his means Johnson has a clear mandate. From that comes stability. Things can at last get done. And we’ve a sense of urgency, or at least the appearance of one. Will it all in the end be dissipated by the muddle and machinations of Brexit? Will things indeed ‘get done’?

Luck:  Johnson has also had luck on his side. The caution engendered by the financial crisis and austerity has disappeared as in a puff of smoke. A fairy godmother? Does Johnson have one? Is he lucky, or does he make his own luck?  Greased pig was the appellation The Economist gave to him a month or two ago. He slides through obstacles, and nothing sticks to him. Is he that rare thing, a genius, as Charles Moore suggests? Should we give him his head, and see where he takes us?

*

Which takes us to the bad news.  There are vast issues out there, and I touch on many, maybe most, of them below.  There are few signs, as of now, that the new government has the nous or the commitment to deal with them. It is in fundamentals a continuation of what has gone before. Ten years of Tory rule. (The first five years somewhat constrained.) The government would have us believe that it is entirely new, and its ministers a new breed. Taking a fresh look at all problems. A dubious proposition. But let us, for now, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership: Johnson is talking of a Golden Age, when first we have to climb out of a mire which he maybe more than anyone has dumped us in. A leader who took up the cudgels on behalf of ‘the people’, as the tabloid press defined it, against parliament, and against the Supreme Court as well.

So, to return to my question above, do we give him his head? As an opportunist, without any broad understanding public affairs, on all evidence to date, of course we shouldn’t. Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. Compare Churchill, Johnson’s hero, we’re told. Churchill anticipated a crisis and was brought in to resolve it. Johnson was a prime mover in creating our current crisis – and now he’s proclaimed as new Moses to lead us out of it.

The total dominance of one party. The utter incompetence of the main opposition. The side-lining of the LibDems. BBC won the election – Boris, Brexit and Corbyn. Corbyn won it for the Tories. All the other Far Left madcaps who think that all they need to do in time is somehow infiltrate the institutions, take over the system. Achieve ‘cultural hegemony’.  (This was Gramsci’s term. Gramsci was a Marxist, but it has a resonance for a few Tory ideologues as well. See below.)

Education: more money, but if that old Govean (Michael Gove ‘deserves an adjective) shibboleth of choice continues to hold sway then money will go to the good and excellent schools, and the free schools. Schools only registering satisfactory or below will find funding reduced still further on a per capita basis. Pupils from disadvantaged areas will continue to be disadvantaged.

Four years, maybe five, maybe longer: that’s the period of time Brexit has dominated affairs, and taken out minds off all the big issues we should have been focusing on. Important issues haven’t been addressed, important legislation has simply never happened. It will be hard to catch up.

Meritocracy: social mobility will get lip service and no more. The ordinarily well-off, the top quartile maybe of the population, will make certain they hang on to what they’ve got. Independent schools offer big advantages. Rather than their abolition (which simply at a practical level would be massively damaging) and trading down we have to focus on the state sector trading up. But there’s little sign of it happening. No government in recent times has come anywhere near getting the measure of the problem. State education may be marginally better funded under Johnson. But the benefits of the best teaching, the best preparation for university, good contacts when you leave university – they all work, and will continue to work, to the advantage of the affluent.

Social justice: where do you draw the line between ensuring people have incentives to work and providing safety net in the event of misfortune? George Osborne muddled austerity with cutting back benefits. Skivers were a popular theme in the press. Benefit fraud. Benefit tourism. Universal Credit has been implemented with a startling lack of understanding of its consequences, or the suffering caused. The bedroom tax was a mean spirit incarnate. There are no plans for any of the cuts in benefits to be re-instated. What I don’t see in the new Tory dispensation is much sign of compassion for the underdog. If Johnson wants to be a one-nation conservative he needs to strike a better balance between enterprise and compassion than his predecessors. This is difficult territory. But the bottom line has to be – compassion. Without it, all else that governments achieve is worthless.

Enterprise: maybe this should be under the ‘good news’ section above. Cutting business rates, which is in the Queen’s Speech, and maximising incentives for small businesses, are essentials. I’m a great believer in not-for-profit social enterprises, but the pursuit of profit is, for now at least, what drives this planet. The issue is how this can be squared with a vast reduction in emissions, a radical approach to conservation and resource depletion, and a re-balancing of wealth, in a way that improves living standards worldwide whilst avoiding crippling the planet.  The longer-term issue is how the planet can be re-educated away from its delight in profit and ever-increasing consumption. Is, indeed, there a remote chance of it ever happening? Don’t expect to see this government leading that debate.

The media. Johnson is talking of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee. The Tories grumble about BBC bias. So does Labour of course. And the LibDems don’t even get to join the big boys’ debates. (How much did being pushed to the margins affect the LibDems final vote?) Decriminalising will be a first step toward turning the BBC into another pay-TV channel, another Sky or similar. That’s a popular scenario with the Tory right. They have their newspapers, maybe 80% of the press is Tory-owned and wears its allegiance in a very public way. The centre and left have the Mirror and Guardian, and the ‘i’. But they are, in terms of absolute numbers, small players. Check out any newsstand.

The right-wing press will, as they have during four years of Brexit argument, continue to control the public debate through tub-thumping and a cavalier approach to truth. It will take multiple disasters before the Mail abandons its allegiance to whatever prejudice or distortion is likely to have the biggest appeal.

[20th December] The government has now banned cabinet ministers from appearing on the Today programme. (Nick Robinson was an ardent Tory at school.) I guess they don’t want to be interrogated and found wanting. Ensure, with the tabloids on your side, that your press is always favourable. Sky, being Murdoch owned, will never push criticism too far. ITV and C4 have good reasons to be cautious. The Tory take on the BBC is that it’s part of the urban liberal establishment. The rest of us may view it as the last best hope for intelligent debate in the country. But that is, of course, what’s at stake. If the anti-liberal establishment trope really takes hold then plans to scrap the licence fee will become even easier to put into law… That’s the way, no doubt, Tory thinking goes.

[20th December]  Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Kent, came out for Brexit as a populist revolt a while back.  He did his own polling, he tells us. ‘Leavers knew what they were doing,’ as he put it. People were well aware that Brexit involved ‘risks’. So they factored that into their vote for Brexit. But ‘risk’ as we know was played down so as to be almost non-existent in Brexit propaganda. Risk can only be quantified and made real if people see it at work in tangible form in the day-to-day. And poor economic performance is easily disguised: we trundle on as ever. But put us against other countries: we’ve failed by that test already and there’s little doubt based on all independent forecasts that we will slip further behind in future.  (The government promises us the opposite of course: ‘a glorious future’. We shall see.)

There is a further worry. As long as the press is solidly right-wing, and even more now that the press and the parliamentary majority are aligned, there is a real danger that the balance of opinion in our politics, the frame within which it operates, may shift rightwards. (See the reference to ‘cultural hegemony’ above.) Liberal values of openness and equality may be risk if a government forces through a hard-right neo-liberal agenda. The British electoral system, with its five-year election cycle, has in recent times always held parties in check. The electorate has to be persuaded, cannot be bludgeoned. I’m less sure that this will still be the case over the next five or ten years. This could be the biggest and most worrying game-changer of all.

Roger Scruton, the leading Conservative philosopher, died a few days ago. I’ve long recognised him as a redoubtable advocate of Conservatism , with a capital C, and disparager of the values of liberal democracy. ‘The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible, any more than were the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution.’  I’d seen him in fine form at the Cheltenham Literature Festival eighteen months ago. But his obituaries also highlighted his recent receipt of the Hungarian Order of Merit from Viktor Orban, the ever-more autocratic prime minister of Hungary, and champion of ‘illiberal democracy’. Given Hungarian attacks on a free press and the judiciary under Orban this is a worrying connection. We are a long way from an Orban-style democracy in this country, but there is a strand of Conservative thinking that gives cause for concern.

Democracy is also about local government of course. There’s much talk of a Northern Powerhouse. Direct funding for infrastructure. Major funding increases for the NHS and in time we’d hope social care – but this is central government funding. Will any consideration be given to extending local democracy? To involving people more closely with what happens in their own backyard? Or will localities be bought off by a hike in central government funding?

If the divide between right and centre and left in the media was no more than political we could all relax just a little. Focus on the arguments. But fake news and false alarms, marginal opinions consistently given equivalence with mainstream, the disparagement of expertise, they have been Brexit bread and butter over the last four years.

Law and order. There’s already talk of ECJ judgements being brought back under UK jurisdiction, with serious and unthought-through consequences. The Oxford historian Vernon Bogdanor suggests that in a post-Brexit world we will need some kind of British constitution. Sections of the press may for now hold off from further attacks on judges and the rule of law. But legislating for a constitution might open up a vast new can of worms. That apart, parliament and the executive shouldn’t be at odds for a few years. There should be no need for the Supreme Court to be involved. On the debit side there’s a worrying Tory manifesto promise to ‘update’ the Human Rights Act: intervening to achieve the ‘proper balance’ between the rights of individuals, national security and the government. Whatever ‘proper balance’ might mean.

The prison system: building more jails, locking more people up. Prison welfare, and rehabilitation, and increasing the number of prison officers: that’s not the way Tory talk about the system goes. The Tory knee-jerk response to the London Bridge stabbings suggest that we may well move rapidly in the wrong direction. Likewise Priti Patel’s comments on wanting criminals ‘literally to feel terror’ before breaking the law.

I mentioned fiddling the system. Under Cameron there was much discussion about boundary changes. Advocates on the right have claimed the system penalises them. It takes fewer Labour voters to elect an MP than it does Tory voters. I’m not sure that overall figures bear this out, or if they did once, they may do so no longer – but with one party in power for long periods who knows what might happen.

Brexit itself. I thought for a moment Johnson might feel able to sideline MPs the European Reform Group (ERG). Keep open the option of extending the departure date after 31st December 2020. But he’s legislating to tie himself into that date. (Legislation can of course easily be rescinded by another Act.) Is he playing a game here? Playing tough for now, more moderate further down the line, when the ERG have all but gone to sleep? (Unlikely, I have to admit.)

Once upon a time Johnson was a liberal, centrist Tory. Has he cast off this cloak for good? If power is his aim, then principle may be secondary. A cavalier approach to a hard Brexit suggests opportunism, and a ‘beggar the consequences’ attitude. It may on the other hand be pragmatism. Johnson likes sailing close to the wind, and tacking only when he has to. He’s been clever at ensuring that opprobrium doesn’t stick to him. See earlier my comments on his ‘greased pig’ attributes.

Acolytes: I have in particular Dominic Cummings in mind. Who was at Johnson’s side on election night? Dom, of course. With his laptop.  ‘Taking back control’ was a great slogan. No matter that any gain in ‘control’ is minimal, and our loss of influence a disaster. But he’s the kind of guy who does ‘cut through the crap’. I read that he’s been telling senior civil servants what they should be reading. And he has big ideas on military procurement, and wants to take on the generals and military establishment. See below.  And there’s also Isaac Levido, the Aussie who organised polling and research for the Tory campaign. He it was who was behind climate-change-sceptic Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in the recent Aussie election. He may be a decent guy. But supporting Scott Morrison?

Immigration will be based around a points-system. Aussie style. (Aussies again.) We will get only the brightest and best. I haven’t yet heard how we will get our fruit picked, or our hotels manned, or how other concerns which rely on cheap immigrant labour will function. We will be even more nation of parasites: attracting the best from elsewhere, the cost to the countries giving us their trained and educated doctors and technicians and nurses, and whoever else, being of little concern of us.

Immigration control can be dressed up as an entirely necessary response to job losses (for which there is little hard evidence) and EU citizens’ access to the NHS (though immigrants are in reality net contributors). But it is at a deeper level a fear of foreigners, a closing of doors. The UK recast for our time as ‘little England’. (I’m leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland out advisedly.)

Influence. Johnson will make his mark on the world stage through his bluster. But will anyone listen beyond what they have to? Has he – will he have – any moral authority? Will other countries look to him as someone who might lead? Can we regain the influence we had in Europe? Or the UN? Can we justify any more our permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Once we wrote or co-wrote the rules by which the EU ran itself. Now at best we will be lobbyists. To be listened to, or not, as others dictate. To move beyond that is perhaps Johnson’s greatest challenge. If he succeeds, as some believe he might, if he halfway succeeds, that will be a mighty achievement.

Trade: Brexit deals with the EU. Or not, if we can’t agree to align with EU regulations. Forget about services for now. 330 million Americans and a big-stick president. 447 million (not including the UK) citizens of EU member states. 1.4 billion Chinese. 67 million Brits. Wonderful trade deals are guaranteed. The best terms. And if another party wants to cheat or offload or renege or cancel, we can shrug and walk away and find someone else to do business with… There is madness here. And what kind of deal will we ultimately get out of Trump? We have few cards to play, and much to lose.

Business: ensuring that corporate taxes are paid in the countries where sales happen, and aren’t routed though low-tax countries. Issues of pay and business ethics. The priority given to dealing with vast and growing inequalities, as much in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, or indeed the 5%, as in salaries.

Social media and automation: should the big social media companies, Facebook and the like, where there are issues of both taxation and size, be broken up? Where their influence is malign, how can that be tackled? Automation – the other great transformative issue: what will the workplace look like in ten and twenty years’ time, and how can we best prepare when there’s so much uncertainty around the issue.

The European Union: maybe this should have come at the head of the list. But I’d have been re-running all the reasons for not leaving. The question has to be – how to retain what influence we have left, and regain some of what we’ve lost. We have made ourselves look foolish in the eyes of EU countries, and the wider world. Decisive government now will help claw back some credibility – but prestige and influence are another matter. Beyond lip service, does Johnson really want to be good neighbours with the EU? (He and the new Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, were all smiles recently.) Or by preference a nagging offshore critic? How ‘open’ does Johnson want the country to be.

Peter Pomerantsev in the current Prospect has a definition of the European project which I can subscribe to: ‘… a project whose aim is not some woolly cosmopolitanism, but a way of squaring the circle of nationalism and the need for cooperation in a crowded continent. “European” is a way of doing things, a constant effort to understand others and compromise, to smooth polarisation.’

Can we continue to support this idea, without having any direct involvement in its realisation? Is it a project that Johnson and his government can in any way, even as outsiders, subscribe to? We will be big losers if we can’t.

Brexit has seen the EU compared to the 16th century Papacy as a malign force. Free trade as Brexiters interpret it and free trade following the Repeal of the Corn Laws have also had an airing, as if there were a relevant connection. And recently we’ve had comparisons between the gloom about Britain’s future after losing our American colonies and pessimism about our future post-Brexit. If we were wrong to be gloomy back then, then we are wrong to be gloomy now. The logic is overwhelming…  That misuse, misreading, of history, is one of the troubling aspects of the new Tory dispensation.

[20th December]  USA: how will our relations with the USA evolve over the next five years? Does any of this matter? There is a little discussed instinctual divide in the UK – between those who are natural, for good or ill, Europeans, and those who feel more attuned to the American way of life. Johnson claimed in 2016 that he could sing Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth, with the best of us. But that’s not the point. We’re endlessly doused with American popular culture. Not the high-brow stuff. And the American economy is a gung-ho unregulated paradise, isn’t it? Tory free traders have no choice but to love America: all other boats are burnt. A tilt to America is certain to happen: how blatant it is, how much we have to toady to Trump, we will see. And if a Democratic president gets elected next November… well, that will be interesting.

[2nd January]  The American election primaries are about to get underway. I reference a Californian friend in her Christmas letter. She hopes that the hit taken by a hard-left-dominated Labour in our election will get through to an American left seeking to secure the nomination for an Elizabeth Warren, or someone of similar opinions. If the left comes over scary then centrist opinion might yet plump for Trump.

[2nd January]  Defence: where does the recent announcement of the sale of the British defence company, Cobham (aerial refuelling an area where they are world leaders), to the American company Advent fit in the scheme of things? ‘It came [quoting The Times] after Advent proposed a series of legal undertakings designed to mitigate potential national security concerns, including protecting sensitive government information, and giving notice to the government of future sale plans.’ Rarely have I read anything less convincing. (Expressions like ‘mitigate’, and ‘giving notice’.) It is the business secretary, the redoubtable Andrea Leadsom, who announced the deal. Not, note, the defence secretary. Business, to be entirely cynical, comes first. But does it matter if the long-term plan is to tie our defence ever-more-closely to the USA? France and other European nations may see the advantage of an alternative EU defence establishment given an increasingly untrustworthy transatlantic partner. But not the UK of Boris Johnson.

[14th January]  The UK sits on the fence over the USA taking out  Qassem Soleimani. Johnson hedges over support for the Iran agreement of which, with the USA, the UK, France and Germany were co-signatories. ‘Mr Johnson said the Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a superior “Trump deal” – as he shrugged off being shut out of the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani.’ (Independent)

Agriculture: Michael Gove had big ideas as Environment Secretary for a subsidy scheme based around environmental impact rather than acreage of land under cultivation. How this works out now we shall see. The polluter pays principle would be a useful one to enshrine in policy – big farmers/landowners would take a hit. On the other hand sheep farmers and the Welsh rural economy could also be hit hard. I rate Gove’s competence, though not always his ideas – thinking back to his time as Education Secretary. He is of course no longer in charge of agriculture… The jury has to be out on this one. Fishing: there will be a big squabble between the EU and the UK.

Defence [2]: I mentioned above that Cummings wants to take on the generals and military establishment on policy and procurement. With two hugely over-cost mega-sized aircraft carriers … the American strike fighters (with problems of their own) which fly from the carriers not yet delivered … and only three destroyers available to defend the carriers when even the six there should be might not be enough given the capabilities of the long-range missiles both the Russians and Chinese have in development  … You can see his point. If Cummings can help Johnson make better sense of our defences then they will both deserve serious accolades. That is a very big ‘if’. But better the Tories on defence than Labour, who would have been clueless.

Civil service: Cummings also wants to take on the Civil Service. We can all agree that tenures for both politicians as secretaries of state and civil servants as department heads can be too short. We need expertise. But as Matthew Parris and others have pointed out, the difficulties lie more with politicians. The Civil Service has to advise on what’s feasible and what can indeed be actually implemented. The argument is worth making, but Cummings, I fear, is showing off.

Climate change: no such qualification on climate change. Can we have any confidence in the Tories? Maybe Johnson will blaze a trail, show his centrist, liberal, wide-world-aware credentials. But to his right he has the doubters writing in the Daily Mail and Telegraph: the British public we’re told just won’t wear all the disruption that would follow from serious engagement with climate change. Business, a Telegraph writer argued, is taking the lead – when it is increasing pressure from public opinion that’s driving business. Yes, the government is committed to zero net emissions by 2050. But we need to be radically engaged as of now. Carbon trading, support for countries at risk from sea level rise, tighter targets all round. The big issues left unresolved in Madrid recently.  

And what of conservation? The decline of species as mankind penetrates ever further into the last recesses of nature. And the other big issues of our time, closely related to climate and habitat – population growth, migration, and associated resource depletion. Are we now in the hands of a government and ministers who are at the ‘technology can handle it’ end of the spectrum? Trust technology to find a way. Whatever the cost. Or will they seek to take the lead on the world stage – and in Glasgow, at the next climate conference, next autumn. Have no truck with Trump.

There’s one big issue I haven’t mentioned. It could dominate the headlines in a year of two’s time. Scottish independence – the possibility of another vote. If Johnson refuses, how will the SNP, how will an all-SNP city like Glasgow, respond? Scotland wants of course to stay in the EU. As does Northern Ireland: the Irish border may become a big issue sooner rather than later, as for the Northern Irish closer relations with the Irish Republic come to seem a better option than a dysfunctional GB.

And finally, what about values, about who we are as people? Will we be, as is claimed, as open to the world after Brexit as before? Or will our focus be on self-interest, on narrowly defined UK interest? Will equality of opportunity and capability be core values? Social justice. Social mobility, with all its implications for a balancing of education provision and employment opportunities.  The dignity of every human being, in the poorest corner of our own land and every land. That’s easy to say of course, much harder to act on. But it’s not a bad starting-point. When we put care and compassion ahead of fear and anxiety and a closing of doors.

Citizens of the UK, of Europe and the world. Not for Theresa May, but for millions of us that’s who we are. And will remain, EU member state or not. That will for me the ultimate criterion. How we, and how I as a citizen, fulfil each of these roles.

The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton – and the UK

‘…the best commentary on the principles of government ever written’.  (Thomas Jefferson)

That marvellous musical, Hamilton, has taken me back to the Federalist Papers, not normally the subject for an Englishman. They are remarkable in every way – high principle and skilled argument, without any apparent pressure of faction or dominant individuals (though that was there of course), arguing for a sustainable and, for the standards of its time, remarkably representative republic.  The very nature of the post-revolutionary America was at stake: a nascent republic pitched against a powerful anti-federalist movement.

There were extraordinary men to meet the challenge, not least Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the two principle authors of the Papers.

I quote passages from the Papers below. They are desperately relevant, and readily overlooked, in the USA today. They are also directly relevant to the UK.

Hamilton asks at the beginning of Federalist 1 ‘whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice [my italics], or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force’.

Madison in Federalist 10 argues for a representative body, defined as a republic, as appropriate ‘for  refining and enlarging  the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations’.

What has suffered terribly over the last three and a half years in the UK has been the popular right to representation. We have been obliged by a rogue referendum to marry an emotion-driven and ill-argued and mis-represented referendum with the ordinary process of representative and consultative democracy. The two cannot and will not go together. Support for referenda by the leaders of political parties was predicated on the inevitable victory of their point of view. They were wrong. In the language of the Federalist Papers there were factions at work, not least the popular press and rogue elements of one political party, who demonstrated that faction can stir up a population, and win the day.

None of this is to argue against the real resentments over inequality and alienation felt by wide sections of the population. Representative government has been found wanting – failed in the essential requirement of engaging and looking after the interests of all sections of the population. But it is for representative government to reform itself. There is no other way.

Brexit itself, the severance at worst, long-term disruption at best, of our links with Europe, is a consequence of that failure of government. But in no way can it be an answer to that failure. But to argue this is not the purpose of this post.

I will let the passages from the Federalist Papers speak for themselves.

(Federalist 1, author Alexander Hamilton)

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America … It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

(Federalist 10, author James Madison)

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction … such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention …

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking…

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

(Madison’s second point of difference, highlighting the benefits of a larger over a smaller republic, with the representation of a wide range of interests and points of view, and the difficulty therefore of any faction in disrupting government, is not directly my subject here.  Though always relevant.)

Three days at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019

I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.

I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!

What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.

I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.

Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.

Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.

Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.

Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.

‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’

Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …

In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.

And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities,  Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.

And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears.  In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.

So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.

Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.

Apology gets political

Apologia: ‘a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.’

Apology: ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.’

The focus these days is on regret. It’s easier it seems to regret than defend.

‘Democrats are a sorry bunch,’ always expressing regrets, ‘for racial, gay or women’s rights, failing to call out sexism and harassment, dubiously claiming ethnic heritage and for being white and privileged.’ (David Charter writing in The Times last Saturday)

Their ‘apology tour’, Charter continues, ‘contrasts with the man they all hope to beat next year. President Trump has tweeted that it is the media that owes the nation an apology after the Mueller report…’

Charter’s is an odd piece. It almost reads as if he’s on Trump’s side. But he makes a powerful point. If you not only dictate the agenda, if you set the agenda, as Trump has done to a remarkable degree, you’re in the driving seat. If you’re always looking over your shoulder you won’t win the race.

On the same day there was a good piece in The Guardian on this subject. But a very different context. Entitled ‘Battle lines’, it’s well-summed up by the intro: ‘It’s given us Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and many spellbinding stories. But now the world of Young Adult fiction is at war with itself. There have been accusations and public apologies, novels have been boycotted and withdrawn. There have even been death threats against authors. What is going on?’

The vehicle for all this is of course social media. I’m not a regular user. But if I was an author wanting to get to the widest audience, I would be.

Put a racist character in a book, and they might assume your racist. Write outside your own colour, or indeed gender, and you run a risk. Your perception might not be another’s, and they may be vociferous on the subject.

My answer, for what it’s worth… Avoid correction and apology. (And avoid apologias as well.) For publishers as much as authors. If criticism is legitimate, acknowledge it. Otherwise hold out. Easy to say, I admit.  But as the author of the Guardian article (and it is, unlike Charter’s, a very good piece), Leo Benedictus, says, ‘It may not be realistic to hope for restraint from social media, but it is clearly what’s required.’

One consequence is that supporters of gender and racial equality damage their own cause by this relentless and sometimes vicious self-examination. Supposed supporters of Democratic candidates for the presidency likewise. Give authors, give candidates space to breathe. Recognise they make mistakes, leave them be, save for the most egregious offences. It doesn’t mean you don’t criticise. But you don’t harangue. Avoid instant reactions, that immediate resort to social media when something offends.

Go beyond that, and the wider public you’re looking to influence, or looking to for support, will turn to the likes of Trump instead, and say they prefer the simple, the unvarnished, the non-truth, to all this argument and introspection. Gender and racial issues are inconvenient for many. They don’t wish to face up to them. Don’t give them a let-out – an easy, Trumpian let-out.

Trumpification

Or, the normalisation of Donald Trump.

I ran today up into the local hills, through a village which hardly exists, though it does have a small school for small people. It clings to the hillside. Steep places, almost too steep. It’s called Thrupp.

We had Donald Trump on a state visit earlier this week. Thrupp. Trump. Four letters in common. Nothing else. Thrupp is on the edge of Stroud, a town with a remarkable sense of community. Trump is transactional, cooperation and community an unfortunate necessity.

Thoughts from my diary, from last Tuesday:

‘Trump is on a state visit, and he’s now almost an accepted part of the scenery, and we’ve adjusted, and the abnormal,  for some amongst us, is almost normal, and we’ve adjusted, and we don’t mind, maybe someone so much in the public eye can’t be so bad, maybe we’ve misjudged a little, and he likes Boris, and Boris will be PM, and we’re being promised an amazing trade deal, and we will be absorbed into more than an alliance, a kind of happy subjugation, but we won’t realise it, it will happen by osmosis, we will be absorbed, and we will have the independence of California if we’re lucky, but a right-wing government more suited to a Texas or South Carolina, and we’ll look across to Europe, just a few miles away, and it will seem further away than the USA three thousand miles away, and we won’t mind, Europe has after all been the source of all our problems, and now tucked under a welcoming American arm, we will be safe and sheltered, and sovereign in special subjugated sort of way, and what’s special, again, is that we won’t notice, we will just slide, with a rictus smile on our faces, and the press, the big media owners, will tutor us into a state of contentment, we will conclude we never knew things any other way, and that will be that. Oh happy days!’

Remember, back in 2016, how Ted Cruz called Trump, ‘a pathological liar’, Mario Rubio called him a ‘con artist’, with ‘a dangerous style of leadership’. Paul Ryan characterised comments by Trump, as ‘the textbook definition of a racist’. He turned, in Rubio’s words, the 2016 election ‘into a freak show’. And where are we now – where are the Republicans now? All lined up, Trump their greatest, their only asset.

We have our shouters. Johnson, Farage. We know them well.

Few among the Tories have stood up to be counted, as Michael Heseltine did at the Peoples’ March a few weeks back. Where is he now? Expelled.

I find the feebleness of mind of Tory MPs, their pusillanimity, their willingness to put party and self before country, extraordinary. Yes, with constituents who were Brexit voters – yes, they have a problem. For the diehards, of course, no problem. But for the wiser majority (am I being too kind?), they should be back in their constituencies, arguing with their voters. Winning them over, if they can. Losing their seats next time, if they must. And, yes, they will have to take on the Telegraph and the Mail.

It isn’t an easy life. The stakes are high.

Will they roll over – and accept the Trumpification of their country?