Oh. Erm, well…

It was another of those ‘Brexit’ moments. I checked the online news this morning and assumed I must be reading it wrong. So I read it again. And again. But the news remained the same. Donald Trump has been elected 45th President of the United States. And depending on whom you believe, it’s either the dawn of a new political era or the end of days. Personally, I’m guessing it’ll be somewhere in the middle. Continue reading

The Tories’ populist agenda seeks to silence the voices of reason

The Conservative Party conference has opened the floodgates to a torrent of populist policies aimed firmly at what Theresa May calls ‘ordinary working-class people’. The NHS is to become self-sufficient in British doctors. British firms will come under increasing pressure to hire British workers. Our military will ‘opt out’ of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The hard-working people of Britain, says Theresa May, will no longer be ignored by ‘the powerful and the privileged’. And she rails against those who see their patriotism as ‘distasteful’ and call their fears about immigration ‘parochial’.

The message is clear: If you’re working hard to make ends meet, the Tories are the party for you. Continue reading

Grammar schools are not the answer

The Prime Minister claims that her plans to create more grammar schools will enhance social mobility and will help to bring about a truly meritocratic society. They will, she says, create ‘a country that works for everyone’.

Sure. Because grammar schools proved so good at doing just that the first time around.

What Mrs May’s proposals will do, of course, is appeal hugely to the seething mass of baby-boomer Tory voters who just can’t wait to get us back to the good old days of the 1950s and serve as a temporary distraction from the Government’s shambolic approach to all things Brexit. Continue reading

A little perspective, please.

Quite a lot of people seem to have spent quite a lot of time over the last couple of days talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s train journey from London to Newcastle. And while the idea of a senior politician venturing outside the capital – and on public transport, no less – is verging on the newsworthy, I can’t help but think that we’re getting distracted from the things that actually matter. Continue reading

You don’t have to be an accountant to achieve career success

New research tells us that those from the upper echelons of society are most likely to secure the top jobs in Britain’s leading legal and financial services firms. It’s outrageous, sure, and we should definitely do something about it. But what we really need to combat is the bizarre notion that only lawyers, bankers and accountants can achieve career success. Continue reading

On (flatpack) democracy

There’s a general feeling at the moment that voting in elections isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Politicians are all the same anyway, so the consensus goes, and you get an almost identical old bunch of self-serving, out-of-touch buffoons regardless of the candidate or party you select on the ballot paper. Whether it’s a national election or a local one, it seems, you might as well stay at home and rearrange your CD collection. Continue reading

Unwelcome developments

I was only away for a weekend. But at some point between Friday evening and Monday morning it seems that it became acceptable to be an ignorant, xenophobic, isolationist bigot. And not just that. It’s now so acceptable that it’s even OK to go around boasting about it. And anyone who stands up and objects to this descent into idiocy is derided as elitist, out of touch and in thrall to a faded political establishment that has lost touch with the lives of real people.  Continue reading

In search of the good life

The thing that so often annoys me with books by academics in the social sciences is that they’re really good at telling you what has happened and why it has happened, but shy away from saying what we should actually be doing about it. They remain aloof, remote from the problems that they discuss, when what I really want them to do is leap in and get their hands dirty.

Skidelsky

So it came as a welcome change to stumble across ‘How much is enough?: The love of money and the case for the good life’, by father and son team Robert (a political economist) and Edward (a philosopher) Skidelsky, which explores how and why we’ve fallen into the thrall of increasing economic wealth and then – to my delight –  explains how the authors think we could fix the problem.

Described in the introduction as ‘an argument against insatiability’, the book charts how we have used technology not to free up our own time (as Keynes had anticipated), but to work even more and even harder. And why have we followed this path? Simply put, because we want more. And more. And more. We have, say the Skidelskys, entered into a kind of Faustian pact, in which we suffer toil, inequality and destruction today, in the hope that tomorrow we will finally have enough. But, it seems, the lure of just that little bit extra is intoxicating. There can never be enough.

This begs the question: enough for what? So opens up the main topic of the book, which is the idea of the ‘good life’. And this is where the interesting stuff begins. (If you’re a free market capitalist or a cultural relativist, you might want to stop reading here, because the rest of the book – and this review – is really going to irritate you.) Because while we all have our ideas of what the good life looks like, the authors suggest that not all of our ideas are necessarily equally valid.

Most western governments do not like this idea. Instead, they adopt the attitude that we should all be free to do our thing and to live our lives with the minimum of interruption. As if all our different ideas of what constitutes the good life will somehow add up to a happy and contented world. But, as anyone who has ever watched the news will know, this isn’t how things happen in real life. As former diplomat Alastair Crooke has noted:

There is no God-given nature implanted in human beings, whereby, controlled only by pursuit of their own personal welfare, their unforced personal choices would combine together to produce an orderly and harmonious society.

The authors provide evidence from a variety of sources to show what most of us secretly suspected all along: increasing wealth is not making us happier. It is also destroying the environment and the planet on which we live. But more than that, say the authors, endless growth is senseless. Our current and unending pursuit of wealth is simply wrong. The long term goal of economic policy, they argue, should “henceforth not be growth, but the structuring of our collective existence so as to facilitate the good life.”

So what is this good life? Well, it’s a life that “is desirable, or worthy of desire, not just one that is widely desired”. And the authors do a reasonable job of identifying the various ‘basic goods’ that make up this life. Things like good health, friendship and harmony with nature. They then set out a series of social policies that could help to “reverse the onslaught of insatiability” and to promote the availability of the basic goods for all, including a universal basic income, taxation on consumption rather than earnings, and stricter controls over advertising.

This all means, though, that the state can no longer remain neutral between different moral beliefs and different ideas of the good life. And while this kind of state paternalism was commonplace in centuries past, it seems to fly in the face of modern liberal democracy. Except that it doesn’t, argue the Skidelskys. The ideas that we will need are already embedded deeply in our culture and in our morality. We just need the political courage to restore them to their rightful place.

This is a thoughtful book that will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in political philosophy or economics. It is well researched, well written and well referenced. But it does, though, read rather more like a selection of essays than a cohesive, well-argued book. As if the authors had been saving up material for some time, waiting for a convenient ‘hook’ on which to hang it.

And while the Skidelskys have clearly striven to bridge the divide between academia and the general public, the book’s occasional heavy prose and extensive detours into classical political economy mean that it risks disappearing into the abyss. (This may be why the book is currently less popular than it probably should be.) These grumbles aside, though, this book asks some important questions. And to the authors’ credit, they’ve also tried hard to give us some answers.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I flew over to Dublin for a bit of a weekend break. We haven’t been away anywhere for a while, and we have fond memories of when we last travelled to the city some fifteen years ago, so we were looking forward to seeing how the place had fared. The answer, unfortunately, seems to be ‘not very well’. While Ireland’s capital grew quickly during the boom years of the ‘celtic tiger’, the recent downturn has most definitely taken its toll. On the city and on its people.

I should perhaps mention that my view of the city may have been influenced a little by my holiday reading. I often read in magazines about people who take ‘themed’ reading with them on their travels, so had bought a copy of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, on the grounds that it sounded fairly relevant to our trip. However, I forgot to take it with me, so popped into a bookshop on my arrival and bought a copy of Fintan O’Toole’s book ‘Enough is Enough’, which chronicles briefly the history of the crisis that Ireland has pretty much leapt into head first and sets out what O’Toole (who is, according to the book’s blurb, a well-known commentator and newspaper columnist) thinks the country should do to sort itself out.

It’s clear that the city has spent a lot of money on infrastructure in the last decade or so. There are some lovely paths along the banks of the River Liffey, complete with trees, sculptures and some very decorative lamp posts. There are also a number of new-looking bridges and a vast array of shiny office blocks, most of which seem to be a little on the empty side. We even found a brand new shopping centre with about twenty empty units and one solitary little Starbucks quietly doing its thing in the far corner.

Here’s a view down the river. Note the cool harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge and the rather wonky building with the cylindrical glass window thing.

The River Liffey in Dublin

Here’s a close-up of the wonky building, which turns out to be a new convention centre. (I just googled ‘wonky glass cylinder building dublin’, and perhaps unsurprisingly it came out on top.) It may be an example of something cool in architecture terms, but it seems a little gratuitous to me. The city’s hospitals, it pains me to note, look a lot less modern. (Something that Fintan O’Toole would probably also not hesitate to point out.)

Office building by the river

The Samuel Beckett Bridge may also be slightly more artistic than is strictly necessary, but I guess we can cut the city a little more slack here, given that it (a) serves a useful purpose, (b) has a suitably Irish theme and (c) looks unbelievably cool. Although having just looked it up on Wikipedia, I see that there is criticism that it (a) is in the wrong place from a traffic point of view and (b) only lets you turn in certain directions, forcing many drivers to use a nearby toll bridge instead (hmm, sneaky). And it did cost 60 million Euro, which seems quite a lot. Anyway, here’s a picture of the bridge up close and personal. It really does look very nice.

The 'harp' bridge

In a class of its own, though, and not in a good way, is the natural history outpost of the National Museum of Ireland. Being big fans of the Natural History Museum in London, we thought it would be good to see what its Irish counterpart had to offer. Unfortunately, the museum’s collection seems to have been put together sometime in the late Victorian era, with little in the way of updates since then. Glass case upon glass case full of rather mangy looking stuffed mammals may appeal to some, but an engaging exploration of flora and fauna on the Emerald Isle it is not. The building itself, though, is very nice. Here it is…

Natural History Museum

Now, I’m sorry if my description of our little city break is less than upbeat. But in my defence, I’m just telling it like it is. Dublin is not doing too well. I was shocked not only by the empty buildings, the poor state of public services and the large number of homeless people begging in the streets (as well as the parlous state of the museums), but also by the downbeat nature of the people of Dublin themselves. The city seems to have lost completely the fizz that once made it such an attractive destination. It’s as if Dubliners have become so overwhelmed by their fall from grace that they can’t even imagine a way out, let alone find their way towards it. A little melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s honestly how it felt.

There were some good bits, though. I’ll explore some of these in my next couple of posts (this is part one of, probably, three), but I have to mention now the fantastic little gardens that seemed to pop up when we least expected them, such as this tiny one in the gap between two buildings.

Garden

Check out in particular the sculpture at the back. Here it is closer up. Admittedly, the gate to the garden was locked, so I’m not sure who is supposed to enjoy this little area of tranquility in the heart of the city, but it sure was pretty (if inaccessible).

Tree sculpture

Lest you think that our mini-break was a bit of a disaster, let me assure you that we did, in fact, have a great time. Natalie and I very rarely get any time together that isn’t taken up with work, family or household issues, so it was brilliant to have some time away and to just wander around chatting away to each other. To reconnect. To find the balance that is so easily lost amid the hectic of everyday life. But Dublin. Oh, Dublin. What have you done to yourself in these fifteen short years since last we met?