Category Archives: Ethics

Posts about ethics and morality

Curiouser and Uncuriouser

Just after she retired, my wife and I were at a social function. She was asked what she was now doing with her time. She replied that she was doing English Literature as a part-time student with the Open University. The questioner without hesitation responded: “Oh, I can’t think of anything worse!” This, as it turns out, is a great conversation killer! Where on earth can the conversation go from there?

Reflecting on this exchange some time later, I wondered why I felt at the time such huge contempt for her questioner. My conclusion was that the questioner and I are poles apart on one spectrum of human attitude: curiosity. I was appalled by the fact that someone would find offensive the idea of a mature woman gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.

Lifelong Learning

I started to think about the wider ramifications of all this. To start with, we all have some fundamental principles that underpin our outlook on life. Two of mine, relevant to this subject, are these. Firstly, the development of the human brain by the random march of evolution is a thing of wonder and celebration. Secondly, when it comes to the brain, I’m a firm believer in the “use it or lose it” principle.

Alice and the Mad Hatter

Just look around any primary school classroom. Just talk to, or observe, any 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9-year old child as they explore new things about the world. See the joy that comes from each new discovery, and the further quest for knowledge that it inspires.  Sadly, for too many of us, that joy, that quest for learning, withers and fades. But for many – and I like to consider myself as one such – that curiosity survives into old age. The popularity of adult education classes, of institutions such as U3A, of mature students taking degrees are all testimony to that. To quote a tired – but paradoxically energising – old cliché, “You’re never too old to learn!”

Left and Right

I’ve often pondered what underlying characteristics separate politically left-leaning from right-leaning people. It’s part of the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Perhaps it’s something to do with our faith in human nature. The right might take a view that, left to their own devices, people are selfish and can’t be trusted. The left, by contrast, may hold an unshakeable faith in the improvability of human kind. They criticize each other as being bitter, cynical and twisted or being hopelessly naïve and utopian. Such an analysis may explain a lot, but I think it gets us only so far.

argumentI think there’s another dimension, a spectrum which characterises the left-right character differences. And that’s this dimension of curiosity: the preparedness to use one’s own brain to challenge received ideas and think things through for oneself. My observations of human behaviour over nearly seven decades have noticed one thing in particular. Those on the right (politically and socially) seem much more prepared to take at face value the word of authority figures, such as politicians, doctors, priests and anyone in uniform. (Increasingly these days, these also include business leaders and the rich of all types.) The left are more prepared to challenge and seek alternative views on the subject.

This underlying difference has many manifestations. Divine revelation versus the scientific method. Theocracy versus secularism. Royalist versus republican. Tradition versus progress. Order versus creativity. Views on the environment and climate change. Rote teaching of facts versus “learning to learn”. Attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. Nostalgia for a mythical “golden age” versus optimism for the future. The welcome, or otherwise, for different cultures and the immigrants who bring them. Win-lose versus win-win. Daily Mail versus Guardian.

To sum up: “I have nothing to learn from you” versus “I welcome the opportunity to learn from you”.

Sticking Together and Schism

There’s a further point I’d like to make concerning this phenomenon. And that’s to do with political parties. It’s a well-observed fact that parties of the left love to have debates and schisms, factions and splits. It seems naturally easier for left-wing party activists to split and form a new party than split the difference. (Think Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

Sorry, I meant the People’s Front of Judea.

Parties of the right tend to keep their differences to themselves. Last year, nearly half of Tory MPs voted Remain. But with literally one or two exceptions, you never hear from them now. There’s a strong cultural pressure to stick together / avoid doing something that is “bad form” / don’t let the side down / support the regiment / rally round the flag / supply your own cliché. (The exceptions, of course, are the extremist right-wing parties like UKIP and the Front National.)

In addition to the huge disparity in funding, this phenomenon hugely disadvantages Labour and the left in UK elections, with our first-past-the-post voting system. To recall an old joke of two men chased by a lion, “I only have to run faster than you, not the lion”.

It Makes Me Cross

One last thing about all this that makes me cross. It’s when religious apologists rage against that non-existent oxymoron, the “militant atheist”. You know, the person who’s going to undermine all moral authority by brainwashing our children into becoming atheists too. All the atheists and humanists I know want nothing of the sort. We just want people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The uncurious just don’t get that bit. So I say, rediscover your inner eight year-old. Try using your brain a little harder and discover something new. Test your opinion against some facts. You might even enjoy it.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. Well, amen to that, I might say!! (Or not.) And, by the way, Alfie, what is it all about?

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Hatred and Humanity

My early-morning reading yesterday came from two very different sources. Firstly, I checked my Twitter feed, which included comments about the media coverage of Theresa May’s calling of a snap general election. Then, I continued my read through the latest volume of Alan Bennett’s diaries, entitled Keeping On Keeping On. It brought into start relief two very different aspects of human nature: hatred and humanity.

Hatred

On Tuesday, May spoke a transparent lie that she called the election because Westminster was making things too difficult for her to lead EU exit negotiations. This lie encouraged the usual suspects in the media and morphed into something akin to fascism. Britain’s chief daily harbinger of hate, the Daily Mail, turned this into the headline “Crush the Saboteurs”. The saboteurs, in this case, are those who disagree with the Mail’s views favouring the most extreme and economically-damaging departure from the EU. Any dissent is treason.

Anyone who knows any history can see both historic and current resonances. “Stability”, a word much in vogue with May yesterday, is the last refuge of every tyrant, despot and tin-pot dictator down the ages. It’s easy to make a list of such autocrats, but a topical example is shown below. May’s words could (with a little adaptation) have been spoken by President Erdogan of Turkey as justification for his referendum to secure an autocratic power grab for himself.

Dialy Mail and Erdogan
Daily Mail and Erdogan

Let’s turn to the other main media suspect, the Sun. Those with attention spans longer than a gnat’s will recall that it’s only nine months since much-admired MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street by a right-wing fanatic. His barbaric act was no doubt spurred on, and legitimised in his own mind, by the vile xenophobic outpourings of many of those in the Leave camp during the referendum campaign. And yet now, a few months later, Rupert Murdoch’s scandal-rag is talking of “killing off” and “murdering” Labour MPs. And, in his bid to grab full control of Sky, Murdoch asserts he is a “fit and proper” person. Not in my book, sunshine.

Sun and Jo Cox MP
Sun and Jo Cox MP

Humanity

So, anyway, I turned away from this Twitter-fed poison to read more of Alan Bennett’s diaries, covering the period 2005 to 2015. What surprised me was that they were more political than I expected. Several of his comments were remarkably prescient and he was plainly no fan of Tony Blair! But what strikes me above all – and is no surprise – is the sheer humanity of the man. His ear for a fine turn of phrase is legendary: the cadences, nuances and idiosyncrasies of the spoken language. But he also has a fine eye for character: moods, body language, real or suspected motives, strengths and human failings are all deftly portrayed, whether he’s writing about someone rich and famous or the lowliest of strangers he just happens to meet.

Bennett also displays a quiet, comfortable sense of place. He’s clearly very much a man of Britain in an unshowy, sort-of-patriotic way. There’s a sense of rootedness which is the antithesis of the hawkish, jingoistic variety espoused by the Mail and by the unhinged, irreconcilable EU-haters on the Tory back benches.

Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett

A Matter of Character

All of this brings us back to Theresa May and her character now on show. Check out both her speech in Downing Street on Tuesday and that in the House of Commons yesterday. It’s all “me”, “I” and such, displaying an autocratic nature that I’ve commented on in earlier posts. May is pushing the line that the election is about strengthening her negotiating position “in the national interest”. But the truth – that her decision to go to the country is all about cynical Tory Party advantage – easily belies that. Yvette Cooper got it exactly right when she called that out in the Commons debate.

Conventional wisdom is that the election result is a foregone conclusion: that may well turn out to be right. But I do have this to say to anyone who, like me, cares a lot about emphasising our common humanity. Firstly, whatever you do, vote – even though our first-past-the-post system may make it a wasted one: it’s moral authority we’re after here. Secondly, think very hard about what you can do to minimise the number of seats that the Conservatives win. I’m pleased to see that Gina Miller, the brave woman who forced May to act constitutionally with the Article 50 vote, is setting up a tactical voting unit to help those who want to avoid giving May even more hubris and the most damaging form of EU exit.

There’s too much hatred and not enough humanity afoot in the UK right now. And it’s not the fault of the “saboteurs”. On June 8th, think very carefully indeed about what you’re voting for.

 

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Cressida and Jean Charles

I read the news about the appointment of Cressida Dick to the top police job in the country with mixed feelings.

Cressida Dick
New Commissioner Cressida Dick

I was certainly pleased that her appointments as the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police meant that another part of the “glass ceiling” barring women from top jobs had been smashed. But I immediately remembered where I’d heard her name before. Dick was the senior officer in charge of the police operation in 2005 which led to the fatal shooting by a police officer at a tube station of an entirely innocent man: Jean Charles de Menezes. His only crime was, in today’s words by Owen Jones, to “look like he might be foreign”.

The context of the shooting is important. The atmosphere was febrile, less than 48 hours after the London bombings of 7th July 2005 by Islamist extremists on 3 tube trains and a London bus. 52 people died and over 700 were injured in the attacks. The police were under enormous pressure to find and arrest anyone associated with the four suicide bombers. I’ve always felt an enormous sympathy for the police officers who shot de Menezes at close range, thinking he was a suicide bomber who was about to detonate his bomb on the tube train. These officers had taken enormous personal risk to take down a presumed bomber, only find later they had been told to pursue the wrong man, who had absolutely no connection with the 07/07 attacks.

Those officers have had to live their days since in that awful knowledge. Dick, as the Police Commander in charge had issued the order that the presumed bomber be “detained as soon as possible”. It was widely assumed at the time that, at the very least, Commander Dick’s career would forever be tainted by suspicion. One cannot help but be impressed that her own personal qualities have enabled her to overcome this dreadful incident and rise to the top. From the media coverage, it seems that the two people ultimately responsible for her appointment – Home Secretary Amber Rudd and London Mayor Sadiq Khan – were both convinced she was the best candidate.

De Menezes’ Family

It was no surprise that de Menezes’ family criticised the appointment of Dick yesterday. His cousin expressed “serious concerns” and expressed doubt that Dick could command the confidence of the public in such a high-profile and often controversial role. A sorry part of the aftermath of de Menezes’ shooting was that, on several occasions, the Metropolitan Police, including its most senior officers, treated his family shabbily, to say the least. Yesterday’s news must seem like another enormous kick in the teeth.

Jean Charles de Menezes
Jean Charles de Menezes

Is it too much to hope that some accommodation could be found between the Met and the relatives of Jean Charles de Menezes? During her very busy period preparing for her new job, might it be possible for Commissioner-elect Dick to take time to meet the members of the family – to apologize in person and to hold a frank and private discussion as to what happened on that fateful day? A hand of reconciliation offered to the relatives of an innocent victim of police error would be a good way for the first female “top cop” to begin her role.

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In Moral Freefall

It’s less than a week since the US Presidential Inauguration and how does it feel? Metaphors and images come readily to mind, mostly involving cliff edges and falling off them. In the Oval Office, we see daily pictures of the Trump-creature (I can’t bring myself to see him as human) signing executive order after executive order. It’s like all my worst nightmares rolled into one awful horror story. The dominant image is of the USA in freefall.

Sign of man going over cliff
Over the cliff

The American Clifftop

All countries have their national myths: they are part of the glue that binds nations together. A powerful and enduring US myth is of the “shining beacon on the hill”: America as leader of the free world. American setting an example in terms of freedom of speech, equality before the law, peaceful handover of power following a free and fair election. To a considerable degree, all of these things are true. America’s clifftop is all of these things, a moral high ground of sorts. There have been a few landslides and rockfalls, mainly, in recent times, during the Richard Nixon and George W Bush eras. But the cliff is still there, discernible.

At the foot of the cliff, I see horror: a moral cesspit. There appears to be no moral compass to any of Trump’s decisions. All you see is personal self-interest, projected into a twisted notion of national self-interest. And right now, I see a country just starting its freefall from the moral clifftop to the cesspit. Most Americans don’t seem to appreciate the degree of resentment and hatred there is around the world against the USA. 9/11 was a sharp reminder of the most extreme example of such hatred. It may take months, it may take years, but the collapse in the US’s moral standing will have consequences, sooner or later.

The British Clifftop

At the risk of trying to stretch the “falling off a cliff” analogy too far, Britain has two clifftops to consider, one economic and one of social policy and ethics. We haven’t jumped off the economic cliff yet: we’re still arguing over the size of the cliff and what’s at the bottom. So far, Theresa May’s comments suggest see sees quite a high cliff and a hard landing. But all this will be the subject of acrimonious debate over the next two years.

We’ve already jumped off the ethical cliff by the referendum result last June. Despite the other EU members granting the UK a number of concessions and opt-out deals over the years, a small majority of voters still said we’d had enough and to hell with the lot of them. I must have been naïve to think that we British now considered ourselves quite European in our outlook on the main social issues. But we’ve always been the most Atlanticist in our values, and that’s got nothing to do with our geographical position. Our moral standing in the EU and the rest of the world has taken a great fall, except perhaps in the eyes of a sociopath like Donald J Trump.

May’s Visit to Trump

Trump and May at lift
Going Down? You betcha!

Which brings us to Theresa May’s impending visit to Washington. I squirmed with embarrassment and disgust when I read published extracts from a speech May plans to deliver to a Republican gathering today. It contains the usual British delusion of the “special relationship”: nothing new there. But, worryingly, she also speaks of “shared values” and “common interests”. I hope May’s shared values don’t include support for torture, undermining NATO and the UN and disdain for basic women’s rights such as abortion. There’s not too much evidence of common interests, on free trade in particular.

As to a bilateral trade agreement, Trump’s idea of a deal is one in which he wins hands down and his “opponent” is crushed and humiliated. And one of Trump’s sidekicks spoke of the meeting for the UK in its “time of need”. The new US administration clearly sees us as subservient, a supplicant. That’s another reason why it is stupid for Britain the leave the relative protection of the EU.

May also spoke of the opportunity for the USA and UK to “lead together, again”. To lead where, exactly? It would scare me witless to think of May leading the UK in any direction that Trump wanted to go.

Plummet Meeting

I spoke at the beginning about the USA being in moral freefall. If May is planning to try to hold Trump’s hand, metaphorically speaking, as he drags his country down, we’re truly in for a Plummet Meeting.

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The March of Civilization

The world watches on anxiously as the Americans are about to embark on a highly dangerous experiment. They are about to hand over the keys of the White House to a “grotesque man-baby*”. With the keys come the world’s largest economy and by far the world’s largest military operation and the codes to a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. It feels like the onward progress of humankind, the “march of civilization” has been thrown into a terrifying reverse.

(*thank you to Polly Toynbee for this memorable, and chillingly accurate, turn of phrase.)

Ascent and descent of man
Ascent and Descent

Civilization

What do we mean by civilization? My dictionary defines it as follows: “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. This is fine as far as it goes, but begs the question about the word “advanced”. I think it is easier to spot which societies are civilized and which are not, rather than come up with a precise definition. But bound up in the idea is the sense of advancement, of moving forward, of progress.  My own world view is strongly bound up in this notion of advancement: the “march of civilization”, if you like. As we learn and discover more, as we spread our knowledge and improve our skills in education, we become more “civilized”.

At the 1908 London Olympics, the gold medallist in the men’s high jump cleared 1.90m. The current Olympic record is 2.39m (world record 2.45m). Better training, fitness and innovative techniques have literally “raised the bar”. So it is with civilization.

Early Civilizations

It’s generally accepted by historians that civilizations arose independently in several parts of the world: the Middle East, Asia, China and Meso- and South America. The earliest were in Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq and parts of neighbouring countries), the east coast of the Mediterranean and in Egypt, beginning around 3500BCE. And of course, classical Greece is seen as the foundation for Western democratic civilization.

If we were transported back in time, clearly we would be shocked by many aspects of what we would see. None of these early “civilizations” would feel “civilized” to a 21st century western eye. Slavery, random acts of violence, arbitrary rule with little or no concept of equality before the law would be just for starters. A total lack of status for women, early death from violence or disease and near-100% illiteracy would be commonplace, too. What we call “civilized” today has been a long time in the making. Like the high jump, successive generations have raised the bar when it comes to defining civilization.

To the Rear, March

No one is naïve enough to believe that progress has been smooth and steady. To give a random example, the good intentions of the French Revolution were followed by a bloodbath before some new order prevailed. Nevertheless, in the longer term, progress has been in a forward direction.

But two key events in 2016 have given the onward march a violent kick backwards. In June, the Brits stuck two fingers up at our closest neighbours – closest geographically and culturally. And in November, the Americans voted a grotesque caricature of a human being as their next president.

Uncivilized USA

We all presumably carry some kind of mental checklist around in our heads about what it takes for a country to be civilized. For many a year, I’ve said that the USA doesn’t meet my criteria, for two – or three – reasons. The two, either of which alone would, for me, disqualify it, are:

  • The US still commits judicial murder on its own citizens (i.e. capital punishment);
  • It has no comprehensive healthcare system (despite Obama’s attempts) to look after all its citizens when they fall ill, regardless of their ability to pay.

The third, which comes close to the previous two, is the lack of state control on gun ownership, a basic failure of a duty of care for its citizens.

But the United States is about to get a whole lot further from my definition of a civilized nation. Sunday’s Observer doesn’t mince words: “His [i.e. Trump’s] often-demonstrated ignorance, racial bigotry, misogyny, untruthfulness, hostility to free speech, crude bullying and dangerous, rabble-rousing nationalism utterly disqualify him. […]Even if all Trump’s numerous inadequacies and sordid personal baggage were set to one side, his egregious lack of coherent, fact-based, rational and cooperative policy platforms, especially internationally, is potentially disastrous.” Quite.

Assuming we all survive the next four years, there will be some backlash to all this, sooner or later. I have to believe the march of civilization will move forward again one day. Whether that’s in my lifetime, right now, I’m not so sure…

 

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A Fundamental Contradiction

Well, here we are in 2017, in the worst mess politically in my lifetime. Hatred, xenophobia and bigotry on the rise again, the highest levels of inequality for a century and the prospects of matters getting even worse. It’s worth tracing how we got to this position – and I want to explain the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the thinking of those who got us here.

Early thinking

Starting with Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead in 1943, the economic theory which I call Free Market Fundamentalism slowly began to form. Rand’s 1957 work Atlas Shrugged further developed the idea of the “morality of rational self-interest”. The intellectual baton passed to economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, first at the LSE then at the University of Chicago. Hayek won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1974 for work on the theory of money. (One ironic moment in the story was 30 years earlier, when Hayek was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, nominated by his intellectual arch-rival, John Maynard Keynes.)

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand

13 years Hayek’s junior, Milton Friedman was also at Chicago between 1946 and 1977. The “Chicago school” developed further the ideas which were to form the basis of FMF.

Implementation: Thatcher and beyond

Hayek and Friedman acted as advisers to various right-wing politicians in the USA and elsewhere, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.  A key moment came in 1975, shortly after Margaret Thatcher had become leader of the Conservative Party. At a Tory policy conference, Thatcher produced a copy of Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, stating “This is what we believe”. Reagan in the USA stated he was much influenced by Hayek. Thatcher and Reagan both appointed ardent Hayek followers to key government posts in their respective governments.

Augosto Pichochet
Augosto Pinochet

But the first to put Hayekian ideas into practice was Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet. In 1975, when he wasn’t busy “disappearing” his political opponents, Pinochet implemented free-market reforms which rescued Chile’s economy from some of its ills, at the expense of rapidly rising inequality and poverty. Thatcher and Pinochet remained friends until the latter’s death in 2006. Thatcher lobbied for his release from house arrest in 1999 where he was held pending a request for extradition for alleged human rights abuses.

One defining strand of FMF thought in the early 1980s was monetarism. There was much talk of the “velocity of circulation” of money and much debate as to what actually counted as money. The resulting policy implementation led to two devastating recessions, in 1980 and 1984, which saw off much of British manufacturing industry, never to return.

Friedrich Hayek
Friedrich Hayek

As virtually all of the economic growth was hoovered up by the richest 1% of the population, money flowed secretly into the coffers of various right-wing “think tanks”. Hayek himself had been instrumental in the founding of one of these notorious bodies: the Institute of Economic Affairs. Another think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, was co-founded by Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s Secretary of State and propagated Hayekian ideas. A third, Policy Exchange, co-founded in 2002 by Tory ex-Ministers Michael Gove and Francis Maude, pursues the same propaganda war. Common features of these organisations are their bland, neutral-sounding names, their extreme right-wing agenda and the lack of transparency in their funding sources. More information can be found at the Transparify and WhoFundsYou  websites and my earlier blog post Think Tanks? More Like the Thought Police!

Parallel realities

A key problem for the proponents of Free Market Fundamentalism is when rigorous pursuit of their policies for over 30 years fails to deliver us all to the promised land. Thorns in their side are those intellectuals and independent-minded people who point out the failure of this policy – most spectacularly in the 2007-8 economic crash, but also in low economic growth, massive tax avoidance, chronic underfunding of public services and rampant rises in inequality and poverty. For Chilean dictator Pinochet, the solution was simple: lock up and kill your political opponents.

But in liberal democracies such as the UK and USA, a more subtle approach is needed. For right-wing politicians, this has mainly taken the form of the consistent application of propaganda (i.e. lies) to deflect criticism away from their policies which have caused the problems. The best two examples of this since 2010 in the UK are the vilification of the poor (including highly misleading distortions about benefit fraud) and putting the blame for the 2008 global recession on the then Labour Government.

Such propaganda has been highly successful and has led to a distinct rise in intolerance and hatred. But the politicians have been helped enormously by their friends in the media, traditional and digital, aided and abetted by those shady think tanks. In his excellent 2014 book The Establishment: and How They Got Away With It, Owen Jones calls these groups and individuals the “outriders” of the system. For reasons of electability, the politicians have to choose their words carefully and not be too brazen about their lying. (At least, that was true until last year’s EU referendum campaign, by far the low point in UK politics in my lifetime.) No such scruples apply to the outliers. The think tanks, Fox News, the Sun, Mail and Express in the traditional media and the likes of Breitbart and worse in the new media pump out a vision of a parallel universe in which truth is an inconvenience to be swept aside with contempt and fury.

Populism and post-truth society

Add to all this the social media and search engines: Facebook, Twitter, Google and so on. Their algorithmic, profit-maximising approach to presenting information on the web, together with a proliferation of false news propaganda websites, can promote lies to the top of the list above those websites, often less melodramatic in tone, aiming to tell the truth. Instead of reasoned debate between people with different views, discourse has now split into two distinct strands. Firstly, people seek out those sources of information which share their views and people spend much of their time in bubbles of the like-minded. The second form of discourse is hysterical ranting, often limited to Twitter-length soundbites of people abusing and threatening each other.

Throw in the denigration of “experts” and you arrive at the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of 2016: post-truth.

The Contradiction

This now brings us up against the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the post-truth project.

The early intellectual founders of Free Market Fundamentalism appealed, above all, to the rationality of humankind. A key aspect of 1980s monetarism was known as “rational expectations”. Rand, Hayek et al built fabulously complex and, on the face of it, intellectually appealing sets of arguments to support their cause. These towering achievements of intellect remind me of theodicies: increasingly sophisticated arguments purporting to show how the existence of evil in the world can be compatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good deity.

As I’ve said before, the whole of the free market fundamentalist project rests on two prior assumptions, both false, which are never properly spelled out. These are (a) the pursuit of material self-interest is our only motive in making decisions and (b) such decisions are always entirely rational. (Click the link at the start of this paragraph to see my reasoning.) The “clever” people, Rand, Hayek et al, forgot what it is that makes us human.

As critics are increasingly questioning the economic orthodoxy, its true believers have switched tactics, by appealing instead to human emotions, above all anger and fear. Watching the way Trump stirred up the mob during his pre-election rallies surely brings into mind some sub-Nuremberg chilling of the spine. For the “project” to continue, the “people” must forget all this rational discourse and simply shout and scream at the defined enemy (the poor, immigrants, racial and sexual minorities, or whosoever is selected, 1984-style).

And so a project reliant for its existence on rationality now has to destroy it to survive!

The Fightback

It’s still very early days, but there are signs of a fightback. Economists are rapidly rethinking their ideas. The political left and centre-left are talking about ideas for “progressive alliances”. Various groups and individuals are beginning to agree on one thing. We will not let the mob, exemplified by the more rabid “Brexiteers” and by the “Trumpsters” go unchallenged.

My take on the contradiction is unspectacular. Societies work best when the rational and emotional sides of human nature are reflected in balanced policies and political programmes. We used to call it social democracy. A re-fit for the 21st century is sorely needed. The decent people need to organise and rescue post-truth society from its own follies and contradictions.

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Match Fit Britain

Chancellor Philip Hammond recently spoke about making Britain’s economy “match fit” in preparation for the shock of leaving the EU in the near future. In the spirit of the recent decision of the American people and of Donald Trump’s suggestion for UK ambassador to the US, here are some predictions.

Trade Negotiations

bull in a china shop

The former popular figure of John Bull is to be revived. He will be responsible for trade negotiations with the People’s Republic of China, with the view to making our trade deficit with them even larger. To ease negotiations, Mr Bull’s office will be located in adapted retail premises in Beijing.

Christmas

turkeyRetailers were pleased when, in a recent poll, 37% of turkeys voted for Christmas, thereby ensuring their annual mass slaughter. The French Government has made an offer to take any of our turkeys wishing to escape this fate, in exchange for the remaining child refugees in Calais. The European Parliament voted to suspend – by the neck – any turkeys found within the EU “before Christmas”. A spokesbird for the turkeys complained: “We’re damned if we do and dinde if we don’t”.

Church of England

empty churchFollowing a recent decision by the C of E to remove the requirement for all churches to hold a weekly service, a further innovation will be introduced to make better use of these much underused buildings, especially in rural areas. British zoos will be required to transfer any lions they hold and relocate them to a convenient church. This will provide the lions with more space to roam around. A Church spokesman said he expected this to reduce the need to hold services in these little-used buildings almost completely.

Monarchy

charles windsor cartoonIn a shock move no one expected, the present Head of State is to be replaced by a Mr Charles Windsor, a 68 year-old pensioner and serial violator of the “no political interference by royalty” convention. As a result, all Government Ministries are to be amalgamated into a single Ministry of Black Spiders. All current civil servants will be made redundant and, in their place, a small group of keepers will be appointed to look after the arachnids. In addition, a secondee from the British Homeopathic Association will be deployed to formulate all Government policy based upon interpreting the shapes of the spiders’ webs.

As a result, the redundant Mr Liam Fox will be put in charge of the chicken run, egged on by a Mr Adam Werritty. One other deposed Minister said that this announcement had “certainly ruffled a few feathers” in Westminster.

Utilities

jack and jillIn a move designed to save millions of pounds, the entire water supply network – pipes, pumps, reservoirs and all – will be closed down. It will be replaced by a promising new enterprise consisting of two small children and a bucket. The boy and girl said in a statement: “Any help from the British public to find a hill with a well on top would be much appreciated”. Share prices in water companies took a tumble on the release of this announcement.

Prisons

dickesian jailFollowing recent staff unrest about prison overcrowding, new incentives are to be introduced to instil a more positive attitude from warders. Staff will be encouraged to profit from prisoners by selling them a variety of services and to charge rent at “affordable” (i.e. unaffordable) rates. Free prison meals are to be abolished to help in this enterprise. A City analyst said: “I’d put my money on Class A drugs. The prison warders and the City could really make a killing in this exciting new market.”

Education

old school classroomIn a bold initiative to raise standards further, new minimum standards of attainment will be adopted for school pupils. Entitlement for continuing state funded education will be dependent on achieving at least 2 good passes in A levels at the age of seven. Successful students will then complete the remaining years of education learning the history of Triumphs of the British Empire and in declension of irregular Latin verbs. They will be known as “Class A”. A City analyst forecast promising joint enterprises with the prison service.

Children who fail to meet this standard will be required to fill the empty pews in our little-used churches, developing their athletic prowess by avoiding getting eaten by the lions. A spokeswoman for Sport England enthused: “This presents a great opportunity for Team GB 2024. Although we do expect that, in those Olympic Games, we will field a bigger squad for the Paralympics than the main Olympic Games. I’m proud to be part of another world-beating initiative for Team GB!”

Meanwhile, the Conflict of Interest policy for School Governors is to be revised. In future, all Governors who do not profit personally from decisions at Governing Body meetings will be dismissed, for showing a lack of the new British entrepreneurial spirit. School rooms where Governors hold their meetings must be adapted to include a revolving door affording easy access to local and regional companies in whom they have an interest. An Education Department press statement said: “This change has been made following studies of Best Practice in the Ministry of Defence and in new policy initiatives in the White House”.

Child Protection

donald trump shockedIn a related area, the screening of jobseekers working with children and vulnerable adults, known as DBS checks, will be changed. The checks will be replaced by a short practical exam, known informally as the “grope test”. Candidates will be required to show dexterity and physical strength in sexually assaulting women and children. Oral examinations, including verbal abuse, will be necessary for the most sensitive appointments.

The focus of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse will be repositioned to examine case studies to be used as role models and for training candidates lacking in these key skills.

Administration of Justice

scales of justiceIn a shake-up in the magistracy, the Ministry of Justice has announced the closure of all its Advisory Committees across the country. These are the bodies that interview and select candidates to be appointed as magistrates. In future, released prisoners serving a minimum of five years in gaol will be automatically placed on a shortlist for the magistracy. A simple written exam will be used to sift from the shortlist. Marks will be awarded for wrong answers. Bonus marks will be added for evidence of cheating. In the event that too many candidates reach the required standards, priority will be given to convicted fraudsters, sex offenders and child abusers. A Justice Ministry spokesperson said: “It takes a thief to catch a thief”.

Health

anthrax cellsIn a controversial move, NHS England has announced the resignation of its Chief Executive. He is to be replaced by a vial of anthrax. Under its new leadership, the NHS is planning a series of “breakout initiatives” right across the health service: hospitals, GP surgeries and drop-in centres (to be renamed “drop dead” centres). The vial announced: “This is doubly-good news for the NHS. We expect to eliminate all waiting lists and the massive budget overspends by NHS Trusts in a matter of weeks.” He added “will the last person standing please turn out the lights, pull up the drawbridge and close the door. Thank you.” The Prime Minister commented: “This is really excellent news. It will certainly trump our other recent policy announcements. Under my government, Britain is at last taking back control of our borders. By turning Britain into a toxic wasteland, uninhabitable for 10,000 years, I confidently expect that immigration will immediately fall to zero”.

UKIP protested that 10,000 years is far too short a time for this to be an effective deterrent against our “invasion by foreigners”. The Daily Mail agreed: “These selfish, so-called ‘death tourists’ should continue to go to Switzerland where they belong”, it said.

No one from the Labour Party was available for comment.

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May’s UK: The Nasty Country

Back in 2002, as Chair of the Tory Party, Theresa May warned that many branded them as the Nasty Party. Well, here we are, fourteen years later, and May is PM. And what’s happening? Not only has she reinforced the Tories as the Nasty Party, but she’s overseeing a rapid descent of the UK into the Nasty Country.

Nasty Party Revisited

It started again under David Cameron’s leadership. We had a constant demonising of the victims of the 2008 collapse of free market economics – the poor, immigrants and disabled. George Osborne as Chancellor picked on those on benefits to suffer the harshest public spending cuts. This was because he cynically calculated it would be electorally popular.

May herself, as Home Secretary, lied that immigrants do not benefit the economy, despite the fact that every academic study into this has proven the opposite. Last year, Britain stood aloof from its fellow EU countries and opted out of the agreement to share asylum seekers amongst EU member states. Then, Britain has dragged its heels on taking unaccompanied migrant children under the terms of the Dubs amendment. More recently still, President Hollande of France criticised Britain for not taking its fair share of the children in the Calais “jungle” camp. May dismissed his statement that we had a “moral duty” to do so.

In the past few days, under May’s leadership, Home Secretary Amber Rudd dismissed contemptuously demands from victims and their families for an inquiry into the scandalous, violent behaviour of South Yorkshire Police at Orgreave during the miners’ strike in 1984. This was after May herself had led the families to believe there would be such an enquiry. Justice denied for another group of victims of arbitrary violence by the state.

David Davies, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson
Do you trust these men?

Last, and by no means least, May appointed the most divisive trio of Ministers to oversee Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Her instinct for secrecy, so often apparent during her six years as Home Secretary, has been all too evident in her handling of so-called “Brexit” so far. Her desire to use the mediaeval relic of the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 without giving parliament a say has been thrown out by the High Court – and rightly so. Her desire to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court shows her dictatorial instincts. Her failure to slap down the most despicable attack of the High Court judges by the right wing press speaks volumes.

May’s acceptance speech on becoming Prime Minister in July spoke of her desire to be a “one nation” leader of a government that “works for all”. Her actions since have blown that assertion to pieces as the hypocrisy which some of us always suspected.

So, what’s the wider impact of all this?

Nasty Country

Politicians set the tone, particularly those in power. Others, often more extreme, see this as an excuse to speak and behave in ways that are very nasty indeed. The huge rise in hate crime we have seen after 23rd June was blamed by the UN on British politicians. Long-resident workers from other EU countries and minority ethnic UK-born citizens are getting more fearful of increasing abuse. Leaders from the world of art and culture, such as Martin Roth of the V&A, are leaving the country. Farmers are worried about finding enough seasonal fruit and veg pickers.

But above all, the really worrying trend is the rise in the bile and hatred coming from the usual suspects in the press. Specifically, I’m referring to the Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph. These are all owned by offshore, foreign or foreign-born residents or, in one case, by a man who is a pornographer and UKIP donor.

Two recent events have shown this vile quartet at their nastiest. The first was the eventual arrival of a tiny number of child migrants from Calais. Rather than welcoming them, these rags attacked them by claiming they were not children. In breach of press standards rules about showing the faces of vulnerable children, these were splashed all over their front pages unpixellated. Comedian Mark Steel was spot on in his piece in the Independent that we didn’t get the cute, cuddly ones with teddy bears we thought we’d ordered. Gary Lineker’s resignation from Match of the Day was demanded by the Sun when his tweet demonstrated some basic humanity and compassion for the Jungle children. (Two for the price of one with that one: the Sun, Mail and their ilk never pass up on a chance for a pop at the BBC.)

Enemies of the people
The real enemies

But, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, this week, the despicable four (Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph) launched a savage personal attack on the High Court judges (as mentioned above). The Mail led the pack with its headline “Enemies of the People”. This piece was wrong on just about everything. Not only were there the usual misrepresentation of facts, but it was tantamount to an incitement to overthrow the rule of law. I’d known for nearly half a century that the Mail was the lowest form of journalistic life. But this was a new low, even by their miserable standards. The constant hatred-inspired stream of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies acts as a cancer on the body politic of the UK.

Theresa May’s silence on the attacks on the High Court judges speaks volumes. Tory MP Stephen Phillips has just quit because he’s now ashamed to call himself a Conservative. Conservative former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has expressed alarm. The Bar Council is up in arms. Today’s Observer explains:

Observer article
Today’s Observer page one

Nasty Woman

May is presiding over the most disgraceful period for the UK I can remember. Nasty Party? That’s not the half of it. May’s style of premiership is fast turning us into the Nasty Country. Britain right now needs a leader with the skills and capability to heal the divisions and calm the anger in the country. We’ve seen enough already to know that Theresa May is not that person.

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Who Are You Calling a Hypocrite?

We don’t like it when someone calls us a hypocrite.

Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti

This week, Shami Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General, has been accused of just such that. The accusation stems from the revelation that she sends her son to a fee-paying school. (Incidentally, it’s the same one that “man of the ordinary people” Nigel Farage attended.) As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, many would expect her principles to dissuade her from buying (at £18,000 per year) apparent advantage for her own child. This was just after she’d been interviewed by Robert Peston stating she disapproved of grammar schools. There’s a prima facie case of double standards.

The Progressive Parent’s Dilemma

I have some sympathy with Shami’s plight. In the 1990s, my wife and I went through agonies deciding where to send our son to secondary school. We felt that he was probably, temperamentally and socially, slightly more suited to a more traditional academic approach offered by one of the fee-paying schools in the area. Fortunately for us, my son’s strong preference for going to a co-educational school tipped the balance towards the local comprehensive. (All the private schools were single-sex at the time.) So our dilemma was resolved in favour of a state education.

But there’s more. My second son went through a period when he was struggling with maths. We paid for him to have private one-to-one tuition for a few months to catch up. The story ends happily with both getting good university degrees which set them on the path to a successful future. But the sterner moralists will accuse us of cheating by paying for an educational leg-up not available to the poorest of us. I confess!

Making the choice between our finer principles as members of society and the best interests of our children is never easy. I just think we need to acknowledge our frailties and ask people to be a bit more forgiving.

The Upper House Dilemma

The Chakrabarti story contains another accusation of hypocrisy, this time against Jeremy Corbyn. It was he who nominated Shami for membership of the House of Lords after forty-plus years of demanding its reform. Corbyn has also rightly criticised the Tories for parachuting friends and allies into the Lords and then into the Cabinet. One that worked out really badly was David (Lord) Young, whom Thatcher appointed to Trade and Industry Secretary in her Cabinet. Young never understood the difference in approach needed between the business world and politics and he’s generally seen as having been a disaster in the job. In this case, I believe the accusation of hypocrisy is more justified.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn

But it’s interesting also to reflect on the case of Tony Benn (Westminster School and Oxford). He inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate in 1960, disqualifying him from continuing in the Commons. (An interesting backstory is how he came to inherit the title. Firstly, his father was made a peer by no other than Winston Churchill. Secondly, and sadly, his elder brother was subsequently killed in the second World War.) Benn campaigned successfully for legislation (The Peerage Act 1963) which enabled him to renounce his peerage and stand once more for election as an MP. Benn was strongly of the view that, only by being elected by his constituents could he have legitimate moral authority for Parliamentary office. (There are further amusing and ironic twists to the tale. The Wikipedia entry for Benn, paragraph headed “Peerage Reform”, is well worth a read!)

My final point concerns the views of many of Benn’s political opponents. Much of the hatred and vitriol poured on him by many Tories flows, I believe, from one thing. Benn was “one of them” (i.e. aristocracy) and his principles led him to reject the whole House of Lords setup. To them, being a class traitor was a far greater sin than being a hypocrite.

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The Beautiful Wall

Like many of us, I’ve got used to seeing reports of the latest stupid, outrageous comments of Donald Trump. But occasionally, I’m still left startled. This time, it was by a single word: “beautiful”. He had returned to a continuing theme of his presidential campaign: his plan to build what, on this occasion, he described as an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. The long list of adjectives was delivered, punch by punch, with an impassioned fury – in contrast to the mumbled speech in Mexico the day before, where he said, without conviction, how much he loved Mexicans. The other adjectives he used I could understand – in the context of the speech – but “beautiful”? That struck a chill in my heart.

Before someone sets out to build a real, physical wall, i.e. one designed to keep one set of people apart from another, some things must happen first in that person’s head. The idea and plan for the wall must be made: where, what materials, how high and so on. Before that idea can be formed, the builder must have some motive for building the wall. This takes the form of a “wall in the head”: some idea of the “us” on this side of the wall and the “them” on the other. This distinction between “us” and “them” requires dividing people into two homogenous groups divided by some characteristic. We call this stereotyping, bigotry or just plain old lazy thinking.

Walls in the Head

In music and literature, as well as journalism, much has been said and written over the years about the walls we build in our heads. These walls are built for various reasons: to disguise shyness and poor interpersonal skills, as an emotional shield and as a way of avoiding any consideration of the opinions or needs of “the other”. The consequences of such mental walls are usually destructive, often self-destructive.

Pink Floyd Wall
Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Pink Floyd produced a whole double album, The Wall, with a film to follow, on the subject. Great swathes of the Paul Simon songbook are devoted to the idea: examples include I Am a Rock, Something So Right (“I got a wall around me…”). Much of the work of Franz Kafka inhabits this world of isolation.

In the real world, think of the euphemistically named “peace barriers” in Northern Ireland during the height of the “Troubles”; think of the pain and misery on both sides of Israel’s security “fence”. Think also of the joy and optimism which flowed from the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. In earlier, and presumed more barbaric, times, we had the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall. That’s just a few.

Fall of Berlin Wall
Fall of Berlin Wall

In my blog post This Blinkered Isle just before the EU referendum, I lamented the fact that the entire public debate consisted of opposing appeals to self-interest or national interest. There was no one who took time to remind the voters of more collective benefits. Take, for example, the journey taken by millions formerly behind the Iron Curtain (another wall) from oppression to democracy, often inspired by the ideals and principles – and membership rules – of the EU.

More generally, few voices are ever raised in public reminding us of our common humanity: what unites us, rather than divides. In the UK, the Labour Party should be the natural home for many of these voices. Tragically, in its current state, Labour seems to expend all its energies building little walls between its various factions, rather than painting a unifying picture of the common good. Andrew Copson, head of the British Humanist Association, does make speeches from time to time around these themes – usually ignored by the mainstream media. As an atheist and humanist, I am simultaneously uplifted and embarrassed that the only voices reported who are stressing these ideals seem to come from a pope or an archbishop.

Take a Little Time

Now, to return for a moment to Paul Simon. The fuller lyric above is: “I got a wall around me that you can’t even see. It took a little time to get next to me”. The Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement is a good example of taking (more than) a little time – and not a little courage – to get the warring parties to talk meaningfully to each other. The horrifying rise in hate crimes since the referendum is just one symptom of how divided we’re becoming. Surely we can take a little more time getting to know each other – and a little less time building walls. Now that would be beautiful.

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