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.

Back to Europe

Should we sit back post-Brexit (if indeed it happens), as one-time Remainers, and accept our severance from Europe as permanent? Or do we make it clear that our aim will be to to rejoin – rejoin both EU and Europe. Get ‘back to Europe’.

Robert Peston (late of the BBC, now ITV’s political editor) spoke with his usual passion, lucidity and calm deliberation (a uniquely Pestonian combination) last Friday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

He is very much in the Remain camp, but careful to understand both sides of the argument. But as an economist he is in no doubt about where Britain’s interest lies. Likewise over the role of the EU in guaranteeing long-term peace in Europe.

His one caveat, and a crucial one, relates to the divide in the country that Brexit has revealed and the last two years has exacerbated. How much deeper the divide, how much more bitter the recriminations in the country, if we don’t leave? Where might a hyper-charged political atmosphere lead – what damage to our institutions?

I understand that concern. But there is of course the other side. The anger and blame if we leave. But I’d suggest that maybe too many on the Remain side aren’t quite passionate enough – they’re not of the go to-the-wall mentality. Rather, shrug, and see what happens. Which is curious in a way because Remainers have a majority among the young and better educated, but it may just be that the capacity to be reasonable among the Remainers tones down their opposition. They aren’t quite angry enough.

Nor should we sideline the moral argument, highlighted by Macron’s statement that Brexit advocates were liars. ‘Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.’

Let’s say purveyors of half-truths and distortions. Without the fake stories, without the BBC’s equivocation, Leave would never have won. (Which isn’t to argue that elites and arrogance, wealth distribution and immigration weren’t the deeper concerns which drove the Brexit vote. These are the issues of and for our time. But Brexit is simply the wrong way to deal with them.)

Should we sit back, or on the fence, and allow Brexit to happen, without continuing to challenge at every step, before and after 29th March next year?

Saturday morning there was a Guardian story that Conservative MPS are talking to Labour MPs about winning their support for Theresa May-negotiated settlement with the EU. Takes me back to Peston. The outcome of a vote in parliament?  Another referendum on the final terms? He almost said a ‘Peoples’ Vote’ but checked himself. He put it at 40% likely – maybe 50%.

So … if, from next April on, we have a Customs Union, of sorts, and various other stop-gaps and cobbled-together elements. Do we sit back quietly? No, surely, we need a Back to Europe movement, and we need to be the ones arguing, shouting if need be, above the mess and the noise.

Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’

Europe v America

Do you lean more to Europe or to the USA? What does your instinct tell you? I remember the question being posed in a radio debate a few years ago. It caught my attention then. It’s more than ever relevant now, as Brexit disparages and attempts to sideline Europe.

Why for so many is there an instinctive hostility to the EU? Is it just to the institution? Or does it reflect the way we engage with European culture and history? At a bumptious Boris Johnson ‘I can sing Ode to Joy’ level, or at a level more woven into our soul – into our identity?

Are we a European people, one of many, an outlier, but integral nonetheless? Or are we to all intents and purposes, though we wouldn’t admit it, just another state of the USA, just doing things a little differently.

We’re uneasy about the USA, it’s brashness, its noise, its superiority complex – but we go with it – it is, we feel, an exaggeration of our own character, the same substance, lacking the finesse. But they’re our comfort zone – not Europe.

Brexiteers by default lean to America, to trade agreements which will of course be on American terms. They hide this behind ‘global’ aspirations, and a maritime, ‘old Commonwealth’ identity.

I’d argue we are already global – and we are as engaged with the USA we need to be. Trump’s penalties for companies and banks breaking US-imposed sanctions against Iran underline the point.

 

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Europe v the world

So we’ve widened it. It’s no longer Europe v America, it’s elided into Europe v ‘the world’. We’re going global. As if we need to assert one identity at the expense of another. I’m proud to be a citizen of the UK – of Europe – and of the world.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, trespasses onto this territory when (I’m quoting from The Economist) he criticises liberal Tories such as [Amber] Rudd ‘for misinterpreting Brexit as a vote for closing the borders rather than embracing a more global future’.

There are countless other such statements. The likes of Nelson have set up and pursued a false dichotomy, pitching a European against ‘a global future’. We were there of course already. The Brexit strategy will indeed involve (the shenanigans of current Cabinet debate on the subject will go down in history as farce) some kind of closure of our border with Europe, against a pie-in-the-sky chance of signing trade deals with further-flung countries that offset the damage that closure will cause.

Countless pages, articles, tomes have been written on both sides of the argument. It’s that deeper and false sense of a divide that concerns me here. The Brexit debate, and Brexit supporters for decades before the 2016 vote, have polarised ‘European’ and ‘global’, pitched one against the other, and we’re digging the divide deeper all the time.

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Don’t for heaven’s sake claim you’re an intellectual

I’m hardly saying anything new but it’s also an anti-intellectual debate. Don’t rely on argument, rely on instinct – it’s become a matter of belief. There’s a new book out about the French intellectual (The End of the French Intellectual): at least France has had such a person as the public intellectual. A species who in this country should expect to get as little appreciation from the likes of the Daily Mail as members of the House of Lords or the judiciary.

Leaping across the pond, we have Scott Pruitt, head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, barring scientists who have received federal grants from the EPA from sitting on boards advising the EPA on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. There are no restrictions on scientists who work for the industries the EPA monitors. Again, independence of mind is under threat.

And finally, that Ruth Lea, a long-time public figure, arguing that ‘the economics ‘establishment’, including the Treasury, were utterly wrong-footed by our economic performance after the Brexit vote in June 2016′. The economics ‘establishment’ – ‘commissariat’ is another term I’ve seen used. In other words, the great majority of economists. Maybe Ruth Lea hasn’t noticed how our performance has significantly lagged the rest of Europe – and taken on board the reluctance abroad not to let the UK slide too far – for in whose interests is that? Yes, arguments were too apocalyptic, attempting to match the Brexiteers’ approach of promising the earth.

The way is still down, it’s just taking far more turnings. As long as we inhabit this falsely polarised world that won’t change.

UK election 8th June 2017 – where do we go from here?

I’ve resisted for a little while any comment on last week’s election. It was a seismic event, watching at 10pm on election night, and knowing by 10.01 that it looked likely we’d have a hung parliament. Then watching till 4, rejoicing in seats gained, sadness in one or two cases at seats lost, but a sense deep down that at least the terrible tide the referendum prompted, and the vote confirmed, was finally if not turned then stayed. For too long there’s been a sense that the tide had overwhelmed the liberal attitudes of old, and we against all better judgements were set on a catastrophic Brexit course.

London and other cities, and above all the young, spoke out. Some extraordinary vote registering had gone on below the radar, press and opinion polls were hardly aware. May was a disaster, and remains so, the Tory campaign and manifesto likewise, and Corbyn came out of a shell many of us thought was the real Corbyn to reveal a performer, yes, a performer, with a sure touch, and a degree of ordinary human sympathy, and humour, which struck a chord with me and many another.

Talk to the under 30s and most, almost to their surprise, were voting Labour. Not just the Corbynistas who took to the barricades two years ago. I could have voted Labour, voting tactically, living as I do in a constituency where the Lib Dems have little chance, but old loyalties held me back.

Let’s assume we can stay and even reverse the Tory tide. What will replace it?  The centre is recent times has not held, and there’s a pull of gravity to the left that could take us too far.

The gulf between the Corbynite left and the traditional liberal centre is a big one – a gap in practice, outlook, traditions, as well as pure politics. But, accepting all the risks, could a new devil (who may yet cast off a horn or two) be better than the old disastrous devil who has been calling the tune too long – and still of course aspires to. I’ll be returning to these words in coming months, and checking if they are wise, or foolish, or somewhere inbetween.

For my part I’ve little time for the old trade union connections, for industrial warfare which is a hangover from another age, for pseudo-socialist alternatives such as Hugh Chavez, which have over the years drawn Corbyn in. I’ve no principled objection to renationalising the railways, where the free market finds it hard to operate successfully, other than cost. Energy generation and distribution would be a lumbering giant in the hands of the state.

Student loans are a vexed question: I’ve supported the principle until recently (and indeed in an earlier version of this post), but it’s more than apparent that the system needs radical reform. Levels of debt are spiralling. The rate of interest, 3% above RPI, is now 6.1%, and average debt on graduation £44,000. To quote the Independent, based on a lower debt on graduation of £33,000, ‘a graduate on a salary of £55,000 at the end of the 30-year period (after which loans are written off) will have paid back just over £40,000 on £33,000 borrowed, with a remaining £58,000 unpaid.’ The debt is extraodinarily high when you’re starting out, and you carry it with for thirty years. Then any balance is cancelled.

The state will lose vast sums because many loans will simply be written off after thirty years. Graduate debt in the UK is higher than in any other country in the English-speaking world. Scrapping the whole damned system is one option. A contributory system, with lower levels of interest and repayment, is another.

What I don’t know is how Corbyn proposes to replace student loans. But I can see very clearly why it’s a major issue for young people.

As to Labour’s tax proposals, they transparently won’t bring in anything like the revenues the Labour manifesto suggests. Higher tax rates for the affluent have natural justice of their side, but aren’t likely to be effective in raising significant revenue, and taxing companies – increasing corporation tax – can easily be counter-productive. But I don’t for a moment share the Tory obsssion with tax reduction at all costs.

So why support Corbyn – albeit a tentative and watchful support ?

1] Relax the austerity obsession. Improved infrastructure (not including HS2) can only improve economic performance. And cuts to social welfare have to be pared back, and the NHS funded maybe on LibDem lines – an extra 1p in the pound on income tax. The national debt (approx 82% of GDP) looms large, fed each year by a budget deficit, the elimination of which keeps being postoned – Brexit being the latest culprit. Far better to prime the economy, and as a consequence increase the tax intake, than pursue the black hole of the May/Davis nexus.

2] Bring compassion back into politics – bring the poor, the unemployed and the disabled back into the heart of things. They have been stigmatised too long, though the fault is not with them. The dependency culture is in great part a right-wing figment, an excuse for putting them both out of both mind, and as far as possible, out of sight. The budget deficit has driven cuts in recent years – but a highly inequitable treatment of the less fortunate cannot be the answer.

3] Enlist and keep on board, as Corbyn has done, the young, to counter-balance all the caution and backward-looking disposition of the over-60s who to their shame have closed minds and ranks in support of a spurious UK – or English – identity.

4} Support the immigrant population, and allow future immigration to be dictated by the requirements of the economy – from Europe, from India, and elsewhere. Not least students coming to our universities. To be open to refugees, to be open instinctively – which doesn’t mean we open our ports, but it does mean our first response is to help and not to stigmatise.

5] Implicit in so much of the above, to maintain our close ties with Europe, with the EU, with EU institutions, maintain our trading links, and that wider humanity, concern for the individual, for rights, for equality, for the environment, which is so much the European tradition. We and Europe are so much more effective in a world of big power blocs (USA, China, Europe) if we speak with one voice.

6] Related to the above, maintain our influence in the world, which Brexit would, in the name of a spurious sovereignty, surrender: where better to exercise our sovereignty than within a continent where we’re listened to, where we share traditions. What chance when we argue our case on our own, a small island with an inflated idea of regaining glories which belong to vastly different world?

Corbyn is wary, more than wary, of globalisation, more than wary of big business. His old socialist instincts worry me. But it’s chance I’ll take. The Brexit route is guaranteed to bring disaster, and I don’t believe that the Labour right, or the wider country, would, come a future election, allow a luddite Corbynism to prevail.

But there is risk here. Under Corbyn we might find ourselves pursuing a new identity politics, where we close our minds to the impact of automation, try and hold on to old industrial practices, hold back the rise of new companies and new industries, and resist the changes in communication and trade that business, and big business, will inevitably take forward. Getting the balance right between the old and new will be vexed and require all our attention, and debate, and financial support for those who suffer. Likewise keeping our focus on the environment, and climate change, and the population and resource issues which have to be addressed.

The Trump and Le Pen agendas are there to remind us what could happen – and Corbyn will surely be well aware of the dangers of trimming in that direction.

But I have to trust that the young, the under 30s, the under 40s, will haul him back. It is their world, even more than mine, and we have to trust them to make it work. Who will lead when Corbyn is gone, and will she or he will retain their support – they are big questions. But a ball has been set rolling, and while I don’t trust all the routes that it might take, we do finally have a counter-course to stay the Brexit obsession.

Politics will never take the course we anticipate. Never has and never will. But we can work to set a direction, and argue both in political and practical terms to hold that direction as best we can.

No mention here of the Lib Dems, where I remain a member. They will pull strongly to sanity and to the centre, and will now be under a new leader. Their role is this regard will be similar to the Labour right, the new Labour rearguard. Just how the centre of British politics works out in the year, and years, to come is another of the great imponderables.

But to quote Nigel Farage, at least there are signs we might yet ‘get our country back’. Farage of course had never lost his – he’d conjured a country which simply didn’t exist.

Taking politics out of zenpolitics …

Back before I took ten days out from the world I wondered about the future of my zenpolitics blog. ‘Politics and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows….There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me.’

Which, indeed, I do.

Trump happened while I was away. Here in the UK, judges insisted that the government couldn’t invoke Article 50 without first putting it before parliament. Theresa May had an embarrassing trip to India. She looked out of her depth. I could but don’t want to comment on all this. I’ve spent years doing so, and especially in this Brexit year. But with so much going on it’s almost a full-time job just to keep up to speed. Let alone comment.

We are in a time of crisis. Zenpolitics has always assumed a continuing broadly liberal agenda in Western politics, and that’s now very much under threat. If, as the Economist argues, Trump’s success is replicated in Europe, ‘the EU may eventually tilt toward a common assembly for mutually beneficial transactions rather than a club of like-minded countries with a sense of shared destiny’.

I will continue to argue for that shared destiny.  But to look out for insights and inspiration, and anomalies, and avoid day-to-day combat. Insights into politics, but also I hope into landscapes, real and imaginary, and travel.

I will as always aim to understand the other’s point of view. But there are a good few bastards out there, not to put too fine a point on it.

So I will sometimes fail.

Back to Brexit ….

A brief note – in the end not quite as brief as I intended! My reason for this post – to explain why I am not one of those who voted Remain but is now prepared to accept Brexit, to accommodate – accept that the vote has happened, argue we should make the best of it and get on with life.

A few reasons, in no particular order, as they say on Strictly Come Dancing, as follows….

The vote was won on a basis of a false prospectus and false promises. Even now – press headlines pick up James Dyson and Lord Bamford, two of the rare industrialists who supported Brexit.

We are a parliamentary, representative democracy, and we should live and die by that. Not be ruled by plebiscites, which are the first and last resort of populists and demagogues. (We currently have an unelected government, governing to its own and not the 2015 Tory manifesto, and which anticipates pushing Brexit through using the royal prerogative without, if it can help it, reference to parliamentary discussion or vote.)

The European Union is a remarkable institution. Unwieldy, bureaucratic, fractious, but it is the extraordinary coming together of 28 different nations, each passionate about its own interest, but likewise seeing the benefits, after two thousand years of conflict, of coming together. Our efforts should be concentrated on reform not withdrawal. (The EU has been pilloried for its poor handling of the refugee crisis, but I wonder how it could have been handled well, given all the fear and anxieties felt by 28 countries with very different histories. Had here been no EU, how would the crisis have been handled? With any less agony, any less suffering?)

A war which tore Europe and then the world apart ended only seventy years ago, a year before I was born. Before that another war, arguably even more terrible. We’ve had seventy years of peace, unprecedented peace. The EU symbolises and acts out that peace.

As an economic union, despite all the talk it’s a significant success. No serious economist would argue otherwise. Run a business which trades with other European countries, which I’ve done, and you’re aware of all the benefits. The danger is you take them for granted – assume they’d have happened anyway. There are also extraordinary levels of scientific, environmental and cultural collaboration, for which the EU has provided both the mechanism and inspiration.

The EU isn’t restrictive – unless you’re opposed to workplace and environmental rights. And we’re not going to do without the regulations by asserting our independence – if we want to trade with Europe, the regulations are the terms.

Where there is unnecessary red tape we need to be in there, ensuring it’s removed, instead of being passive observers. We are sacrificing engagement, and influence. We’ve used that influence well over the years.

Immigration is a perceived threat – where immigrant numbers are highest we had the highest Remain votes, where they were low the highest Leave votes. A perceived threat – nowhere near the actual threat that much of the press played up. Likewise no evidence that immigration has held wages down. Yes, pressure on schools and housing in certain areas – and the last government singularly failed to recognise that immigration, and other changes in our working lives, must be reflected in improved infrastructure. (Levels of immigration in recent years have been too high – I’m not arguing otherwise – and politically they’re unsustainable at this level. How you handle this while preserving freedom of movement is a mighty challenge, but not remotely a sufficient reason for Brexit.)

Behind immigration lies the identity politics, aligned with nation and race and social group, which we should be fighting every step of the way. Espouse patriotism not separatism. Patriotism based upon British values of openness, tolerance, free speech – and a tradition of welcoming strangers, bringing them into the fold, and letting them benefit our life and culture – blending in as countless immigrants have done before. Likewise refugees – there are limits of course, but our first instinct must be to welcome.

Related to this, the argument that British, the U.K., England, isn’t the country it used to be. The old generational cri de coeur. True, the pace is faster, and the landscape much impaired. But there have been many radical improvements, too easily discounted. As for the negatives –  the EU takes the rap. I may personally be in the old codger bracket, but I’m with the younger, pro-EU generation.

There’s a mood out there, encouraged by the right-wing press, and played along with by the BBC, that somehow it will all work out. In Philip Hammond’s words, there will be bumps in the road. There’s another much more likely scenario where we find ourselves out on a limb, with an agreement which is dictated to us, and which we accept out of necessity. The economic auguries are not good. Put simply, a crisis awaits us.

There is so much else that matters out there in the world which we were just about facing up to, and they’re now on the back burner in terms of government and public attention. Global challenges, new technologies, fundamental changes in our working lives. At home, infrastructure, the NHS – requiring focus and funding when attention is elsewhere.

We have a hugely inflated view of our presence and reputation in the world. We embody as a nation tolerance, free speech, we pioneered modern representative democracy, the world plays many major sports by rules we laid down. But this is Britain as was. Our current behaviour simply alienates.

To end, two further points –

I’ve mentioned openness above. We have always been open to the world, and the danger now is that we shut ourselves off. Look to the past. Seek one-off deals when others work together. Openness is state of mind, and in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension, in great part built up by the media, it is now challenged as never before in my lifetime.

In direct contradiction to Theresa May’s comments, whether we like it or not we are citizens of the world, citizens, along with all our neighbours, of Europe, and citizens of the U.K. My patriotism is undiminished, I’m British to my last breath, but I also share a common humanity  with every man and woman on the planet.

And finally – never imagine that the change you wish for works out as you anticipate.  It will not, and never has. Gut instinct will never provide. A wing and a prayer will never suffice.

I remember one egregiously daft piece imagining a post-Brexit Britain in 2025 by Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. It was the stuff of dreams, and typified the dream world in which Brexiters exist.

Now isn’t the time to buckle under.

A citizen of the world 

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word citizenship means.”

My response?

I am, Mrs May, a citizen of the the UK, a citizen of Europe and a citizen of the world. Your comment shows how narrow your concept of citizenship, and in a connected world, how worthless. The patriotism you espouse is insularity, and treads close to, and encourages, jingoism.

Define citizenship as I have done, take your patriotism out into the world, share and understand the patriotism of others, and we will quite simply have a better world. Talk of strengthening borders and keeping foreign workers out, when openness and welcome have always been defining characteristics of our country, is the cry of a lady of comfortable circumstances, rooted in her own and not her country’s past. It’s is the cry of someone wanting to hold on to what she has, before she thinks what she can offer to others.

I’m not belittling that very personal attachment and pride we have in our country. I’m attacking those who would define it in their own interest, and respond with fear and a closed mind when all our futures lie in an open mind and heart.

And the others I have in mind? The young, the generations coming through who understand that we live in a global and connected world, and that the old narrow definitions of citizenship have a new and wider context.

Not only is Mrs May self-serving she also works directly against her country’s interest. In leaving the EU we not only put in peril trading relationships, we also seriously impair that remarkable influence we’ve had across Europe over the last forty years, where our democratic traditions and practice, our legal norms, the standards we espouse for society, the environment and the workplace have become accepted practice across much of the continent.

Mrs May’s citizenship is a straitjacket. A heavy boot on the hopes of future generations. Do not, Prime Minister, tread on their dreams.