The elephants in the room of British politics

The cover of this week’s New Statesman caught my eye. ‘WANTED: AN OPPOSITION’ it reads, next to a picture of a glowering, moustachioed Lord Kitchener. Inside, an impressive array of pundits and politicians hold forth on the parlous state of Britain’s centre left, but their analyses offer scant cause for anything but the deepest pessimism.

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The Labour Party has become ‘the decaying tree under whose shadow nothing can grow,’ writes David Runciman. The SNP in their own way are as hell-bent on the destruction of ‘liberal Britain’ as the Tories are. The Liberal Democrats are pursuing a kind of inverse UKIP strategy – turning themselves into a single-issue, pro-EU party – that may bring them some short-term gains, but in the long term will make them irrelevant. As Philip Collins writes, ‘it is an understandable short-term tactic but, as the salience of the [Brexit] issue declines over time, and as the Liberal Democrats define themselves as the pro-EU party, that will quicken the shrinking of liberal Britain, rather than ensure its recovery.’

So, time for a new party? The prospects here are scarcely more appealing. George Eaton reveals that, in the week after last summer’s EU Referendum, George Osborne approached both the Lib Dem leader and (unspecified) Labour MPs about the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats”. His suggestion fell on deaf ears. Right idea, wrong messenger, perhaps.

But even with a different messenger, no new party can realistically break through without a change in the electoral system: just look at what happened to the SDP in the 1980s. Two years after the ‘gang of four’ split from Labour in 1981, the SDP-Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the popular vote in a general election (to Labour’s 27.6%). But, due to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, the Alliance ended up with just 23 MPs to Labour’s 209.

How about a ‘progressive alliance’ then, a looser coalition of the existing centre-left parties – Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens etc? This would probably be the most tactically astute option – favoured by Robert Harris and Paddy Ashdown, among others – but unlikely to happen. Currently, none of these parties are willing to work with any of the others.

There’s a deeper malaise, too, that goes beyond the tactics of how to provide effective opposition to the Tories. ‘Liberal Britain is not being heard,’ writes John Gray, ‘because it speaks incessantly of a past that cannot be retrieved… the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism in Labour and other parties have shirked the question of what liberalism means in the irrevocably changed conditions of our time.’ In short, he concludes, ‘liberal Britain has nothing to say.’

Gray’s dissection of the centre-left’s woes begs a question that none of the contributors properly address: what should ‘the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism’ be talking about? Right now in British politics, all is subsumed by the festering, self-inflicted wound of Brexit. But this too shall pass. Possibly we will plummet off a proverbial cliff edge, though, more probably, we will muddle on through: a bit poorer, more irrelevant and insular, but still much as we are today, facing the same intractable challenges and divisions in our society.

There are, in my view, three major forces that will shape – and if politicians don’t step up, potentially destroy – Britain’s society and economy over my lifetime: climate change, technology and demographics. At present, almost nobody in mainstream politics is talking coherently and consistently about any of them.

As Andrew Simms wrote in The Guardian last week, climate change has almost completely disappeared from political discourse across Europe. It was not mentioned once in Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk, triggering Article 50. Gibraltar – a rock in the Mediterranean with a total area of 6.7 km2 and a population of 30,000 – also got missed out and there’s been no end of a fuss about that. But rising sea levels, mass extinction, the toxification of the air we breathe (which already contributes to 40,000 early deaths a year in Britain, according to the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Paediatrics and Child Health), perennial political instability and refugee crises caused by the increasingly uninhabitable climate of large swathes of Africa, Asia and the Middle East: meh, we’re not bothered.

We think we’re better than America because at least our politicians believe the science. But believing the science doesn’t do us much good if you then do bugger all about it. Better almost to be a denier than to acknowledge the reality of the problem and then fiddle while the planet fries. Simms rightly argues that the failure to act on climate change – or even talk about it – means that ‘those who think of themselves inhabiting some political centre are, in fact, extremists. They preside over systems calmly marching us over a climate change cliff.’

The disruption wrought by technological progress is another defining issue that mainstream politicians have woefully little to say on. When, on occasion, they try, they mostly expose the depth of their own ignorance and incompetence. Take, for example, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who invited ridicule when she told Andrew Marr after the Westminster attack that you just need people ‘who understand the necessary hashtags’ in order to stop terrorist propaganda being spread online.

Or consider this wonderfully garbled Twitter card from Comrade Corbyn, which I was quite certain was a spoof when I first saw it (it isn’t):

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At least Corbyn has heard of the fourth industrial revolution. But neither he, nor anyone else in British politics, has shown any inclination to engage with the profound implications of technological change for the future of work and the welfare state.

Fears of an imminent robot takeover and mass unemployment are overblown. But that doesn’t mean that the labour market isn’t changing profoundly. As The Economist’s Ryan Avent explains in a brilliant recent blog on ‘The Productivity Paradox’, the onward march of technology is creating a strong downward pressure on wages. ‘The digital revolution,’ he writes, ‘has created an abundance of labour.’ People can’t afford to drop out of the workforce altogether – our social safety nets are too thin for that – so instead they struggle on in increasingly part-time, low-paid, precarious forms of employment.

There’s a positive side to this story too – for lots of people, the ‘gig economy’ or ‘sharing economy’ is a liberation. Study after study shows that the vast majority of people working for old-fashioned companies with massive workforces, sprawling bureaucracies and rigid hierarchies don’t like their jobs. Why? A lack of autonomy.

So the shift to more fluid and flexible forms of employment has the potential to greatly increase the sum of human happiness – but it needs to be underpinned by a re-imagined welfare state. The old way of dividing people up – those in employment versus those not in employment – doesn’t make sense any more. We need a social safety net and a pensions system that works for a society where increasing numbers of people are neither fully employed nor fully unemployed.

The third – and final – trend that we need to drag into the spotlight is demographics. Britain’s population is ageing rapidly. That’s a good thing, on the whole – it means we’re living longer – but it once again has profound implications for the structure of our welfare state. And it requires politicians to have some hard conversations with us voters.

The pension age almost certainly needs to go up substantially. The NHS is doomed, unless we make a concerted effort to radically improve its efficiency. (Currently, neither Tories nor Labour seem interested in doing this: the former seem happy to run the NHS into the ground and the latter shirk serious reform in favour of making the case for ever-increased spending.) And, in all probability, we need more, not fewer, immigrants in order to make the sums add up. Working-age immigrants who are net contributors to the UK Exchequer will be vital if we are to support the growing weight of native pensioners.

So why does nobody talk about these things? Ask a politician and they’ll say it’s because voters don’t want to be told that they can’t retire until 75, that the NHS is being put on a radical diet and, by the way, we’re going to let in as many immigrants as we possibly can. Well, maybe so, but how close to the cliff edge do we need to get before someone has the courage to speak a few unpalatable truths?

Alas, this is a classic case of what Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, has termed ‘the tragedy of the horizon.’ No government yet faces a direct incentive to properly address these issues because their consequences will play out beyond the current political cycle. The tragedy is that by the time these issues become truly material, it will almost certainly be too late to address them. Short-termism is democratic capitalism’s fatal flaw.

And you thought Labour’s polling numbers were depressing.

I know that the agenda I’ve outlined isn’t exactly likely to be a vote winner in 2020. But I for one would like to see an opposition that talks about the stuff that really matters – even when the pollsters warn you it’s suicide and the tabloids scream bloody murder. Isn’t that, after all, what political leadership is meant to be about?

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Beauty and evil: Wagner’s Meistersinger and the Goethe Oak phenomenon

Last week, I went to see Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (currently on at The Apollo, starring Tom Hollander – go see it!). Set predominantly in 1917, its central protagonist, Henry Carr (Hollander) is a Wodehousian character for whom Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas represent the aesthetic pinnacle of Western civilisation. Invalided out of the war, Carr is posted to the British Consulate in neutral Zurich, where he crosses paths with James Joyce (who’s in the midst of writing Ulysses), Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dadaism, an avant-garde artistic movement that celebrated nonsense and irrationality) and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin).

Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties

One of the play’s central themes is the nature of art itself. Carr, the traditionalist, clashes entertainingly with Tzara, the nonsense poet. Towards the end of the evening, Carr discovers an unlikely ally in Lenin, who rails against modern art: ‘expressionism, futurism, cubism… I don’t understand them and I get no pleasure from them.’ Which prompts Carr to quip to the audience: ‘That’s my point. There was nothing wrong with Lenin except his politics.’

It’s a good line. Like so many in the play, it combines surface humour with deep insight. It’s a profound comment – about the relationship between art and politics, beauty and evil, and our instinctive wish for good taste to be a sign of good character – dressed up as a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that Donald Trump likes his steak well-done, with tomato ketchup on the side. Cue a Twitter storm of outrage at the President’s tastelessness. Liberals everywhere latched onto it as confirmation of what we already knew: the man’s a total philistine and an authoritarian monster.

He is, of course. But the fact that Trump is both tasteless and evil is perhaps more a case of coincidence than consequence, for aesthetic taste is not, alas, a reliable indicator of moral character.

Consider Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (currently on at the Royal Opera House, starring Sir Bryn Terfel – go see it, too, if you’re able to get your hands on a ticket). It’s probably my favourite opera of all time. When I first saw it a couple of years ago at English National Opera, I came away physically and emotionally broken.

Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs in the current ROH production of Meistersinger

After more than four hours of build-up, the opera reaches its climax when a young knight called Walther (played by the magnificent Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones in both the current ROH production and the 2015 ENO production) stands up to sing his ‘prize song’ – a last-minute entry to a singing competition organised by the Nuremberg guild of master singers.

The prize Walther hopes to win is the hand of the beautiful Eva. But he’s a rank outsider, in every sense: he’s not a member of the guild and just 24 hours earlier he was totally ignorant of the master singers’ fiendishly complex rules for what makes a master song. Nonetheless, thanks to the patient coaching of Hans Sachs, he has learned the rules and prepared a prize song. The result is one of the most achingly beautiful melodies in the whole history of music.

When I first heard the prize song live and in its proper context (ie., with the four-hour musical and dramatic build-up), I was convulsed with sobs that rose uncontrollably from the pit of my stomach and shook my whole body. I’ve never, before or since, had such a physically intense reaction to a piece of music. I live in hope, but it may well be unsurpassable.

Being a Wagner fan – and a Meistersingers fan, in particular – puts one in uncomfortable company though, for, famously, Hitler was a Wagner devotee. Meistersingers was his favourite opera too. During World War II, cohorts of Nazi thugs were dispatched to Bayreuth to sit through performances of it. Most of them hated it, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody dared badmouth Wagner to his most bloodthirsty fan.

And Wagner himself, though he doesn’t deserve to be tarnished by a posthumous association with Hitler, was a deeply unpleasant man. His anti-Semitism is well-documented. Initially born of professional jealousy – Wagner had failed to break into the Paris opera scene, where Felix Mendelssohn (who’d actually been baptised a Christian at the age of seven) and Giacomo Meyerbeer were pre-eminent – over time, his resentment hardened into racism. And the way he preyed on his patrons – both the innocent, otherworldly King Ludwig II of Bavaria and, before him, the exceedingly generous Zurich-based silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, whose wife Wagner had an affair with – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

But the music transcends the man. As Georg Solti, the Jewish conductor whose pioneering recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle remains one of the bestselling classical records of all time, wrote: ‘To me, anybody who can create such beauty, whether he be half-Jewish, anti-Semite, revolutionary, liberal or royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long as our civilisation lasts.’

And yet. However much we might not want it to be so, the uncomfortable truth is that beauty and evil are entirely compatible. In his 1997 book, The File, journalist and historian Timothy Garton Ash uses the term ‘Goethe Oak’ as a shorthand for the ‘intimate proximity of high European culture and systematic inhumanity’ in German history. The reference is to an ancient oak tree near Weimar, under which Goethe is supposed to have written his Wanderers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Night Song) in 1776. It was later enclosed on the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp and may even have been used for hangings during the Holocaust. ‘Goethe and Buchenwald,’ Garton Ash writes, ‘the highest and the lowest in human history, together in one place. A place called Weimar. A place called Germany. A place called Europe.’

Prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp line up for roll-call

What’s most disconcerting about the Goethe Oak phenomenon is the possibility that there is in fact a positive correlation between the richness of Germany’s cultural heritage and the monstrous evil that was perpetrated there between 1933 and 1945. Shortly after Hitler came to power, an 18-year-old Englishman, Patrick Leigh Fermor, set off to walk across Europe, passing through Nazi Germany on his way from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul). More than forty years later, in 1977, he published a book about the trip, A Time of Gifts.

Leigh Fermor’s account of his first evening in Nazi Germany, spent in a small town near the Dutch border called Goch, sticks in my mind. Seeking refuge in a cosy, traditional tavern, the young traveller settles down to write up his diary with a mug of beer in front of him. After a while, he is interrupted by a dozen SA men who come into the tavern and occupy a long table. ‘One or two, wearing spectacles, might have been clerks or students,’ he observes.

Before long, the SA men broke into song. They sang traditional German folksongs – songs about foresters’ daughters and lovely maidens amongst the linden trees. At first, the singing was jaunty and energetic, accompanied by rhythmic thumping of fists on the long table. ‘The sound would have resembled a rugger club after a match if the singing had been less good. Later on, the volume dwindled and the thumping died away as the singing became softer and harmonies and descants began to weave more complex patterns.’

That image – of the SA men spontaneously breaking into complex harmonies – encapsulates a profound truth about the fragility of human goodness. We comfort ourselves with the notion that bad people are not like us. They like their steak well-done. With ketchup!

In our mind’s eye, Hitler is permanently stuck at a podium, gesticulating wildly and working himself up into a maniacal frenzy of hatred. But the image of the Führer sitting quietly in an auditorium, listening attentively to the exquisite strains of Walther’s prize song is, in some ways, much scarier.

Henry Carr is right, you see. Bad people are like us.

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We need to talk about duties as well as rights

For the last fortnight I’ve been doing jury service. The case I was assigned was an unpleasant one, but overall I found the experience surprisingly rewarding. My fellow jurors were an engaged, intelligent bunch. As we sat in the courtroom listening to evidence, we were reminded repeatedly that what we were doing was our ‘civic duty’.  Unquestioningly, we took it upon ourselves to fulfil that duty to the best of our collective ability. Doing so brought out the best in people and, at the end of it all, I left with a deep sense of satisfaction at a duty well done and a renewed faith in the reasonableness of my fellow citizens – notwithstanding the (guilty) man in the dock.

The trial finished on Friday afternoon and I got home just in time to switch on the telly and watch Trump’s inauguration speech. Perhaps because of where I’d just come from, I was particularly struck by the total absence of any mention of the duties of citizenship in Trump’s address.

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‘Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighbourhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves,’ he intoned, unable to lift his gaze from the teleprompter even for a second. ‘These are just and reasonable demands.’

And then came the coup de grâce. ‘At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.’ It may sound innocuous compared to ‘America First’ or ‘American carnage’ but, for my money, this is the most dangerous sentence in the whole speech. It is symptomatic of an exclusively rights-based discourse and an ugly culture of entitlement, in which ideals of service and self-sacrifice have gone conspicuously missing.

There was nothing unusual per se about Trump’s invocation of nation and people. All Presidents do that. What makes Trump’s brand of populist nationalism different – and scary – is the absence of any appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ (to borrow a phrase from one of his more eloquent predecessors). Instead, Trump appeals deliberately and exclusively to his listeners’ basest, most narrow-minded and self-interested instincts.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most iconic inauguration speeches in American history. Trump’s is its antithesis in almost every way imaginable.

Where Kennedy was internationalist – ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty’ – Trump is isolationist –  ‘For many decades … we’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.’

Where Kennedy’s rhetoric soars – ‘Now the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle’ – Trump’s nosedives – ‘America will start winning again, winning like never before.’

But, above all, where Kennedy stressed a patriotism that was about duty and service – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ – Trump stresses a patriotism that is about rights and entitlements – ‘a nation exists to serve its citizens.’

I know there are many who will use the language of rights to oppose Trump – and rightly so. But we need to do more than this. We need to re-learn how to think and talk about duties too. JFK’s inaugural is as good a place as any to start.

Watch JFK’s 1961 inauguration speech (full version)

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What’s really happening to American jobs?

It was the over-riding theme of Trump’s inauguration speech: foreigners, aided and abetted by politicians in Washington, stole our jobs. Now we want them back. ‘For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,’ yammered the new President. ‘One by one, shutters have closed on our factories without even a thought about the millions and millions of those who have been left behind.’

It’s a simple story about a simple problem with a simple solution. ‘Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’ Enhanced border controls, strict quotas for immigrants, protective tariffs on imports, an end to free trade, an instruction to American multinationals that they must unpick their global supply chains and repatriate those operations they’ve spent the last three decades outsourcing to other countries: these, plus a healthy splurge on domestic infrastructure, are Trump’s job creation policies.

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Would that it were so simple. The unfortunate reality is that globalisation and open borders are not the sole cause of the demise of the Good American Job. There are at least two other critical factors in play – neither of which got a mention in Trump’s inauguration speech.

The first is technology. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, observers have noted a rather anxious, downbeat mood amongst the great and the good of the tech community. Google’s party, normally one of the most high-profile events on the WEF agenda, was cancelled this year. Silicon Valley bigwigs like Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, flagged concerns that he and his ilk could become the new bankers: loathed for destroying ordinary people’s livelihoods and creating ever more inequality between the top 1% and everyone else.

There is a lively debate about whether technological advances will have an overall positive or negative impact on jobs. Martin Ford’s 2015 bestseller, The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment propelled the pessimistic case into the limelight. Ford cites research conducted by academics at Oxford’s Martin School that suggests that almost half of US jobs (47% to be precise) are at risk of automation within the next two decades. The numbers for many other countries are higher – and, with advances in fields such as Artificial Intelligence, it’s no longer just manual labour that is under threat: white collar workers, too, are increasingly being replaced by machines.

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An Economist special report on the world’s biggest companies, published last September, offered data that suggests this process is already well underway. At the end of 2006, there was just one tech firm – Microsoft – in the top 10 largest companies worldwide (by market capitalisation). A decade later, there are five: Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook have joined the list. What’s significant about this, from a jobs perspective, is that these companies have achieved enormous financial success with a fraction of the workforce of a previous generation of corporate giants.

The report goes on to make a rather telling comparison between America in the industrial age and America in the digital age:

‘In 1990 the top three carmakers in Detroit between them had nominal revenues of $250 billion, a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2m employees. In 2014 the top three companies in Silicon Valley had revenues of $247 billion and a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion but just 137,000 employees.’

Looking at those figures, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in the digital age, the link between economic success and mass employment is broken. Today’s IT giants are generating equivalent revenues and a market capitalisation almost thirty times higher than the automotive giants of a quarter century ago with just a tenth of the workforce.

Others are more optimistic. For example, Andrew McAfee of MIT, co-author of The Second Machine Age, argues in this recent video that ‘technology and tech progress always create jobs and create opportunities and they always destroy old jobs and old opportunities… Overall, the creation outweighs the destruction.’

The problem though, as McAfee goes on to acknowledge, is that the creative destruction wrought by technological progress does not tend to lead to the replacement of like with like in the jobs market. Jobs destroyed in one location, requiring one skillset are often replaced by new jobs in a different location, requiring a different skillset. At Davos this week, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com – another tech industry leader who fears a societal backlash – coined a good term for the people whose lives are disrupted by this process: “digital refugees.”

Even if you think the prophecies about mass obsolescence of the human workforce are overblown, there’s no avoiding the fact that much of the dislocation and disruption people are already feeling in their working lives is a result of technological advances. And the pessimists and optimists all agree on one thing: you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The other factor that Trump ignored in his inaugural address is rent-seeking. Machines and foreigners have created pressure from below on American jobs: increasingly, they can do what someone in an office or factory in the Midwest might once have done both cheaper and better. But the disappearance of the once ubiquitous Good American Job – secure, well-paid, status-enhancing – is also threatened by pressure from above.

The last quarter century has seen the incomes of those at the very top go through the roof. The three highest paid CEOs in the US took home nearly $300 million between them last year. On this side of the Atlantic, the average pay of a FTSE 100 CEO has gone from 45 times the median pay of their staff twenty years ago to 130 times today. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To get a sense of how unprecedented this is, it’s worth listening to a man who, in his own time, was the poster-boy for capitalist excess: the great Gilded Age US banker, JP Morgan. A little over a century ago, he let it be known that his bank would not invest in any company whose CEO was paid more than 20 times what the average worker in the firm got. Why? Because, he believed, a CEO who paid himself more than that was serving his own self-interest rather than the good of the company.

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Using that rule of thumb, Morgan would be hard-pressed to find a single worthy investee listed on any of the major stock exchanges today. And, at least in general terms, he was right. The link between CEO pay and company performance has been broken and those that suffer most are workers in the ‘squeezed middle’. Automation and globalisation have enabled corporate executives to radically reduce the cost of doing business, by laying off expensive developed world employees, but conveniently there’s one layer of the corporate structure that has been immune to these changes: the very top.

Donald Trump is right about one thing: the Good American Job has become an endangered species. But his myopic focus on just one of the three causes of this situation is dangerous and his resultant policy prescription likely to fail. Globalisation is not as irresistible a force of nature as its most ardent champions led us to believe and, yes, politicians should look to temper its worst excesses and mitigate its most damaging consequences on communities that have indeed been ‘left behind’.

But we cannot turn the clock back. Without also addressing the two linked challenges I’ve outlined – how to enable populations to adapt to technological progress, and how to counter the irresponsible rent-seeking of an overpaid corporate elite – any attempt to bring good jobs back to America will be akin to pissing into the wind. Perhaps, given his rumoured penchant for golden showers, that’s not such a bad thing in Donald Trump’s mind.

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The best 10 books I read last year

I know it’s a tad late in the season for gift ideas, but books are for life, not just for Christmas so what the hell. Here, in no particular order – well actually they’re in the order I read them in – are the ten best books I read in 2016. I recommend them all unhesitatingly.

It’s a slightly eclectic list: nine novels, ranging from satirical to dystopian, the oldest of which was published just over half a century ago, the most recent of which came out last year; and one lone work of non-fiction.

I will be getting a hard time from Katy because, once again, it’s a shamefully all-male list. I promise I do occasionally read books by women – it’s just that, to date, with the honourable exception of Zadie Smith, they mostly haven’t done it for me (and even Zadie’s gone a bit off the boil since her early brilliance, in my humble opinion). Katy did buy me A Very Short Introduction to Feminism for Christmas and I have novels by Margaret Atwood and Penelope Fitzgerald sitting in my to-read pile, so maybe, just maybe by this time next year, I’ll have mended my ways.

But anyway, here, without further ado, is my list:

  1. Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks (2015). Within the first few pages, I had that warm, comforting feeling you get when you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller at the top of his game. The writing is exquisite and the book manages to be both intimate and expansive. It’s a moving personal story of love and loss – one of very few books that have genuinely made me cry – but also covers an extraordinary sweep of European twentieth-century history. All the while, Faulks interrogates the fallibility of memory and the identities we construct for ourselves out of a past that is mostly unknown and if not unknown then misremembered. There’s a certain amount of geeking out over psychology that will appeal to some readers more than others, but it’s entirely forgivable in the context of a story that has enough twists and emotional bite to keep you turning the pages at a frenetic pace.

 

  1. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1996). Though it’s now twenty years old, Mistry’s masterpiece is still probably the best portrait of India out there. It’s a big (in every sense) social novel, covering the period from independence through the 1970s. It’s full of brutality. It begins with the brutality of the caste system, depicting a society in which people are routinely mutilated and murdered for not accepting their place in the hierarchy. Then it moves on to the brutality of poverty and the Indian government’s policy of ‘beautification’ – slums are cleared and the slum dwellers shipped off to forced labour camps. In the face of all this brutality, human life and happiness are portrayed as unbearably, tragically fragile. Mistry’s prose is almost Orwellian in its conciseness. The baldness of the writing only accentuates the pathos of the story.

 

  1. The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carré (1991). The Cold War made Le Carré and this underrated novel is his almost nostalgic farewell to it. It’s his last George Smiley novel, dedicated to Alec Guinness, who famously played Smiley on screen in the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s really a collection of short stories – old spies’ reminiscences about the good old days before the Wall came down. Threaded through them all is a disconcerting sense that the West’s hard-won victory over Communism was a hollow one. What, asks Le Carré, was it all for? In the age of Putin and Trump, you may well wonder.

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  1. A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré (1968). Le Carré – as the man himself acknowledges in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel – was obsessed by Germany. He first visited as a teenager, just after the Second World War, experiencing first-hand the devastation and the horror wrought by twelve years of Nazi rule – from the rubble of its bombed-out cities to the horrifying stench of the concentration camps. Then he was posted to the British Embassy in Bonn in the 1960s, where he worked for British Intelligence. By 1968, he’d left the service to be a full-time writer, but his time in Bonn continued to inform his fiction, not least in this novel, which is set in his former workplace. Germany in the late 1960s was still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past. A generation of German writers – led by the Nobel Prize-winning Günter Grass – railed against their fellow citizens’ forgetfulness about the past. The election of a former Nazi to the West German Chancellorship in 1966 elevated Grass et al’s moral outrage to a whole new level, but nobody captured the mood and moral frustration of Germany at that time better than Le Carré does in this novel. And what’s more, he manages to skewer the hypocrisy and incompetence of his former employers at the same time. Rather neatly, the overriding ambition of British foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe at that time was to get into the European Economic Community. How times change.

 

  1. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013). Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than this – or at least that’s what I thought until I read number 7 on this list. Harris’ novel is a vivid re-telling of the real-life story of the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was an officer in the French Army. He also happened to be Jewish – at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. In 1894, he was (as it turned out, wrongly) found guilty of being a German spy and deported to Devil’s Island – a French prison colony in the South Atlantic. Harris’ version of the story is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, a loyal army man, who took over French Army Intelligence a year after Dreyfus was convicted. As he goes back over the evidence, Picquart gradually discovers that the Army has got the wrong man but his superiors want to hear none of it. An Officer and a Spy is the story of his heroic, honourable struggle against a conspiracy of silence.

 

  1. The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013). Set in the near future, this dystopian novel about the totalitarian potential inherent in the way the internet has developed is a 1984 for our times. The likes of Google and Facebook today have access to way more personal information about way more people than the Stasi could ever have dreamt of. This book is a chilling, brilliant attempt to make us face up to the implications of that fact.

 

  1. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016). This is another masterpiece of historical fiction. Entirely based on real events, it’s the story of composer Dmitri Schostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State he unwillingly served. Barnes has imagined his way into Schostakovich’s life in an extraordinary way. The result is a novel that not only opens a window onto the composer’s inner world – imagined, yes, but well-researched and entirely plausible; it also offers a subtle analysis of the anatomy of power and the complex ways in which fallible, non-heroic, human beings interact with totalitarian authority.

 

  1. The Tin Men by Michael Frayn (1965). Concerns about robots stealing our jobs are very much de rigueur at the moment, but they’re nothing new. Michael Frayn’s debut novel – a satire set in an ‘automation research institute’, written when Harold “white heat of technology” Wilson was Prime Minister – is testament to that. The ‘institute’ includes departments working on the automation of headline writing, sport – ‘When takings at the gate have fallen low enough to cure any tendency to sentiment, people will notice that a computer is a far more suitable tool than a cricket team for producing a complex score sheet from the variables of ground moisture, light, surface wear on ball, fallibility of wicket-keeper, and so on’ – and even morality. The latter involves the development of machines that will spontaneously throw themselves off a sinking raft in order to save others. One of Frayn’s protagonists is a wannabe novelist, who starts by writing the blurb and the reviews for the inside cover, before preceding to chapter one. Another is a bluff ex-Army and public school type, who’s responsible for overseeing scientists whom he regards as an alien species – “I mean, people talk a lot of nonsense about scientists being difficult people to get through to. But I say, if a chap’s a decent chap, he’s a decent chap be he a scientist or a nigger minstrel.” There are flashes of comic brilliance but the humour isn’t quite sustained throughout. Nonetheless, much of the satire remains remarkably fresh and relevant half a century on.

 

  1. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015). The only thing that baffled me about the glowing reviews this Pulitzer Prize winner received is that so many of them described it as ‘very funny.’ It is not very funny. But it is very good. It tells the story of a Vietcong sleeper agent who’s attached to a General in South Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he follows his general to America, where he remains for years, all the while living a double life. Eventually, he returns to Vietnam as part of a doomed South Vietnamese mission to re-conquer the country and ends up imprisoned by the regime he’s spent his whole life loyally serving. They torture him for being ideologically contaminated. The book’s greatest strength of all is the wry narrative voice – the story is told from the sleeper agent’s perspective; we gradually discover that what we are reading is his ‘confession’ for the sin of being corrupted by America. It’s worthy of Le Carré.

 

  1. The Innovation Illusion by Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel (2016). The odd one out on my list, both in that it’s the only work of non-fiction to make my top ten and in that it’s the only one I’ve written about elsewhere. Erixon and Weigel argue, quite convincingly, that the conventional wisdom that says we’re on the brink of a golden age of innovation is based on a misunderstanding of the innovation process. Innovation is not the same as invention. It is, above all, an economic process. But capitalism is broken. It is stifling innovation by failing to create the right incentives for new products to be developed and brought to market at scale. The Innovation Illusion is a much-needed corrective to the increasingly mainstream view – often couched in ludicrously hyperbolic terms – that a tsunami of innovation is coming whether we like it or not.  Actually, Erixon and Weigel would like it to come – they think robots will, on balance, make our lives better and more prosperous – but they think that wave on the horizon is just a mirage.
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Remember, remember the ninth of November

I can’t imagine I’ll forget any time soon where I was on the morning of 9th November 2016 when I saw the news: “Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States of America.” The only time I can recall being more shocked and horrified by a piece of news out of America was on 9/11.

(As an aside, what a strange coincidence that the two dates should mirror one another: 9/11, 11/9. Particularly striking, perhaps, for us Brits, for whom 9/11 was always 11/9 anyway.)

For one nation in particular, the date of Donald Trump’s victory will have rung a bell. Not coincidentally, that nation is Germany, the country that progressives worldwide now find themselves turning to for succour. Since Trump’s victory – and Merkel’s dignified response, in stark contrast to our own government’s craven sucking-up – there has been frenzied talk of Germany becoming the last, best hope of liberal democracy.

This is almost certainly nonsensical hyperbole. Merkel shows no signs of wanting to step into the role of global saviour – and little aptitude for the role even if she were willing to take it on. Announcing that she would run for a fourth term as Chancellor, she dismissed the notion that she was the liberal world’s saviour as “grotesque and almost absurd.” She’s a chronic, self-acknowledged hesitator – The Economist recently dubbed her the “iron waffler”. She has no grand vision, no strong ideological mission – though that’s a strength of sorts as well as a weakness.

Still, we should look to Germany as an example in these dark times – but for a different reason. Creating a personality cult centred on Merkel is precisely the wrong response to the advance of Trumpian populism. Instead, we should admire – and learn from – Germany’s historical self-awareness.

Back to dates. The 9th of November has two contrasting meanings in Germany’s national memory. It is, first, the anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. On a single night in 1938, hundreds of Jews were murdered, tens of thousands arrested and sent off to concentration camps, a thousand synagogues burned down, Jewish homes, schools and businesses attacked and ransacked. Nazi thugs armed with sledgehammers smashed windows – hence the name Kristallnacht.

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Precisely 51 years later, on the evening of 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall was decisively breached. Many East Berliners burst through the checkpoints to celebrate their newly won freedom of movement. The mood in West Berlin was delirious as Ossis and Wessis drank together long into the night. But the historical resonance of the date was by no means lost on all Germans. A couple hundred kilometres south of Berlin, in the city of Leipzig, a candlelit procession of peaceful protestors marched from the Nikolaikirche – where JS Bach had once been organist – to the site of what had once been the city’s main synagogue, now a memorial to the 14,000 Leipzig Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The synagogue was burned down on 9th November 1938.

The historical self-awareness of those 1989 Leipzigers lives on in Germany today. As the former foreign minister Joschka Fischer put it recently to The Economist, “we are protected by our terrible history. You cannot say, ‘Make Germany Great Again’.”

In the same issue of The Economist, there was a totally unrelated story about Brexit that quoted a Margate taxi driver called Clive: “All the Europeans do is leech off us,” he told the reporter. “They can’t even win their own wars.” I was struck by the contrast and reminded of a comment made by Neil MacGregor – the former British Museum Director and author of a highly-acclaimed book on Germany. At a press conference in Berlin in October, he described Britain’s tendency to focus exclusively on “the sunny side” of its history as “dangerous and regrettable.”

If Britain’s historical self-ignorance is worrying then America’s is downright terrifying. What we are now witnessing is the ghastly, inevitable endgame of a society brought up on the poisonous notion that it is the greatest on earth. The idea of American exceptionalism was initially intended to connote American difference from Europe, but it has been misappropriated into public discourse: too many Americans today believe their country is exceptional in the sense of being better than all others. (See right-hand column in the chart below.)

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Attempting to burst America’s bubble of historical self-ignorance seems mostly to be a game played by satirists these days. Witness the two internet memes below (both of which have appeared in my Facebook feed since election day):

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And this one a couple of days before Thanksgiving:

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Joking aside, let me make one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with patriotism. “My country, right or wrong” is a perfectly admirable worldview, so long as you are willing to countenance the fact that your country is frequently wrong. Germany learned this lesson the hard way. Let’s hope that other nations can choose an easier path to enlightenment.

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The shame of being British

On the morning of 24th June, like many who had voted to remain in the EU, I felt a range of unpleasant emotions: shock, sadness, anger, dejection, despondency. I spent most of the day lapping up the anti-Brexit commentariat’s outpouring of indignant “well-good-luck-getting-out-of-this-hole” articles. ‘It will take an age to recover from this victory for the exit fantasists’ was the headline of Philip Collins’ piece in The Times. Damn right, I thought.

But one thing I did not feel on 24th June was ashamed of being British. Sure, I thought that, on balance, 17 million of my fellow countrymen had made the wrong choice – but not a morally reprehensible choice. I knew remarkably few Brexit voters personally, but from talking to those that I did know, I was well aware that there were respectable – in some cases, even admirable – reasons for voting to leave: a desire to preserve parliamentary sovereignty, a belief that immigration should be managed (which is very different from a belief that it needs to be abruptly stopped or even reversed), a legitimate sense that the European Project had taken several wrong turnings, that Brussels needed a wake-up call before it sleepwalked over a cliff edge. True, there was a certain bloody-minded desire to stick it to “the experts” among many Brexit voters, which I neither admired nor respected. And there was a troublingly cavalier willingness to vote without bothering to acquaint oneself with anything resembling a fact. The news that the number of people googling ‘What is the EU’ or ‘What does it mean to leave the EU’ surged in the hours after the referendum result was announced did cause me to despair somewhat.

But there was – and is – no evidence to suggest that more than a tiny minority of people who voted for Brexit did so because they’re xenophobic bigots who hate foreigners. There was – and is – no evidence that the British people voted en masse to turn their back on the world. There was – and is – no evidence that the Brexit vote meant that we, as a country, had become hard-hearted overnight and opted out of our humanitarian obligations.

So I felt no shame in the immediate aftermath of the vote. A bit of awkwardness, certainly: I was in Germany at the time and, for the next couple of weeks, I did feel compelled to explain to everyone I met that I had voted to remain. Incidentally, they mostly didn’t care. They were much more interested in laughing at me for the fact that England had just been knocked out of the European Football Championship by Iceland.

Even the spate of racist attacks in the weeks following the referendum – lamentable and horrifying as they were – did not make me feel ashamed to be British. I knew that they were the acts a very small handful of malign individuals. This was not behaviour that was condoned by the vast majority of British people any more than the appalling murder of Jo Cox by a psychotic madman had been.

So what changed? Four and a half months on from the referendum I do now feel ashamed to be British. Not because I’ve belatedly woken up to the true meaning of the referendum result. The Brexit vote was a legitimate populist protest (albeit, in my opinion, a wrong-headed one). Those who have missed out on the proceeds of globalisation and neo-liberalism for more than a generation had every right to revolt. But Brexit has been hi-jacked. This is no longer a populist movement. Instead the initiative has been captured by a small cabal within the British elite. Theresa May and several of her ministers seem hell-bent on wilfully misinterpreting the nebulous ‘will of the people’. They use the referendum result to provide political cover for policy positions that would be truly despicable were it not for the fact that they are largely rendered toothless by the government’s incompetence.

It was easy enough to say that racists in the street represent neither me nor my country. But, even though I did not vote for it, the government does represent me and Britain as a whole. That’s the point of government in a democracy. So enough’s enough.

It started with Theresa May’s refusal to rule out the possibility that she might expel citizens of other EU countries already resident in Britain. Even the pro-Brexit, centre-right Spectator called this position ‘shameful’. Presenting it as a negotiating position is no excuse. Remember Theresa, we – they – are people, not pawns in your pathetic game of chess with Jean-Claude Juncker.

Then came the news – in the midst of a US election campaign dominated by the loathsome Donald Trump, whose totemic policy, derided by every Brit I know, is to build a wall along the length of the Mexican border to keep people out – that our government was spending £1.9 million on (guess what?) building a wall at Calais to keep people out. The Americans will hopefully reject Trump on Tuesday, but we’ve already got a Trumpian government – and hardly anybody seems to have noticed, because they’re Trumpians hiding behind the impeccably respectable brand of the British Conservative Party. That’s perhaps the ultimate irony of David Cameron’s downfall: he did succeed in detoxifying the Tory brand, only to squander it and hand it over to a far nastier and more illiberal bunch than the original nasty party gang.

And then came this week’s clash between the government and the high court, surely the ultimate perversion of the Brexit so many Britons voted for. The high court justices upheld the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – the very thing that was at the heart of the positive campaign for Brexit – against the government’s determined efforts to push through its noxious agenda by executive fiat. Even now, instead of accepting this patently sensible ruling, the government intends to waste yet more time and yet more money appealing it.

The role of the press in all this concerns me too. While I take some comfort in the fact that I can categorically say that The Sun and The Daily Mail do not speak for me, I don’t feel entirely sanguine about the vitriol they spread. A healthy democracy requires a healthy press. A press that fosters informed debate and discussion, that holds the powerful to account by testing their assertions against factual evidence, that safeguards a public sphere defined by common values of decency and fairness.

The wanton vilification first of unaccompanied refugee children from the Calais camp allowed – in woefully small numbers – to enter this country, and second, of the three high court justices who ruled that the government must consult parliament before triggering Article 50 is a sign that a large section of the British press is no longer fit for purpose. The Sun, The Mail et al have transgressed their licence to operate. The doctored version of The Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ front page that has been doing the rounds on social media (in which the faces of the three judges are replaced by pictures of the owners and editors of the Mail, Sun and Express) seems to me to be spot on. Freedom of the press should not mean that powerful newspapermen on a pathological mission to undermine democracy go unchallenged. They have gone beyond the pale and deserve some form of official censure. But, of course, our Trumpian representatives wouldn’t dream of doing that.

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So where does all this leave us, apart from feeling angry and ashamed? In a one-party state (which is what Britain currently is thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and friends), it’s the enemy within that is more potent than the enemy without. That’s why I’m heartened by the resignation of pro-Brexit Tory MP Stephen Phillips. It may just be an early indication of an important realignment to come.

For the last four and a half months, the focus has been on the divide shown up by the Brexit vote. The 52% versus the 48%. Phillips’ resignation underlines the fact that Leavers versus Remainers is no longer the most significant divide in British politics. The Brexit camp has grown since the referendum, in the sense that many Remainers, myself included, accept that the referendum result must be respected. But it is now decisively fracturing.

On the far right stands the prime minister, backed by the anti-immigrant press barons, burbling her tautological mantra: “Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means…” On the far left is a rump of diehard Remainers who refuse to accept the referendum result. In between these two camps is a nascent coalition that is representative of the broad mass of British people. It hasn’t got itself properly organised yet. It hasn’t got an agreed upon leader or a detailed manifesto. Its members are currently scattered across all the main political parties. But it needs to get its act together soon. I want to feel proud of being British again.

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