Not all news is political…

Writing a blog can be a little like penning an article for a newspaper. Only it isn’t. You don’t have editors, querying content, or facts, or insisting on cuts, or rubbishing it altogether – denying your piece its ‘nihil obstat’ (as the Catholic Church would have it), ‘there is no objection.’

I’ve been my own editor in this case. I’ve objected and made changes. My original blog, ‘The very great and the very small’, is no more. If you did read that blog you’ll see I’ve re-worked the material, and put it into a different context.

I often put aside articles or news items that in some way or another hit home. It could be snippet or a long article in a periodical. They’re discussion points. I sometimes imagine myself in a college senior common room, chatting to specialists from a wide range of disciplines, non-specialist engaging with specialist. It could be Eng Lit meets astrophysics, microbiologist meets political scientist, or …

They get on to today’s news.

Politics… version one of this blog referred to the government’s £275m Culture Recovery Fund, and the £784,000 that’s been awarded to Cheltenham Festivals, which include science, jazz, classical music, and of course books.  As a regular visitor to Cheltenham’s remarkable festivals this is good news. I also mentioned, as a stark contrast, a Liverpool publican and his worries about his business’s future if Liverpool suffers a level three, almost total, lockdown for any length of time.

But that didn’t begin to do the subject justice, encompassing as it does local or national lockdowns, ‘circuit breakers’ – or avoiding lockdowns altogether, with at-risk groups self-isolating on a voluntary basis. Over in France Macron is bringing in curfews.

At which point a voice might say – no politics. Likewise no religion, and certainly no sex or scandal…

So my grumble (anger?) about the way the term ‘creative destruction’ has been used during the pandemic – it will be under-performing and less successful businesses which will go to wall, so we shouldn’t worry too much – would be not be allowed.

We move on to another subject.

Astrophysics… we have the Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to three scientists for their work on black holes. There’s a black hole, Sagittarius A, is the very heart of our galaxy. It’s a mere four million times the mass of our sun, and it is of course invisible, because light can’t escape from it.

The first-ever image a black hole (outlined against the visible gases swirling around it) was released in April 2019. It’s at the centre of galaxy M87, which is a mere 53 million light years from earth. 53 million years for the light to reach us … roughly when the first primitive primates evolved, according to a New Scientist timeline of human evolution.

Chemistry … the Nobel Prize this year has been awarded to two scientists for their work on gene editing (editing ‘parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence’). Out of it could come new therapies for cancer, disease-resistant crops, ‘and which may, perhaps, end hereditary disease in human beings’.

Before we exult too much, we should remember that Covid-19 is not a hereditary disease. But human ingenuity, we hope and trust, will find a way.

History … another item I’ve recently put aside is a review by Christopher Clark of a new book on the Austrian stateman Metternich, which contains a quote from Napoleon, the simple brutality of which brought me up short. ‘You are no soldier,’ Napoleon said to Metternich, ‘and you do not know what goes on in the soul of a soldier. I was brought up in military camps, I know only the camps, and a man such as I does not give a fuck about the lives of a million men.’ (‘Fuck’ it seems is a fair translation.)

Contrast, lest we forget, what’s happening in Yemen, or on a smaller scale in Nagorna Karabakh. The simple, brute indifference to life. Or the 5.6 million Syrians are refugees, the 6.2 million displaced within Syria.

Are we getting political? Just where lies the divide? Migration and refugees are contentious subjects. And we’re back as if we hadn’t left them to refugees in the English Channel, to Brexit… to the American election, and the Mexican border fence.

If this is all part of a post-prandial conversation, then time, I think, for a coffee break.

Big ideas for the future

There are big ideas about the future out there, about seizing the moment – now is the time for radical change. Two of many examples:

The Committee on Climate Change would like the much lower carbon emissions during lockdown as a stepping off point. And Wolfgang Munchau argues in The Spectator for a bout of creative destruction. Letting ‘failing’ industries and businesses go to the wall.

The aviation industry would be in the firing line on both counts. We’ve already seen Flybe go the wall. And Virgin withdrawing from Gatwick, while BA has stated that ‘there is no certainty as to when or if these [Gatwick] services can or will return’.

Nick Timothy in his new book, ‘Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism’ (reviewed in the London Review of Books by Colin Kidd),  has a different take. Both Boris Johnson and Timothy ‘would claim to want to revamp the interest of the British economy in the interests of workers as well as bosses’. That is indeed very much the mandate on which the current government was elected. But creative destruction can’t take account of workers’ interests. So we’ve a clear and present conflict here.

The Thomas Cook collapse was a recent example. How many businesses, I wonder, would be allowed to go the wall? How much unemployment could the government countenance? Where would the new jobs, many if not most at the high-tech end of the spectrum, be located?

Munchau damns the EU for being ‘good at protecting existing interests’, and for ‘stifling innovation in the process’. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would hold back ‘an unparalleled opportunity for the artificial intelligence industry’. Again, we’ve a conflict – between the interests of the wider public and an open-field approach to AI.

We owe the term ‘creative destruction’ to the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It is in the very nature of enterprise and capitalism. New businesses opening up new territory. Old businesses go the wall, and workers lose their jobs.

But Munchau and his like treat creative destruction as a gospel. Likewise commentators in the Telegraph. Brexit is the great new opportunity to throw off fetters. New businesses will rise up and even as the world turns in on itself we will find major new markets which will transform our economy. The theory is excellent. The practical outcome is likely to be disastrous.

What I would like to see is a new dispensation at a European level. Retaining data privacy. But encouraging innovation – with new market opportunities open to all member states. For the UK radical approaches to innovation are far more likely to work out operating at a European level than worldwide. For Europe and the EU trading relationships are in place. On our own we’ll be one amongst a plethora of countries potentially pursuing radical business ideas, and it won’t be easy to stand out from the crowd.

Munchau fears that the EU will put constraints on, for example, an innovation fund he’d like to see set up. He may, or may not, be right. That indeed is the challenge for the EU. I don’t want to re-fight Brexit here. But I do want to see punctured some of the pie-in-the-sky hopes that some, including Munchau, have for a WTO (World Trade Organisation)-rules post-Brexit world.

Above all, his hope that UK industry unshackled from the EU and newly ‘energised’ will finally break out of the cycle of low productivity. This involves a multitude of presuppositions. If we do break out it certainly won’t be because we’ve waved a Brexit magic wand. 

The assumption now is that with an economy in crisis we’re already halfway to a new radical dispensation. But this isn’t like World War Two. People will be expecting their old jobs back, and government won’t be wanting to have them as a drain on resources any longer than it can help it.

My gripe against Nick Timothy is another one, an old one. He’s a Brexit go-it-aloner. The enemy: ultra-liberals and international elites. (‘Citizens of nowhere’, the phrase with which he landed Theresa May, he now claims refers to that elite – not to Remainers. If that’s the case he didn’t tell Theresa.)  Let the new Tory party identify with the working class, not assume that everyone’s aspiration is to rise out of it. It’s ordinary folk who should call the tune. I’ll go along with him on that. (With strong reservations about how opinion is manipulated.) Cameron conservatism assumed people would live with the elitism implicit in its attitudes. Brexit proved they won’t.

His book was written before the Covid crisis but let’s assume that he too sees big opportunities now post-crisis. They will bring a new statist, big-spending, austerity-a-dirty-words approach to the economy. Social conscience won’t be a dirty word. But social conservatism will be the dominant mood. A closed-world mentality at one level, Global Britain at another. How this will play out, who knows. The Conservative party has an old and dreadful habit of equating its own interest with that of the nation. But which interest? The market economy and the old Ayn Randian ideas, on the one hand, pitched against the big state of Joseph Chamberlain and his avatar, Nick Timothy, on the other.

Chamberlain was the great advocate of imperial preference. That idea is still there. A touch of the old divine right. But post-Brexit it will be a hot sweaty world in the engine room. We no longer rules the seas. And big ideas too easily run aground.

Big state will be important post-crisis. So too big ideas, big innovation. Building out from a world which may or may not be changed forever. But if we imagine we can do this alone, without Europe, we’re badly mistaken. Yes, we could become a fifty-first state. Some may prefer this. But going it alone should never be an option. We need that agreement with the EU by 31st December.

Munchau argues that ‘compared to the great lockdown, the effect of a WTO Brexit would be small’. True, but it assumes people at large will be prepared to accept that the economy doesn’t get back to its pre-virus levels. That they won’t mind us limping along for a while, in the vague hope of a new wider prosperity further down the line. It looks to me dangerously like using the virus as a cover for the economy under-performing.

We’re on dangerous ground here. But an economy and overseas trade operating on WTO rules looks to be what we will have unless a new wisdom prevails before the end of the year.

A great sadness will be that we miss the great opportunity of working with like-minded people across Europe to build a better post-Covid world. Anyone who imagines a sudden tiger-economy-style breakthrough is simply in cloud-cuckoo-land.

When the world re-opens

‘When the world does re-open, there will be some big surprises,’ is how I ended my last post. Will we, in this country, be surprised? Or will it be more of the same?

We have deserted city centres. We’re keeping our distance. At the same time we’re coming together. The post-Brexit agenda has been sidelined. Will it, I wonder, resume in the same way? The same desire to separate from countries close at hand and do deals with distant countries in a world which will be even more cautious, looking closer to home, than in recent times?

Go global, with all the risks that involves? Talk up trade with China, and India. Anywhere that isn’t close at hand. Give way to US demands even if they run counter to popular sentiment. Talk down our neighbours. Build barriers, where we least need them.

What is new is the proposed big spend on infrastructure, as outlined in Rishi Sunak’s first budget this month.

It’s probably a fond hope but it just might be that the new focus on community would encourage the government to rein in the current obsession with infrastructure for its own sake in favour of a more considered approach. Who would have imagined a few months ago the Tories switching so abruptly to a big state agenda? Philip Hammond, where are you now?

Manchester and Leeds are big beneficiaries. Liverpool and Hull miss out. Likewise the peripheral towns and villages which haven’t the glamour of the big cities. The focus needs to be more on the detail, less on the big gestures which catch headlines. By that I mean (re)establishing a strong industrial base. Guaranteeing good local communications. A focus on effective local government, and investment focused around local funds going into local enterprises.  Tempering capitalism with common sense. See my comments on Preston below.

Corbin is now claiming the Tories have stolen Labour’s clothes. Labour talked about a people’s quantitative easing. As a strategy that was scorned. The government’s focus on debt is more or less the same thing, and yet the Tory press are silent. (Labour and the Conservatives have of course different ideas on where investment should go, and I’m not attempting to review Labour’s plans here. And they are indeed already history.)

What the Tories haven’t stolen of course is Labour’s social agenda. The NHS may be getting more spending, but there’s no sign of any sympathy for, let alone action on, reversing the appalling impact of austerity on the less privileged in society.

As for how the right-wing justify their volte-face there’s an amusing quote from Jesse Norman, author of an excellent biography of Edmund Burke, linking big sending and Brexit. Tories love to call on Burke to justify their actions. It’s akin to American Supreme Court justices with their strict interpretations of the constitution. Trying to apply 18th century notions to the present day is fraught with dangers. All it does is make Norman look foolish.

‘It’s a Burkean understanding that the nation is a moral idea: a group of people bound together by a moral affinity. It’s that legitimating sense of self that underwrites a nation’s capacity to tax.’ (The Economist, 21st March)

The one thing we don’t have is ‘a group of people bound together by a moral affinity’. Not that I’ve noticed.

There’s talk of renationalising the railways, with franchisees find themselves running out of cash as people work from home and radically cut down on travel.

Also part of the big state are attacks on the BBC and the judiciary, for supposed over-reach. Borrowing this time from the European far right. And at the behest of Dom Cummings.

Reducing immigration: another big state intervention. It assumes that UK-born care workers and workers in the hospitality sector will emerge from the woodwork, just because the government wills it. We’ve also had nonsense arguments about robots. Germany has x3 more robots than we have, South Korea x10. Immigration it seems is to blame. Businesses are deferring investment in robots because immigrants are an easier and cheaper option. This is an argument of convenience, without any semblance of truth as far as I’m aware. But it sounds plausible.

Also within Priti Patel’s remit, a bigger prison population is also part of a bigger state. Money which would better go on community work and rehabilitation is wasted on building new prisons.

Preston, the Preston experiment, highlights the government’s obsessions, and illustrates how opposed they are to genuine communitarian politics.

Preston has over the last few years encouraged ‘anchor institutions’ (councils, hospitals, colleges and the like) with big budgets to use local suppliers. To spend locally. That might seem to fit well with a post-virus localist mentality. But likely to be welcomed by the government? No way.

Johnson on Preston: ‘I am sure they are an estimable bunch but Preston Council are not the locomotives of the economy. We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector that can pay for superb local services.’

Put simply, all Tory talk of big infrastructure spend will be as nothing unless local people, local councils, local businesses are empowered. Preston is not operating a socialist state. But it is seeking to ensure that local investment and expansion doesn’t come from handouts but from local engagement, and self-belief at a local level.

Markets for the government are the ultimate arbiter. Creative destruction the watchword. I’m not arguing against creative destruction per se. Businesses rise and businesses fall. But it pays no heed to community. And what we do not want is a disempowered and disaffected community.

One great lesson of politics, maybe the great lesson, disregarded by politicians, and the current crowd are a worse-case scenario, is that you rarely get what you want. Big spending is high risk, and high risk rarely delivers. Remember, amongst others, two previous chancellors, Reggie Maudling and Anthony Barber, and their ‘rushes for growth’.

However great the crisis we have to be thinking beyond. The big issues won’t go away. But it may be the crisis will lead to a better understanding. So may a new Labour leadership better equipped to challenge the government. We shall see.