Let’s hear it for ideas and intellect

I note that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a new exhibition, opened last month, on the history of enslavement in the Netherlands and its former colonies. Shouldn’t we be doing the same? Wasn’t slavery an integral part of the socio-economic system out of which grew our own?

I’d thought until recent years that the genie was out of the bottle. There would be no going back. But that’s what our government, by attempting to repress debate, is trying to do. Ideas, intellect, social responsibility, compassion – they should be driving the modern world.

Compassion, at a government level, went missing in the years of (unrestored) welfare cuts in the Osborne era. Now after fifteen months of Covid it’s been rediscovered by the government, and commoditised. It has a value, it can be directed. ‘Penny Mordaunt, a minister responsible for social contingencies and co-author of “Greater: Britain after the storm”, wants the state to harness those who volunteered to battle coronavirus, directing them towards “national missions such as elderly care”.’ (The Economist)

These are the carers who battled away through the years of government austerity cuts. They have been there, all the time. Unrecognised. Now they have ‘utility’.

Intellect, ideas… we have a government scared of universities, scared of academic debate, scared of museums. And the mood is picked up by the dominant media (all right of centre, save for the Guardian and the Mirror).

David Aaronovitch had a considered piece on the subject of restitution in a recent edition of The Times. The Benin bronzes feature. So too the ardent decolonisers, who scorn museums as great colonial hangovers. We have the liberal leaders of the British Museum and the V&A, the likes of Tristan Hunt and Neil MacGregor, ‘with their talk of “universal” institutions.’

What he doesn’t address is the stonewall refusal of the right-wing to recognise there’s any kind of issue. But that refusal is there in the article’s headline, which I trust Aaronovitch didn’t approve, ‘We can’t allow radicals to strip our museums.’

The Times is sometimes in danger of being little more than alternative Telegraph. There is in this case nuance in the article – but the headline suggests a rant.  It’s white and black post-Brexit world where we must take sides.

Two pages back in the same issue we’d an article by a young guy called James Marriott headed ‘Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued’. As an example: ‘I spent most of a term studying 17th century sermons.’ I did something similar in my time reading history at Oxford. But I also studied the Crusades, the American Civil War, the Renaissance, the medieval world, and I damned well thought about them – and had to get my ideas down in essays. I applied my critical faculties to history, and that’s what I still try to do.

Marriott waffles about ‘practical intelligence which is to do with the “tacit knowledge”’ of how things work and how  do get things done’. History would appear to have been a wasted education in his case.

We’d also a Times leader arguing against ‘taking the knee’. A posh white-man’s newspaper – is that really how The Times sees itself these days? It’s for the players black, white, African, Asian… it’s for them to decide. They are close to discrimination. They live with it. Not the editors of national newspapers.

John Witherow, as editor of The Times, and an employee of Rupert Murdoch, has a difficult tight-rope to walk. I can see that. The country needs a paper like The Times. I will continue to read it (and other papers as well of course!), and read between the lines.   

Apology gets political

Apologia: ‘a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.’

Apology: ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.’

The focus these days is on regret. It’s easier it seems to regret than defend.

‘Democrats are a sorry bunch,’ always expressing regrets, ‘for racial, gay or women’s rights, failing to call out sexism and harassment, dubiously claiming ethnic heritage and for being white and privileged.’ (David Charter writing in The Times last Saturday)

Their ‘apology tour’, Charter continues, ‘contrasts with the man they all hope to beat next year. President Trump has tweeted that it is the media that owes the nation an apology after the Mueller report…’

Charter’s is an odd piece. It almost reads as if he’s on Trump’s side. But he makes a powerful point. If you not only dictate the agenda, if you set the agenda, as Trump has done to a remarkable degree, you’re in the driving seat. If you’re always looking over your shoulder you won’t win the race.

On the same day there was a good piece in The Guardian on this subject. But a very different context. Entitled ‘Battle lines’, it’s well-summed up by the intro: ‘It’s given us Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and many spellbinding stories. But now the world of Young Adult fiction is at war with itself. There have been accusations and public apologies, novels have been boycotted and withdrawn. There have even been death threats against authors. What is going on?’

The vehicle for all this is of course social media. I’m not a regular user. But if I was an author wanting to get to the widest audience, I would be.

Put a racist character in a book, and they might assume your racist. Write outside your own colour, or indeed gender, and you run a risk. Your perception might not be another’s, and they may be vociferous on the subject.

My answer, for what it’s worth… Avoid correction and apology. (And avoid apologias as well.) For publishers as much as authors. If criticism is legitimate, acknowledge it. Otherwise hold out. Easy to say, I admit.  But as the author of the Guardian article (and it is, unlike Charter’s, a very good piece), Leo Benedictus, says, ‘It may not be realistic to hope for restraint from social media, but it is clearly what’s required.’

One consequence is that supporters of gender and racial equality damage their own cause by this relentless and sometimes vicious self-examination. Supposed supporters of Democratic candidates for the presidency likewise. Give authors, give candidates space to breathe. Recognise they make mistakes, leave them be, save for the most egregious offences. It doesn’t mean you don’t criticise. But you don’t harangue. Avoid instant reactions, that immediate resort to social media when something offends.

Go beyond that, and the wider public you’re looking to influence, or looking to for support, will turn to the likes of Trump instead, and say they prefer the simple, the unvarnished, the non-truth, to all this argument and introspection. Gender and racial issues are inconvenient for many. They don’t wish to face up to them. Don’t give them a let-out – an easy, Trumpian let-out.

The fantasies of free trade

Walking and swimming, conjuring turtles (see my last post) and building castles… since the Brexit vote politics have been more a burden, less a pleasure – how we (as country and individuals) might hold on to our sanity while others attempt to build castles in the air.

Brexit has many castles, most of them air-borne, from the immigrant threat to free trade. Closing down on one, on the free movement of labour, runs directly counter to a fully libertarian approach to free trade – if this was a board game, or a novel, I’d want to see how it all worked out. As political reality, I hope not to.

Focusing on free trade, last week we had ‘From Project fear to Project Prosperity’, a report from the free-trading supply-siders ‘Economists for Free Trade’, chaired by one-time Thatcher adviser, Patrick Minford. Matt Ridley in The Times (21st August) pours praise upon them. We hear the old shibboleth, ‘Fortress Europe’, curiously used to describe 28 countries which have taken down the barriers and practise the four freedoms – goods, capital, services, and labour. Ridley argues that ‘external barriers are pure self-harm’, and you’d have thought that he’d take the EU as a shining example. Instead he focuses on the tariffs the EU imposes on non-EU countries – apparently the tariff on unicycles is 15%. What he totally and wilfully fails to recognise is that free trade isn’t a level playing-field, but self-interested countries seeking common ground on which they can co-operate – not for another’s interest, but for their own. We hear from Brexiters about countries keen to reach trade agreements with the UK – but on whose terms? On ours, on the UK’s?

Garvan Walshe on the Conservative Home website is helpful on the subject. (There is an awful lot of sanity still left in the Tory party – but the sane too often these days are the quiet and the cautious.) In trade between countries, ‘the distance relationship is paramount’.

The effect of that decision [the referendum]  is to forego [the EU’s] economic benefits, and they can’t be replaced by shallower trade agreements with other countries, because they are too far away. And while there could, as Minford suggests, be economic gains from deregulation, they won’t happen while Britain´s politics is moving leftwards … Far from bringing benefits through other trade deals, leaving the EU erects an enormous trade barrier with the rest of our continent. Economists for Brexit should have renamed themselves Economists for Protectionism.

Back to Matt Ridley: ‘…after Brexit, Britain should try unilateral free trade, no matter what everybody else does’. This would Economists for Free Trade argue benefit the British economy by as much as £135 billion a year. (Compare the NIESR – leaving would cut our total world trade by a quarter.) The Minford report assumes that we’d reach an agreement with the EU broadly comparable to what we have now, and a level of de-regulation which simply won’t, and shouldn’t, happen in the current climate.

Ridley is also guilty of a selective use of history, an old bete noire of mine. He quotes Sir Robert Peel in the 1846 Corn Law debate – ‘we should cease haggling with foreign countries about reciprocal concessions’. He argues that ‘the closer countries get to free trade, the more they thrive’ – and quotes Britain in the period 1846-80, and Hong Kong and Singapore today. In all three cases the circumstances are radically different – Britain in a period after 1846 when we could dictate the terms of world trade, and two city-states (treating Hong Kong a city state) operating as low-tariff entrepots.

Ridley also attempts a distinction between the Roman civil law ‘prescriptive, rules-based system’, and a ‘better’ common law (and distinctively English to his mind) approach, ‘which is principles-based, outcome-focused, consumer-friendly’. He continues: ‘Because of our history and the nature of our economy Britain can be an effective champion of this challenge.’

The risk is all ours.

We are back, happily for my argument, to ‘castles in the air’. There is no hard evidence that ‘free trade works’, no hard evidence that supply-side economics will deliver any of the benefits (above all increased tax revenues on higher output, and collective benefits deriving therefrom) it claims.

And finally… Adam Smith. Ridley tries to corral him into the Leave camp: ‘As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.’

‘…describing the European Union in advance…’ – this is populist and emotive junk.

The founders of the Adam Smith Institute don’t do much better: ‘We both take the view that the UK now has the chance to trade freely with the rest of the world, since it will no longer be locked inside a protectionist bloc of diminishing economic and political significance.’

The EU isn’t doing too badly at the moment, and it carries political clout – the ‘diminishing economic and political influence’ will all be ours if Brexiters have their way.

Woolly journalism

There is too much woolly talk and poor journalism on the subject of Brexit. Too many people asserting that one referendum vote is enough – enough to turn history on its head. One moment in time – and we have a paradigm shift.

An example was on Radio 4’s The Long View, with Jonathan Freedland, this morning (1st August). I missed much of it, so if I do it an injustice I apologise. One of the contributors recognised that the way the country is split is a big issue – with big Remain majorities among the young, the educated, and city dwellers.

But another suggested that academics (I think we’d consider them educated) were horrified because, whereas elections over the years had been squabbles between right and left, now their own personal interests were affected. The suggestion being that their opposition was self-interested and self-indulgent. But – they, the academics, know – and I know – and my friends know – and a few million others out there – we all know – that our concerns lie at a deeper level – about a way of looking at the world, with an open not a closed mind – about being European and internationalist – taking a positive rather than a cynical view of the world – looking to the future with optimism. (It’s there writ large in the comparison between all the enthusiasm and aspiration of the Democratic convention last week, and the negativity of the Republican convention the week before.)

The programme enlisted Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford historian, to make a ‘long view’ comparison between Henry VIII’s break with Rome and Brexit. It took a long time for the implications of that break to work through the country, to rework the fabric, to change irrevocably beliefs and practices – twenty years, forty – and longer. Could we be in for something similar this time – a slow, gradual, inexorable change to a different view of the world – to a different world?

To my mind the very notion that there’s a comparison is absurd. I’d agree that Henry’s decision was pretty arbitrary, a whim, the result of an obsession, influenced by a (un)favourable reforming wind from the continent, and an executor and manipulator in chief who knew how to execute (too literally) and manipulate – yes, maybe we can have fun drawing comparisons. But that there are any real searching comparisons with any relevance for our time – that’s a load of baloney.

A 52:48 vote in favour of an ill-thought through proposition based on misleading and sometimes mendacious arguments does not represent a paradigm shift.

As another example of bad journalism we have Ed Conway in The Times. (I’m relying here on a summary of his article in The Week).

The wider world is all too keen in Conway’s view to blame the world’s problems on the Brexit: ‘Britain’s great gift to the world: a giant pre-cooked excuse for absolutely everything.’ That’s nonsense, he says. We’d all agree. And it’s not of course what the wider world is saying. Brexit is, however, part of a big picture that the wider world does find worrying.

For Conway the problems in the world economy have been ‘baked into the system’ for some time. To be specific: unemployment rates, productivity, demand. But it’s been ‘easier to blame (problems) on Brexit’.

Arguing from one dubious proposition to another, he goes on to suggest that ‘if anything Brexit presents an opportunity’. ‘For years G20 members have been paralysed in the face of a global showdown. If Brexit provides an excuse for tackling this by spending more on infrastructure, tearing down regulations, printing more money, so much the better’.

An excuse to spend – to spend our way out of a crisis. Brexit it seems could be an excuse for throwing caution to the winds. More an argument I associate with the Corbynite left.

There are good arguments for increased spending on infrastructure, and there’s a debate about whether a further dose of QE would be helpful. But that debate should have nothing to do with Brexit. Unless it is – as this is how I’d construe Conway’s argument – we spend and print money out of desperation following a post-Brexit slump in economic performance and confidence.

I started with The Long View, and a massive non-sequitur – Henry VIII and Brexit. And I’m ending with another – Brexit and global economic reform.

The pre-referendum debate was characterised by wild assertions and woolly thinking. The post-referendum ‘debate’ is sadly no better.

Chilcot – hard truths and hypocrisy

There’s a strange and mysterious beauty to hindsight. It doesn’t ask questions, it reassures, it puts old thoughts out of mind and puts in new thoughts that we know we’ve thought all along. We know the mind is playing tricks, but if we don’t ask too many questions of ourselves, then who cares.

Hindsight has been at work this week in reactions to Chilcot. Last Thursday’s Times leader is a prime example. The Times supported the invasion – but no mea culpa. That’s my focus in the first part of this post.

But anger is justified. We should never have invaded back in 2003. Millions of us were strongly opposed at the time, and events bore out out arguments. And the consequences of that invasion have been terrible beyond belief.

But first, hindsight.

All those legions who supported the second Iraq war are now so sure it was wrong, and they’re happy to claim that they were misled. Had they had the evidence on WMD in front of them that Tony Blair had, they wouldn’t have reached the conclusions he did. Or would they? The evidence was widely debated and argued over at the time, as we well remember.

They also forget the context on the time, just two years after 9/11, and the uncertainties, and the fear of al-Qaida, and the scant knowledge of how it worked and how it might operate in future.

Action after the event to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan seemed to have worked so action before the event, pre-emptive action, in Iraq made good sense. Britain and the USA working together – many people were strongly in favour, and it was great to know that Bush and Blair got on, and that Blair did have influence. And if we’d held back from supporting Bush and the Americans – wouldn’t they go ahead anyway?

So I’m pretty scornful how much of the sanctimonious response we’re getting now.

That said –  I was bitterly opposed to the second Iraq War. The existence of WMD to my mind wasn’t well-established, there was still work for Hans Blix to do, we knew well that Saddam Hussein liked playing games (a strategy which ultimately proved his undoing). There was also the absurd attempt to establish links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, when Saddam’s regime had been rigidly secularist, and that was indeed the nature of the Baath socialism which he and the Assad regime in Syria espoused. Saddam’s regime was an unpalatable and unrecognised ally in keeping al Qaida at bay.

The neo-con agenda that Blair bought into had little interest in local knowledge, the provision of which had always long been a key part of the role of our diplomats and embassies around the world. The way the deep divisions between Shia and Sunni could tear the country apart came as a profound surprise to the American and British after 2003. It should not have done.

(I don’t believe by the way the Blair was a liar, in any sense. That kind of accusation that doesn’t help.)

For me, there was one further powerful factor which influenced my opposition to the war. We’d seen what happened in the Balkans. The controlling hand of Marshall Tito had been removed and Yugoslavia split into different nations, different language groups, different religions, and different histories – at a deep level, different identities. And demagogues kindled and fed the fire and we know what happened then. And many of us could see it happening again after the 2003 invasion. And, of course, it did.

Finally – there’s the argument that sometimes we simply have to act. The dangers of not acting are simply too great. The legal arguments may not be clear, and the outcome uncertain, but the imperatives behind action are too strong. Was 2003 such a time? Not to my mind. Rather the 2003 invasion belongs in the same category as the 1956 Suez crisis, precipitate rather than fully considered action. We’ve seen the same in military engagements throughout history. Rarely do they work out as you expect, and very often they work out the opposite.

And the bloodshed and violence can be extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

And if we leave?

If you prefer me writing country notes, or you’re American, and you’re not too interested in British or European politics, do give this post a miss! Though there are a good few parallels with Trumpery.

Also, if you’re expecting me to be mild-mannered, and avoid personalities, well, not this time. There is some pretty egregiously bad behaviour out there.

If you read the press and indeed listen to the BBC news you can get depressed, even feel beleaguered if you support staying in the EU. Michael Heseltine’s demolition of Boris Johnson yesterday, primarily over his linking the EU and Hitler’s ambitions, was featured in the Times, but not in the popular press. Heseltine would be ‘very surprised’ if Boris ever became the leader of the party, and that of course is an implicit part of the Brexit agenda. (How left-of-centre Brexit supporters can justify to themselves facilitating a Boris premiership I don’t know.) So however absurd Boris gets, he remains untouchable – and he is of course aware of that.

I don’t believe for a moment that Michael Gove shares Boris’s view of European history. I wonder (to myself only so far!) whether he might just change sides at the last. He is already tainted by association.

I also wonder what will happen if Boris does, after a Cameron resignation, become PM. Would all his party fall into line? I somehow doubt it – the party is badly split.(Just how far will all this mutual abuse extend?)  So he wouldn’t of course command a majority in the Commons, and in the event of an election there’s a very good chance that a pro-EU parliament would be returned. Would the Tories be able to campaign as a single party? If they did and they’re returned as the largest party, but well short of a majority, would they then still try and force through Leave legislation?

Another scenario: Nigel Farage asserts that, if the result is small Stay majority, there will be a clamour for a second referendum. I haven’t heard it from the Stay campaign yet, and I guess they’re too wise to make the comment – but if the result is a small majority for Leave, I expect there will also be a big clamour for … a second referendum.

Oh the joys of uncertainty and chaos!

If we weren’t all so deeply involved, if a potential Brexit hadn’t got calamity written all over it, these would be fascinating times. They will make good history ….