Making the case for rebellion

My last blog made the case for silence. I argued that silence needs to be more active, more pro-active. Can I now make the case for rebellion? I’m thinking of Extinction Rebellion. Yesterday at the Hay Book Festival I listened to Mike Berners-Lee discussing his new book, ‘There is No Planet B’, and to a panel discussion involving three Extinction Rebellion activists. There’s optimism in the Rebellion ranks, much greater caution from Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee advises businesses. He’s well aware of the abject failure of the fossil fuel industry to invest more than paltry sums in renewables. But what of the consumer? As the recent Committee on Climate Change Report made clear in its recommendations, changing public behaviour is key to meeting its ‘net zero’ emissions target by 2050.

Individual targets (for example, setting your thermostat in winter at 19 degrees) catch the eye. But far more important is the national mindset. By that I mean the extent to which the public accepts the need for a fundamental and wide-ranging change of attitude, in the way that attitudes to gender and to smoking have changed radically over the last forty years. There is a point where the consensus tips the other way.

Extinction Rebellion I love for its enthusiasm, and self-belief. The Economist sees problems with its ‘inchoate enthusiasm’. It matches another, opposite problem, cynicism. A false opposition in this case, they have this wrong – but they highlight a danger.

I’m on-side, and accept its methods are eyecatching and have helped change the mood and generate debate. But there is, and I’m speaking in the most general of terms, a faith in human goodness, almost a sense of a new age dawning, which takes me back to the 1960s and the Age of Aquarius, Hair and Woodstock. That degenerated into disillusion, cynicism and at worst violence in the 1970s. It took on an overly political ‘them vs us’ aspect and fostered an anti-capitalist agenda. It has been agitating out on the sidelines ever since. Never getting close to the mainstream.

My concern, my interest, has always been how we how we work within existing systems. To effect change, and it could be radical change. But you have to build and maintain consensus if change is to embedded. Obamacare is an example of a battle between an old and new consensus, now being fought through the US courts.

We may sense that opinion on climate is changing, that the consensus is moving toward radical action. But how confident can we be in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro, carbon champions both, that high-minded sentiment will win out over national governments in alliance with big business?

Trump has undermined the Environmental Protection Agency, and is busy signing new executive orders to facilitate the building of pipelines.  Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro aims (I quote the New York Times) ‘to open up the rain forest — which has already lost 20 percent of its cover — to new development.  …. Satellite data shows that deforestation has grown steadily since his victory in October. In the first month after his election, deforestation increased more than 400 percent, compared to the previous year.’

The news from Australia has been equally depressing. The right-wings Liberals were hit hard in the cities but (quoting The Economist) ‘in the end the election was won in Queensland, a state full of marginal constituencies. Global warming is exacerbating its frequent floods and droughts…. But the state’s economy is dependent on exploiting natural resources, notably coal, and many of its voters are wary of environmental regulation.’

Climate is indeed up there as an issue as never before, but the battle lines of old are simply being built higher. The battle is – to win and hold the public consensus.

And that is where Extinction Rebellion might just be different from the old Aquarians. But they should hold to the issue, and avoid adding anti-global or anti-capitalist agendas to the mix. Which won’t be easy. Too wide an anti-establishment agenda and all agendas could be swept aside, climate change among them.

Maybe not surprisingly one of the objections of old-guard journalism, supposedly echoing the views of ordinary people, is that we, we Brits, have nothing to gain by going alone – we will simply be disadvantaged compared to other countries. The argument may be false but it strikes a chord. We also have to deal with market enthusiasts, who may accept that the market needs to be primed a little, or nudged – we can be nudged to insulate our homes, or use less plastic, but that should be the limits of our interventions, The market, it’s argued, is ultimately the best guarantee of effecting environmental change. The fact that it may be far too laggardly doesn’t get mentioned.

Trump and Bolsonaro notwithstanding, climate change now has a wide acceptance as a stark reality. But don’t we have other priorities, more pressing? The effects on us as individuals are minimal… and what, in any event, can we really do? The planet will go its own way.  And we won’t, we older folk, be around anyway.

Indifference, ideology, entrenched interests – there is much to rebel against.

Making the case for silence

Zen is about silence. No soap box required.

I want to call out for silence – to call, not shout. Nothing comes of shouting, rabble rousing, name-calling – only further division, and the defeat of reason. We have too much shouting out there. Endless Brexit arguments and silence aren’t easy companions.

Silence is something we can all share, all people and all persuasions, all races and religions … silence makes no demands, it is there if you wish to find it …. silence leaves he or she who shouts loud out in the cold … it gives space to think and consider, has little time for short cuts and easy solutions.

I remember my son being disciplined by the school librarian for telling the librarian to shut up because her continued calls of silence were breaking his concentration.

You can’t command silence.

But silence is unexciting. Why not follow the pied piper? Or he or she who shouts loudest?

Shouting divides. With the European elections around the corner we find ourselves more polarised than ever.  ‘We are the people.’ The 52%. But what did we vote for? Brexit at any price? Remain also has its ranters. Shouting embeds ideas, good, on occasion, usually bad.

Reasoned argument is beyond ideology, beyond ‘big’ ideas, beyond assumptions. Reasoned argument requires silence. A prayer before we start. OK, unfashionable. It doesn’t have to be a prayer. But silence. Time to reflect. And, maybe, he who is most eager to speak should go last. Or speak not at all.

But that’s as maybe…

We’re faced with big subjects, big themes – with globalisation (which is ironically the natural and only outcome of a ‘free trade’ position), on the one hand, and the sense, and the reality, of being left behind by elites, by the big cities, the bankers, even by the younger generation, on the other. Pay is pegged back, annual increments a rarity, austerity has for many been brutal.

‘There is a real question about whether democratic capitalism is working, when it’s only working for part of the population.’ The words of Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton. Could the country be at a tipping point?

More than ever, we need to step back. We need silence. An end to shouting. Instead we need engagement, close engagement, with all the areas I mention above – engagement across Europe and not just in this country. That’s been our role in the past, and I see no reason to give up on that now.

In the recent past many of us have been too cautious, too reasonable – too slow. Silence has been a negative state. A place we retreat to. A place to hide. (We treat elites as somehow inevitable. We shrug and get on with life.)

I’ve found the last three years one hell of a challenge. (I am not alone of course.) The sense that there’s a continuity between my private world and the wider political world out there has been broken. Extremes and wild ideas have become common currency. If I acquiesced in a too-slow change of pace before, I can no longer do so now.

Silence has to be more positive, more active, more pro-active. More political.

But it must still be silence. Paring back the rush of ideas, allowing quiet space in between, that space which anger and emotion too easily fill. Don’t be fooled by the loudest voice. Or a half-truth in a headline.

There’s wisdom, a real wisdom, in silence. If wisdom isn’t too unfashionable a term these days.

Climate change – just another news story?

‘At what point will we realise that the world we see on our TVs is actually our world – and that it is time to act?’

I was on London’s South Bank last Thursday, and realised something extraordinary was happening on Waterloo Bridge. I’d chanced on the Extinction Rebellion protest. As an infrequent visitor to London these days, I was taken by surprise – unlike most people in central London, who’d found not only Waterloo Bridge blocked, but also Parliament Square and, famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), with a pink boat, Oxford Circus.

I climbed over the crash barrier – wanting to enquire rather than directly participate. To find out more.  Warm weather helped. Trees and greenery had been brought in, a band was playing quietly (yes, quietly) and under an awning one of the organisers proffered advice on dealing with journalists and possible arrest to younger questioners.

For they were young, the protestors. Theirs is indeed the future. They have a claim on it, which we – we older folk – do not. It’s the point which the Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, has been making so eloquently. And we can’t, surely, just brush it off as another example of youthful high spirits and idealism.

The key aims of Extinction Rebellion? ‘The Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, … and act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.’

The upside: shaking us out of our lethargy regarding the consequences of climate change, and highlighting the action that must be taken to arrest it. (Whether or not a 2025 target is realistic, the aim is to shock.) The downside: commuter traffic has been seriously disrupted, and businesses and shops have suffered as a consequence.

Which side am I on? Are we on?

Section of the press would have it that the protestors are all middle-class hippies. The Daily Mail has printed pictures of the organisers’ homes in Stroud. Billionaire media owners are the beneficiaries of the status quo: yes, climate change may (just about) be real but responsibility is down to us as individuals. Plastic bags and the like. Governments, where lies the power to push through radical change, are off the hook.  

Readers of the Mail and Express and Telegraph, redoubtable papers all, are protected species in all this – protected from the imperatives of climate change. Given that reality, what choice do the protestors have but to put themselves out there?

So back to that question. What about us?

Are we prepared, as over a thousand were, to be arrested? Or is our support at second hand – we’ll argue their case (‘their’ case, not ours) and their corner, but we won’t join the front line. Or we’ll aver our support for action, but decry radical means to achieve it. (And thereby play into the hands of climate change deniers?)

There’s a rather dubious statistic doing the rounds. 3.5% of the population (only 3.5% …) committed to your cause and the momentum for radical change will be irreversible. I don’t buy this. But there is another tipping-point – beyond which we can’t avoid taking sides.

I’d like to think that could be now. I’m not going to rush to be arrested. But I know which side I’m on.

That same Thursday, 18th April, at 8pm, David Attenborough silenced any who question his commitment to action with his BBC TV programme, Climate Change: The Facts. No-one watching could be in any doubt about the terrible consequences of global warming. The facts as he described are brutal.

To repeat my opening line:

At what point will we realise that the world we see on TV is actually our world – and that it is time to act?

A sense of humour

Thinking back to my last post, on the subject of language….

NVC, Nonviolent Communication, is an organisation founded by Marshall Rosenberg several decades ago. (Check out the book.) The name speaks for itself. It sets the benchmark high.

Humour, surely, is non-violent. And yet …

A weeks ago (23rd March) in Central London  more than a million marchers kept their sense of humour. Below are a few placards:

We know about cliff edges in Cornwall….Brutalists against Brexit….Even Tesco has better deals….Without free movement we can’t get rid of Nigel and Boris….I’m British. I’ve taken to the streets I protest. Things must be jolly bad….I wasn’t old enough to vote. I am now….I’d rather run through a field of wheat….I’m so angry I could make a placard…On second thoughts…

The Sun newspaper absolutely failed to bring any humour to the party. ‘Snarky little placards’ is how The Sun describes the placards. Who I wonder came up with that joyful phrase? (Likewise, ‘No sane person is impressed, even by 5.6 million Remainers signing a petition.’)

Humour can breed hostility. I don’t think most marchers set out to goad. Their humour was simply a way of handling what they saw as a disaster. But it riled the other side…

George Orwell in his pamphlet ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is concerned about the language of debate, at a rather more elevated level than The Sun. But his message is clear.

‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

When the atmosphere is bad, even humour is drawn in.

We are treading on egg-shells.

Bad language …

Bad political language, that is.

Political debate is typically black and white. Secondary arguments are subsumed under big headings. The Brexit morass is in theory black and white, in practice we have multiple agendas with no clear majority for any of them. Language has been one of the first casualties.

‘The first casualty of war is truth,’ is the famous quotation. How about ‘the first casualty of intemperate discourse is truth’. We are not at war… but our discourse is intemperate.

*

To take one high level example. Mrs May sought last week in an address to the nation to take the high ground, and was pilloried for it. She wound up animosities (and, some have argued, stoked death threats) even further.

Mrs May: ‘You’re tired of infighting, you’re tired of arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have concerns about our children’s schools. Our National Health Service, knife crime…’

Many would argue that Mrs May’s refusal to compromise has been a direct cause of the infighting, and the distraction. Indeed that Brexit itself is the distraction – a secondary issue catapulted by internal Tory politics into the defining issue of our time.

It’s too late for Mrs May to capture the high ground, two years too late. She is so deeply  embedded that she is beyond any understanding of cause and effect. Or of the impact of the language she uses.

*

An article on the website Brave New Europe, by an LSE law professor: ‘…. Britain’s right to leave is … contested by a British ruling class …The EU’s liberal empire is a type of government improvised by national governing elites that are reluctant … to rely on the political authority provided democratic politics. These elites look outwards to supranational arrangements for their authority.’

It was the use of the word ‘empire’ that caught by eye. German economic dominance is considered a kind of empire. ‘Empire’ is a loaded word weighed down with pejoratives. By implication the ‘elites’ are aspiring to empire. They look outwards to ‘supranational governmental arrangements’.

There is a simple heuristic at work here, using ’empire’ as a loaded word to dictate the terms of the argument. I’d put a counter-argument, that governing elites are an inevitable part of government and in the modern globalised world countries have to operate at a supranational level, and structures have to be invented to facilitate this.

It may sound complacent, and it certainly doesn’t sound exciting. But it is closer to reality. The argument must be how we strike the balance between supranational and local, and accommodate all the levels inbetween. Without measured language and measured debate we will never find answers.

*

Spurious statistics … John Kay highlights in an article in Prospect the difficulties associated with cost-benefit analysis (‘cost-benefit analysis today offers a bogus rationale for bad decisions’) and how the debate over HS2 (the high-speed London to Birmingham rail link) has been conducted without any convincing analysis of the outcomes.

So too Brexit. The debate revolves around a single market and a customs union, a free trade area and WTO rules, Norway and Canada options. ‘But insofar as we heard any economic argument during the referendum it consisted of the exchange of unfounded numerical assertions. It was only after the result that any of the substantive choices entered public discourse.’

*

I read, at second-hand, a report of a radio phone-in when a Brexit supporter had no fear of a hard Brexit because we still have ‘our rabbits and vegetable gardens’. I paraphrase, I can’t recall the exact words. But we are it seems at war, under siege. The enemy as in 1940 is only a few miles over the water.

How have we so quickly reached this point – that the EU is our enemy?

*

Conspiracy … A recent study of conspiracy theories reported in the Economist found that 60% of British people believe in conspiracies, Leavers more than Remainers. 31% of Leavers believe that Muslim immigration is part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, compared to 6% of Remainers.

Jeremy Corbin: ‘They’ve stitched up our political system to protect the powerful. They’ve rigged the … rules to line the pockets of their friends. ’

The system works to the benefit of the powerful. And people have – we have , I have – a right to be angry. So I’d go part way with Corbin. But ‘stitched up’, as if there’s a plot or conspiracy involved. It would be simpler if there was.

*

Emotive language and easy assumptions, shouting loudest, attempts to dictate the terms of a debate, assertion at the expense of debate, appeal to prejudice. The best counters to alternative versions of truth in this post-truth world is the careful and considered use of language. I wondered whether to add ’emotive’, and thought not. Emotion, anger – yes – but don’t let them dictate our use of language.

 

Returning from the other side of the world …

Returning from two weeks away on the other side of the world (Chile) helps bring the reality of British politics into still sharper focus. Above all, the simple and basic incompatibility of referenda and parliamentary democracy. And the utter absurdity of our current politics. When an idea as ill-formed and unsuited to the task as Brexit is treated as immutable disaster inevitably awaits.

Europe before 2016 was a low priority among voters. Wild promises, a billionaire-owned right-wing press, and a presumption that equal time to argue a case (a prerequisite of a referendum) equates to equal merit in argument, turned it into the issue of our time. Attempts by a lunatic fringe (is ‘lunatic’ unfair?) of the Tory party dating back to the immediate post-Thatcher era have crystallised in the activities of the European Research Group, and the party is now split between free-traders who supped at Ayn Rand’s table at university and have never grown up (the student right and student left have much in common), and an overly-loyal mainstream which has allowed itself to be pulled right with hardly a protest. ‘One Nation’ Tories have been left stranded.

In one-time Attorney-General Dominic Grieve’s words, ‘Most oddly [Brexit] has been demanded by Conservative Leavers in the name of restoring “traditional” government… Yet to achieve all this [supposedly ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’] they demand that the principles of democratic representative government should be abandoned.’ (Prospect, March 2019)

The mainstream support for Mrs May is craven. (Again, is ‘craven’ unfair? How measured should we be in our language, where the reality out there is so dire?) However inadequate to the task the Chequers statement, and however inferior the EU withdrawal agreement is to our current arrangements, party members fall into line. Loyalty to the leadership comes too naturally, and a presumption that others ultimately know better than they do, a uniquely Tory form of deference, are part of the party DNA. The leadership is pulled to the right, and party members are only too happy to move with it. One Nation Tories might as well be in a different party.

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, all of whom resigned from the party last month, faced up to that reality. In their resignation statement they referred to a ‘redefinition’ of the Conservative Party, ‘undoing all the efforts to modernise it’ …. ‘a dismal failure to stand up to the hard line of the ERG’ … a shift to the right ‘exaggerated by blatant entryism’.

‘We haven’t changed, the Conservative Party has … we find it unconscionable that a party once trusted on the economy is now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal.’

Dominic Grieve is on the same wing of the party, but more a traditionalist. ‘Pray that we may be quietly governed’ are words from the Prayer Book which to his mind should apply to government as well. His instinct is to intervene less, where others believe that ‘some shaking up and disruption can be beneficial to furthering social progress’. (Beautifully phrased!) But ‘quiet government’ is no longer policy. ‘The Conservative Party has a problem. It is no longer conservative.’

Grieve does, however, show a little more sympathy than Soubry and her colleagues toward Mrs May, ‘whose career has been intimately bound up with the grassroots of party membership’. (All the more reason to show leadership, one might argue.) Some may predict the Conservatives will break up as a party, but ‘I certainly have nowhere else to go’. Whether that might preclude him from resigning the whip and becoming an independent Conservative, who knows.

So what about the other side of the Tory argument? Not quite the ERG wing, but those more inclined to be libertarian that interventionist?

Altruism and opportunity, working together, are core to the beliefs of Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, as an article in Prospect magazine (March 2019) makes clear. Both wings of the party, and most of the electorate, could connect with that.

And yet … Javid still reads the courtroom scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead ‘twice a year’. The Fountainhead, as anyone following American politics will know, is notorious.  In the courtroom scene Howard Roark asserts that ‘the man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves…’ ‘The “common good” of a collective… [was] the claim and justification of every tyranny that was ever established over men.’

Nelson Mandela nonetheless is Javid’s hero, and he accepts more of a role for government (in house building, for example) than he once did. ‘Altruism is one of the reasons I’m in government – the most important part of my job is to help those who find it hard to help themselves.’ On the other hand his driving purpose is ‘opportunity’. Government, taxation, regulation can all get in the way, so less of the first two, and smarter versions of the third.

Where does this leave us? With the idea that pursuing opportunity for yourself you create opportunities for others … You may feel for others, but acts of kindness toward them are not always in their best interest. … We all (privilege or parenting notwithstanding) have the same start in life.

That is, of course, a massive over-simplification. But somewhere here lies that key distinction between One-Nation Tories and the libertarian, Randian wing. Javid hovers between the two.

The old pre-2016 Tory party could accommodate both sides, just as long as they accommodated to each other. That tolerance of difference has been shattered by Brexit. The likes of Javid are, when it goes up to the wire, instinctively closer to the ERG, Soubry and company to that One Nation tradition.

Theresa May who studied geography needs that discipline (a better word than subject) laced, as it should be for all good geographers, with the wisdom of history. She’d then appreciate how the democracy and parliament in British history are inextricably intertwined. The notion of accountability in parliament is our single greatest contribution to peace and prosperity across the world. To try to wind the threads in a different way, and to assert that, whatever the circumstances, she has to deliver on the result of the referendum – they are foolish acts.  Where the foolish tread there is surely, and I’m thinking of both party members and supporters, no need to follow.

Voting ‘no’ – Chile 1988, UK 2016

I’m off to Chile for two weeks next week, and I’ve been casting my mind back to 1973, when Allende was overthrown by Pinochet, and to 1975 when I backpacked on my own down from California to Bolivia, then across to Rio and Buenos Aires – but I never made it back across the Andes to Chile, or saw what Santiago was like, two years into the Pinochet regime.

Pinochet wanted legitimacy, and in 1988 held a plebiscite: ‘Yes’ and he would stay in power for another eight years, ‘No’ and there would be a full presidential election the following year. This is the subject of Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated movie, simply entitled ‘No’, which I watched last night.

The No campaign had all the media and institutions of the state ranged against them, but were allowed 15-minute of TV time each night in the weeks running up to the vote to get over their message. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a creative guy brought in by the No team fashion their message. The team instinctively wants to focus on the horrors perpetrated by the regime, the murders, torture, incarcerations, the simple brutality of the army. Rene suggests a radically different tack, a future agenda – what a No vote might ultimately achieve by way of escape from the repressive and still brutal Pinochet regime – he argues for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ as the primary theme, depending on how you translate ‘alegria’. (‘La alegría ya viene’ was the slogan.) The message is to be upbeat. With music and dance, street life and country picnics – life with the shackles removed.

Bernal portrays a broody, introspective guy sharing custody of his son with his estranged wife. The ads may sing, but he never smiles. Rene himself may be a fiction, but the wider story is hard fact.

They won, of course. The message – never allow an insurgency gain too much momentum. Chile was all the more remarkable because it was a military dictatorship.

It is quite a story. But Yes/No – haven’t we come across that recently? ‘Yes’ protecting the status quo. ‘No’ the outsiders, the left-behinds, now the insurgents, with all to gain. ‘Yes’ focused on all the dangers of change, ‘No’ promoted a brave new world free from shackles.

And the differences? They are radical of course.

The Brexit insurgents (allowing for some generalisation) are the old(er) stagers, the over 50s and 60s, sensing they are neglected or somehow left behind, believers in older, stricter values, self-reliance – wary of new ideas, identity politics, immigration, the younger generation.

They had, or were presented with, an enemy – the EU, portrayed as the source of manifold evils.

The Chilean insurgents were the younger generation, or at least their agenda was dictated by the younger generation. The older generations of socialists and communists came on board, most but not all, and with hesitation. Pinochet had privatised, brought in overseas and especially American investment – Chile was, as an economy, prospering. The No campaign never suggested rowing back to the old times – they were all about opening doors on the new.

Their enemy was the army and repression – the EU doesn’t quite compare. (Though some might argue it does…)

Both the similarities and the radical differences intrigue. Above all, how the insurgents in Chile were broadly speaking from the left and centre, in the UK from the right.

Insurgents do have a big advantage. I doubt if Remainers in 2016 thought to look to Chile. Just too far way, too off the map. Had they done so they’d have appreciated the dangers of focusing on a safety-versus-risk agenda, looking to hold on to the past rather than focusing on a brave new future. The greatest danger is in thinking that, surely, you can’t possibly lose. Yes, a charismatic leader would have helped the ‘Yes’ campaign – but in the end it’s the message that counts.

Could the Remain campaign have sketched out a brave new future, as opposed to the Leaver’s ‘brave new past’? Maybe not. The time when anyone in Europe thought the EU or European cooperation was exciting or sexy is long past.

But excitement will always beat down gloom. It was the two ‘No’ campaigns that got the blood racing.