Conservatism – selling out to the new right

I began this blog eight years ago in a mood of optimism. Obama’s ‘yes we can’. Maybe we could find common ground across the political divide, enough to take agendas of enterprise, economic growth, internationalism and social justice forward together. We knew of the new right’s machinations, but didn’t foresee how their path to power might work out. And how conservatism would be re-interpreted, and buy into the politics and the moral neutrality of post-truth. To take a few examples:

# Referenda: the idea seems to be abroad in some circles that referenda results are for all time. Referenda if used at all, and they are too easily manipulated (by money and media) to have any significant role in any serious democracy, must be reversible, in the way that parliamentary legislation is reversible. It is extraordinary and irrational to think otherwise. And against conservative tradition…

# Conservative vs radical: it is no less remarkable how the Tory party has moved so far right without realising it, mirroring the Barclay brothers Daily Telegraph agenda and adopting the manners and demeanour of the Paul Dacre Daily Mail. We could indict the Conservatives under the trade descriptions act. (Tory – from the old Gaelic toraidhe, meaning outlaw. Altogether a better description.) The old Tory party, going back to Macmillan, Heath, even Thatcher, believed in the great British unwritten constitution, the wheels turned slowly, radical change and revolution were disdained. We have now arguably the biggest leap in the dark outside of wartime in two hundred years.

I am now the conservative. I’m not sure I like my new role too much – there’s too much in the world to be radical about.

# Economic forecasts from outlier economists such as Patrick Minford, given press and media coverage as if mainstream. Compare the wiser counsels of the FT and the Economist. Curious now how many rely on the Telegraph City pages: that’s a subject in itself.

# Assumptions that post-Brexit we will dispense with the ECJ – the European Court of Justice – and still achieve some kind of trade deal. Set up a separate quasi-judicial body? Are the EU for a moment likely to acquiesce in that?

# ‘Recent’ poll data suggesting wide support for a hard Brexit – quoted as fact in the media (including The Week) – when the data dates back to April and has been wilfully misinterpreted.

# Finally – diversion away from the issues which should be engaging us. Not least the tragedy (see recent reporting in The Times, and all power to them ) almost on our doorstep in Libya. 700,000 migrants camped and waiting. This is a crisis for all Europeans, and one so far which the EU, 28 countries with clamorous electorates, has simply failed to come to terms with.

Here in the UK we are obsessed by Brexit, preferring to close our borders physically, morally and politically. Rather, we should be in there, facing up to the crisis, putting forward proposals. Advocates within Europe, within the EU.

Suggestions, for example, for a wall across southern Libya, or funding repatriations… maybe or maybe not viable … but where are we?

Sidelined, irrelevant.

Mindfulness – the year’s most depressing trend

I chanced on a Telegraph article from last year – mindfulness ‘the most depressing trend of 2015’. And a headline I saw this week – ‘mindfulness is boring’.

I could spare myself the occasional read of the Telegraph, but I treat it as a penance. And the sport can be very good.

The Telegraph journalist from last year admitted she was only after a quick fix but felt qualified to opine that there was a ‘bigger, scarier point’. ‘Why are so many of us living lives we feel unable to cope with? How is it that we are so unhappy with our lots that we will willingly sit cringing in a room with our colleagues while remembering to breathe?’ She interviewed a wide variety of people for the documentary she was making, ‘even Buddhists’.

I am, I have to be as the author of this blog, a charitable soul, but the sheer inanity of her remarks take some beating. If I’m unhappy – it’s with this sort of drivel – the Brexit quick-fix mentality. If you want to find out how afflicted many of us our with our lives – read the Daily Mail.

Life is a slow burn, and if we could all give ourselves time to breathe, to show compassion – to be mindful – we’d be a million times better for it.

Anger

I put up posts on my blog – my attempts to understand this crazy passage of history we’re living through. So I look at both sides, and I’m aware of how out of touch the city-types, the establishment fogeys, the unversity-educated, the social media users were. And how there are real, justified causes of resentment and anger that we hadn’t understood.

At the same time…

To understand is not to excuse the way the Leave side put over its case. And sometimes real venom is in order.To quote a letter to the Daily Telegraph…

‘I share with many of my peer group a visceral, all-consuming, white-hot fury at the toxic drip of misrepresentation, outright lies and barely disguised xenophobia which fuelled the Leave campaign….(The) people who got us there have made the UK an uglier place and we will never forgive them.’

To try and understand is not enough. Not entirely a zenpolitics statement, but zen is neither passive or accepting.

Words, words, words

Words, words, words…

I’ve read the Economist on Brexit, and now the New Statesman. I’ve browsed Daily Mail and Telegraph headlines, watched Panorama. Read the Guardian. Skipped through The Week. I’m gutted and I’m glutted.

A few conclusions, and that means, inevitably, more words.

I remain (in every sense) passionate about the European ideal, about being open and open-hearted toward the world, about influence gained by working with others rather than influence lost by retreating, and pretending we can win friends from behind closed doors.

There are so many narratives out there. One is a narrative of gloom. Reaching wider than Brexit, there’s a sense of a failing world, of which the EU, China, Russia and a USA enthralled by Trump are all aspects. The philosopher, John Gray (writing in the New Statesman), is a good example. ‘We have to throw away the old progressive playbook.’

‘Not for a moment,’ would be my reply. But an acceptance that the progressive road is a rocky one, and for every step forward there might be two steps back – yes, that we must accept.

(Gray is closer to the mark on Labour: ‘Leading Labour figures have denied that the party’s stance on immigration is central to the collapse of its working-class base.’ Look to de-industrialisation they argue. But they’re avoiding ‘an inconvenient truth’.)

Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Remain side, felt so deeply a week last Friday morning. Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Leave side, building up over many years.

On the Remain side we need to be wary of our language, and our emotions, and our surprise. At the same time we can be scornful of the likes of Libby Purves laying into disconsolate Remainers: ‘liberal and lefties weeping into their lattes.’ You don’t have to be liberal or leftie – you just have to European, and an optimist, and open in outlook.

It’s been helpful to run through a few of the reasons given by ordinary people explaining their reasons for voting to leave, on Panorama and elsewhere.

Immigration: ‘no room in schools, not safe in our jobs … a weaker economy a price worth paying… racism shouldn’t be used as a smear against the voiceless.’

‘The bosses love foreign workers… The housing situation is the UK is abysmal… Now to be poor is a sin… One million migrants into Germany…’

We can, on the Remain side, argue for ever that immigration has a substantial net benefit to the UK economy, but there’s no doubt that free movement between countries with different working conditions, radically different levels of pay and welfare benefits has impacted directly on the lower-paid and less-skilled. Free movement is an important (but arguably not a necessary) principle for a free market, but it’s caused significant dislocations. Yes, we should have anticipated this and provided the necessary health and education infrastructure. But we’ve been in a recession, and our focus has been elsewhere….

While there is no gainsaying the impact on jobs and pay, the experience of specific localities has been written up and wilfully exaggerated. This is where UKIP and the Mail, Sun and Express come into play. The fear of immigration, the supposed threat to our national character, has had a major influence nationwide, and helps explain the Leave vote in areas with low immigrant populations. Addressing dislocations caused by immigration will have little effect on this element of the Leave vote. Fear easily becomes prejudice and runs deep. And aligns with a disdain for the political class – also encouraged by the popular press.

There’s another narrative we heard on Panorama – the disappearance of the old shops from the High Street – as if this was a consequence of the EU. So much has been shovelled together and the EU was the first and easiest target – there are no such easier targets in general elections.

Beware referenda – populism is not ‘as it is being used today a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand’. (John Gray.)  Rather it is a chance for the population at large to vent its anger. And there are out there many skilled operators who know how to exploit that anger for their own purposes.

Try de-industrialisation as an argument with ordinary people. Immigration is much easier. Put the two together and muddle it with the loss of sovereignty argument and you have a potent mix.

(To return briefly to de-industrialisation.  The impact of China and global trade hardly gets a mention. And yet cheap imports have driven industrial decline more than any other factor. Trump talks up the issue but it hasn’t featured in the referendum debate. Instead we’ve had a focus on the EU as the source of all our ills. If we seek to revive our industry we should be working with Europe and not stigmatising it. The problem lies elsewhere.)

‘I would love to see the break-up of the EU. Nation states should be free from the voluntary shackles offered by cynical, deceitful, anti-democratic, sneering, control freaks.’  ‘The EU is doomed to fail.’

OK, I’m on the side of the cynical, deceitful… Much of that language one could apply to the manipulators of opinion in the popular press.  (Far from cynical, many of us are idealists – but our idealism is not rose-tinted. More than ever now it has to be practical.)

Deceitful, no, but, yes, the perception that Brussels has reached out too far is widespread, and many who voted to remain share that view. The EU is not doomed to fail. But cutting back on EU directives, worrying less about harmonisation, would be wise. Will the EU pick up on that message?

A comment from a Leaver on the left: ‘…we shall set our own agenda. We shall be able to keep our public services and not be forced to privatise them, and if we chose we can renationalise our industries…’

An awful lot from across the political spectrum can be stuffed into one pot. Many will be disappointed.

And finally, from another source, The Economist, we have the liberal agenda: ‘…liberals need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates in to rising wages… battling special interests, exposing incumbent companies to competition, and breaking down restrictive practices’. Yes, I agree, but that is a long process, and in truth we’re unlikely ever to get there, and en route there will many, maybe too many, casualties, and if there’s one message from all this, from Brexit and all its other manifestations in Europe and the USA it’s that

we have to look out for casualties.

We are in a crisis moment, at a turning-point. The new world we saw emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall has turned a little sour. A new liberal, open dispensation seemed to be within our grasp. Instead we’ve seen the old hierarchies reinforced, new hierarchies emerge, new elites alongside the old, with aspirations to culture, to learning, to the good life, on the one hand – and a liking among too many for extraordinary ostentation…

… while the rest of us look on and maybe we aspire to achieve for ourselves, or we shrug and disregard, or we envy, or we disdain. The new order has brought radical disparities of wealth, at the same time as earnings as a percentage of capital have reduced. There’s a widespread sense of being left behind – a sense of a brave new post-war world disordered and old verities overturned.

For us true believers, we must continue to aspire, to work together, to put our trust in the younger generations – but we must address directly and immediately and with wisdom the big issues we’d turned a blind eye to for many years.

 

 

Kids Company – where lies truth?

I’ve read some pretty unpleasant things in the press about Kids Company, so I watched Lynn Alleway’s film based on interviews with Camila Batmanghelidjh (shown on the BBC last Wednesday) with great interest. While I’ve had no connections with the charity I’ve had the sense that it was doing something remarkable, and the way sections of the press turned on her and the charity last summer left me with grave misgivings. Accusations of failures to investigate physical and sexual abuse, in additional to claims of financial incompetence, finally brought charity down: the police have no found no evidence to support the accusations relating to abuse, but much much too late.

The film interviews sympathetically, but also shows how personal and inconsistent and extravagant many of the charity’s activities were, and Alleway concludes (with sadness) that Batmanghelidjh was living in a world of her own.

But – and I’ll quote the Guardian review of the film here – ‘however bonkers and badly run Kids Company was, it’s hard not to admire and support the idea behind it: to bring the love of a family to troubled lives. Nor is Camila’s motivation in question – she’s trying to do the right thing by the kids. And on an individual level it works, it can change lives for the better.’

The love of a family.

No other charity has attempted anything in this scale, or achieved so much – or been so profligate. Could Alan Yentob as chair of the trustees have kept her in check – did he want to, being aware of the good the charity was doing? And what are we left with, now that it’s gone? The loyalty and enthusiasm of the Kids Company staff were very evident from the film.

On the other hand – what the Kids Company was faced with, from the more callous sections of the press, is evident from the Telegraph  review of Lynn Alleway’s film:

‘Those who bring succour to the needy are deserving of society’s gratitude. None have gobbled up more of their fill than Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company. Public knowledge of her love-spreading charity was greatly enhanced by a documentary made by Lynn Alleway 10 years ago. So when a vastly expanded Kids Company started to run out of money last year, Batmanghelidjh invited Alleway back to watch the fur fly from the inside….Alleway’s wasn’t especially keen to expose her subject as paranoid, narcissistic, belligerent, manipulative, self-pitying, evasive, irresponsible and needy. But Batmanghelidjh didn’t give her much other material to work with.’

And there’s much more in this vein. My disdain for this kind of review, this kind of reporting, is absolute.

There’s a factual note at the bottom of the review – the charity’s total income 2013:  £8,104,012; the number of children the charity said it was supporting at the time of its closure: 34,000.

34,000. Even if overstated, even its a significantly smaller number, that’s a lot of children being helped, and what has happened to them since then? That’s another story.

Maybe the Telegraph would like to report on this – and try and report accurately and honestly for a change.

The press and the bedroom

In an interview which focuses on where to locate parliament during the coming major refurbishment, the speaker (of the House of Commons), John Bercow, also took in other subjects, including the tabloid press, in a way that politicians, constrained by party, rarely do.

Would that more politicians felt able to speak truth to the nation.

He denounced much of the UK tabloid press as what he called the ‘more downmarket, low-grade, fifth-rate scribblers on newspapers – if they could be called such – that might be thought to be racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, comic cartoon strips’.

Right on! Few in the media will dare to repeat or report this, and yet it’s the way so many of us feel.

Another big cheer this week followed the Court of Appeal ruling that the so-called bedroom tax ‘discriminates against a domestic violence victim and the family of a disabled teenager’. The bedroom tax euphemistically called by the government the ‘spare room subsidy’ is one of those pernicious pieces of legislation which fails to take into account the realities of ordinary life – the lives of ordinary people. Reduces them to statistics.

Cameron’s comment that it is ‘unfair to subsidise spare rooms in the social sector if we don’t subsidise them in the private sector’, entirely misses its damaging effects. No spare room means no family or friends to stay, no room for emergency, no place to escape. What happens in the private sector is an irrelevance. The iniquity of opposing a Mansion Tax while supporting a bedroom tax, where the occupant in the one case by definition has resources and the other doesn’t, is self-evident.

Policy-makers have to mix with the real world, and have to remember as I’ve argued many times that if your policy fails the basic test of compassion, then you should scrap it.

Relentless carping….

I’m arguing against myself here. I want more balanced news reporting, avoiding the cheap populist headlines that the tabloids indulge, and the reporting and biases that go with it. And the broadsheets don’t do much better.

But I try and make this blog pragmatic – connected to the everyday. Zen isn’t a place for dreamers. Is there any point shouting into the wind, when I know little will change? Unless… but the press barons won’t sell up and  if they did they’d likely sell to worse not better. And post-Leveson the issue of press freedom’s died a death, as the likes of Paul Dacre knew it would if they stalled long enough.

And anyway, the daily press is all about stories, and stories don’t have two ‘sides’, there’s no even-handed treatment of the cast. They need a villain or two, they need endings, they’re not puzzles, arguments, analyses requiring a measured resolution.

I’m not talking here so much about left or right, more about story, and balance, and necessary villains.

Taking examples from last Saturday’s Telegraph, we find stories about substantial pay rises for NHS chief executives in times of extreme financial stringency, threats to company pension schemes from proposed tax changes (removing higher level relief), and ‘anger’ over the just-announced annual increase in train fares – 1%.

How are they linked? By the absence of any objectivity, of another side to each story. That’s where my heading ‘relentless carping’ – always looking for the negative, for villains – comes in. And it does turn me off newspapers.

And what might be the ‘other side’ to each story?

NHS: look into each salary increase and there’s often an explanation for the rise, and there’s also the brutal fact that to attract the best people to run organisations you have to pay what the market dictates.

Train fare increases: the headline focused on the aggregate increase over the last five years, not the 1%, the lowest for five years, just announced. And someone, a pressure group or two, is angry.

Company pension schemes: the story reflects the views of a trade body, an interested party.  Counter-arguments? I could guess at another side – but I’ve not yet seen it reported.

My favourite press quote (CP Scott), ‘opinion is free, facts are sacred’, missed out a third category, ‘context’, or ‘frame’. The frame is integral to the story. Facts are framed, kept within a limited context, and the best stories unless it’s a football result or a big cricket score are usually negative. And we may (see above) amid the superabundance of future news reports never find the counter-arguments, if indeed they ever get a mention.

The alternative? The Economist sometimes manages pretty well. Under the heading ‘Northern  waterhouse’, a play on the government’s proposed ‘Northern powerhouse’ it looks at government and local authority responses to the recent floods, highlights cuts in investment at both levels, and gives a context to the anger so often expressed in recent weeks. But… the December just past has been the wettest month on record, and would the investment which was cut have made any difference to the flooding that’s actually happened? That’s not mentioned. So no more than 6 out of 10 for the Economist.

I don’t want to be putting in a good word for overpaid NHS executives, badly run train companies, damaging taxation changes to company pensions, or cancelled flood prevention when it’s not justified. But I want more if I’m to have the full picture.

But again, that qualification: should newspaper stories be other than stories? With villains. Without villains they wouldn’t get read.

The Economist has the advantage of being a weekly. Daily papers are another matter. So in the end it comes down to the old proverbial pinch of salt.

And keep a set of scales to hand, just as a reminder – there is another side.