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. 

Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.

Genocide and crimes against humanity 

This may sound a brutal heading, but it is what this post is about.

I’ve just finished reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, his remarkable, moving and very personal exploration of the concepts of individual human rights and genocide, and their two great advocates and protagonists, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin.

The theme is human rights, in their broadest context. For too long, down the ages, the state overrode individual rights in the service of its own interests. On the one hand western European states developed social welfare programmes, on the other, when it came to war, they tyrannised populations, their own and others.

At the level of individual human rights – think of Erdogan’s Turkey, and China, where the interests of the party are paramount.

It begins with the very personal story of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, and takes us from the home city they both shared, Lemberg (also known as Lvov and Lviv), to Vienna, Paris, the USA, Cambridge, and ultimately Nuremberg.

Lemberg, at the time both men were born, was in Galicia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – and later in Poland, in Russia, in Germany, and now in Ukraine. Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, on his mother’s side was also from Lemberg.

Lauterpacht and Lemberg both became international lawyers of repute and the great stage to which Sands story leads is the Nuremberg trials of 1945-6, when twenty-four leading Nazis were put in trial, including the governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who oversaw the destruction of the Jewish population of Poland, and of Austrian Jews sent to the deaths at Treblinka and elsewhere.

Lauterpacht and Lemkin both saw their families who had remained behind wiped out. So too Sands’ family.

The Nuremberg trial gave form and substance to the concepts of individual human rights and crimes against humanity. The British attorney-general Hartley Shawcross’s final statement for the prosecution relied extensively on the work on Lauterpacht, by that time a Cambridge academic of many years standing. Sands captured the intensity of the trial with great skill. Shawcross, basing himself of Lauterpacht, emphasised the individual as the ‘ultimate unit of all law’. There are limits to the omnipotence of the state… ‘the individual human being, the ultimate impunity of all law, is not disentitled to the protection of mankind’.

Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht ‘agreed on the value of a single human life, and the importance of being part of a community’. But genocide, the idea behind genocide, the reality of genocide, gaining acceptance for which was Lemkin’s passion and obsession, was never accepted by Lauterpacht.

The two men never met. But Nuremberg was in a very real sense a stage they both shared. And where they in a sense competed.

Lauterpacht argued that a focus on groups would take the focus off the individual victim, and encourage a sense of group identity in the perpetrator as well as the victim.

Sands sees the merit in both arguments. How could one not see the carefully planned and stage-by- stage reduction of the Jewish people to people without rights, without work, to forced labour, to ghettos, to starvation, to extermination, as actions against a race? As genocide. Likewise the Armenian massacres of 1915.

On other side of the argument, Sands quotes the biologist, Edward O. Wilson, writing in our own time, on ‘group-versus-group’ being ‘a principal driving force that made us what we are … people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider themselves superior to competing groups’.

We may talk, some of us, of being citizens of the world, but that sense of competing groups, defined in modern terms as identity politics, is still very much with us. Nonetheless the framework of an individual and group-rights based international order is in place, as it never has been in human history. Sands lays out the sequence.

On 9 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘the first human rights treaty of the modern era’. A day later, the assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document inspired by Lauterpacht’s work.

1998 saw the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

In 2015 the UN’s international law commission started to work actively on the subject of crimes against humanity, opening the way to a possible companion to the convention on genocide.

So we come right up against all the trials and evils of the present. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Darfur. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. So much of it targeting groups, tribes, nations within nations. The latest UN report (February 2017) states that over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UNHCR a refugee is ‘someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence’. There are just under 16 million refugees.

And at the individual level, we have Turkey, China, Russia, and many another. We have a long lon way to go. Eternal vigilance, and engagement, is the only way forward.

Out on to the Silk Road …

The new Silk Road – will the direction of traffic be primarily east to west, west to east, or both – and who will control the flow?

I’ve posted recently on the subject of history, and how we abuse it. But sometimes we do need the big picture, and I’m thinking here of China President Xi’s $900 million Belt and Road initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road.

History provides a vital context, and a warning.

Forty-six nations attended a gathering in Beijing last weekend. Heads of state from Rusia and Turkey were there, though not from Europe. The EU held back from endorsing a final statement because it didn’t stress ‘transparency and co-ownership’. India argued the scheme is ‘little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake’.

Philip Hammond attended (not our high-risk foreign secretary, I note), relishing the opportunity for trade deals. In his speech to delegates he argued Britain was a ‘natural partner’ for China. ‘China and the UK have a long and rich trading history…’  Others have commented that the Chinese, remembering the 19th century Opium Wars, and the great British imperial enterprise, might see this ‘natural partnership’ in  different way.

There’s something telling in this sycophancy. Sycophancy comes out of weakness, not strength. The EU holds back, argues from a position of strength. India is rebarbative, confrontational, overstates it – yet there’s truth lurking there. Circumspection has its merits.

Britain in the 16th century set up its own maritime Silk Road, along with the Dutch, Portuguese and (less successfully) the French. The Belt and Road initiative is the land route reasserting itself. The old oceanic skills of Empire will no longer help us. We are one of many, supplicants, out on a western European limb.

There will be many camel trains along the new road, if it develops the way the Chinese wish. We might just be a little lonely. On a camel train, as out on the ocean, there is strength in numbers.

 

Wimbledon, Cameron, China, Chilcot – a few thoughts for our times

Wimbledon: Andy wins in style, and for once an afternoon watching a Wimbledon final doesn’t extend into the evening. I’m remembering Federer against Nadal, was it five years ago – rain breaks and five sets…

Andy mentioned that the prime minister was in the crowd and asked almost as a throwaway – who would want the PM’s job? Should we just occasionally give politicians a break? Even the PM? He’s made a life-changing (for all of us) mistake, but he’s kept his cool, and laughed when Murray made his comment. I almost felt I could forgive him.

And tomorrow (13th July) he’s out for ever.

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Other thoughts for our time…

‘Few middle-class Chinese people say they want democracy.’ (The Economist) Three possible reasons. For one, memories of Tienamen Square: economic freedom it seems doesn’t require political freedom. For another, the Arab spring – the dangers of insurrection.

And Brexit, yes, Brexit.  ‘A sign that ordinary voters cannot be trusted to resolve complex political questions.’ Another good subject for discussion. One riposte – only ordinary people can be trusted.  And who are ordinary people these days. The proletariat is no more, and they weren’t it turned out very good at dictating. And the Economist’s big feature is on China’s new 225 million middle class. And then we have readers of the Daily Mail.

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One conclusion from the Chilcot Report: politicians should beware commitments which catch up with them later. Applies to Cameron of course. But Brexit supporters have put out all sorts of promises and expectations – with little chance of delivering on them. But you can get away with promises.

Also, beware plans based on best-case scenarios, which is what Blair and Bush worked to…They may get support in parliament (2003) – win elections – and indeed referenda (2016) – but they can come back to hurt and haunt you.

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Mendacious campaigns – which side in the referendum debate was more mendacious?Unwise forecasts (which nonetheless could be right) based on Treasury models from the Remain side, which weren’t believed. But not mendacious. Promises with almost nil substance on the other side. Given they were presented as probabilities if not truths by the Leave side – I’ve no problem with the word mendacious in their case.

If we delay invoking Article 50 – how favourably will other countries respond? We’re still – the Leave side are – in a dream world, laced with false expectations. The EU countries’ point of view? Keep Britain trading and halfway prosperous, yes. But at the same time demonstrate that you don’t get way with being a turncoat. And remember too, the cards are all in your (the EU’s) hands.

To take just one example. Paying in – we stop paying – and yet we expect the same benefits.  Absurdity. The something for nothing culture – which the Brexit side in other circumstances rail against.

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And finally – ‘groupthink’. ‘When Mr Blix’s inspectors failed to find any WMD the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) gripped by groupthink put it down to the Iraq’s talent for subterfuge’. We reinforce each others’ opinions, if one of us believes, we make it easier for the others. We’ve been gripped by groupthink these past few months. The ‘somehow it will all turn out right, because it always does’ school of thought. Nearly always. Sometimes. Or, more realistically, never….

China shock

A digression – an important digression – into trade policy. Maybe a little heavy-going, but important!

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Apropos my comments in my last post on de-industrialisation, there’s an interesting article in the current (July) edition of Prospect, by the FT’s economics leader writer, Martin Sandhu.

Has the cause of growing inequality in the rich world since circa 1980 been caused by globalisation or technological change? In Sandhu’s words, by the late 1990s ‘… the economics profession settled on the consensus that technology more than trade was to blame. Then China joined the World Trade Organisation.’

He quotes Autor, Dorn and Hanson’s paper, ‘China Shock’, and highlights their conclusion that ‘Chinese competition had localised but substantial negative and long-lasting effects on the places particularly exposed to it’. ‘On one estimate more than half of [US] factory job losses can be attributed to the China effect.’

’… the imbalanced effect of trade liberalisation can only be corrected if the losers are compensated out of the overall gain – but more redistribution and greater public goods are not on the cards in Trump’s deck.’

Of course technology is also a key factor, so too the shift of power away from labour to capital – not least, the decline of trade unions.  Benefits have also been hit hard – even more in the USA than the UK.

‘It is no surprise that that people feeling powerless and alone in the face of their demotion yearn to regain control – to ‘take their country back’. That is what Trump promises them.’

So too the UK. ‘The same dream of regaining control …fuels the growth of socially-conservative nativist right-wing parties in Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia and central Europe.’ Some of the same grievances have been picked up by Bernie Sanders as well as Trump. (We have nothing directly comparable in the UK.)

But whereas Trump talks of putting up trade barriers the Brexit message has been all about lowering barriers with the rest of the world , ‘to escape the walls of Fortress Europe’ – a rigorous free trade message. (Both the USA and UK insurgencies are of course agreed on immigration.)

Also bear in mind that economic theory ‘predicts that the effect of low-skilled immigration is the same as freer trade with countries that have a lot of low-skilled labour’. Put another way, freer trade (especially negotiated from a position of lesser rather than greater advantage post-Brexit) will hit hardest those areas already suffering.

(Some will course want to rubbish economic theory. That’s the mood of the moment.)

The impact of Chinese imports on British industry, and the resultant job losses, has been far far greater than the impact of immigration. And yet it’s immigration on which the Leave campaign has focused.

And the impact of free trade? Now that we’re escaping from an EU that’s perceived to be the over-regulated and slow-moving ?

‘…Brexit will not lead to a bonfire of the regulations, but a redoubled effort to harmonise rules – that’s what trade openness increasingly means.’

There’s an obvious and striking irony here – we put behind us the EU and harmonisation, and negotiations over TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and we find that we’re faced with just the same issues when we seek to negotiate free trade deals around the world. But without the clout the EU gives us.

More than ever it’s apparent that immigration for the Leave campaign has been a target of convenience. The issues we face as a country with regard to our future prosperity are of a very different order. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t pay heed to the specific impacts of immigration, but our future lies in facing up to the global context in which we operate, and in which we will be, post-Brexit, less equipped to operate.

And our response as a country to those who feel excluded and resentful will involve strategies which simply aren’t part of the Leave agenda. That’s the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.

 

Obama and the big wide world

I gave President Obama my endorsement in my last blog – for which he’ll no doubt be grateful.

But, at the hard end of politics, has he disappointed the ‘yes we can!’ generation? The world we have to admit isn’t a happier place after over seven years of the Obama presidency. Can he be held responsible?

There are still inmates at Guantanamo, the Middle East is in greater turmoil than ever, we have a resurgent Putin, a more autocratic, less tolerant China under Xi Jinping. The euphoria after the end of the Cold War is a distant dream. (I’m avoiding here the subject of US domestic politics, more convoluted and intriguing than ever.)

Countering the arguments that a more assertive American policy could have contained Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s abundantly clear that threats of NATO intervention wouldn’t have stopped Putin, and Han Chinese momentum cannot and will not be contained by Western stick-waving.

The Middle East. America has been much criticised in the USA and elsewhere for not being more involved, for not wielding a cudgel. The USA and the West, it’s claimed, have lost influence. And, yes, there’s the Libyan invasion aftermath, and the red line that Assad is deemed to have crossed in Syria. It was rash ever to lay down that line.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring, enthusiastically supported in the West, and its aftermath have shown how little understanding Western politicians, and indeed press and pundits, have of Middle Eastern politics on the ground – of individual countries, factions religion and otherwise, what moves and motivates individual citizens.

Obama and the rest of us were carried along by all the euphoria. But Obama had at least recognised three years before that the USA could neither continue in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had done under George Bush, nor get involved in any overtly military way in Syria. The actions of the USA, UK and France over the last century have been a main cause of the Middle East’s problems (seeking causation is I admit a risky business, but on the one word ‘oil’ hinges much of the story), and a continuing attempt to impose solutions cannot be the way forward.

Some kind of equilibrium in the Middle East will only be achieved by allowing conflicts to find their own more local resolutions. Holding back has taken much more courage than renewed military intervention would have done.

I’m well aware of the impact that Putin has had in Syria in recent months. But that cannot change the main argument. The USA, and Europe, has no choice but to work with Putin, whatever old-style neo-con and new-fangled bludgeoning interventionists might argue. IS is a different matter, a vile and inhuman organisation, with which no-one can negotiate, and which can have no place in a peace settlement in Syria – which Assad must have. And I’m not going to attempt here any appraisal of clone attacks on Taliban targets in Pakistan: that would be taking us into a whole additional area of future modes of warfare, and their morality and implications for the rest of the world.

Obama cannot claim any headline agreements or extraordinary successes in his foreign policy. But he has established in direction of traffic, and that could – should – be much more important than any short-term gains.

Given the malfunctioning Congress and the pretty vile right-wing press Obama has faced throughout he has remained remarkably cool, good-natured, level-headed. I hope the future will put up a few of like calibre. Sadly none are showing their faces just at the moment. It would be intriguing to consider if there could be candidates in any other country – the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example. But that’s for another time and place.

Reaching agreements …

We’ve seen a positive outcome to the climate change talks, and now an agreement at the UN in the Security Council for a peace plan for Syria. It’s not just the agreements themselves but the willingness to argue and discuss and actually reach agreements that I find encouraging. Both are under the auspices of the UN. And both have come about because of the engagement of all parties. China now fully recognises the urgency of measures to combat rising CO2 emissions, so too the US administration, if not the coalheads behind the American far-right in Congress. And Russia is now fully engaged in the Syria peace process, seen by some in the West a few weeks ago as a backward step, but as an interested party committed to the support of the Assad regime, with a naval base at Tartus in Syria, essential if a peace process was to move forward.

One reason for the failure of Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Putin was the fact that it was one-sided. Putin has now established himself, as he’s wanted all along, as an ‘equal’ partner. 2003 the US and UK tried to call the tune, and that can’t be the way forward anymore. We don’t have a democratic Russia, as we all hoped for after the fall of the Soviet regime, but we do have a government with whom we can deal and – possibly -reach agreement at a global level. We can establish areas of vital common interest and work out from there. Likewise with China: combating climate change has potential for being a major area of cooperation between China and the West. We can’t as yet resolve issues surrounding China’s imperial ambitions in the South China Sea, but working together in one area can only improve the prospects of doing so in others.

And there are serious – fundamental- issues of human rights. We have Saudi Arabia as an ‘ally’, and that’s pretty cynical in the scheme of thing. But we have to work from where we are. And what conflict tells us is that the big stick never works. So if we have to work with the likes of Putin, best to get on with it. Pragmatism is the best ally of idealism.

Another lesson – the importance of bodies such as the UN, above all the UN, under whose auspices the nations of the world can come together, and argue, and find common ground. Doing exactly what it was set up to do.

I’d put the European Community in the same category. What’s remarkable is that countries are working together, at a European – and a global level. War shattered Europe st  twice in the 20th century, and European institutions over the last sixty years have  cemented peace in a quite remarkable way. Walking away from the EU would be lunacy. Putting all our energies into reforming it so that it is and is seen to be an institution working for people at all levels is the only way forward.

And that requires strong leadership. Whether it’s Obama and Kerry, Putin and Sergei Lavrov, Hollande and Fabius, who acted as convenor at the the Paris talks – presidents and foreign ministers, the recognition of the interests of each of the parties involved is essential if common ground is to be established and agreements achieved.

This may be stating the obvious – but it’s why were getting agreements now, and we didn’t before.

Not quite an ideal world

A recent comment suggested I was writing about an ideal world, and that worried me.

The puzzle and challenge for me is the everyday: how we can better link insights into our human condition to our working lives, to our personal and our social lives, to the national agenda. The insights come from Zen and wider Buddhist ideas and practice, but they connect easily with our own Western traditions. Most of us fully appreciate the benefits of finding peace and calm in our lives, though we protest that we’re too busy to slow down. We regret our ill-temper, bouts of anger, self-serving pleasures. If we show kindness and compassion we’re pleased and rather proud of ourselves. We got it right for once.

But we don’t act on what we know, and I’m arguing that it’s not so difficult. Meditating, mindfulness, walking, even standing still, shutting out 24-hour news and 24-hour noise, setting aside space for ourselves – start small, just get out for a walk, it’s no need to be heavy duty. You don’t need to sit in a triple lotus…

(A fridge magnet I saw today ran as follows: ‘Stress is the confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it.’ I love it – and it’s not quite what I’m arguing.)

You may have read about a new series: Ladybird books for adults. Already bestsellers. There’s even one on mindfulness. And one on dating. Mindfulness fits my argument slightly better. But if that’s too trendy, then I still like the basic idea. Start simple. (One date at a time.) Don’t over complicate.

Benefits – I hope they’re evident from what I’ve written elsewhere, if they’re not I’ve failed miserably.

I’m not anticipating a brave new dispensation just around the corner. If for some there’s a sense of a new consciousness, a new wisdom, which could yet change the world, then I thought that forty and more years ago, and it didn’t happen. I’m none too optimistic now about it catching on with readers of the Daily Mail, or indeed the billion plus who make up the Han population of China.

Though who knows, give them time.

For now 82 million members of the Communist Party in China have a lockdown on opinion. And mindfulness and the Daily Mail don’t go too well together, though if you’re into mindfulness and an avid reader of the Mail, then I apologise.

But if we can be simply a little slower to judgement, look a little more widely before we leap, then by small increments we can make the world a better place. And who know we might just have a Great Leap Forward.