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Taking a broader view of the world

Volume 34, Number 3, September 2023

Over lunch in a lovely garden on a summer’s day, a former MP of progressive opinions was bemoaning the state of the country. “Only the military seems to work properly,” he ruminated after just watching Evacuation, Channel 4’s haunting three-parter about Britain’s chaotic retreat from Kabul airport. My friend was right to say that C4’s military interviewees had performed splendidly, but that the politics of the withdrawal’s implementation had been shameful. All true, though the policy was imposed on Whitehall by Trump’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan and Biden’s over-hasty timetable. Sovereignty doesn’t always count for much in a tight corner.

But the sound of a liberal luncher extolling the army when so much else fails is pretty depressing, isn’t it? A recent poll for Onwards, a moderate Tory think tank run by former Financial Times wunderkind Sebastian Payne reported that 60 per cent of 18-34-year-olds now think that a “strong leader” unfettered by parliament and elections would run Britain better. One in three think a military leader would be “a good idea”; just 9 per cent in 1999.

That’s a laughable notion and always has been. People will always opt for order over chaos (especially after a spot of chaos), but military rule is an oppressive option, unjust and inefficient as usual. Sensible soldiers know that and it’s not even true that they’re conspicuously good at the day job. Better than Thames Water, yes, but soldiers better than the NHS? Certainly not. The British army seriously underperformed in Iraq and Helmand. Could we now repeat more successful past missions in Belfast or Port Stanley? Probably not. We struggle to help arm Ukraine.

All of which is a long way of saying that the media’s natural bias towards bad news and pessimism has been amply justified by the past few years of rolling crisis, local and global. Climate change, 9/11 and Islamic terrorism, populist politics, including Brexit, in response to economic stagnation and rising inequality, the pandemic and lockdown, disruptive technologies, the invasions of Iraq and Ukraine, the atrophy of international institutions built up since 1945. We all know the list.

Plenty of journalists and academics try to drag our attention to serious issues. Plenty more in the media distract us to forms of escapism, culture wars, nostalgia, YouTube clips, Farage’s bank problems, Prince Harry’s wounded self or Huw Edwards’s difficulties. After all, the serious agenda is bleak. Will baking summers and raging fires finish us all off? Or will the exponential development of AI show human ingenuity rescuing humanity – yet again – from folly? Or will autonomous AI, as this summer’s novelty scare, decide Homo sapiens is the problem and logically liquidate us all?

There again, is demography the emerging wrecker of our civilisation? No, not too many people, too few, too old and unproductive. In his latest book The End of the World is Just Beginning (Harper Business, £20) American geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan argues that the rise of China is already over: Beijing’s 80s one-child policy is irreversible and it is running short of labour, threatening its export-focused economic model. In any case, globalisation is in retreat, nationalism on the rise again. Zeihan warns that if US military muscle ceases to police the sea lanes that sustain globalised trade, China’s supertankers will soon be too vulnerable to leave port.

Where does today’s multiple uncertainties leave Britain’s politics and media outlook? Not good, I fear. For all the talk of Global Britain, all those export opportunities on the Pacific now released from the shackles of Brussels, the country, its tribal politics and shrunken foreign coverage feel very parochial. A European kind of parochial too, inescapable that many of our problems remain the same as our neighbours’. Migrants heading north by boat to Italy or Greece, eh? Who knew?

In Broken Heartlands (Macmillan, £20), Gateshead-born Seb Payne’s much-admired tour of red wall constituencies, the author conjures up a forlorn post-industrial landscape where working-class voters have lost their emotional link with Labour. An infatuation with Boris Johnson – Labour high-spending combined with Tory social values – was never likely to prove a stable marriage. Rishi Sunak is no more likely to inspire dispirited voters than Keir Starmer.

Ian Dunt’s forensic analysis of How Westminster Works – and Why it Doesn’t (Orion, £18.99) offers little comfort. An inexperienced and grimly partisan Commons, its failings enhanced by the double disruptions of Brexit and lockdown, no longer holds the executive – the government and civil service – to account for policy or its inadequate implementation. It values the tactical over strategic, the short-term over the long, the “tired of experts” elevation of dogma and amateurism over seriousness, the abuse of informal constitutional constraints now that Peter Hennessy’s “good chaps theory” of British government has given way to rule by Johnson and Truss. It will take time, competence and luck to repair the damage.

All familiar stuff, though the bloated, unelected Lords now puts in more hours at the legislative coalface than the hollowed-out Commons. Elderly peers do a better job too. Dunt, a former political editor of Politics.co.uk, offers his own mix of familiar remedies to modernise Westminster. Decentralisation. Fewer ministers, kept in post for longer. More specialist civil servants, especially in science and tech. Ditto MPs. A cultural detox for partisan excess, perhaps by decanting Parliament while the building is repaired. A wider selection process to broaden the quality of MPs. Electoral reform (on reformers’ list for a century), control of the parliamentary timetable given to a cross-party select committee. Etc, etc.

Neither side is keen to have specialists in the Lobby

The Westminster lobby (described in less than flattering terms in Carole Walker’s Lobby Life, reviewed in this BJR edition) should also be opened up to other specialists. It’s been tried before, but the lobby cartel suits both sides, like medieval guilds. The fate of the Leveson inquiry’s doomed plans for press reform serves to remind us that institutional paralysis is not confined to lobby hacks. Indeed, the hyper-partisan press – increasingly partisan TV and radio too, as a politicised Ofcom fails to enforce existing rules – are more part of the problem than the solution. Dennis Sewell’s review (also in this BJR) of Alastair Campbell’s activist guide to fixing decayed politics – What Can I Do? – suggests that his own good and plentiful tips are marred by hyper-partisanship.

Campbell’s own energy is driven in part by his famous battle with depression. So it is striking that Rafael Behr’s contribution to the fix-it genre, Politics: A Survivor’s Guide (Atlantic Books, pp 384, £20), has its genesis in a medical crisis. The foreign correspondent turned Guardian columnist starts and ends his erudite and witty book with a vivid description of his own near-lethal heart attack, sustained while jogging at just 45. He was lucky, still young enough to take the hit and survive.

Behr’s conclusion? That he should resist his own journalist’s bias towards pessimism. Unrealistic optimism is a form of denial too, but unrelenting pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, US environmentalist Paul Erlich predicted the UK would be a shivering, starving wreck by 2000, if it remained habitable at all. Instead, far fewer people in our vastly expanded population go to bed hungry in the developing world than in 1950. Science and social progress, by stops and starts, kept them all alive – as it did Behr. A similar heart attack killed his grandfather at the same age. No stents or angioplasty then.

This message sounds naive, but it isn’t. A child of Lithuanian Jews, who had their share of exile and horror, young Rafael worked as a risk analyst in post-Soviet Russia before he became a correspondent there for the FT. He knows Putin’s dystopian world well, one where the big lie is pervasive and not intended to be believed, only to induce passive despair. Behr identifies the enemy as “hyper cynicism”, in which victims believe nothing but – paradoxically – are also capable of believing anything.

That sounds uneasily familiar? Yes, the Kremlin promotes its domestic model to the wider world via bots and troll factories whose algorithms are both addictive and indifferent to truth. It also has co-conspirators in high-tech China and dark money in the capitalist West, the authoritarian camps hoping to outsmart each authoritarian camp hoping to outsmart the other other. What could possibly go wrong?

At this point, honest citizens might start compiling lists of villains or puppets, Boris or Blair at the top of respective lists. I don’t think Boris could last five minutes on TV with Blair, let alone with Andrew Neil, from whose interrogation he fled. Trump is a familiar type, a populist fraudulent demagogue whose power is greatly amplified by modern media: radio in the 30s, now by Facebook and TikTok. The game is to foment mistrust.

“The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. The way to deal with them is to fill the zone with shit,” proto-fascist Trump ally Steve Bannon once explained. That’s pretty explicit. As an authoritarian nationalist who incited a mob to overthrow the US constitution, Trump haunts advocates of liberal pluralist democracy, people like Rafael Behr.

The author does not make the liberal error of dismissing the real discontents of Brexit voters. He does condemn often-well-heeled “Brexit Bolsheviks” who promote polarisation and the fusion of mere opinions with identity: not only wrong, but bad people. Sections of the radical left also play that card: that anyone who doesn’t embrace the whole “woke” package must be a bad person. Behr offers a warning: the radical right seems to be more adept at weaponising quasi-religious “sacred views”, the parts of the brain that elevate feelings over rationality. We are all playing with fire.

But the media as Bannon’s real opposition? Too flattering. That puts a weighty responsibility on the mainstream press and TV at a time when both economic and political models are fragile, hobbled by disruptive technologies that have purloined our readers, viewers, advertisers and trust. Are we already fatally compromised? Opinions will vary. But the temptation to embrace the partisan troll culture – rotting newspapers and TV news from the inside – has never been more obvious. The regulators are no longer confident or well-funded to save us from ourselves. The law itself is under threat as the enemy of the people. The metropolitan elite, the “Blob”, the “anti-growth coalition”, the “climate cult” and “wokery” – deep-pocket demagogues always need fresh enemies to vanquish.

The residual pre-heart attack pessimist in Behr sees much to be fearful about: social media data that monetises extremism and incidentally links otherwise isolated communities of the like-minded. It helps replace the complex choices of politics with comforting fictions.

Yet Behr the born-again optimist clings to his commitment to rational engagement. Was not the defeat of Covid a triumph of science and social cohesion over primitive superstition and pseudo-libertarianism? I know, not everyone agrees. But persist, engage, argue and get angry, but do not be cynical, apathetic or abusive. The last is bad for the heart. Above all, vote, despite everything. That’s better for the heart.

Michael White

@michaelwhite

Michael White is a former political editor of The Guardian, and is books editor of the BJR and a member of its editorial board.

From the same issue

Valedictories

The British Journalism Review lost three of its greatest friends in the last quarter: Don Berry, a former member of the BJR editorial board and master of newspaper production at The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard; Michael Leapman, also a member of the editorial board, correspondent and diarist for The Times and prolific author; and Ann Leslie, BJR book reviewer and star feature writer. We celebrate them and the journalistic era in which they played leading roles.

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