A day in the life … in my life – Christmas shopping, Donald Trump, The Economist, writing blogs, workhouses, and a few other matters of consequence

It was an ordinary day. A haircut, and a mid-morning shop on Cheltenham’s High Street. 10th December, a festive time, but it didn’t look or feel that way. Shops with long queues outside, and yet it seemed far too many people inside. We wouldn’t have noticed before, but we do now. We are all watching our step, watching our neigbbours. Smiles would work wonders, but our smiles are masked.

Something else brought me down. Headlines about Johnson and his meeting-of-no-minds dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. The sheer and utter stupidity of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer. In four words – putting party before country.

I was happy to be back home to a bowl of Hazel’s parsnip soup.

I then set about writing a blog. Being a glutton for punishment. Donald Trump, as actor, as a master of theatre, stage manager and scriptwriter and leading actor – the only actor. How his script, ‘fake news’, had literally trumped ‘post-truth’. We have our own news, these days, we’re partisan, and proud of it, and objective criteria by which we might identify what is actually true (as far as that’s ever possible) – well, that’s a mug’s game. And are we all at it – left as well as right of the political spectrum?

Trump is having a last throw in Texas: the state’s attorney-general is seeking to invalidate the votes in four states including Georgia. What would happen, I wonder, if he was successful? If the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, and electoral college votes were put in the hands of Republican-controlled legislatures, and the national vote was overturned. A divided America would be fractured. And just where the fracture lines would fall – who can say?

Good material. But my blog was too wordy, and not punchy enough.

I put it to one side, and listened instead to The Economist editors’ online review of 2020, for subscribers to the magazine. Covid and the way it was reported, competence and otherwise in the way it was handled, the implications for globalism, and supply chains, and future growth. The way the editors’ puzzle over the stories of now, and what could be the stories of the future.  The increased role of the state, something that’s likely to continue. Digital culture and changes in the workplace. The threat posed by China. The US election. Biden. The role of populism. The way the old generations have cornered resources – how underspending on infrastructure and housing and education have worked against the young. And, maybe above all, the importance of retaining and reinforcing our belief in classical English (NOT American!) liberalism – of open societies and free markets. The value of reasoned debate, and competence, and ‘remaking the social contact’, between the state and the people, and state and the market.  

Sometimes I wish The Economist would reach down and get its hands dirty a little more. Be more open to alternative economic models. Speak with more passion. But it does what it does with supreme competence, and I wouldn’t have it, with so much fakery around, any other way.

After that – my Trump blog was binned. Poor fare by comparison.

But my day wasn’t over. I’d volunteered to write up the report on our local history society’s evening meeting – Zoom of course. The subject was the Stroud workhouse, and the speaker a local Labour councillor who’d down some excellent research. Stroud, if you don’t know it, is an old industrial area, focused around the woollen industry, with a long and remarkable history. It’s tucked away in the steep valleys of the western Cotswolds. I’ve lived here now for three years.

Workhouses took over from earlier forms of parish relief following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Having to seek relief became a badge of shame. Couples and families were separated. By the 1930s workhouses had become more or less infirmaries – for the aged and infirm. The Stroud workhouse closed in 1940 and its remaining residents were shipped off to any corner of the Cotswolds that would have them.

I thought of our own times, how Covid has had knock-on effects across all areas of medicine and social care. The backlog of hip operations could take three years to clear. Resources had to be directed elsewhere in World War Two, just as they are now. 1948 finally pulled the curtain down on the old Poor Law, with the establishment of the modern welfare state and the NHS.

What will the post-Covid years bring?   

Time for a late night whisky – Benromach – a birthday present from my son.

Time to reflect.

That bloody liberal establishment …

I took in the newspaper headlines in the supermarket yesterday. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) caught my eye, snugged in near the Daily Mail. I bought a copy and over lunch read up on a recent biography of Descartes and the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casares, celebrated author and the most celebrated French (though born in Spain) actress of her time. I was taken down back alleys which intrigue in themselves, and also have resonances with the here and now. Descartes escaping to the Netherlands to be free to explore his ideas on the primacy of human reason, away from the frivolities and scepticism of the Richelieu-dominated court. Camus and Casares: a correspondence that’s so distinctively French – could there be an English equivalent, and a bestseller to boot?

I’ve not found such byways of the intellect so rewarding recently. They belong to the old certainties, and the old certainties have faced a pretty ruthless challenge.

We had crises in politics ten years ago, indeed the biggest financial crisis for eighty years, but reason and rational debate were still the order of the day. That curious liberal idea of progress, however intermittent, however blighted, still underlay our attitudes, incremental, one step forward, one back – but we had a direction of travel. The House of Commons took a big hit with the expenses scandal, and austerity divided the nation in the years that followed, but debate still followed the traditional course in parliament, the media sniped and panicked, but didn’t dominate. Likewise the Tory right with their psychodramatic skills: they were kept on the periphery.

Post-referendum, the idea of a perverse ‘liberal establishment’ has taken hold, with all the anger toward and alienation from the ‘establishment’ now pinned on a  supposed liberal elite. Thinkers like David Goodhart have not helped, recusing themselves from a ‘liberal establishment’ (overly fond of smart dinner parties) of which they claim to have been a part.

Now we find liberal democracy ‘fighting for its life’. There’s a Times (newspaper) debate at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled ‘Is Liberal Democracy Dying?’.  The Economist has just launched, as a counter-punch to doubters, a series of articles on great liberal thinkers, beginning with John Stuart Mill.

In much of the media the word ‘liberal’ is pitched against the ‘will of the people’, expertise against an instinct for change regardless of where change might take us. A new establishment, which has pulled strings covertly for many a year, asserts itself, funded by billionaires, pursuing apparently simple solutions to intractable problems, and supporting leaders who they think might enact those solutions.

How does this connect back to the two Frenchmen, Descartes and Camus? Simply that intellectual debate, and the pursuit of intellect byways as well as highways, is the very substance of our humanity. We might hide from it, in front of the TV many an evening, we may affect to scorn intellectuals and highbrow pursuits. The Economist quotes the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, ‘who thought that pushpin, a board game, was  “of equal value … with poetry”’.’

The intellectual life, as well as cultural life, is about sustained thought, sustained engagement, about expertise, about the ability to argue and debate, and change and challenge. It’s all about imagination, but not about dreams or fantasies. (Though they have their place.) Deeper pleasures build on themselves, take us in new directions. Simple pleasures endlessly repeat. There should be no snobbery here, but it’s too easy to paint intellectual life that way.

Taking John Stuart Mill as an exemplar, in The Economist’s words: ‘He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.’

I don’t want to see this country ruled by a liberal establishment, or a media establishment. But I do hold to liberal ideas of openness and debate, and to the belief that intellectual life should be part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and not an adjunct hived off to universities.

That’s a tall order of course. But what if we re-define ‘intellectual life’ and take it out of its ivory tower. To quote the Economist on Mill again: ‘[He] wanted [people] to be exposed to as wide a range of opinion as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress.’

And it allows us to re-define intellectual life, as the life of the mind.

Holding to that definition, we won’t suddenly solve the world’s problems. But we will at least be opening doors, rather than closing them, and that is the first pre-requisite of progress.

Walking for charity with Melanie

We’ve been out walking, 10km (not miles, that’s the way it is these days), for ‘Walk the Wards’, a charity event to raise money for local hospitals in the Cheltenham area. (My partner, Hazel, is a volunteer on the oncology ward at Cheltenham Hospital.)

There’s something wonderfully positive about such events. I’ve run marathons for charity, but this was more laid-back, more focused – one charity, not many, and walking, so time to think, and no crowds to cheer you on, just mud (too much rain overnight) and a sense of common purpose.

The mood continues into the afternoon, this afternoon, Sunday afternoon. It’s drizzling outside.

It was drizzling – raining – at Woodstock in 1969, when the singer Melanie came on stage for her first-ever performance to a big crowd. The audience were lighting candles to beat back the rain. (We had imagination in those days!) She came away, as she said, a celebrity, and with the chorus of ‘(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain’ in her head. ‘I left that field with that song in my head, the anthemic part.’

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown./Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown.

We were so close, there was no room, we bled inside each /other’s wounds.

We all had caught the same disease..and we all sang, the songs /of peace.

I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I listened and lived it back in 1969. Listening to Melanie singing Ruby Tuesday (in the bath, after the walk!), and that catch in her voice – something of the old optimism came back to me.

Today’s walk, ‘Walk the wards’, did a little bit of the same. Brought back the optimism.

In this overly negative, too often backward-looking era, with Barack Obama a memory (though still an inspiration), we have to hang on to the ‘can-do’, make it new, share it with our kids and their kids.

Another Melanie song, ‘Peace will Come’:

And my feet are swimming in all of the waters /All of the rivers are givers to the ocean /According to plan, according to man …

Oh there’s a chance peace will come /In your life

Each generation feels the push-back, each new generation has to push forward, all progress is slow, but if the older generations can find it in them to join with the younger, as I did with my two children, very grown-up children, last year, opposing Brexit in Trafalgar Square, then there is hope…

And yet… a mention of Brexit slips in. Many walking today will be Brexit supporters. Nothing is ever simple.

Workers or shirkers

There was a BBC2 programme on ‘workers or shirkers’ last night, exploring a division which dates back to Victorian times (and earlier), to notions of the deserving and undeserving poor.

Ian Hislop (and it came over very much as his programme) provided some interesting background detail, taking us back to the 1830s and Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which established the Victorian workhouse. We had Chadwick’s categorisation of the population from worker to able-bodied vagabond (I don’t have access here to the exact categories), all very utilitarian, but it was often brutal in its effects, and stigmatised poverty. Hislop of course doesn’t stigmatise but he fails in his programme to get to grips with what being an outsider in society entails. A wiser programme might have used that word – those destined to be ‘outside’ the mainstream – the unemployed, the handicapped, the uneducated, the illiterate – people from broken homes, with no parental role models, in reduced circumstances, people losing jobs in towns where there are no jobs available or only the most menial. The poor – and, too often, the elderly.

The very use of the word ‘shirkers’ is playing the tabloid’s game. Likewise using George Osborne’s 2012 Conservative Party conference speech: Osborne’s imaginary worker, setting off to work seeing the ‘closed blinds of [his] next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. The polarity is totally wrong. Yes, there is a category of able-bodied worker who chooses not to work when there are good opportunities for them to do so – the press parades them when it can find them.

My own experience (not least of education) suggests that it’s de-industrialisation, the switch from industry to services, available jobs now being of a fundamentally different kind, and in different locations, which lies at the heart of the problem. In Victorian times the surge to the cities brought problems of poverty on a massive scale. Today it’s the re-location of industry away from existing cities and towns, not least in the north of England, and the growth of new industries, especially service industries, in very different areas, which has brought new problems. Urban poverty has always been with us, and too easily becomes institutionalised. What we’re not faced with, contrary to what some would have us believe, is a wild and wilful recalcitrance.

If you’re ‘working class’, probably with a rented home, little by way of savings, limited education – when you’re world goes wrong you have nothing to fall back on. Maybe there’s a job sweeping streets, or loading shelves, paying little – much less than in a previous job. If you’re ‘middle class’, educated, home-owner, with friends and relations who may be able to help – you’re sheltered from the worst. And – if you’re lazy, don’t feel inclined to work too hard, or to get on too far in life,  it doesn’t really matter. Your circumstances will be reduced, but there will be no-one out there pointing a finger at you.

We’re back – and I’ve argued this many times – to compassion, and at the heart of compassion lies understanding. Hislop never once mentioned compassion, and never once tried to understand, to get inside the mind, the reality, of being an outsider.

That simple polarity – you’re a worker, or you’re a shirker. Hislop ended his programme by repeating it and pronouncing, ‘I’m with the workers.’ As he claimed most people are when presented with that false division. And that division has of course become the stock-in-trade of the press. Forty years ago we accepted and were proud of the welfare state and we had moved a long way from that Victorian divide. But it’s now back, and it’s pretty brutal, and where once the BBC might have been expected to show some neutrality – and indeed recognise the plight of society’s outsiders, it’s no longer fashionable to do – or maybe, and simply, the BBC no longer dares to show a heart of its sleeves.

And finally – Hislop made no mention at all of the extraordinary population growth in the early 19th century, consequent upon the industrial revolution, and the major problems faced by cities such as Manchester. See Alison Light’s Common Ground for the situation in Cheltenham. The Poor Law Amendment Act was a response to a perceived and real emergency. We have no such excuse in our own times.

Yes, there is a continuing discussion to be had about whether or not austerity has gone too far, and payments of some benefits have increased to an extraordinary degree in recent years. There are issues to be addressed but the worker-shirker divide is entirely the wrong context.