Monday 14 March 2022

Cancelling Russians, kicking dachshunds

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

If you look back at Hansard in 1939 and 1940, you find that leading members of the Labour Party can barely open their mouths without reassuring themselves that the Nazi regime did not have the raw materials they would need for a long war.

Attlee, Dalton and Bevin were self-deluding, of course. But I have been hearing echoes of that reassurance as we tell ourselves how much Putin has miscalculated. My feeling is that he hasn’t miscalculated nearly enough.

Then there is the problem of the sanctions.

My herbal dopamine that I have been ordering regularly from France is no longer being exported to the UK, because of the difficulties of exporting anything from the UK these days. It occurs to me that we are trying to do to the Russians what we have done to ourselves in a much smaller way with Brexit.

Whether dropping Russia from global trade will actually damage them long-term isn’t clear.

In the short-to-medium term, of course it won’t be good, but if they are forced to substitute their imports with something Russian-made, then the great American critic Jane Jacobs used to say that was how cities have always developed themselves.

In the meantime, we both have to get by without proper components or supply chains. And as the cost of energy rises, that can only intensify the problem.

It may have been inevitable but – in a period of history when people find themselves baying to ‘cancel’ anyone they disagree with – that some ordinary Russians will get in the way.

Poor old Valery Gergiev, for example – one of the greatest conductors in the world – was sacked by the Munich Philharmonic after he failed to make the compulsory statement of disapproval of Russian behaviour.

It is all surprisingly like the start of the First World War, when the British were surprised by the period of ‘gallant little Belgium’.

​But with the treatment of musicians like Gergiev, and the way they dropped music by Tchiakovsky from a Cardiff concert last week, is a little too reminiscent of people kicking dachshunds in the streets for my liking.

I suppose that, when politics becomes symbolic – mainly because of people’s sense of powerlessness – that is what happens. But we will need, eventually, to reach some kind of acceptable compromise with Putin, so we need to keep some things open...


Why are we wrestling over Munich – all over again?

This post first appeared on the Aspects of History blog...

Why are we arguing again about appeasement, the Munich crisis and Neville Chamberlain, UK prime minister from 1937-40?

The immediate hook is the film of the Robert Harris novel, Munich: The edge of war – and its obvious agenda to rescue Chamberlain for history.

You will remember, especially if you have seen the film - which has been available on Netflix from last weekend - that Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement handed over the northern region and defences of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without firing a shot.

The film itself is beautifully acted by an Anglo-German cast, and there is a brilliant performance by Jeremy Irons as an avuncular, inspirational Chamberlain.

I’m sure than Chamberlain was inspirational, in his way. But I am far less sure that we are right to regard Munich as tribute to what the historian AJP Taylor called “a triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”.

I have been fascinated by Munich because I have a family connection to those events – my great-aunt, Shiela Grant-Duff was Observer correspondent in Prague in the late 1930s and was engaged at the time in an increasingly desperate debate with Adam von Trott – who features in the film as the original of Paul von Hartmann, the anti-Nazi co-hero.

The other reason I have an interest is that I wrote a book about Munich (Munich 1938), with the context included – especially the plot to depose Hitler by his own generals the moment he had ordered an advance into Czechoslovakia, which Chamberlain so fatally undermined.

Two arguments have emerged that imply some kind of rethink might be necessary. First, that Hitler bitterly regretted not going to war in 1938 – though, as we saw in the film, he probably would have been deposed and shot if he had.

Second, was Chamberlain’s justification for getting Hitler to sign his paper promising never to go to war with Britain again: that the whole world would then see that he had broken his word.

But Chamberlain explained this to Lord Dunglass, his young PPS (later Alec Douglas-Home) on the plane home – not, as the film shows, to justify himself to Hugh Legat beforehand. It was actually a justification after the fact.

The problem was not that Chamberlain took no notice of the German army plot to depose Hitler. He never actually got that kind of approach in Munich. Partly because Adam von Trott was still living in China and still involved in his passionate debate with my great-aunt, which she described in her book The Parting of Ways.

Nor could he have done so at that stage anyway, as Irons-as-Chamberlain explains.

Yet Foreign Office officials in London and Paris had in fact already met representatives of the opposition, some months before. There was also a feeling among the British that they could not trust people who would betray their own government.

It wasn’t until 1943, when Dietrich Bonheoffer met George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, secretly in Stockholm, that the opposition took the British into their confidence by listing some of the conspirators – so many of the German army top brass. But even then, Anthony Eden would not, or could not, row back from the British position that they would insist on unconditional surrender, come what may.

The UK government definitely let down the German opposition to Hitler, and not just in 1938. But the real problem was what was done to Czechoslovakia in Munich.

The film makes it clear that the Czechs were not included in the four-partite conference. That was unfortunately only half true. In fact, there were Czech government representatives in the same building, but virtually under house arrest.

After the signing ceremony, Chamberlain and the French PM Daladier went to browbeat them into submission. “Can we not at least be heard before we are judged?” asked the Czech diplomat Hubert Masarik. The British and French shook their heads sadly.

The real problem with Munich was whether it is ever right to guarantee peace by forcing a smaller nation to accept invasion without fighting back.

It is true that war was avoided for a year – which gave both sides the chance to re-arm – but the Czechs had a sophisticated army which gave up without a fight, and 400 of their tanks (plus the factories that made them) became part of the Wehrmacht. When the British were forced back to Dunkirk 18 months later, they were pursued mainly by former Czech armour.

It wasn’t really the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength that so scared Chamberlain and his colleagues – the fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, then we and the French would be drawn in (and the Russians).

That is why, after the agreement was signed, the British and French ambassadors to Prague roused President BeneŇ° from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but they would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed.

The following day, BeneŇ° capitulated.

Ironically, Daladier recognised the truth - which is why he called his cheering Parisian crowd 'morons'. Chamberlain was appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge his own cheers at the same time.

But why are we having this debate now? (see what I wrote in Prospect, for example). Strangely, the divisions are along traditional lines, with the Times – the very heart of appeasement in the 1930s – backing Chamberlain now.

Luckily, I’m not the only one defending the Churchillian version of events - the Financial Times has now weighed in against the appeasers.

The divisions in UK politics were resolved after Dunkirk by the sacking of most of the senior positions in the nation. And as Labour leader a generation later, Michael Foot opened his 1983 election campaign by accusing the Tories of still being the ‘guilty men of Munich’, a faint memory of his Guilty Men book about Munich in 1940.

Perhaps the establishment has yet to get over their wounds from 1940 – and they want traditional Conservatism back. Just as the current standard-bearer seems to be in difficulties.

Was it really a coincidence that, the day before the film came out, David Davis used the same words to Boris Johnson that Leopold Amery did to Chamberlain in the no-confidence debate after the Norwegian campaign?


How can we avoid our politics drifting the way of the USA?

This post first appeared on the RADIXUK blog...

What does a sceptical liberal do about great conspiracy theories like QAnon, the bizarre Republican party idea that Donald Trump is leading resistance to cabal of satanic paedophiles who have taken over the US government, led by his last presidential opponent Hilary Clinton?

I agree with Ben Rich last week – both that American politics seems to have descended into an abyss where facts no longer matter, compared to competing narratives, and that Gabriel Gatehouse’s BBC series is absolutely compelling on the subject.

Gatehouse dates the QAnon story to the death of Bill Clinton’s friend Vince Foster in 1993 – who killed himself by the Potomac and became the focus of an amazing series of stories, building on each other, via internet chat rooms into a whole parallel reality. And bizarrely spread partly by our very own Sunday Telegraph.

Now, I know from my past in television how quickly the death of politicians and gather about them the lurid patina of conspiracy. Like the death of the SNP vice chair Willie McRae, who is now widely regarded as having been murdered by the state, when in fact he killed himself (how do I know? I will explain another day…).

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories – for the reasonI set out before. But that does not make me entirely credulous about every official statement, no matter how many times I am told by the Left to “follow the science”.

In fact, like so many others who became politically aware during the 1970s, I’m not going to dismiss every scare story as nonsense. Because of that, I became a journalist and because of that that I presumably became a card-carrying Liberal at about the same time.

So yes, I am a sceptic, because I remember what happened with drugs like thalidomide. I am sceptical about the safety of 5G to human, animal and plant life – not because I believe it caused covid – but for the same reason I can’t believe that every vaccine is safe for everyone. They won’t kill most people, but there are a few for whom they can be dangerous.

Why? Because I remember the stories that have come and gone since 1980 which showed me that governments and establishments prefer their stories simple – especially when it comes to technological breakthroughs.

So when they vaccinated British troops bound for the first Gulf War in 1991 with a cocktail of different vaccines, there was a significant minority whose immune systems were overloaded – with disastrous effects.

So when a UK researcher discovered the human form of BSE – known by the tabloids as Mad Cow Disease and caused by adding dead cows to cattle feed - he was hounded out of his job by the security services.

This was not really the fault of politicians – which was how agriculture minister John Selwyn Gummer could find himself feeding his daughter a beef burger on live TV to show how safe it was. He was as much a victim of groupthink as everyone else.

That was how those middle class types who invested in Lloyds of London were hung out to dry some years later – because nobody official had accepted that, for the previous six decades, asbestosis had been killing people (more about this in my book Broke­).

So what should we radical centrists do when you are confronted with so many bizarre tales about vaccines and the real causes of the pandemic.

This is what I think we should do – because a sort of polite scepticism is probably the right stance for most official pronouncements:
  • To remember that deliberate conspiracies very rarely work – they are too complicated (like QAnon).
  • To know that if the future of fake food threatens to damage our health, they will eventually be discovered in the end – and those who failed to investigate will reap the whirlwind.
  • To seek out the voices that cling to objective reality.
Like, for example, the fearless American writer Bari Weiss (I have been listening to her fascinating investigation into the story of Amy Cooper – who lost her job and was driven from her home for calling the police about a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park).

Because I don’t believe we have reached the level they have in the USA, where the competing narratives have disconnected themselves so completely from the facts that most people believe some kind of civil war is inevitable. In the UK, we need to avoid this kind of mob rule by clinging to civilised argument, both sceptically and optimistically.

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul used to say that, when you fight anyone, you get like them - and there is a sense that both sides of the American debate are getting increasingly like each other - certainly responsible for each other.

So let us end with what Bari Weiss says, in her review of the year since she resigned from the New York Times:

"Doomsday thinking is pleasing. Among liberals and progressives, I think it comes from a sort of self-indulgence and self-absorption. It makes you feel like the star of the show, struggling to survive under late capitalism, just one election away from the End of Democracy, and probably months from violent civil war. On the right, I think much of this comes from a kind of nihilism, or a justification for sitting back and doing nothing. Falling too deep into American catastrophe porn (let’s say, Libs of TikTok videos) lets you check out and take the blackpill. Liberalism tried and failed. These are the end times. Let’s get the popcorn and watch civilization collapse. But: What if America is actually in pretty good shape? What if we’re not in the last days, on the edge of slaughtering each other? Things always need improving. Suffering needs alleviating. (I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t think that.) But what if we took the panic level down a few notches...."


Do the Red Wall MPs hold the key to the centre ground?

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog,,,.

I have to say that I feel sorry for Allegra Stratton. I completely agreed with Matthew Parris about her predicament – that was no laugh of hilarity against sick people, or anything remotely like it. It was a laugh of nervous embarrassment. As Boris Johnson must also have recognised.

So when he hung her out to dry, by implying otherwise, I felt pretty ashamed to have him as prime minister.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when everyone I met in southern England seemed so united in their rage at any prime minister. The conservative ladies around here can’t stand him, and my builders want the Queen to step in…

Yet, really – as Joe Zammit-Lucia suggested during the crucial week – Boris’ parties are really neither here nor there compared with issues around the latest covid Christmas.

It may be that when we find that the government has gone back to its old, incompetent ways, trying to tickbox their way to delivering the booster jab centrally at the same as encouraging panic – so that nobody can get one.

Personally, I find the whole business of queuing online out-tickboxes even tickbox (it involves the classic Tickbox situation whereby those at the centre are reassured by the numbers, and only those at the sharp end understand the chaos).

That is when people get seriously angry.

The question is whether the radical centre can profit by it in some way. I would suggest that there is an emerging political force that we could learn from, and perhaps vice versa: the Red Wall Conservative MPs.

These are people, as we keep being told, who are semi-detached from mainstream Conservatism. They are also less complacent and angrier than many of their fellow Tories.

Their only hope of being re-elected seems to me to lie in some kind of separate identity from the government.

I’m not suggesting some mass resignation. I am suggesting that, like the Liberal Unionists more than a century ago – or like the Co-operative Party inside Labour – they might begin to develop their own semi-autonomous leadership in the Commons. And with it, that sense among their constituents of who they are: standing for competence and devolution.

When they do that, I believe they might be the key factor in the major devolution of power that is so urgently needed in the UK. They might even be the means by which the Trusting the People report – published at the Conservative Party conference in October – might see the light of day as law. But they have to act together.

I hope that, if they did that, then we at Radix - alongside the New Social Covenant Unit - could help them think through where they stand as a party within a party…


The metaphysics of covid-19

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

This may seem a peculiar post to write on a thinktank blog, yet writing it is a result of my sense that beliefs are at least as important as Mckinsey-style measurement. They certainly are in the world outside the hothouse we know as the Westminster ‘bubble’.

Why, after all, is a good quarter to a third of the adult population of continental Europe so keen to avoid vaccination? Because of the fundamental beliefs they hold about covid that frame their responses.

The real issue about the disaster that has hit the world is not so much about statistics anyway - but about what we believe about it. Not so much about precisely who caused it, but about its true significance.

And here we find ourselves in a largely evidence-free zone. What I can say is that the real issue around covid is what it is for – and therefore why it has arrived.

There will certainly be positivists out there who think these kind of questions have no meaning because they are unverifiable. They are certainly unverifiable now, but they derive their meaning from being able to verify them one day – either individually after we die or sometime before that.

The real leap I take here is to introduce the Jungian idea of a collective unconscious into a policy discussion. Though I am aware that,by introducing a past and a future, I'm already straying some way from Jung's original idea.

it possible, in other words, for our own human futures and our combined human pasts have been wrestling with ways to draw humanity into a safer space?

Are there ways in which humanity can survive the combination of crises before us?

I don’t know, but our future selves do know and I believe covid was a way to bring us to that safer space.

Remember that covid-19 has been a virus that targeted the old and infirm. It has not targeted children, nor young, fit and healthy people like the flu epidemic of a century ago. And believe me – I lost my wonderful mum to covid – so I understand that these are not losses that are miraculously pain-free.

I was involved last year in writing some background materials for three short films, made via the New Weather thinktank about the enormous benefits of covid – as well as the obvious difficulties it has brought in its wake.

Maybe it was a kind of minimum viable package capable of nudging humanity in the right direction - of survival. You can see the almost miraculous lessons learned within days of the first lockdown and since, in the UK, that local people working together can achieve a great deal more than centralised or corporate diktat.

It showed us that we can look after homeless people if we want to. It encouraged people to get back on a bike.

The issue is whether we can learn the lessons, about flying in particular. The most obvious is the lesson about sharing vaccines. It seems obvious to me that we will have more panics like the one we are now having about the omicron variant, and while we queue in the cold drizzle – as I did last week – to get my third dose, there are so many other people around the world who need a first one.

Until we can think in a little more human ways, we may be doomed just to repeat this over and over again.

So, what is it that you believe about covid?


Are we approaching the next wave of community innovation?


This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I have been very interested to see the slow return of a broader consciousness of history, after it has driven out by a combination of modernism and economism. I would like to think that my own, very tentative timeline for a history of community development since 1940, published over the summer by the Local Trust, has helped a little.

Either way, last week, I found myself at a fascinating online conference in the Spaces of Hope: People's Plans programme – and was wondering, gently to myself, about why so much of what has happened before, and how much has been achieved – by the Eldonians in Liverpool, the Glasgow housing co-ops or in Coin Street on London’s South Bank – has been so quickly forgotten.

Whose fault was it that recent governments have shown so little interest in community-driven, bottom-up regeneration?

Traditionally, most of us have blamed the political right, and it was true that the Thatcher government was not very interested in sharing power with impoverished communities.

But I have a feeling that the conventional Left needs now take an  equal part of the blame – given that they are all so nervous about appearing populist or Trumpist, that we are not supposed, any more, to doubt what the ‘experts’ say – or state officials – when most community development has to start precisely with that kind of scepticism.

Somehow we need to remember that people and communities have some reason for scepticism about conventional regeneration – that somehow all we need to do is to persuade cities to specialise and the build motorways and IT superhighways, and – hey presto!

Unfortunately, most cities specialise in precisely the same sectors, none of which – however hopefully we may train the locals – are likely to employ most of those who need it.

It could therefore be the political Right which takes the necessary leap of imagination. That is what I wondered when Michael Gove, of all people, launched a report at his party conference called Trusting the People, published by the New Local thinktank and the New Social Covenant Unit and written partly by Danny Kruger, Gove’s new parliamentary aide, and other Red Wall MPs.

It is interesting because it talks about the next stage of Conservatism which is to “to put power and trust into the hands of the British people”.

Gove has been assumed to be backing these principles for his own version of planning reform. Needless to say, the Tory ‘free market’ thinktanks – Adam Smith, IEA and Cato – are not too happy about it.

Here is the argument, it seems to me. Almost nobody wants to go back to the pre-1970 age of building upwards by targets, launched by Harold Macmillan as housing minister, which led directly to a new generation of slums and to the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968.

But equally, it seems to me that the Thatcherite approach by Howe and Lawson to let the market decide clearly hasn’t worked either. It has raised land and property prices to disastrous levels. 

For some reason the entire political establishment believes this is because we have ignored ‘price signals’ which imply a shortage of homes. But nobody has persuaded me how one can ever supply enough housing to satisfy the demand, for example, for Far Eastern investors who want to buy into the London property market.

It isn’t too few houses driving up property prices – it has been the over-supply of mortgage finance seeking too few houses. It is classic inflation, in fact. Subsidising mortgages can only make this worse.

The government, to give them their due, does appear to be beginning to grasp some of this. So what do you do instead? The pamphlet doesn’t say, though it does mention briefly that neighbourhood planning should be “universal and the ultimate arbiter of local development”.

This is how it ends, calling for Conservatives to “come together to clear the political pathway to enable power to flow through to the people”.

Community-powered Conservatism is the only credible approach which promises to improve our quality of life, strengthen our economy and unite our nation. This is a Conservative project for the next decade and builds upon our greatest asset, the people of the United Kingdom.”

I have only one and a half problems with this rhetoric, which otherwise I would be out there cheering on. The half problem is that, personally, I don’t like appeals to ‘The People’. That smacks a little too much of Alec Douglas-Hume taking us for granted (“The British people are prepared if necessary to be blown to atomic dust”).

Trusting people seems to me to be a civilised, practical way forwards; trusting The People smacks a little of centralised Stalinism.

The other worry I have is remembering some of the Big Society rhetoric from a decade ago. The language was all there, but I remember meeting those most associated with the idea shortly after the new coalition took office in 2010 and finding my brain completely addled by how shallow it all was.

So, my question is this. If Gove really lets communities decide on planning applications, and they decide ‘wrong’ according to the government – how will he resist the huge pressure on him to bring in safeguards to prevent it? So is the Conservative Party is really ready to let go of central power?

I feel sure they will be eventually – because, in a democracy, people get what they want. But local people will need some protection to get involved in local planning, and then – how do you stop the usual rot setting in?


We need a new kind of national plan

This post first appeared on the RadixUK blog.

Things fall apart,” wrote Yeats in 1919, during the flu epidemic, “the centre cannot hold…”

The best certainly lack all conviction, while the worst/Are also full of passionate intensity. It is a scary time,

The problem for any government, not just one determined that we should still be living in around 1986, is that it has to be obvious to most of us that most of their quick fixes fix nothing. Continental lorry drivers don’t want to work here – who could possibly have guessed it, and when we have been so welcoming before…!

The next few weeks – I predict – will see a deepening of the staffing crisis in the care sector. There may be some more bankruptcies among the smaller gas providers too – these are all symptoms of having a covid crisis on top of an energy and staffing crisis.

In recent weeks, I have made a number of strategic suggestions about how to tackle the fundamental issues without making matters worse – from developing a paleo economics plan for devolving economic power to major anti-trust action to break up the monopolistic companies that purport to serve us.

But what we really need is some kind of national plan, which can unite us and show us what we might do to help drag ourselves back from poverty, and to help save the planet at the same time.

I don’t mean the kind of centralised targets in Stalin’s five-year plans, I mean something like Max Nicholson’s ‘National Plan for Britain’ of 1931 (and thanks to Ruth Potts for writing about this on the 80th anniversary; it is now past the 90th).

Nicholson was one of the founders of the green movement – he died in 2003 aged 98 and was one of those who launched the WWF with Peter Scott and the Duke of Edinburgh. But as a young man, as assistant editor of the Week-end Review, he drafted a special issue including ‘A National Plan’.

This was February 1931. Within months, the UK government had collapsed under the weight of post-war austerity, a National government had been formed, led initially by the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, the navy mutinied at Invergordon (September) and, by the end of the year, work on the liner Queen Mary was stopped on the Clyde.

It was a tough time, and the conventional activities by Labour and Conservative politicians alike failed to work. Roosevelt was still a year away in the USA, Oswald Mosley resigned from Labour two weeks after the Plan was published and formed the New Party in the UK.

The National Plan was important partly because of what it led to – the first thinktank, Political and Economic Planning (PEP), now the PSI. It was formed at a series of meetings at the Ivy restaurant in London – with people like Israel Sieff from Marks & Spencer, Nicholson himself and the Huxley brothers Julian and Aldous.

In retrospect, I am not sure whether we would approach a national plan in the same way. It was far too technocratic. In fact, Aldous Huxley never showed up again, and spent his time writing Brave New World in reaction to it. I tell the strange story of the start of PEP as part of my history of M&S in my book with Andrew Simms, Eminent Corporations.

We need to find a way that we can return responsibility to local people and get all the sectors on board – to show how to build an economy that can save the planet and save our lives at the same time, and how the moving parts might fit together.

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