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Sea levels will continue to rise, Homes will be flooded. Weather will be more extreme with droughts, floods and hurricanes.  There will be shortages of food and widespread famine. There will be epidemics of disease, mass migration, civil unrest, war. People will suffer a loss of livelihood and liberty. There will be a complete breakdown of civilisation. Predictions of the effects of climate change are apocalyptic.  It seems that ‘the end of the world is nigh’, but is calamity that imminent or are our media outlets too short of money and too high on catastrophe and ‘fake news’.     

It does not seem to me so long ago that our then prime minister, The Right Honorable Mr Harold MacMillan, The Westminster Walrus, told us that we had never had it so good.  He was right.  The sixties were a time of optimism and freedom when everything seemed possible and few were aware of a warming planet.  Public optimism has been going downhill ever since.   

50 years on, we may have not quite have reached the point when governments must step in with radical solutions, but we have perhaps reached a critical stage of awareness.  If patterns of extreme weather continue and begin to impact on our way of life, we will all be spending more of our income on essentials like housing and food and less on holidays and entertainment. Cheap flights will disappear.  We may have to give up our car and get a bike.  Many of our individual freedoms will be curtailed or become very expensive. Our diet will become less diverse as imported food will cost more.  The attempts we may all have to make to avert or mitigate the most catastrophic losses, will threaten our aspiration, culture and identity and involve the loss of our accustomed lifestyle.

Nevertheless, many will respond to such doom-laden predictions with indifference, apathy or cynicism.  Increased awareness of climate change has not yet translated into appropriate concern and action.  How can we think about it without either going into denial or sinking into depression and inertia?  At a recent meeting of The Sheffield Psychoanalytical Journal Club, my friend and fellow therapist Stephanie Howlett presented for discussion a paper on ‘Loss and Climate Change’ by psychoanalytical psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall, director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint. 

Climate change is like getting old or facing a terminal illness; it’s a loss that is bound to happen. Life, of course, is a terminal illness, but we only become aware of that when we approach the end and can experience the symptoms of decline.  So we might gain some insight into how to cope with climate change by thinking about how elderly people cope with their impending demise.  But climate change is not just something that’s facing the elderly, it is something that affects the young as well.  And the elderly among us may never experience the changes that will affect our children or grandchildren; the major effects of climate change on food supply and population dynamics may not occur for another 20 years.  So is the fear of climate change something that affects the young more because they will experience the worst effects or does it predominantly affect the old because they are already aware of the end of their own lives?  Young people often regard themselves as immortal; death only happens to their grandparents.    

So how are people dealing with the reality of climate change?   Some, like Donald Trump, deny it is happening.  They regard it as fake news, exaggerated by a sensationalist media, but isn’t that itself an assault on truth?  More acknowledge the reality of climate change, but disavow its seriousness. Disavowal means you don’t have to face the anxiety; it is happening elsewhere.  The present continues to feel safe but fear is split off and projected into the future; on the one hand,  false comfort; on the other, nightmare.  If we can manage to stop catastrophising the future and wrapping the present in cotton wool, we may diminish both extremes and make loss manageable for our children and grandchildren.  

Others may accept the reality of climate change, but blame others; the Americans or the Chinese or those with expensive cars and life styles, all the while maintaining their own way of life. It’s the same with Brexit: the government are hopeless and the EU vindictive.  Ministers downplay the seriousness of the situation and affect an attitude of control; they have to, otherwise they would never be re-elected.  In psychoanalytical terms, both are examples of collective splitting and projection.

Even if we full acknowledge climate change, we all have to find our own way of dealing with that reality if we are to avoid sinking into hopelessness and depression.  Some may adopt a manic defence.  ‘I’m alright Jack: I can have a good life in New Zealand or Scandinavia. I am not going to let it affect me’. Or ‘ok I know it’s going to happen, but I will make the most of the time left to me’.  The broadcaster, Clive James, has been dying for years but in the meantime has managed to write some of his best poetry.  In The Story of San Michele, the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe observed that during the devastating cholera epidemic in Naples, people took to making love, often with complete strangers – on park benches, in fountains, anywhere – as if in a frantic bid to find life in the midst of death. 

Although we may wish to accept what is happening and engage with it in a positive sense, most of us will probably protect ourselves by banishing it from our minds and not thinking about it until something forces us to. Death is going to happen but not yet.  Continual fretting about the impending loss can only lead to depression and inertia – the less you can do, the more loss you suffer. But when loss remains unspoken, then change and adjustment cannot follow.  A better understanding of the nature of the loss might allow it to be brought back into public discourse and for people to feel a sense of agency.  God-fearing members of religious communities may regard death a necessary sacrifice to assure everlasting life in Paradise.  Our current secular society does not have such comforting delusions.  

But is climate change something we can engage with?  Or is it, like a terminal illness, an overwhelming inevitability.  Engagement means facing up to our own destructiveness.  Mother Earth is both our breast and our toilet and we are destroying both by compromising food supply and polluting the planet.  Can we ever assuage our personal sense of guilt by getting a bike, not going on long haul flights and installing solar panels?  Maybe not, but by engaging, it may feel good to be part of a solution, however futile.

Loss, even anticipated loss, involves a gradual withdrawal of energy from the loved object. Grief is a process of adjustment and acceptance, always in progress, two steps forward, one step back, never complete.  When a loved one dies, life can never be the same again, but meaning can be restored and it may even become possible to flourish.  With climate change, it’s our world that must end. How can we ever get our minds around that?  Denial and disavowal may be part of an ongoing process that may allow that painful reality to be assimilated. Many of us may accept the idea of climate change intellectually but moving from there to the reality of a lived emotional experience and acceptance of its irreversibility may not be possible. 

Perhaps we should all join the Green Party and campaign for radical solutions?  Collective action can make people feel so much better when they are in the jaws of calamity. Sharing the enormity of the problem might paradoxically garner enough  support to make life tolerable if not enjoyable. During the dark days of 1940, Winston Churchill did not attempt to hide the stark reality of Britain’s situation and was able to appeal to a spirit of resilience in the British people.  Hope, however futile, can always stave off feelings of despair and the ensuing inertia.  But does the same communal sense of purpose still exist in our current narcissistic society, where every man and every woman are for themselves and posting it all on Facebook. It is likely that most will only engage when endgame is upon them, but that will only be to turn to religion. 

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Donald TrumpThis was the book, Donald Trump tried to ban, but failed. Michael Wolff was given unique access to the west wing as a fly on the wall journalist for the first nine months of the Trump presidency. If his host knew what he would produce, he would have been swatted. The result is an appalling indictment of the president and his administration.

Trump had never expected to win the election; he had banked on losing and then making a lot of money in television. He wanted to become the most famous man in the world and he probably is, but not for the reasons he would have liked. Donald Trump is undoubtedly the least qualified and capable president, America has ever known. He had never worked in government before; never studied law or politics; he had a degree in economics and estate management from a minor university. He was a businessman, joining his father’s business as soon as he graduated. All he knew of politics was gleaned from the television news.

Not only that but the personality of the man seems totally at variance with the role of a president. Wolff paints a picture of a man, who is impulsive, mercurial, emotional, paranoid and totally uncontained and unpredictable. Despite his macho persona, Trump is a man who cannot make decisions. He may seem to make up his mind very quickly, largely on the basis of how he feels about the last person who came to see him, but he changes it just as rapidly. On difficult decisions, he prefers to procrastinate and let them make themselves or hand over the brief to someone else and then forget about it. If it succeeds, he takes the credit, if it fails, then they have screwed up and are fired. According to Wolff, Trump cannot see the bigger picture, and therefore tends to make rash, polarised judgements about situations. He has a very low attention span and never listens to advice. He gets bored with people who present him with the information he needs to know, he never reads briefings, he doesn’t even follow his own script when he has to give a speech and is likely to go off on a rant and repeat himself. This all implies a limited capacity to think.

Trump reacts to personalities rather than issues, either loading them with fulsome praise or dismissing them completely. He creates dramas; he wants to be the centre of attention, even when it is bad news, he has little empathy and can be ruthless and cruel when he doesn’t get his own way. Were it about any other person, Wolff’s book might be dismissed as media hype or dysphoria; fake news – to quote a Trumpism, but it seems to confirms what most of us already know already; the man is quite unsuited to be the de facto leader of the western world. What seems so shocking about Fire and Fury is just how damningly, the man and his administration are portrayed.

Wolff reports that Trump is universally derided by members of his staff, who variously describe him as a child, a clown, a moron, an idiot and stupid. But is he so cognitively challenged? After all, he was a very successful businessman and in his words, very very smart. Isn’t it more that he is emotionally unstable. Donald Trump would appear to be a text book case of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Donald was fourth in a family of five children, which might suggest he had to fight to get his parents’ attention.  Trump’s father, Fred, was a belligerent, uncompromising, ruthless man; he created a son, who was driven to achieve his father’s approval.  Donald’s relationship with his father was ambivalent; he both resented his control but was at the same time devoted to him and determined to become a much more successful businessman. Donald must have been difficult teenager for his father to send him away to a military academy, where he subsequently excelled. I could not find any information about Donald’s relationship with his mother, but I would guess from his subsequent behaviour around women, he needed his mother’s love, but didn’t always get it. Mary- Ann Macleod Trump, who emigrated to new York from Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides,   was more reserved with her children than her husband and somewhat vain.  She had a curious orange hair style rather like her son’s.

Although he quickly became a billionaire from his real estate business, the world of Manhattan and in particular the media, regarded him as a joke, a lightweight, a wannabe. Donald Trump hates to feel humiliated and will always seek revenge.  His emotional insecurity was soothed by a sense of entitlement; he always had the money and power to get his own way.

You would think that for a man who prides himself in being a good judge of people, Trump would appoint a top team to run the country.  Not so: Trump needs to be in control; he is too insecure and sensitive to criticism to let others be seen to run the country. The people Trump has chosen to help him are either his own family, hustlers who believe they can manipulate him to get their own agendas met, or ‘yes men’ who try to manage him by letting him think he is in charge, while they get on with the business of government.

Steve Bannon was the White House Chief Strategist for the first eight months before he too was fired. Crude and as uncontained as his boss, he could speak the language, Trump liked to hear. They would have dinner together every night. But Bannon had his own ultra right wing agenda. It was Bannon who was behind the isolationism of Trumpian politics, who wanted to limit immigration, repeal Obamacare, build a wall along the Mexican border, withdraw America from the Paris Climate accord, but all of this was music to Trump’s ears. Bannon was like Thomas Cromwell was to the King, but Trump never had the guile of Henry VIII. The danger was that even if Trump disliked Bannon, he owed him a debt. It was Bannon, who was largely responsible for Trump winning the election with his ultra right populist politics. The two men were said to be closer than a marriage. Their recent divorce could still produce a lot of fall out.

Trump has now been in office for over a year and apart from a reform in the tax system, very little has been achieved. His first year has been a constant firefight. And if there wasn’t a crisis, Donald Trump with his not stop sequence of tweets and turns would make sure there was one. Members of his staff rarely have lasted more than a few months with the exception of his daughter and son in law. The investigation into the Russian influence in the 2016 election; the social media campaign against crooked Hilary, is coming ever closer and could result in impeachment. Bannon lurks under a rock at Brietbart News Headquarters biding his time, awaiting the fall. He has been reported as saying that the chances of Trump’s impeachment are 33%, resignation 33% and hanging on for the rest of his term 33%, dismissing entirely any change of a second term, at least not while there is a chance of a take-over by President Bannon.

If we can take Wolff’s observations and opinions at face value, the worrying question for the rest of the world is how the Americans could have elected somebody, who is so inept, to be their president? And why does he remain so popular? Michael Wolff may criticise the man, but perhaps we should question the society and the system that elected him? Has America got the president it deserved? Does a narcissistic society get a narcissistic president? Is it a dysfunctional news media that controls public opinion and politics these days? Whatever else Trump is, he is compelling news.

how to stop brexit

Nick Clegg, Britain’s erstwhile deputy prime minister, is such a skilled political commentator. Last year, I enjoyed his book ‘Politics: Between the Extremes’, in which he advocated centrist politics. Clegg is a reasonable man. He outperformed both David Cameron and Gordon Brown in the 2015 Election debates. His latest book, ‘How to Stop Brexit’, just 136 pages long, is written more in the genre of a political self help book for the thoughtful voter. As Clegg might say if he were not so self effacing, ‘How to Stop Brexit is the indispensable handbook for saving Britain from an entirely pointless calamity’. Of course, Mr Clegg will be criticised as a remoaner and a dedicated Europhile, but he still represents the centre ground of reason in British politics and he deserves to be listened to.

In the first section of the book, he set out the reasons why so many people felt impelled to vote to leave Europe at the 2015 referendum. They included: fears of loss of sovereignty, uncontrolled immigration, interference in our courts and institutions, the threat of a federal Europe and a nostalgia for a time when Britain was great; perhaps even a reaffirmation of the British Commonwealth. Britain has never had the same attachment to Europe because of the events of the Second World War when it stood alone isolated from the continent. The perspective of France or Germany is very different.

Clegg explained that Cameron felt impelled to hold a referendum in order to silence once and for all the large body of eurosceptics within his party and to halt the threat of a resurgent, populist UK Independence Party. He also identified the elite businessmen and millionaires who bankrolled the Brexit campaign, asserting that Brexit was not a triumph of the little man against the powerful elite; it was more a powerful coterie of rich elite manipulating the minds of the masses. He reaffirmed the statistics behind the vote, pointing out that 72% of young people voted to remain, while those who voted to leave were a mixture of the elderly, the workers, nervous of losing their jobs to foreign immigrants and the shires of little England. The majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain. The vote was close; too close. 52% voted to leave; 48% to remain. If the franchise were extended to all of those over 16, it would have gone the other way. A fervent supporter of proportional representation, Clegg demanded to know how the millions who voted to remain will be represented. An in/out referendum is already being seen as a foolish strategy, based more on power and party politics than the rights of the people. It should never have been a case of in or out, but more a case of making life in Europe better by revising the workings of the European Union as Britain has been trying to do for the last forty years. After all, it was Britain who suggested the structure of the single market and the customs union. It is therefore rather galling to find that since the referendum, Europe has got its house in order in a way that would have suited Britain better.

David Cameron took an enormous risk. Maybe, having fought the 2015 on the promise of offering people an in/out vote on Brexit, he felt he didn’t have a choice, but then again, he never thought he would lose; he was a man who had never lost anything in his life. Maybe he should have kept out of campaigning, as he did with the Scottish referendum  and Harold Wilson did in the first EU referendum in 1975.  So Cameron rushed through the 2016 referendum just a year into his government with insufficient preparation. Many people, myself included, did not understand the arguments. Others were frightened by the conflict of misleading statistics from experts on both sides. Some may have even been swayed by the promise emblazoned on the side of Boris Johnson’s battle bus, the 350 million pounds windfall from not having to pay Europe that would be given to the NHS.  But perhaps most reasonable people were irritated by having to make a choice they felt was unnecessary about implications they didn’t really understand.

Nobody had prepared for a leave result. Cameron resigned on the spot, recommending Mrs May, who had campaigned to remain in Europe, as the person best equipped to unite the party in the upcoming negotiations to leave. Having started the clock ticking by declaring Article 50, she then wasted months fighting a pointless snap election, which was designed to strengthen her authority but ended up losing the conservatives their majority and necessitating a humiliating agreement with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. Since then, May and her ‘Brexit Bulldog’, David Davies, have postured in Brussels and squabbled with their own party. It has been a shambles and all that has been achieved is an unsatisfactory climb down and a last ditch agreement to move on to trade talks.

Clegg identifies Mrs May as not having the flexibility to negotiate while Jeremy Corbyn just sits on his hands and waiting for it all to fail. With so little progress emerging so far, about the most interesting revelation has been that David Davis and Michel Barnier share a love of hiking, but while Barnier has polished his boots, planned his route and stocked up with energy bars, Davis is still struggling with the zip on his anorak!

In the second part of the book, Clegg describes the disastrous consequences for Britain of leaving the EU, the loss of trade, the erosion of Britain’s influence in the world in direct contrast to what the Brexiteers fought for, the loss of any ability to determine our own future on the fringes of a Europe that is controlled by a combination of Eurocrats and big business.

After the surprise election of Donald Trump, Mrs May rushed over to America to hold the new incumbent’s hand and assert their special relationship, promising a state visit to Britain. That was then. The state visit is on hold and so is that special relationship. Meanwhile Emmanuel Macron invited Trump over as guest of honour on Bastille Day.

After the result of the referendum, there is a certain inevitability about Brexit. Backing down does not seem an option. Britain would lose face, and become a laughing stock. But it already is. Clegg makes the point that it is not too late to change our minds. Many people, angry at having been so misled, seem to have done so already, Clegg asserts. The result was hardly represented the will of the people, he reiterates, reminding us that we are deciding the future not of us but for the millions of young people who voted to remain or would have done so if they were old enough to vote. It is their future that is being decided. If Mrs May were not so implacable or Jeremy Corbyn less inscrutable, ministers could force another vote for the good of the country.

Setting out a plan for revision, Clegg appeals to all of us, saying that if we think that the wrong decision has been made, we should make our voice count by writing to May or Corbyn, joining their party, attending a party congress, tabling a motion. Parliament is due to vote on the final deal in October. If they fail to do so, Clegg insists that we should hold another referendum and go back to Europe and renegotiate a new deal. If successful, it will never result in all the concessions and special deals we have enjoyed in the past, Our position in Europe would be more of an associate than a prime mover for the time being, or as Clegg puts it, more on the outer circle of Europe than at its core; ’twas ever thus. But it’s not like Britain will have no influence. We will still be one of the biggest economies in Europe with a seat at the table. Britain will remain close to Europe no matter how Brexit works out.

To catalyse such a new deal, he further recommends setting up a UK/EU commission under the direction of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and Anglophile and guess who – Sir John Major, pilloried at the time by Spitting Image as the grey man of British politics, but the man who negotiated the Maastricht treaty and Britain’s special deal on the Euro. The signs are that if Britain did want to rejoin or not leave, the door would be open. Several heads of state have said as much. Jean Claude Junker has said that he wants to be in the same boat as Britain, while Donald Tusk put it more poetically, ‘you may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one’. So, according to Clegg, it’s up to us.

It all seems very unlikely that the upcoming trade negotiations will work out well for Britain. We cannot have our cake and eat it. Britain will not be allowed to stay in the single market. It suits France’s and Germany’s vision of a more integrated Europe that we are on the periphery where we can no longer hold things up.  The world has changed since the European project first got underway in the nineteen fifties.  There does not seem to be a coherent plan on how Britain can survive, let alone prosper, outside the European single market.  As Captain Oates might have said all those years ago in Antarctica, ‘it would have been better to stay inside the tent pissing out than to go outside’, but he did realise that he ‘might be gone for some time’!

london-brexit

It wasn’t so much a problem when human beings lived in small hunter gatherer tribes of 20 to 40. Then, they worked together, sharing the tasks of hunting, foraging, making fire, cooking, shelter, defence to ensure their survival. The dilemma occurred after they learnt how to grow, harvest and store food and to domesticate wild animals and were able to settle in stable communities that grew to hundreds and then thousands of people. This necessitated the allocation of roles for purposes of food supply, trade, defence and public health and a system of laws to regulate societies.

Initially such city states were ruled by strong or powerful kings; warlords who defended the community and organised the people by force. As the threat of invasion receded, this type of leadership could so easily become tyrannical and burdensome. Democracy or ‘rule by the people’ was introduced in Athens in about 500 BCE. Plato, writing at the time, feared that allowing people to govern themselves would lead to anarchy or mob rule, which would inevitably revert to tyranny or dictatorship. It is perhaps no surprise that he favoured a benign oligarchy of philosophers, but what arose in Athens was a somewhat larger more representative ruling body of ‘free’ citizens, that excluded slaves, foreigners, women and children.

As states increased in size, direct rule by the people led to chaos and inertia. It had to be managed. Democracy’s dilemma has always been how to guarantee the right of every citizen to have a stake in the running of the state, while ensuring that decisions regarding defence, food supply, trade, property and public health could be made under sound logistical and moral principles without undue argument and delay. The answer was to elect or appoint people who could represent different factions within the community. However, only those with sufficient political and moral training were considered able to supervise the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Some states created an extra tier of organisation to safeguard effective governance. The government of ancient Rome offered power to the people through the election of tribunes, but political authority was held by the senate, who listened to the tribunes and transformed the will of the people into workable laws. America’s congress is based on the Roman model with a house of representatives and a senate. Each state within the union appoints two senators. While representing the interests of each state in the political process, they review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and oversee the president’s administration.

An ideal democracy, while acknowledging the diverse opinions of the electorate, must, none-the-less modify voter preferences to ensure good government. Such transformation of popular needs and concerns into effective legislation needs to be conducted with transparency, honesty and equity, ensuring that the opinions of different factions are heard and debated in order to attain a workable consensus. Moreover, the legislative, executive and judicial roles of government should be kept separate so that each is independent. Finally, the decisions of government should be carried out in accordance to a written constitution, which is nevertheless subject to periodic review.

How many modern democracies operate entirely according to those principles? The answer, of course, is none, although most claim accountability to the people they represent. Practical expediency necessitates at-best, compromise and at-worst, subversion.  As a system for running a state, Churchill once declared that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

In his recent book, ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, the philosopher, Professor Anthony Grayling, outlined three reasons why modern democracies, particularly those in the UK and US, are failing. They are: governments are too self serving of their own class and faction, the electorate is inadequately represented and insufficiently informed and there is too much interference in government by external agencies.

An Elected Dictatorship.

In the UK, the prime minister and her cabinet effectively run the country, subject to the ‘approval’ of parliament. They organise both executive and legislative functions of government and are only accountable to the people inasmuch as they can either be endorsed or rejected after five years. Bills may be delayed by resistance in The House of Lords, but they cannot be blocked. Even the judiciary lacks the power to strike down laws made by parliament, although it can ask parliament to reconsider laws that contravene legislation on human rights. In the nineteen seventies, Lord Hailsham called the UK system of government an elective dictatorship. This has not changed.

A similar system exists in the United States.  Executive authority resides with the President and the House of Representatives, though the senate does have the power to overturn legislation. For a good part of the history of the United States, there has been a de facto combination of powers with the legislature and executive, both houses of congress and the President working together when the same party has a majority in the house and the senate.

The distortions and inequities of the electoral system and party divisions means that governments of both countries do not represent the diverse views of the population or even majority public opinion. Instead, the executive government represents the background and experience of those members, the President or Prime Minister have appointed. You would at least think that the executive could be held to account by their individual members, but the reality is that in the UK they are bullied, bribed and blackmailed by the ‘whips’ into supporting the party line. It was the whips made sure that article 50 was triggered for Britain to leave the European Union, even though the result of the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory document and only 37% of the electorate voted for it. On a matter as important as leaving the EU, a two thirds majority would have ensured that the people truly decided. Unfortunately, the executive was able ‘to make it up as it went along’, partly because Britain does not have a written constitution. Even party manifestoes are less an agenda for the next parliament than a wish list that may be discarded as situations change.

Both the current UK and US governments could be accused as being out of touch with the electorate and only serving the interests of a small executive group. History teaches us that such unrepresentative government can lead to envy, riot, and replacement by a more populist regime, risking another form of dictatorship. This has already happened in the US while in the UK, an alternative government is biding it’s time, waiting for the current incumbents to implode.

Representation

Government should represent a diversity of views, but the absence of proportional representation in the ‘first past the post system’, operated by both the UK and the US, means that certain views are under-represented or not represented at all. Climate change is arguably the major threat facing mankind, yet tackling it is only championed by The Green Party in the UK. Although, over a million people voted for the Greens in 2015, only one member was elected. And in the United States, Donald Trump, a candidate with no qualification for parliamentary leadership, won more states, even though  Hillary Clinton, with three years experience as Secretary of State, got 3 million more popular votes. The major parties argue that proportional representation would lead to coalition and weak government, but coalition would mean greater representation of the views of the electorate and less manipulation by class based ideology and powerful external agencies. As such, it would be more democratic.

Fake News and Bullshit.

External agencies, particularly the news media have too much influence on both the electorate and MPs. Post truth, fake news, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks, even the caricatures of cartoonists like Peter Brookes create what political commentator and presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis, calls ‘bullshit’ and can all too easily affect the way people think and vote. Bullshit is the political journalist’s stock-in-trade; they are there to probe, to question, to stir things up. It gives them access to the levers of power without any of the responsibility? But it none-the-less undermines our faith in any kind of government. Many people were manipulated to vote for Brexit by exaggerated fears of foreign intervention and immigration?

Social media has made this much worse. Google and other social media outlets can create profiles of every voter. This allows them to target voters in key constituencies or states to swing the vote in a particular direction.

Government can be manipulated by donations from rich individuals or sponsorship from big corporations, while within government, networks of military and civilian officials have a major influence what the executive decides.

For the Many not the Few.

Most MPs and members of the US congress have grown up at a time of peace. Britain and the USA and most of Europe have had no wars on their soil for over 70 years. This may explain an attitude of complacency on the part of government. David Cameron – remember him – failed to factor in a vote to leave the EU or appreciate the inherent inequality in income and opportunity that many in Britain suffered. ‘For the many, not the few’ chimes with the resentment and aspirations of lower paid workers. They are fed up with excuses and inaction, fed up with being fobbed off with the same tired old rhetoric that promises everything and never delivers, fed up with the brouhaha of party politics, fed up with the way the news media create a crisis out of everything. Although we may recognise the criticism of the government of the day and the promises for something different and better as just so much bullshit, we nevertheless are drawn in by somebody who promises to transform the political arena into something different, more can-do. This is the appeal of self appointed populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, though only the latter can claim hard won experience of government.

So now, a hundred years on from a proletarian revolution in Russia, the US seems threatened by a new form of tyranny while British democracy is rapidly losing all credibility and influence. Can we ever pull ourselves back from the brink and reform the democratic system? Or do things have to get much worse before there is the will to change them? Can we introduce a fair system of proportional representation? Can we reform parliamentary procedures and abolish the party whips? Can we ensure transparency of funding for elections? Can we abolish the manipulation of elections by profiling and targeting voters? Can we in Britain replace a defunct House of Lords with an effective and more representative senate, able to challenge the executive when necessary. Can we increase the political effectiveness of local communities? Can we hold the media to account to fact-check what they publish?

It seems that if we are ever to change our system of democracy, we need to be more involved. Government is too distant and centralised. If people could become more involved in local government, they would understand the workings of democracy. Then their deliberations could feed up to higher levels of government. But how many would wish to be involved? Call me an old cynic, but my experience in running a charity suggests that most people would rather others did it for them. Perhaps if we educated our teenagers to understand how democracy works and gave them the vote at 16, they might feel motivated to make a difference.

 

What is the secret of the enduring popularity of the British monarchy?  What curious alchemy is at work?   I can understand why my father, the venerable Read, God rest his soul, was such a fervent  monarchist.   He was, as he frequently told us, one of Churchill’s few.  He fought for King and country, though I doubt the King was that impressed when he wrote off three Hurricanes without even seeing the enemy.   It’s enough to make a st-st-statesman st-st-stutter.   But sixty years on,  and a sequence of public relations disasters, the institution still has the power to generate a sense of awe and respect.   It’s not so much what the Royals do  – and the chief characters in this enduring soap opera certainly do a lot – it’s what they represent.   The Windsors play an essential symbolic role for our nation.  They create a collective sense of identity and continuity that we would never get from an ephemeral political leader.   They embody consistency and a reaffirmation of traditional values of duty, loyalty, charity, family and community.  The Queen is Commander in Chief of the armed forces and head of the Church of England and she brings a softer more human sense to both of those organisations.  I once met Prince Charles and was impressed by the way he could work a room and how he raised self deprecation to the status of an art form.

Some say the mere existence of the Royal Family is an affront to democracy.  Not a bit of it; they are its upholders.  They curb the power of politicians by subsuming the cult of personality from leadership, providing an alternative focus of respect and idealisation that prevents our elected leaders becoming too big for their political boots.  So the Royal Family prevent the creation of tyrants, just by being there.  The Queen’s in her palace and all’s well with the world. 

Next year, The Queen would have been on the throne for 60 years.  She acceded in a different time; she has overseen the most amazing changes, not just in terms of historical events or our way of life, but more crucially in our attitudes to all the important things,  family, marriage, religion, sexuality.   She has stayed firm and uncompromising through it all. She is the same now as she was in 1952.  She is the moral anchor for a nation, nay half a world, that has been buffeted by the winds of change.  Not only that, but The Queen is latest in a long line that goes back to William the Conqueror;   she embodies continuity, representing a historical notion of nationhood that goes back to the very beginning.  I don’t know ho children understand history now, but when I was a boy, it all hinged around the Kings and Queens.   Like the Observer’s Book of Birds or Ian Allen’s Great Western Railway locomotives (with its 30 Kings, 6000 to 6030),  I knew the images of each King and the dates they ruled;  I still do.  Some knowledge never fades.    Our national anthem is not about the power of the state, the revolution, or even the beauty of the country, it is about the monarch – as if The Queen (or King) is the essential symbol of nation and empire.   ‘God Save The Queen’.   Quite!          

Saturday’s Guardian, an organ that hs never admired inherited privilege and power, was so critical of the whole Royal Wedding extravaganza,  though they did approve of the royal minibus fleet; the need for cuts and all that!  They reminded me of prison vans.  In a sense, I suppose, they were.      

But there is surely nothing like a Royal Wedding to reaffirm that sense of unity and commitment.  In the Church of England, it seems, the beards always have the best words.  It was the bald and bearded Bishop of London who emphasised the commitment of marriage (as opposed to just living together) as a potent symbol of unity and responsibility for family, society and the nation, while it was left up to that aging Welsh hippie, Rowan Williams to remind Kate of her responsibility to have a baby, preferably male.         

The Germans may sneer at the English for their eccentric attachment to the Windsors, but had it not been for the last century’s two great German wars, they might have still been Saxe-Coburg-Gothas and William might have been assigned a German princess.  It was the symbolic significance of the Royal Family, who refused to leave London even though the palace was bombed, as much as Churchill’s indomitable rhetoric that got us through the second war.   The Germans began to recognise the flaws in their Fuhrer quite early on.  Theirs was not a glorious endeavour; they couldn’t prevail.  Our parent’s war had right on its side.  So despite the familial dysfunction and the flurry of  royal divorces,  the Royal Family is nearly as popular now as it was in the 1950s.   80% of the population support it.  Maybe it will be different when the Queen dies; there could be a backlash to King  Charles and Queen Camilla.  Could Kate Middleton will be the one to restore it; she has that quiet sense of dignity, that stability and composure, that regal quality that could capture the nation’s affection and identification.  

Friday’s Royal Wedding is a symbol of hope, hope for William and Kate of course, but also for the rest of us, though the cynics will remind us we’ve been here before.   30 years ago, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer.  A fairy tale wedding, they called it, but it was more like one of Grimm’s.  Charles and Camilla were still exchanging tokens of their affection up until the eve of the wedding.   But apparently Prince Philip had insisted Charles choose a virgin and an aristocrat.   There were not that many around.  So Diana, the nineteen year old insecure daughter of a dysfunctional family, was selected for sacrifice.  They hardly knew each other.  It was less of a romance and more an arrangement to secure the dynasty.   The runes were not good and it ended in tragedy.  Kate and William are so different.  Theirs’ is a love match, they met at university 10 years ago, they are the same age, they were friends before they became lovers, they have lived together.  They are like us, they laugh and joke at the same things and they renew our belief in love and family at a time when cynicism is considered clever.  

May their marriage be strong and happy and may they continue to bring a sense of joy to the lives of the rest of us.

It was 1789. France was still a feudal monarchy.  All the power and the wealth was in the hands of the aristocracy,  the King was like a God.  His ancestor, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had built himself a wonderful palace in Versailles.  The people had no voice. All the power was in the hands of the aristocrats and the church.  The country was run by the wealthy; the Estates General.   

But there were stirrings; people were restless, the intellectuals and lawyers met in the cafes and talked of revolution.  he American War of Independence had shown them that it was possible for a people to rise up against their European masters and succeed.   It just needed the spark.  A volcano erupts in Iceland,  the climate cools, the wheat crop fails and Paris explodes.  Starvation on top of everything else; it was too much.   

From its instigation in 1789, events gathered momentum like red hot lava.  The Estates General  was abolished and replaced by a more representative National Assembly, but the members were locked out of their meeting house.  The mob stormed the Bastille, the peasants refused to work on the estates, the monasteries were suppressed, wars of conquest were renounced,  the nobility was abolished.  The Government  changed every few months.  The National Assembly was replaced by an inexperienced Legislative Assemply.  This in turn was dissolved to be replaced by a revolutionary commune, which appointed its own tribunal. The King was forced to abdicated and was then  beheaded.  The country disintegrated into chaos, a  reign of terror.  Nobody was safe.  Anybody who looked rich or who has intellectual pretensions was executed.  Even the architects of the revolution, Marat, Danton and the incorruptible Robespierre were despatched by the guillotine.

The French Revolution terrifies me.  How is it possible to live through such anarchy with any sense of integrity and humanity?  .How could a civilised country disintegrate into such chaos?  Could the mob be released here?  Have you ever stood in the Kop?   

So could it happen again?  Could it happen here?  Now?   Yes, if things got bad enough.  George Osborne is swinging his machete with reactionary zeal.  His cuts are going deeper and more quickly than most of us anticipated.  His assertion that people are making a life style choice in claiming benefits is so provocative.  It surely emanates from someone out of touch with real world of the electorate. It will anger many and may well provoke violence.    

I suspect we are in for a very difficult winter and I am not sure the government will survive it. ‘This is no time for novices’, Gordon Brown said.  It is beginning to look like he was right.  Osborne seems carried away by enthusiasm, intoxicated by a delusion of self importance. Is there nobody who can express a note of caution?  Does the government know something that we don’t?  They need to come clean, to demonstrate in terms that are clear to all, the depth of our plight, to offer leadership and guidance as to how to survive it.  Otherwise people will just view the cuts as the desperate acts of an incompetent and insecure government.  They will take to the streets; the mob whipped up by the media, will be released.  It could happen!  The firemen and postal workers are already threatening strikes.  The TUC has urged civil disobedience.   And against the background, the government is also planning cuts in the military and the police.   

My fears were inspired by the performance of Danton’s Death at the National; such is the role of theatre.  Toby Stephens and Eliot Levey were so powerful,  the set so  dramatic, the direction by Michael Grandage so terrifying. Do not see it if you are a nervous disposition.  Just collect any bits of wood, boxes, broken down cars, anything and start building.    

Cuts will hit poor 10 times harder than rich – report.   This was the headline in this morning Guardian.  Well, of course they will!  It’s common sense, if the government makes cuts in public spending, it’s the poor,  many of whom are single parents and pensioners, who will suffer most.  They’ll suffer most because they do not have reserve capacity and so they desperately need the extra that benefits provide.   The rich have got their own private sources of funds and while they might miss out on a foreign holiday or delay buying a new car, they will not experience real hardship.  

Last night’s Any questions was broadcast from Sheffield High School on the borders of Nick Clegg’s constituency.  The panel agreed that Sheffield, which is still recovering from the collapse of steel and mining industries in the eighties, will suffer more than most cities from the cuts.   Fourteen miles to the south and west in the picturesque vales of Derbyshire around the Chatsworth Estate, there will be scarce a scratch.  Indeed, this morning as I ran past the Carleton Gate, a notice advertised £1000 reward for information leading to the recovery of a precious African Grey Parrot on long term medication.  It’s a different world down here.  But I still get an embarrassing cheque for winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and reductions on the train!   

I voted for this government.  I wanted to get away from the adversarial bickering of party politics and have a real mature consensus.  I reasoned that there wasn’t much to choose between the parties and when it came down to it.  Surely, men and women of slightly different persuasions would be able to work together for the good of the country.  And that, by and large seems to be happening, but I and millions of others hadn’t quite realised how draconian the cuts might be. 

Just this last week, George Osborne announced that he wanted to cut an extra 4 billion off the welfare budget (over and above the 11 billion planned) by making it much harder for people to remain on unemployment benefit long term,  VAT has been increased, Vince Cable announced that Royal Mail delivery services could be sold off with many thousands of job losses, and front line services in the police may go with £40,000 job losses.   Funding for schools is to be reduced, and unversities do not have the capacity to accept students who would otherwise get in.  This year, even students with four A’s are having to sign on.   And yet, there is no sign of the increased investment that might allow the economy to generate funds and avoid a catastrophic rise in uneployment and poverty.  Such cuts tear at the seams of the social fabric and threaten the release of criminal behaviour and civil unrest.  And yet they’re slashing front line jobs in the police force as well. 

Is this joined up government?  Are ministers talking to each other?  Who’s in charge of publicity anyway?  It doesn’t make sense.     

What does the government expect?  That workers will be phlegmatic about it and say, ‘yes, we’ll do our bit for the country’.  They might have done this 70 years ago with the bombs falling and ‘Winnie’ in charge.   But now?  I fear that  as the cuts go deeper, people will get so angry they will take matters into their own hands.  I fear this oncoming winter of discontent will be every bit as bad as 1979 and Maggie’s no longer in the wings with a rescue package.  Gordon Brown must feel vindicated, although his policy of tax and spend risked economic collapse by driving interest rates up.  

There is a limit to how long government can continue to bleat; ‘It’s the last lot who created the mess.  We’re just trying to clear it up and it’s going to be tough for us all.’  No it’s not; it’s going to be tougher on the poorest among us and the last lot still say they would have done it so differently.  But is that so much Ed Balls?

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