Thoughts inspired by “The Hill We Climb”

It is Easter, and it is Spring. For those with Faith a time of optimistic renewal when hope rises from suffering. For those for whom the natural world is a greater inspiration than the gospels a time when green shoots begin to appear and the birds start to build their nests. You don’t nest if you’re a pessimist, you don’t not have hope either.

For Easter I received “The Hill We Climb”, the poem read by the young poet Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration. It’s an astonishing , optimistic work. It is driven, I think, by a confident belief that good can triumph over evil.

Winter is not evil, but it can be a struggle. Spring is in the air and the days are lighter and warmer. The robin in her nest is busy but her call is also a warning. Take nothing for granted. Don’t cast a clout for yet awhile.

We are impatient, that is not a sin. We want the leaves to return in all their verdant glory. But we know, how vividly last year taught us to know, that as never before uncertainty is still in the air.

The young Miss Gorman was celebrating political change not because her side won but because all Americans won. As Oprah Winfrey put it in her Foreword “A nation, “bruised but whole” climbed up off her knees.”

Can we learn not to be binary? Can we learn to rely not on the ephemera of sentiment and flags but on belief in the common good ? Can we even agree what the “common good” is ? Can we also try to “compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man” or will that task be beyond us? Again.

Ultimately what it takes is leadership. Someone who can turn the green shoots and the hope into action. In our homeland, as much as in Joe Biden’s America, there is a need to “rebuild, reconcile and recover”. Or will strident divisiveness stifle the hope and the new bright leaves wither and die?

I believe we are at a crossroads. We seem full of notions about what we are against (though we disagree) but can we agree what we are for? Is there more that unites us than divides us or is that a forlorn hope to be drowned out by cries of WOKE when we try to express them?

My Easter and springtime wish is to draw a line as America has drawn a line. Can we also see ourselves as a “nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” The problem with the “glorious past” can be if we believe that it didn’t really ultimately lead anywhere. Can we still be accused of having lost an Empire but not found a role? Is there any doubt at all that we can?

So bruised Britain’s need for rebuilding and reconciliation is no less than America’s – and just as great a challenge. To look at the blue skies and green leaves and hear the robin’s call on of a bright Spring day should make me optimistic that we can rebuild. But can we? Can we?

“Something must be done about China” cry out some commentators who haven’t a clue about the realities

The level of naivety about China is extraordinary. As someone who was actively involved in the opening up of China in the 1980s I have seen Chinese ambition and Western greed close at hand from the start. It was always a pact with the Devil, and the Devil was always going to win, and some !

Gradually, over 30+ years, a dependency on China both as a market for British goods and services and as a key supplier to Britain of a very wide range of manufactured goods has been put in place. This is not going to change, indeed it is certain to expand further.

Hand-wringing over Hong Kong will rightly be treated with disdain by those of us who saw close at hand the iniquity of Thatcher’s “Joint Declaration” sell out in the 1980s. After Tiananmen Square in 1989 British businessmen couldn’t wait to get back to Beijing and to pick up where they left off. We had neither a principled foreign nor trade policy at that time and we haven’t developed one since, or even tried to.

Without exception my HK friends thirty years ago, having been rejected by British abandonment sought the citizenship of friendlier nations who saw the contribution they could potentially make. Visit the vibrant Hong Kong communities in Canadian or Australian cities if you doubt that. A new generation will surely take the same path. Britain’s hugely belated offer of residence will be treated with the contempt it deserves.

The apologists for Empire are still with us

To be “proud of empire” as Matthew Parris declares he is in The Times today is frankly astonishing and one would not expect such a remark from someone usually as sensitive as Parris. As his article has not even a modicum of balance – to say the Empire’s “motives were mixed” is almost laughable in its insouciance – it’s up to us readers to tell him what offensive bunkum he’s peddling.

Cecil Rhodes Imperial colossus and founder of Matthew Parris’s birthplace Rhodesia

If you believe in Empire you believe that it is right for a nation and it’s citizens to travel to another place, sequester its land and subjugate its people. There are no ifs and buts about this – that is what you believe. Further you believe it’s right that you introduce a system of government that concentrates power in the hands of the conquerors, along with their culture and even religion.

If you believe in Empire you do not believe in the rights of man, what you believe in the rightness of power. The collateral damage of your power – spreading diseases and destroying First Nation cultures and way of life – you shrug about. And if you find, as mostly was the case, that your sequestered land has value you exploit that value by theft. Whatever the riches are you mine them greedily and enrich yourself and those who enabled you to commit the larceny.

Then there is the value of the human assets that your imperialism discovers. You don’t have to go the whole hog of colonisation in order to capture people and ship them to one of your other possessions to work as slaves. Slavery and later indentured Labour was a direct consequence of imperialism – indeed they drove it.

In the Empire there was a racist hierarchy which placed white Britons unequivocally at the top. The native peoples were just a factor of production – the workers that avoided the necessity for the white man to do any physical work themselves. And the smarter of your subjugated peoples could help you with the administration of your illegally acquired assets – so long as they spoke English and conformed to your norms of dress and behaviour of course.

To exploit assets – physical and human – you do need infrastructure. Railways and roads (etc.) need to be built but let’s be clear. We are not in “What did the English do for us?” territory here – it was what the English did for themselves. Every imperial action was for the benefit of the imperialists even though there may have been some consequential benefits for the local people. Far too high a price to pay for subjugation surely.

That the Dutch and the Spanish and the Portuguese and even the French were at the same game as the Brits is irrelevant. You don’t justify having a criminal gang by saying there’s another one up the road.

We need to come clean about the past not indulge in flag waving about it. We need, as Susan Neimann called it in her book, to “Learn from the Germans”. You cannot unravel the past but you can reveal the truth about it and be contrite. Imperial symbols matter and if they “honour” slavers you do need to consider whether they should still stand in modern times.

Matthew Parris and other modern day apologists for Empire are indulging in the defence of the indefensible – I’m surprised that Parris chooses to do this.

Race is an element of a nation’s social construct but it is unsatisfactory to look at it on its own.

We all live in ghettos. They may be in leafy Surrey, but they are as much ghettos as those of Bradford or Brixton. Of course in theory we can live where we choose to, if we can afford it. But generally we don’t. When I see the children leaving the very good State school just down the road from me they are predominately white, not exclusively so by any means, but mainly. In short our society is divided by race.

If your society is racially divided by geography these divides become institutionalised. Of course there is movement and, in theory, equality of opportunity. But opportunity is skewed by the demographics. The better schools are in the wealthier areas. There is a direct correlation between wealth and race. Statistically the richer a postcode is the whiter it is.

If from birth our chances are constrained by our race that surely is an institutionalised defect – a cause for regret. You may say that the problem is relative poverty rather than race, and you would be right. But the competitiveness in adult society favours those with the better financial resources at all stages. An employer is not permitted to discriminate in selection on racial grounds. Quite rightly. But he is permitted to discriminate based on his assessment of ability and potential. Education , certainly for first jobs, will be the signal of suitability – racially that means it is not a level playing field.

The key point here is that you cannot look at racism decoupled from economics. Very often BAME citizens are discriminated against not overtly because of their colour but because of their family’s relative lack of wealth and the consequences of poverty. Lifestyle and culture may influence this as well. The cultural norm in Britain is white, Anglo-Saxon and Christian. This brings with it behaviour, including dress and use of language, that is often different from those who grew up in Asian or Afro-Caribbean cultures. There is no rational cultural hierarchy but there is a hidden one, and that is institutionalised.

In short the issue is equality of opportunity, or the lack of it. Some would argue that the solution is the creation of a form of non racial “Britishness” that transcends race – a sort of “melting pot” outcome. But that would inevitably mean conformity to the majority norms and the disappearance of distinctive and different cultures. Do we really want this ? Are we going to encourage the closure of the mosques and temples? Of course not.

Race is an element of a nation’s social construct but it is unsatisfactory to look at it on its own. It’s much more complicated than that. Prejudice is inculcated in the human psyche however much we might prefer to deny this. What is institutionalised is the outcomes of daily, weekly, monthly small acts of prejudice which can, and often do, lead to discrimination. The playing field is very bumpy indeed and human nature is very resistant to change.

British society is still stratified by race just like it was in the days of Empire.

The upwardly mobile Tony Sewell

“People are super-sensitive about slavery.” Writes Matthew Parris today discussing the Sewell report.

“Super-sensitive” ? Well yes perhaps we are a bit. Write that Britain’s colonialism, of which slavery was a part, was a bit dodgy and you’ll soon be put right by those who laud the glory of Empire. Mention the export of deadly diseases to First Nations peoples which accelerated their genocidal destruction and you’ll be told about the bravery of the first settlers fleeing persecution. Explain how land confiscation by the white man had no legal basis and was theft and you’ll be advised about the road systems that these pioneers constructed. And on and on and on.

The essential premise of slavery was that black Africans could be transported thousands of miles from their homes and bought and sold. That they were not humans but the property of humans. Well yes that premise does make one a bit “super-sensitive”.

The Empire was built on the idea that race was hierarchical. Britons, naturally, at the top. Then through the subtle gradations of class, colour and wealth until you got to the manual labour at the bottom of the pyramid. In Adam Smith’s factors of production the trickiest one “Labour” was commoditised by the slave-owning entrepreneurs. The big strong savage sold for more than the less advantaged. Just like a cart horse. That also makes us super-sensitive.

There is no need for “controversy” nor for Jesuitical debate about whether racism is “institutionalised” or not. Let’s simplify things. British society is still stratified like it was in the days of Empire. Less formally so maybe but still the hierarchy is ever present. Tokenism is rife so if you’re a second or third generation black Brit with Caribbean heritage, a good education and a solid middle class style and accent you’ll do well. Maybe chair the odd Commission where you can deliver the comforting platitudes that your (white) masters want to hear. House of Lords fancy dress down the way for sure at the end of your upwardly mobile journey.

Meanwhile your distant cousins children and grandchildren struggle in the sink schools. The police will pull them aside ahead of their erstwhile white classmates if there’s a bit of trouble. The Crack dealers will see you as a potential recruit – you’ll “fit in” in this sub culture alright. And that also makes us a bit “super-sensitive”.

The Conservatives overt religiosity is another attempt to appeal to their core supporters

Except in Northern Ireland generally in Britain we don’t “Do Religion” (as Alastair Campbell once put it) in politics. Campbell’s boss Tony Blair was gradually moving towards the Catholicism of his wife Cherie but none of them thought this was anything but a private matter. Fair enough.

At a simplistic level it’s probably true that Tories, if they are Christians are C of E and Labour Methodists. Harold Wilson once said that Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx. And the Church of England was often referred to as “The Conservative Party at prayer” . But Ulster aside religion has rarely intruded into politics in modern times. So what’s up with the Conservatives “Good Friday” Party-promoting graphic?

As the Conservative government continues to look westwards to the United States, rather than eastwards towards Europe (a clear trend) we can see evidence of their embracing positions of the Republican Right. Deeply embedded in this group are the Religious Right. Donald Trump knew this and wholly bizarre though it was he, a serial philanderer with the morals of an Alley cat, conned them into thinking that he was one of God’s representatives on Earth . (I exaggerate, but not much).

Boris Johnson, whose personal morality is Trumpian, has not yet taken to openly waving the Bible in our faces, but maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath. Are there really votes in this ? Religion is, as Marx put it, the “opiate of the people” and that is certainly true of the Happy Clappy brigade in the Southern United States. But would it work here?

In times of stress we do all need props and to feel that someone is with us. Many have, in the past, turned to God in these moments. If for some multicultarism is part of that stress (it is) then religion is at the heart of it. A diversity that opponents of a mixed society very often object to is that of religion and, very specifically, Islam.

If voters that the Conservatives want to attract have, in many cases, a significant degree of Islamophobia the Tories know that they cannot appeal directly and overtly to that prejudice. During the EU Referendum campaign they did this with the barest modicum of subtlety:

The hidden message here was clearly Islamaphobic

For the Tories to proclaim their Christian faith is part of a positioning that contrasts with the support for multicultarism that characterises their opponents. Christians aren’t Muslims. There’s votes in that. Again there is a strong Trump parallel though, once again, with a tad more subtlety than the Donald.

It’s a time for facile symbolism it seems. Though our society is multi-religious the State religion is firmly Christian and in that sense the Conservative Party, by using the most sacred of Christian symbols in its promotion, is simply being mainstream. Flying the establishment flag again 🇬🇧 you might say. The nationalist positioning is clear. Like you we Tories are patriotically British, Christian and White. If you doubt the latter read the Sewell report. On the one side the overwhelming white establishment on the the other what is patronisingly referred to as “ethnic minorities”. Non whites.

For the past nearly a decade the Right in Britain has been characterised by what it is against. Europe. Immigrants. Asylum seekers. Liberals (=Woke). Muslims. The counter to these enemies is populist. “Britain is Best”. Restricted entry to foreigners. An anti-woke campaign against the liberal media. Overt criticism of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. And now promotion of the state religion and if this means hijacking the Cross to promote the Party so be it.

I don’t know whether Boris Johnson was, like me, a Crusader in his youth.

Crusaders – taking on the enemy sword of righteousness in hand ?

I don’t recall that part of the teaching on those Sunday afternoons and during the summer “Crusader Camps” was that we should retake Jerusalem from the Mohammedans. More Jesus wants me for a sunbeam. But let’s be clear to emphasise implicitly the sanctity of one religion on its holiest day is intended to set it apart from the philistines.

Can you have normal opera in abnormal times ?

The Times today describes how it is planned that Glyndebourne will operate this summer. As a full member my chances of getting tickets would be high, but I won’t be applying. To go to a production in normal times is one of the highlights of my summer. It’s pretty much a faultless experience. And one that really doesn’t need changing. But these are not normal times and it’s quite clear that as planned the festival cannot be what it should be.

Social distancing at Glyndebourne is not unknown. I remember one year a distinguished and rather snobbish patron who knew me reacted in a surprised way. “What on Earth are you doing here?” He said. I survived! But most of the time it’s a little bit of England that even the most rebellious member of the audience will be seduced by.

A half full auditorium and a plethora of other restrictions is not for me I’m afraid. I’ve had enough of abnormal this past twelve months – I’ll wait for the return of normality. Others will take a different decision and that is their call. And I admire Mr Christie for all he has done. I don’t know whether the long dinner interval will take place but if not surely this is a time for live streaming?

The psychology of this summer will force us to make a choice between “better than nothing” and “no ersatz experience thanks”. My avoidance of socially distanced events is my choice and I do not offer it as a recommendation. It’s not based on fear of the virus but on a personal unwillingness to accept second best. For me you cannot have normal opera in abnormal times.

Cameron’s choice of friends in his Oxfordshire idyll has never been particularly wise

Max Hastings writes scathingly of David Cameron in The Times today. It is an insightful and revealing piece.

Elitist ?…Moi?

Something, apart from schooling and a profound sense of entitlement, that Cameron shares with Boris Johnson is ignorance of the real world or even a working knowledge of it. There’s not much anyone can do about advantageous birth and the privileges that result from it. At the time that is. Eton and Oxford doth not a rounded person make. But after you come down from the dreaming spires the choice is yours. There’s a world out there to see and learn from, if you could be bothered. Dave wasn’t.

Cameron has never had a proper job in his life. In the pursuit of his political ambitions he held a number of sinecure jobs that family and connections found for him. But none exposed him to the world the vast majority of us live in. Harold Macmillan learned about “ordinary” people in the trenches. He never forgot this learning. Even Churchill, much posher even than Dave, rubbed shoulders with the hoi polloi from time to time. Cameron was and is uncomfortable outside his class milieu.

Cam and Sam glided effortlessly through life all the way to Number 10. The loss of a child seemed to give them a humanity and knowledge of the National Health Service. Cameron spoke movingly of their experience. But he didn’t build on it and in office his austerity programme damaged the Service he’d so recently praised. A charge of hypocrisy is not unfair.

We are looking at elitism here. The presumption that power, position and wealth gives you not just advantages but the right to them – to the Manor born. How ludicrously insensitive were those photographs when he bought his Shepherd’s Hut for £25,000 ? They can be show-offs all their lives these Bullingdon boys.

What Cameron allegedly did to feather his nest with his upwardly mobile Aussie mucker came from his inherited and refined sense of entitlement – and his associated disconnect from Right and Wrong . (See also fellow Buller Boris – the parallel is close). His choice of friends in his Oxfordshire idyll has never been particularly thoughtful or wise – but this takes “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” to a new level.

You don’t solve a nation’s problems by putting out more flags

History teaches us that when patriotism is defined not by what we are and what we do and achieve but solely by our rhetoric and our symbols it is shallow and worthless. You don’t solve a nation’s problems by putting out more flags. Or by creating phoney “Values” when all around us is moral turpitude, xenophobia, corruption and pompous jingoism.

Symbols can trivialise and be designed to cover up failure. The same with slogans. At a time when Britain has chosen a path of nationalist disconnection from the world to spout nonsense about “Global Britain” is intellectually bereft of logic.

Flag-waving is not in itself patriotic, it needs a context. I was in the Olympic Stadium when Jessica Ennis won her Gold Medal back in 2012 – she proudly displayed the Union Flag a few yards in front of me. I cheered myself hoarse along with tens of thousands of others. I was proud of her and very patriotic. That flag meant something. Nobody told Ennis to wave the flag, nor me to cheer.

Totalitarian states need symbols to reinforce their hegemony and their power. Whether the symbol is a hammer and sickle or a swastika. Confident nations may display their flags and symbols with genuine pride, not to boast but to celebrate. But what matters is not their flag and symbol but why they are confident – it usually comes from respect. Wearing a Stars and Stripes badge on his lapel as he dragged America into the reputational mire didn’t make Donald Trump a patriot.

You can’t buy respect by wittering on about “Queen and Country” , by singing “patriotic” songs about our “glorious past” and by a surfeit of flags. My personal patriotism is at a low ebb , unsurprisingly given the shallowness of the politics all around us. But it’s not dead, just sleeping. Give me a reason to be proud of my country again and I’ll cheer myself hoarse again. Actions speak louder than words. Or flags.

Of course we all want to return to normality but let’s at last be driven by reason and science not populist politics

James Forsyth, embedded by the Government’s propaganda department in The Times, has yet another of his woefully unbalanced articles in that newspaper today. We wants us to take more risks, I kid you not.

A year into the biggest medical disaster to hit the world for more than one hundred years Britain is still blundering around in ignorance as Mr Forsyth’s characteristic parade of confusion shows. The problem is not risk aversion but a mindset stuck somewhere between insouciance and bravado. Do we know what we’re doing ? There are few signs that we do.

Empirical evidence is, or should be, the driver of decision making. Yes things have been handled better in Asia than here – most things are. But have we learned from that? Not much. A society that culturally matches ours closely, New Zealand, has handled the pandemic with skill, intelligence and leadership. Have we studied that in depth? Few if any signs that we have.

Arrogance along with the insouciance has been Britain’s downfall. A year ago the deadly threat of COVID was grossly underestimated here. When the Kiwis were taking rapid action we delayed and dithered. With deadly results. As we blathered with herd immunity claptrap others acted. Johnson was up there with Trump and Bolsonaro in his failures of judgment and action.

In truth herd immunity – a callous acceptance of genocidal level deaths – never went away. If you take that path then it requires mass vaccination – which is why this policy received such priority. If you want evidence that surreptitiously herd immunity was still the policy you need look no further than the speed and extent of implementing first dose vaccinations. We were told 20,000 deaths would be a “good result” – what does that make 130,000 ?

No country, other than Britain, has ignored the vaccine makers instructions over the gap between the first and second dose. These instructions were not serendipitous – they were based on empirical evidence. Science. Yet we’ve implied we’ve known better than the scientists and ignored them. Uniquely in the world. The result of this is yet to be seen.

We are still deep in the mire and there is zero credible evidence that a roadmap of gradual removal of grestrictions is appropriate. New cases are still happening in substantial numbers. Citizens are still dying. Of course we all want to return to normality but let’s at last be driven by reason and science not populist politics.