100 years of the BBC – Let’s stop knocking an institution we can be truly proud of.

BBC DG Tim Davie

There is a splendid and positive defence of the BBC in The Times today from Tim Davie. As Oscar Wilde put it we always hurt the one we love, we don’t mean to but we do. Sadly some of the Corporation’s most vocal critics do mean to and one of them is the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport. And there are think tanks on the hard Right who have always had the Beeb in their sights. Then there’s Rupert Murdoch…

For me the BBC’s only present day weakness is some of the output of News and Current Affairs. There is more than a suspicion of peddling Government propaganda at times. Channel Four News has shown that you can be publicly owned and still independent. There’s a model there.

The BBC is astonishing value <50p a day per household. But the means of collecting this is anachronistic. You should not need to have a licence in the 21st Century to watch television! The fee’s one virtue is simplicity. But it is a regressive tax and a better solution needs to be found.

Happy birthday to the BBC. You have been a part of my life for 75 of your 100 years and you have enriched it immeasurably, at home and abroad . Thank you.

“Good” and “Evil” are expressions of subjective personal opinion – qualitative and not quantifiable

Matthew Parris explores good and evil in a very good piece in The Times today.

To say something or someone is “Good” or “Evil” is an expression of subjective personal opinion. It’s qualitative and not quantifiable, but we all do it. And we all respond when others do it. I might argue that Sir Tony Blair is a good man, and someone will scream “Iraq” at me. I might argue that Ghislaine Maxwell is an evil woman and someone will say that she knew her at Oxford and that she had many friends.

I think that we often use judgment to explore our own beliefs and prejudices. Arguably Desmond Tutu had a way of bringing out the best in us – our good side which may have been buried. At the other end of the spectrum there are people, some in office, who bring out the worst in us by appealing to our darker side. Most of us have one.

Religions muddy the water. Often hypocritically. I know of few greater evils than judicial executions – but there was usually a priest near the scaffold. The Crusades were carried out by self-appointed “good” Christians to combat “evil” Muslims. The resonance from that nonsense remains with us today.

Biographies at their best are not simplistically judgmental but it is hard if not impossible to avoid the Good/Evil debate in writing them. Truth has many faces and even supposed “facts” are sometimes obscure and always open to interpretation. Look at the debate about whether the Great War was a “just war” – that’s as binary as history can be. The seeking of definitive proof about something so subjective is a fool’s errand.

The metaphor may be a bit clunking but that does not minimise the relevance of “Don’t Look Up” for our times. My review

The metaphor may be a bit clunking but that does not minimise the relevance of “Don’t Look Up” for our times. The events of the last two years (I write as we are a few hours away from entering 2022) have shown (to coin a cliché) the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mankind. When historians come to review in perspective the Trump years, Britain’s preposterous rejection of Europe and adoption of raw nationalism and the deterioration of leadership in all too much of the western world this movie will be a good place to start.

“How did we let this happen” is the take out from the movie as we see how six months warning of global disaster was squandered in a maelstrom of political ineptitude. The all pervasive power of the media which placed a celebrity relationship ahead of the likely destruction of Earth in its chat shows schedule rings scarily true, as it is meant to. Science is held in lower esteem than an image obsessed pseudo guru (brilliantly played by Mark Rylance). The experts are denigrated or mocked, even by the President who is initially more worried about the mid terms.

It is about the COVID pandemic though, of course, not directly. But the comet bringing the planet’s destruction is the metaphor for the virus. As with the very real medical emergency we are living through (or dying from) the comet challenges science and politicians alike. In both cases the latter comprehensively fail the test. Meryl Streep’s President has the image driven vanity and arrogance that too many leaders both sides of the Atlantic have exhibited in recent times. The slogans of the movie, not least its title , are eerily reminiscent of the pandemic related slogans of today.

The film is also about Brexit though the latter was arguably more avoidable than the comet and marginally less deadly. Leaders lie to us in real life as well as here. “How will this play with the voters” is the explicit question. Show is far more important than competence and expertise. The President appoints an aging war hero to head up a mission to destroy the comet – hilarious echoes of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove here ! A five star General charges visitors for free snacks in the West Wing.

Human frailties and inabilities to front up to threats, or to minimise them, are everywhere. Leonardo de Capprio plays the brilliant scientist who confirms the threat and he has a Peter Finch type screaming moment of epiphany when he cannot stand it any more. He’s seduced by the chat show host who boasts that she’s slept with two ex Presidents. A satire on the “we can do anything” imperative of the rich and famous. Shallow pseudo sensationalism which blows instantly away once the programme is off air.

The film is funny and quite daring, The satire is not subtle but then this is not a subtle story. We will probably say that such a threat as the destruction of the planet would surely he handled more skilfully in real life. But can we be sure ? “Don’t Look Up” ought to make us ask the question.

China has prospered – the people place a full rice bowl ahead of ballot boxes

James Kirkup’s piece in The Times today is a classic example of normative thinking that presumes that our way in the West is best. The reality is rather different.

When I lived in Hong Kong, and frequently visited China, in the 1980s the comforting platitude was that China would not take over Hong Kong but that Hong Kong would take over China. The logic, such as it was, was that the Western way, economically and politically, was so vastly superior to that of the People’s Republic that it could not but prevail. Economically China has indeed adopted a Hong Kong type model – economic freedom but without democracy. (It’s worth recalling that colonial Hong Kong was never an elective democracy).

Modern Beijing

As we have seen after Tiananmen Square in 1989 there have been no moves towards a liberal democracy in China at all. Economically, however, the Chinese have abandoned the failed socialism of the first post revolution forty years and replaced it with pragmatic market-driven capitalism. They have shown that the dearly held conventional wisdom that to be economically successful you needed to be democratic was a myth.

In truth Asia overall is not very politically democratic or free. It varies from the insanity of North Korea to the superficial democracy of Singapore. But countries like Thailand (especially), Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, The Philippines, Taiwan are hardly beacons of democratic freedoms. Even Japan’s genuine democracy places political debate and activism well below economic and cultural issues.

In the West we look at systems elsewhere through the filter of our own experience and norms. The people of China have, overall, vastly benefited from the nation’s extraordinary economic progress. Where under the directed economy of Mao peasants often starved since the 1980s the rice bowls have been full. They settle happily for that.

If you’re insecure you need symbols of class or power or “loyalty” 🇬🇧

Matthew Parris today: “When did government ministers start insisting on being photographed next to outsized Union flags? The phrase “wrapping yourself in the Union Jack” used to be regarded as derogatory…but today you’d deserve a prize for any sighting of Liz Truss, the PM or even the parliamentary under-secretary for paperclips separated from swathes of the red white and blue.

Symbols proliferate to cover up lack of substance. Or when the substance is malignant and a whitewash is necessary. Look at images of the Nuremberg rallies. But symbol display can be revealing. Glance at footage of England’s world cup win at Wembley in 1966. Union Flags everywhere – the waving of the flag of St George came much later.

The Union Flag is de rigueur for our leaders today (especially, but not only, the Cabinet) because, unlike in 1966, the Union is under threat. In Scotland it is supposed to be flown above the cross of St Andrew. Good luck with that !

As Chris Patten recently pointed out this Government is an English Nationalist one – so perhaps in an attempt to deny this they mandate the Union Flag for their ministers. The cross of St George is a bit down market anyway. Johnson was seen with one on the day of the EURO 2020 Final. But normally the Jack it is.

Quite what the gratuitous use of the Union Flag says about us I really don’t know. You’re quite likely to see it on a pack of carrots in Sainsbury’s. In America “Old Glory” is often on flagpoles outside the houses of the middle class. They have a long history going back to the Civil War – when the Union was in peril they waved the Stars and Stripes. Boris Johnson is no Abraham Lincoln but his flag display is similar.

If you’re confident in who you are, what you do, and how you do it you let your behaviour speak for itself. But if you’re insecure you need symbols of class or power or “loyalty”. 🇬🇧

The “cancel culture” is arbitrary and selective creating more heat than light.

“…the vogue for cancellation of history threatens to wipe out that link with the past as quickly as we can restore it.writes Trevor Philips in The Times today. His ancestors were from Guyana brought as slaves from Africa. Their story needs to be more not less prominently told.

Slaves in the colony of British Guiana

For me the need is not to “cancel” the facts of Britain’s history but more extensively to reveal them. Arguably the creation and operation of the British Empire was the most significant aspect of our post medieval history. Colonies were established around the world. The slave trade provided much of the labour force to exploit them. Indigenous peoples were destroyed. Land was sequestered. Religion and culture was imposed. And the rest.

Imperial history is increasingly revealed in literature (history as well as fiction). The best writing is not polemical but balanced. But nowhere in these islands is there a “Museum of Empire”. We now have extensive displays commemorating The Holocaust but none doing the same for Slavery. Our imperial record is sketchily on display, at best.

The late Desmond Tutu’s way of dealing with the recent horrors of Apartheid was to aim for reconciliation via truth. The cancel culture does not do that. It is arbitrary and selective lacking in nuance creating more heat than light. Only by telling the truth, warts and all, can we address our past. The past may be a foreign country but we should visit it and display what we find.

Belief is not binary – there should be something for all in the Nativity story

But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisted

The above conversation between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte is a superficially light exchange made over rather a lot of wine from the Brideshead cellar. The Brideshead family is very Catholic and religion is perhaps the key theme of the book. Sebastian is their most wayward member but, as we see, he is nevertheless a believer.

Evelyn Waugh was, I think, here postulating the idea of the Nativity story as a parable – the “lovely idea” as Sebastian calls it. Parables feature quite a lot in Christ’s teachings and why should his birth not be another one?

There is a symbolism about the birth in a manger and no room at the inn that has clearly had resonance across the ages. To find something of value in it does not require us to believe that it is in any way authentically true history. The message transcends the reality.

A dogmatic belief in the truth of religious texts leads to absurdity in discourse, and worse. The story of the Creation in the Old Testament is clearly another metaphor showing only that for the faithful everything is God’s will and of his manufacture. There are plenty of Christians who work in science who can prove that the planet and the Universe took rather longer than six days to be made! It doesn’t damage their faith, and nor should it.

What is morally right is subjective and the codification of rightness in commandments is not only a feature of Judaism and Christianity. Most religions have their Moses.

I am not a Believer in any conventional sense of the word but like Sebastian I too like a “lovely story”. So the idea of a displaced family seeking and finding shelter has a resonance with me – not least in a time of asylum seekers.

I don’t think you need to be a Christian to relate to the Sermon on the Mount as a useful checklist. The beatitudes bless the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger, the merciful, the pure in heart, those who are persecuted and ask for tolerance when people insult you, persecute you and “falsely say all kinds of evil against you” Above all the “peacemakers” are especially “blessed”. Amen to all that.

I’m happy to send my Christmas greetings to believers and non believers alike. But in doing so I would argue that belief is not binary. To find something useful in a “lovely story” does not mean you have to sign up to the whole caboodle. Some would preach its “all or nothing” – that the Bible or the Koran or the Torah are God’s word and non negotiable. Well that’s their call, but it’s not mine. Happy Christmas.

Emotions drive brand choice for cars, above all status.

Rather a long time ago (! – isn’t everything ?) I commissioned in a Shell Company Market Research into motorist behaviour. It was mostly about fuel brand choice but we bunged in a few questions about car brands as well.

Results showed the contrast between “rational man” and “emotional man” – between head and heart if you like. Car buyers overwhelmingly gave “rational man” choice answers – comfort, safety, fuel efficiency, carrying capacity , that sort of thing. So we did a follow up where we took the latest Skoda which ticked all of the rational choice boxes. Then we created two matched groups of respondents. One group got a photo of the car undoctored with all the data about the car. The other group got the same except that we replaced the Skoda symbol with a BMW one. We asked the two groups to describe what they had seen.

Well the car with the BMW logo outscored the one with the Skoda one overwhelmingly. The BMW group valued the “BMW” car around $7000 more than the “Skoda” one. Both groups had identical data about their car. The only thing that was different was the brand.

The point of course is that emotions drive brand choice for cars, above all status. A car is for most of us our most valuable consumer durable. We want more than just the ability to get from A to B – and a “smart” car confers status on us. We will probably rationalise our choice with hard benefits ( frequently comfort and safety). But in truth most new cars these days are comfortable and safe – even a Skoda !

The electric car phenomenon is remarkable. A Tesla (especially) confers massive status on the owner/driver. Rationally it makes little sense. It costs much more than the petrol/diesel equivalent. “Refuelling” is much more problematic and much more frequent. But watch the neighbours faces when you first park it on your drive. It cries out prestige and shouts how environmentally conscious you are.

Down the hierarchy the other electric cars are similarly low performers compared with the liquid fuel alternative. But people buy them – it’s (frankly) a boast. Nothing wrong with that of course – where would we be without added value brands? People buy £10,000 watches but if all you want to do is to tell the time you can buy one for a tenner!

Liz Truss descends to meaningless nationalistic bombast

Britain is the greatest country on Earth.” according to Liz Truss. When I last checked I found that I had lived in, worked in or holidayed in 65 different countries. A function of career, luck and preference and I enjoyed every moment. Some I enjoyed more than others, of course, and I suppose I could rank them according to that personal preference. But I won’t because it would be utterly subjective and a waste of time.

The claim that “greatness” can be objectively ranked when it comes to nations underlies Ms Truss’s bombastic nonsense. If Karen from Croydon did it we might be saddened and perhaps gently mock her faux-patriotism. For the Foreign Secretary to do it defies belief.

There’s no place like home” is a platitude that people of all nationalities share. It’s harmless and understandable. We grow up in a place and a culture and it becomes our norm. When we lived in The Netherlands we had a boat which we took around the inland waterways – the canals, rivers and lakes. One summer we had visitors who came out with us for a particularly sunny day trip. One said to me how lovely it was, but (he said) it “wasn’t England”. Of course it wasn’t, but that rather missed the point didn’t it !

You cannot objectively measure national “greatness” though some have tried – “Deutchland Uber Alles” springs to mind. But then so does “Land of Hope and Glory” – most nations do it a bit. It’s mostly harmless bluster , except when it slips over into nationalism and we think we have a right to conquer. That leads to wars and empires.

We are close to being an elective dictatorship. Here’s why.

Democracy” can mean what you choose it to mean. The opportunity for “we the people” to choose those that govern us might be a reasonable place to start. But if that’s the test Britain looks decidedly dodgy. Our Head of State is hereditary, our Upper House is unelected and our Head of Government has only the shakiest of personal electoral mandates to be in the job.

Democracy is arguably much more about protections against repression than anything else. Important freedoms like those of speech, the press and of action (within a mostly benign set of laws) are crucial. Here, though, we are subject to the judgment calls of others. We don’t (thank goodness) have the ancient Greek system of decisions being made by a show of hands in a public square.

So when we elect a representative to a Parliament or a Council we elect not a delegate but someone who we hope will vote according to their conscience and with our needs in mind. Sadly the Party whips often tell our representative what to do, not us. Hardly democratic.

I have lived in a couple of benign dictatorships – colonial Hong Kong and modern day Dubai. There were rather more freedoms in the former than the latter but no elections in either. And if you behaved reasonably you could live comfortably in both. The contrast between Hong Kong and the totalitarian Super State across the border was enormous. But so was the contrast between Dubai and the grotesque human rights abusing Saudi Arabia not far away.

Democracy is a fragile flower and the fact of elections does not necessarily protect us. Britain’s current autocracy has a huge parliamentary majority but only just over four in ten of those who voted actually voted Conservative. Hitler came to power in 1933 with only a third of the vote.

So Democracy and Free Elections are inseparable but holding the latter does not guarantee the former. We need to define Democracy much more widely than (just) elective democracy. Here a written constitution would help. In Britain to say something is “unconstitutional” has an element of value judgment in it. There’s no document to refer to to check. Even apparently permanent changes to our democratic systems, like the introduction of fixed time parliaments, can be changed at will.

Is democracy under threat in Britain? Or is a Government with a big majority simply using its power to make changes. Are any changes legitimised by that big majority? We have no constitutional court to refer to or to provide checks and balances. Parliament is sovereign – though the courts can rule on Judicial review. There are three main grounds of judicial review: illegality, procedural unfairness, and irrationality. But if a law is properly drafted and passed by a vote in Parliament a review is unlikely to succeed.

Sometimes, as someone once said, it’s helpful to go “Back to Basics” and if we do that to audit the effectiveness of our “democracy” it’s not encouraging:

▪️Can we refer to a document to check whether a proposed new law (etc.) is constitutional? We cannot.

▪️Do we choose all who pass laws and govern us ? We do not.

▪️Does every vote count equally? It does not. Some don’t count at all.

▪️Are there adequate and enforceable checks on the decisions of our Government? There are not.

▪️Is the aggregate vote for political parties approximately matched by the number of Members of Parliament they have. It is not.

In short our government system is profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable. Many strands of public opinion are underrepresented in Parliament. Grace and Favour rather than elections determines the composition of our Upper House. The constraints on the freedom to act of our Government are feeble at best. We are close to being an elective dictatorship.