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Essays on power and change in western democracies: Harry and Meghan, shaping the British constitution

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2022 at 10:18 pm

HARRY and Meghan’s docuseries is the first fully-formed independent critique from within this normally well-managed monarchy. Its impact is inevitable. Largely as the British constitution is discourse-based, and any new narrative will be felt keenly. That is, the constitution is referent to the long-text of British history. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s rostrum, Netflix, found a mass audience. Diana, Princess of Wales’s 1995 first-person-account was with the BBC’s Panorama TV programme. A late-evening gotcha format for the serious-minded.

Meghan, especially, embodies the rights of freeborn ‘Englishwomen’ everywhere. America continued a tradition of English expressiveness that we have steadily lost. The US spirit instinctively grasps that discourse is like cheese, where complex processes get to work, and tastes different over time. It is worth noting the backdrop to English, then British, democracy has been the inexorable transference of power. That steady movement from church and aristocracy to, as we see in the early 20th century, a fuller democratic nation-state. So there is a political pressure towards ongoing constitutional evolution that is distinct from the forces within American polity. Where Britain is shaped by priests and princes, then politicians, America has to keep asserting moral reasoning today via its painters, prose writers and politicians. Because, as Saul Bellow, America’s most revealing 20th century writer would say, if its writers did not address moral reasoning, American business would (see Donald J. Trump for further reference).

Historically, English expression had been narrowed by the stiffened shirts of the English academy. Men like F. R. Leavis (The Great Tradition, 1948), who added to England’s post-war privileging of hi-art and hi-science. This emphasis on a hierarchy of the arts received a challenge in the 1960s. But the 20th century racked English sensibilities with self-doubt about correct form. The old-hierarchy of the arts has now been wobbled. Hello! magazine offers human struggle as does Homer’s Iliad, if not more. The gods in both are just as fickle. But we still suffer the anxiety of formulaic speech forms.

Meghan’s target audience is not me though. As a millennial she is concerned with the generation below. Those who intuitively prefer a speech-act referent to the self. When I travel anywhere in the car with my Gen Z daughter, a Michelle Obama podcast hijacks the sound system. The life-narrative, honed through American self-help literature is easy to imbibe. It is free from hard concepts, grand theory, and is fully domesticated. It does not need, as the English often do, the heavy filter of irony (allusion to the fact).

Baby boomers like me underestimate the podcast. We are catching up though. Lefty Alistair Campbell (former UK Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press guru) and righty Rory Stewart’s (ex-true-blue UK Conservative Party Secretary of State) The Rest is Politics is the UK’s No. 1 podcast. It is not Tonight at the London Palladium, but sufficiently popular to perform live at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Weird, as the Brits do not do serious politics.

The banality of Liz Truss and venality of Boris Johnson, both short-lived UK Conservative Party prime ministers, have joined with the vacuity of former US president Donald Trump, and stirred a healthy interest in politics as knockabout light entertainment. But more importantly, appalled as well. In the sense that can such crass incompetency get near, let alone into, high-office. Captains of corner shops smell rampant cronyism. And are now newly engaged.

Netflix has challenged the BBC’s journalistic stance. The BBC has persistently avoided criticising the British monarchy. Veteran BBC journalist, John Simpson, who started his career there in 1966, writes: “Throughout its history I’ve been careful to note how timid [the BBC] always was. One of the things I’m most proud of during my time there is how it’s thrown away the timidity. It hasn’t thrown away the caution, and there are many times when I think the management is too cautious, but it doesn’t genuflect before authority in the way that it used to.” With the exception of the monarchy, which it still covers with a measure of reverence. Fellow veteran BBC broadcaster from the 60s, David Dimbleby, adds: “And I think it’s a taboo subject in this country to talk about [monarchy]. It’s certainly a taboo subject for the BBC to talk about. I think it’s a very strange institution to have in the 21st century.” It is not strange of course. It is part of a consistently preferred constitutional polity. What is strange is that it has taken Netflix and the Duchess of Sussex to raise debate. Credit: The Guardian and Metro

Meghan’s narrative, along with my critical feminist daughter’s, are both shaped by bi-directional debate flowing across podcast-world. They do not plug into MSM (mainstream media) like baby boomers. As a young child I nibbled the edge of my bedtime digestive biscuit at snail’s pace to catch the 9 o’clock news on the BBC (Vietnam, moon landings, Northern Ireland, Soviet Union night after night). And Britain had only just added a third TV channel.

Or put more simply Meghan is a voice formed within her generation. Conservative parties and movements everywhere have miscalculated. They have relied on young liberals turning into crusty conservatives. For the first time this established trend is slowing. My daughter’s cohort will punish the UK Tories (Conservative Party) in 2024, they promise. Tory MPs are resigning now in confident knowledge careers are over.

Worth adding that genuine conservatives, of which there are a few left on both sides of the political divide, are quite comfy with ideas of human difference, and the complex forces that make economies function. It is neoliberals who crashed conservative parties, imposing market dogma upon valuable institutions. In a volte face the welfare state, long target of neoliberalism, has now become part of the national architecture, with the Tories forced to defend it from Liz Truss’s market fundamentalism.

It was a different use of neoliberal ideology that restored market forces under Margaret Thatcher (Britain’s Prime Minister in the 1980s). Hers was a re-engineering of a collectivist hi-tax, hi-spend interventionist state; open-heart surgery, stemming a jugular that was pumping blood onto the ceiling. Albeit crude surgery, which left the patient scarred. What followed was a steady 30 years of improvement however.

Where Truss lost the plot on day one of her premiership, Thatcher erred towards the end. Mrs T proposed a community charge, or poll tax (so-called as every voter had to pay), a per capita, flat rate tax, where every member in a household contributed to local government funding, rather than a rate based on a house’s potential rental values, paid for by the householder. Suddenly the poor were paying the same as the wealthy. 14 million householders paying domestic rates based on property value, switched overnight to 38 million adults paying the same as each other. Liz Truss miscalculated similarly. Borrowing money to reduce the tax burden on the wealthiest in the vague hope the rich would use the bonanza to kick-start a zombie economy stuck in low growth.

I bother you with this minutia because it shows what odd logics grip minds. Truss and Thatcher found their logical plans elegant and pleasing to the eye. Coherent and irrefutably sound. In the same way populist far right figures do throughout history. But such modes ignore the vast irrationality surrounding such discrete logics. When you stop putting your logic into a structural relationship with other logics infantile functionalism emerges.

In truth Conservative Party governments have been an odd admixture of free market and state interventionist policies. Bailing out banks, and spending £70 billion on furloughed workers one moment and wishing to cut workers’ rights the next. There is no evidence that protecting employment hurts performance. Profits yes, but not performance. But in some quarters sounding tough feels like leadership. Waving a discrete logic in a foggy world garners adherents to your unities. In constitutional terms we see the frailty of governments. The rise of fierce logics, and lowering of rationality.

Back to Meg. And her rationality. It takes an American spirit to speak into a moribund UK landscape. T. S. Eliot did the same 100 years ago. Today’s American is more English than the English. We forget this. Eliot and Meg are not as far apart as you think. Poetry remains the confessional. The Waste Land (1922) was a stream of consciousness confessional if ever there was one. That is to say Eliot’s disturbing, gushing, clunky, prescient, dystopian, hopeful groan at the funeral of la belle époque (Europe’s beautiful era). His images have not just travelled well, they have become increasingly affirmed as prophetic.

Meg’s narrative will similarly rise and fall, and rise again over time. A sensitive man like King Charles III, who has championed sustainable economies before their time, will inevitably be drawn to respond in some form. His book, Harmony, is critically developed. He is a major correspondent, so engagement will arrive. He exercises freedoms then that his subjects do not. The king waxes, whilst the kingdom wanes as a place of dialogue.

And it is worth reminding here that the American Constitution is a topping and tailing of the English constitution. Meg’s freedoms are built on political freedoms in place long before the American Revolution. The Revolution did not pull ideas of self-government and representative assemblies out of the ether. The Revolution captured the English model in order to conserve it, not rip it up. Not so much a revolution, as an evolution. So, you may say, Meg is more in touch with history that most.

Americans are schooled in their constitutional history, and told a grand story.  Few Brits know what a constitution is in the first place. They are told the UK is a constitutional monarchy. Which means very little to anyone. It is meant to mean a nation-state with an unwritten political contract. No ten commandments to learn by rote. No political code chipped in granite. But rather a long amorphous history of events that soak into national character and intent. A kingdom of values, preserved in an anointed family. A sceptred (imperial) history.

This is, bear with me, based on a rational set of ideas, explicable; and importantly, needing constant telling as each generation forgets exactly why bejewelled monarchs are there amidst the technological and urban. Importantly, rational structures like this are frequently illogical. And critically, it is possible to be without logic, but still be highly rational.

Central to Britain’s illogic is maintaining monarchy as a long-running pantomime. Magical, mysterious, with villains and heroes. Panto is a unique British music hall and Vaudevillian children’s opera. For adults. Double entendre and sexual innuendo, defeat metropolitan sensibilities: “Laugh at dotty Widow Twankey, boo and hiss the evil Abanazar and cheer on our hero Aladdin”. But when looked at as part of nation-state continuity it becomes highly rational to maintain a system that is trusted and wins allegiance. That is there is a state architecture which knits the parts into a structural whole to the extent it accretes legacy values such as generational solidarity.

The European Union did not evoke moral force as it is a hodge-podge of member state constitutions that have yet to coalesce rationally. It means too little to its member state citizens. It was logical to form a union of European former warring states. But not rational, as the parts cannot form a whole.

Critically, a coded constitution is logical. Clear. And this is its problem. The more you write down in short-form, or boiled bullet points, the more you are held to ransom by these principles. America is screaming at itself, because it is debating the logical meaning of its code. A hiding to nothing. God, guns and gays, the foetus and the flag, are intractable circular arguments. Never approach these debates directly and logically. Replace them with other conversations. The US’s earnestness about bedroom morality is a product of trying to define the ‘right behaviour’ of its citizens. And this is what revolutionary Republics get stuck with for some time.

Revolutionaries understandably make sense of their violence by finding common ground in a hurriedly written statement of intent. We the people etc. But to be logical is to seek a boxed truth that makes immediate sense to the protagonists at the time. But over time becomes horribly irrational.  Complex argumentation requires indirection, deviation, digression and extended discourse, but never definition. Do not bother suggesting gun control. Brits discuss the weather, Americans own guns. They are symbols of identity. But do discuss values and social contracts. These shape identities and symbols over time. Guns make sense to America. A risk society.

And this is why Meghan has struck a nerve in the British consciousness. She has learnt the art of indirection. To talk about this, discuss that, over there. Language is funny that way. We can talk about many things, but given the right moment, a timely set of discourse often points to the underlying thing, that sits beneath the froth and bubble. Netflix being an organ that bothers the existence of the BBC as a state broadcaster. Aunty Beeb (the affectionate nickname for the BBC’s warm tones) has been particularly understanding towards British monarchy, reflecting its largely high approval ratings. But on-demand streaming services are eating into the BBC’s model of scheduled mass audience programming. Few used to match BBC originality, where producers were given creative freedoms to experiment. Until Netflix.  

One thing the American constitution did that has supercharged its voice is they federalised, devolving powers. Britain’s great mistake was to overly concentrate power in its parliament. Pulling inwards the sensibilities of its people. Meg is reminding Britons of their core English rights, and rights that America distributed out from its parliament to its satellite states. Washington is then seen not as mother parliament, but an ogre, a threat to freedom (and attracting periodic assault). This dialectic underpins an armed citizenry. Such disdain for power is working. America’s six battle fleets roam the high seas as guarantor of NATO not because the government chooses this commitment. Because its citizens prefer it.

The UK is all up for devolving power. It is needing to happen urgently. The UK depoliticised itself after WWII. Plugging into light entertainment as a sinecure for serious engagement. And now, after the success of ‘Brexit Boris’ (UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who pushed through the withdrawal from the European Union), and the failure of ‘peacetime Boris’, the incompetent country-manager, the long journey of re-ordering Britain’s constitution is open for mature debate.

Harry and Meghan, English free spirits, at home in the American confessional, are heroes to some, whilst Ruritania’s King Charles III is villainous to others. But not as many as you should expect. The monarchy is seen for what it is by the British. A better contingency, or proxy for a President Tony Blair. We see the pain of Emmanuel Macron’s French presidency and wince. Nevertheless, the UK audience is split, and is free to cheer one side or the other. And this is what the Brits and Americans love. The dressing up. Cinderella goes to the ball in each generation.

And this performance of monarchy presents at times the sheer silliness of Britain as a rational project. Others may despise a fully functioning monarchy as archaic but they will first have to construct an argued opposition to its role within a constitution that appeals to its people. It is fair to say withdrawing from the European Union is like Florida departing the United States. Economic illiteracy. But a fair proportion of Brits regard departing the Euro club as as inevitable as the England football team skying penalty balls into Row Z of World Cup stadia. And necessary.

For the UK’s political beingness is rightly or wrongly rooted in parliamentary sovereignty. If there was a shorthand description of the UK constitution, it would be: ‘any agreement that parliament can get the king to sign off’. For the UK monarchy is a working monarchy, doing the bidding of the government. It dare not do otherwise. Remember the sitting monarch has his throne in the UK parliament’s second chamber (the House of Lords). He pops in annually to give ‘his’ government’s major policy speech. Written by government. It reminds that the king is controlled by parliament, and sits there under sufferance. It reminds parliament that the king is preferred to a politicised head of state.

To contradict everything above, the UK does, in many senses, have a written constitution. In truth every written record of British political history, every document, grand charter, reform, amasses into a rational whole. In a sense it is logical to have an American Constitution, with its 27 amendments. But as argued here, what is logical is not always rational. It is rational for the UK’s constitution to be referent to the whole of history.

People demand logic as it is explicable, but dismiss reason, as it is amorphous. To put together a rational argument is exhausting. It requires constant re-asserting and even the person doing the telling has to re-examine what they are trying to say. And each time they lay out their reasoning the story gets told differently.

It is highly rational for Harry and Meghan to tell their story as a counter-narrative. They are moderns in a dialectic with tradition. As one of the last full-scale working monarchies Britain enjoys the absence of party politics in large parts of its state architecture. To remove politics from life and replace it with discourse should be one goal of the nation-state. If you do not, what do you get?

You get free speech. Or rather you get the American version. Which is largely screaming and shouting. Do not get me wrong. America will come good. It will make it. But only when it removes the logical inferences in its code, and replaces them with a more reasoned discourse. It seemed logical to the Enlightenment spirit of the Founding Fathers, those men of reason, to capture their vision in pithy logical statements. No need for logomancy. European duplicity with meaning needed ironing out with puritanical force. Only to discover it has locked the nation into a hi-literalism that is in part irrational.

Britain had two great prose writers until recently. Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel. Both capable of social criticism that is now too rare in Britain. Amis wrote almost exclusively about the English underclass. John Self and Lionel Asbo were the pantomime villains of broken Britain. The paradox being that the British working class has a rich culture which defies its apparent economic variability. But, to its enduring credit, is fundamentally a genuine cultural movement. Warm, authentically rooted in values that sustain it. Producing people of character and heart. Whereas the British middle class is devoid of any diverse history or substance. Those that enter it regret its limited aspirations. Once there you cannot escape it.

Mantel enriched her working heroes, Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey, as men of interest. They gained power because of their streetwise assimilation of the world around them. Prepared to implode, it was they who Mantel suggested could see the world they had climbed into. They had the best view, because the roots of power lay in the street, and probably in the sewer. The richness of the Tudor court displayed the rational nature of power. The church gradually, over the next 500 years, gave away its dominance to parliament.

Dame Hilary Mantel died this year. At the tender age of 70. I found her an inspirational figure. As free as Meghan in her discourse. Her prose were second to none. Even Vladimir Nabokov or Saul Bellow. The great Russian-American honest brokers of contemporary literature. Why I felt grief at her passing I am still examining. Largely I sense it was because she managed to speak about the English. She risked using her voice in the risk averse post-critical UK. A place that has gone too quiet.

The House of Commons, the dominant chamber of the UK parliament, with its elected officials, is still referent to a second chamber, The House of Lords: “The Lords Spiritual are made up of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester as well as specific bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal are made up of Life Peers, the Earl Marshal, Lord Great Chamberlain, Hereditary Peers elected under the Standing Orders”. Language of another period. In other words the sons and daughters of the gentry, as well as military leaders, and public figures in the arts and business. That is those defined by aristocratic conditioning, combined with an expertocracy. The ennobled with the technocratic. The ancient with the modern.

Noble efforts are made to make this second chamber fully elected. This is logical. Let the people decide who sits in power. But this remains irrational. The ability to construct a good argument is not dependent on coercing voters through false promises. British politicians are party animals, whipped into submission against their own individual views.

And the life peers, those nominated by the Prime Minister, are a rag tag of experienced citizenry, who have been round the block, as well as politicians sent to out to grass. There they offer a different texture of argument.

These are then rational anachronisms mixing with logical modern technocrats. For modern experts are logical types, whilst those rooting their contribution in tradition lean towards historic precedent. This is horribly over-simplified, but the dialectic between logic and reason is worth visiting. What is logical to one, is evidently horribly irrational to the other. The two in interplay create an interesting dynamic. Hilary Mantel and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex would have been equally interesting interlocutors. Mantel offers in an Evening Standard newspaper piece: “I must admit, I love Meghan Markle… I was so sorry she left because I thought that took some of the jollity out of life”.

Mantel’s writing explored the Tudor court through the eyes of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. A man from the streets (whose father is something of a local entrepreneur, so not quite as grimly low-born as Mantel’s portrayal) whose life experience and industry made him useful to Henry VIII: Cromwell had a “grim reputation for blood first and bargaining later”. Henry was an educated man, and an innovator, as is King Charles III. Henry laid the foundation of modern Britain née England. Charles will recognise the already transformed Britain of today. Acknowledging that his mother’s generation waited too long to accept that Britain’s future rests on innovation. The Greatest Generation, my parent’s and Queen Elizabeth’s, were rational spirits, with a keen sense that the absurdity of a declining empire could be mitigated through resilience, humour, wit and charm. That work is done.

Mantel has Cromwell helping Henry grapple with the transference of power under the English Reformation, securing the king as supreme head of the newly birthed Church of England. In effect doing the tyrant’s bidding. A fixer-in-chief with administrative nous, and not a member of any bloc of power represented by the nobility. That is, dispensable. Cromwell was the leading Brexiteer of his day. He would have listened carefully to Meghan, as he had met her kindred spirits in the Tudor court many times during his tenure. She would have been installed by him as part of the complex architecture of power, where discourse from any quarter had value.

Essays on power and change in western democracies: UK recovery can draw from Germany’s structural reforms

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2021 at 2:23 pm

“THERE is one thing we could still ask of Herr Brandt: what exactly were you doing during those 12 years away from Germany?” Pitched in 1961, the question was timed to intercept future chancellor Willy Brandt’s rising star. The inquisitor, Franz Josef Strauss, conservative leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), had fought in the Wehrmacht on Eastern and Western Fronts. Brandt, armed with a pen, wrote extensively from exile.

Germany and the EU say Auf Wiedersehen to ‘Mutti’ this year. But Angela Merkel’s centrist politics, pro-European, pro-western stance have roots in the centre-left’s reforms of the Brandt era. Reforms so extensive they re-shaped civil society. Civil society being a bland phrase that slips off the tongue, without meaning much to anyone. But Merkel’s years in power have much to do with the maintenance of the distinct German civil landscape. 

Before immersing in the subtle variations between UK and German social petri dishes, it’s worth re-understanding that for western democracies civil society is core to a nation’s social and economic well-being. Entities within civil society, from the press to the scientific community, sports clubs, churches, guilds, societies and trusts distribute power. Maddening for absolutists like Trump; who took aim, railing at its most visible symbols i.e. journalists, scientists, election officials, eventually becoming entangled by these benign bodies, led by blithe technocrats. So significant to country performance are these social units that Thomas Hobbes, in his preference for despotism, called them worms, eating their way into the body politic.

Angela Merkel’s CDU is hoping that recent state elections are irrelevant to this autumn’s general election. This might be wishful thinking. The roller-coaster effect of the pandemic has eroded her legacy of consistency. Relatively new CDU party leader, Armin Laschet, was appointed after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s less-than-sure-footed performance lasted only till January this year, and less than 14 months in total. Laschet has enjoyed four governments headed by Merkel, but might be heading for new reckoning. With only 73 days at the helm at the time of writing, it’s not a cliché to say Merkel is a tough act to follow.

Marginally more cunning than Trump, Henry VIII issued the Statute of Uses to weaken trusts, but was stymied by parliament. Trump supporters’ march on parliament was similarly processed by the legal system. The leadership equation inferred by all this is, less is more, as executive power is distributed to the many, not the few. Of course, if civil structures mean authority is less concentrated, but the consequence is western society flourishes, then the more we are likely to wish for moderating figures like Brandt and Merkel to secure top tier leadership roles. Sustainable change here then, in the western context, is gained by indirection not direction. Efforts to overpower or force through appear to destroy the fine balances of collective will, disengaging the population. At the very least, ‘strong leadership’ in western democracies is a conundrum.

Likewise, corporations deploy committees, policies, systems and processes to sieve power into digestible chunks. So fine are these balances, that excess authority can be toxic. None of this is good news for Alpha Males in the full grip of self-efficacy. The last serious efforts in UK history to squash ‘the worms’ was during The Restoration, but by then civil society had wormed its way deeply into a corporeal nation-state, and filled out the public sphere. Blind allegiance to the crown was not seen again.

Before we suggest the German worms of civil society have an edge over the UK’s, the CSU and its sister party, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), are enjoying the same bumpy ride as Boris Johnson’s UK Conservative Party. These parties’ parliamentary members are being queried over mask-procurement contracts. Worse still the CDU suffered their poorest showing to date, in the March 14th state-elections. Angela Merkel’s departure after 16 years as chancellor could include her party exiting government altogether. With six months till the general election her legacy of maintaining the German Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder), in the face of major tests, might still be tarnished. (EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, once Angela Merkel’s preferred candidate for German presidency, has been accused of slowing Europe’s vaccination rate by her team fussing too long over price, supply and liability of vaccines.)

And so for Germany this and other factors, such as opening up and shutting down the economy, bureaucratic slowness handing out aid, has done its damage. But overall the CDU/CSU coalition has still dominated. Occupying 51 of the 71 years of the republic’s post-war democratic journey. But The Greens are knocking at the door of power. Those with ideas are in the ascendancy. And the CDU is without them.

For former chancellor Willy Brandt’s party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), their day may then return in the autumn, along with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Many are waking to the possibilities of booting the conservatives out of power. Not to diminish Germany’s current pressures, from Russian to Chinese relationships, these woes are still less momentous than the post-war crisis of ‘nation re-building’. Germany’s admittance to the emergent rules-based global community depended on its relationship with both west and east’s diametrically opposing ideologies. To the newly created West Germany’s benefit the western allies guided the creation of coalition-government as the new normal, thus limiting power returning into the hands of extremists.

For the British, cross-party coalitions are alien. More so since power-sharing tasted odd when David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) occupied the same stage in 2010. It was the death knell for the liberals. Their support falling away. The horse trading of coalition not so much appals, but bemuses an electorate who link ‘large majorities’ with the ‘exercise of good power’. Compromise is weakness; landslides equal strength. But the nature of Germany’s polity has served it sufficiently well for it to become the world’s fourth largest economy.

But coalitions suggest much socially as well as politically. It infers agility, and critically, for western democratic structures, the ability to compromise. Utopianism has been the ever-present demon at the door of British politics. But the enduring success of social conservativism in western democracies has left both main parties almost indistinguishable from each other. Labour’s Tony Blair was charged with continuing the free market vision of Margaret Thatcher. Labour’s core vote, the ‘English Working Classes’, have now vanished, leaving the labour movement adrift. Large residues of that social group are aspirational and independent. Artisanship is well-paid.

Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, a serious interlocutor, Labour is not devoid of ideas; far from it, but in Anglo-Saxon politics charisma equates to confidence. The absence of a procrustean head, able to charm and shapeshift, leaves a movement with over supply of deficit theology. Tending to be against not for doesn’t win elections. The burst of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s version of left-leaning social democracy had gathered around vague grievances with no central theme.

There is no sign of the UK parliament changing its system. Germany’s politics of necessary compromise have provided what economies love best, stability. Coalition government naturally instils a structural focus (concerned with the interconnecting whole), versus the two-party system’s functionalism (pragmatically aligned with a handful of key election winning causes). The latter limits how parties shapeshift at each general election. UK conservatives have had to steadily steal, from under the noses of the labour and liberal movement, social democratic and socially liberal sensibilities; further leaving the Labour and the UK’s Social Democratic Party reflecting on their core offering. Where 19th century Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said ‘he could see a conservative voter inside the working man, in the same way a sculptor saw an angel in a block of marble’, conservatism has continued to reach out to the expanded middle classes, including the former Labour heartlands of the UK’s industrial north, who are increasingly invested in civil society, generating a naturally socially conservative mood. And while UK conservatives are broadening their church, enticing liberals, progressives and the remnants of single issue parties, like the United Kingdom Independence Party, Labour’s anchor has remained fixed to the labour movement; a phrase needing explanation to those under 45.  

At this juncture Willy Brandt’s name surfaces as a reformer-in-chief. In 50s Germany he’d already reckoned the labour movement was failing. In contrast to the reforms of the British labour movement, which have fizzled and popped for decades, The Godesberg Programme was affirmed at the SPD party conference in November 1959. It jettisoned its association with Marxist dogma and as a traditional workers’ party. Whether this was prophetic or instinctive, it certainly seemed risky. A risk that has now seen it more out of power than in.

Willy Brandt chaired the SPD from 1964 to 1987. His symbolism extended to a consistent pro-European, pro-western vision. Unimpressive to at least one US president, popular amongst European intellectuals, his worldview undoubtedly shaped by his time in exile. Arriving in Oslo in 1933, he spent seven years in Norway, moving to Sweden for five more, returning to Germany after the war at 32. He wrote prodigiously, and said these were his happiest years.

This move was further sealed with the SPD’s approval for partnership with NATO and other western institutions. Brandt’s exile in Oslo had left a deeply affective image of peaceful liberal democratic society, influencing the movement of his own party towards the centre ground; as soft and as uncomfortable as this over-occupied space has become. The long journey from his socialist ideals towards anti-communism and a clear vision of social democratic values was nearly complete by this point. 

The desire for extended dialogue with opponents mark him out as a durable, albeit highly emotional, figure in an arena always inviting the individuals to colour themselves with stage paint. Although he knew how to adopt a pose. Whether looking at home during the traditional ticker tape reception in New York in 1959, as Berlin’s mayor, or as chancellor, dropping to his knees in front of the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw on a cold December morning in 1970, in an apparent gesture of contrition. The latter of which split opinion, as much as dropping to a knee does today.

The context for this shipping overboard of a party’s core principles lay in pre-WWII Europe. And I’d argue fomented in the minds of European exiles like Brandt. It’s those who have escaped, and in particular those who have seen the speed of societal collapse, who are most prepared to hasten the pace of power distribution. Vienna’s Stefan Zweig, Michael and Karl Polanyi, Prague’s Ernest Gellner, Poznań’s Zygmunt Bauman, Motihari’s George Orwell, all write with a prophetic quality that is missing post-Blair. Social media has lit up personalities not ideas. But this exilic grouping were keenly aware of the deceptions of single issue thought, hi-culture, and dominant ideologies; seeing danger in concentrations, be they single-metric measurements or scientism. Their corpora counters zeal and gives space to the unknowable and uncertain.

Zweig records the ‘unconscious citizens’ of “Vienna… [who’d become] supranational, cosmopolitan citizen[s] of the world” having little comprehension of looming totalitarian rule: “…I did not guess, when I saw… exiles [from Nazi rule], that their pale faces heralded my own fate, and we would all be victims of this one man’s raging lust for power”. He noted Germany’s hunger for order and security eclipsing notions of justice and the good. Gellner, in subtle ironic tone, offered: “This theory of democracy has had a considerable vogue of late… It is associated with the ‘end of ideology’ theme”. The relatively short descent from unassailable hi-culture of imperial Europe into totalitarian nightmare left little doubt that the socio-political structures required considerable reform. Reforms in large part absorbed from an English history of civil society. The horror of concentrated power propelled post-war German politicians to accelerate reforms. Günter Grass gifted to Brandt the slogan: “Dare more democracy”. He was among the many intellectuals who supported Brandt’s pluralism as a response to ‘strong leadership’.

Britain post-Brexit is at another cross-roads. It’s facing the challenge to ‘dare more democracy’ or modernise. For the two are somewhat oil and water. Modern managerialist government ministers who nobly seek to ‘be data led’ tend to run up against the evolutionary requirement for their ministerial departments to take the long view. For institutions are by definition concerned with the structural elements of change wrought by pluralist societies, with the latter’s proliferation of groupings. Complexity is not captured by surveys, but rather by institutions as intellectual repositories, capable of using intelligence. Constructing a dominant metric is often purely for window-dressing during a time of crisis.

And it’s the careful reform of institutions which sit at the heart of UK future success. Daring more democracy within government is always a starting point. As difficult to deny as calling for more prayer in church. Who could possibly object? The strange conundrum arises then of lessening ministerial authority, in order for them to have to present increasingly compelling arguments that win hearts and minds, rather than just securing unquestioning obeisance (which for many is considered ‘leadership’). Added to this is the paradox that institutions rarely evolve into ‘a performance culture’, preferring instead sub-optimal consistency. Power that is concentrated rather than spread erodes that sub-optimal regularity that is intrinsic to functioning civil society; and leaves institutions on the whole heading towards long-term ineffectiveness. The best remains the enemy of the good.

Brandt faced this intentional built-in dilemma having done the hard-yards of preparation in both exile and mayoral duties. German ministers had considerable independence to act, thus requiring Brandt to persuade rather than dictate. The exhausting requirement to maintain ‘natural authority’ rather than threaten, restores organic balances at the heart of a mature national economy. That doesn’t mean leaving the incompetent and blindly resistant in positions of leadership. But measuring competence appropriately becomes important. The tendency to promote those who are ‘on message’ and thereby supplicant, has been a rising trend since the later years of the Thatcher government. Johnson has a stooge-ocracy, some say. He is early in his premiership but appears as over-aligning as Thatcher’s later tenure, as well as Blair, who both eroded Cabinet’s role. Blair’s ‘change mantra’ lacked the intellectual rigour that a Cabinet setting would have provided. As his post-politics wilderness years will testify.

The benefit of de-centralising power is it wards off what Gellner terms ‘infantile functionalism’, both within the institution and across the social consciousness of the national populace. The tendency for institutions to replicate themselves endlessly is the outcome of over-direction externally. The latter being the consequence of over-modernisation. Citizenry who have suffered over-direction from central government tend to be ‘totally committed’ to narrow change agendas. Structural reform requires a depth of argument that moderates charismatic leadership.

Gellner refers to the temptation, when faced with distributed power, of adopting ‘total commitment’ to single issues, as the means to initiate change. And draws the analogy with religious observance where an original doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ steadily backslides towards the dogma of ‘justification by total commitment’. If any members propose facilitating questions, under their initial doctrine of faith, then a dogmatic ‘strong leadership’ is tempted to paint these folks as less than ‘totally committed’; and thereby apostate. Gellner says this is the dilemma for modern institutions. Those that rely on over-aligned zealotry erode effective doctrines within a few decades. Those that facilitate dialogue extend their lifespan, spreading ownership amongst an increasingly engaged community.

Maintaining the analogy, faith, of course, isn’t the absence of doubt, but rather the pursuit of what Paul Tillich called: ‘ultimate concern for what is ultimately important’. Which is only achieved through the deployment of all faculties and a concern for the broad structural view, including doubt. Infantile functionalism, as Gellner termed it, is the enforcement of unquestioning adherence, as well as the over-exercise of power, to force an institution to go in a direction it can’t naturally. Leaders with ‘ultimate concern’ install dialogue within systems and processes, as they understand it’s through indirection and questioning that affordable performance evolves.

As we’ve seen with the pandemic, institutions do not overnight become agile civic-emergency organisations. Institutional structures are built to protect core services and are by definition deliberately slow evolutionary structures. Western European governments’ slow response is due to precisely their decentralised institutional and democratic structures. A single issue threat like pandemics require specialist task-focused structures and agencies to be formed; and these, as we’ve seen, are expensive as they require hi-performance cultures; but in time they themselves are institutionalised to ensure new capabilities are maintained over the long-term.

And ironically, Britain’s future hi-performance is dependent on further distributing power outwards, both to the regions and its institutions, and restoring trust in these bodies. As we’ve seen with any structure that invites ‘total commitment’ there is a steady depletion of growth and development. Even bright new commercial organisations establish early institutional frames that are naturally programmed to evolve autonomous thinking. Putting in place appropriate people and resources early, leaving the resultant mix to learn and lead are acts of courage in themselves. The strategic leader is primarily concerned with the overarching structures, including the structure of the future. If an organisation cannot learn and lead itself from within, because it is throttled from the ivory tower above, any success is often short-lived or achieved at the long-term cost of talent; who migrate to better environments, leaving the dogged and resistant to dig-in to their well-formed trench system.

Although it was the allies who set up structural reforms, it was Brandt’s alignment of government philosophy to liberal democratic principles, within the vision of unification, that amounted to structural thinking. Giving space for extended dialogue within and without, his commitment to liberal democracy is admirable, even if he lost key party figures on the way to the increasingly successful CDU. Now, as the centre-right faces a crisis of imagination, we can’t help note the way Angela Merkel apologised for her government’s failings during the Covid crisis as hinting at more than it being a warm affection-seeking gimmick. Was it possible she meant it, and was ultimately concerned?: “This mistake is my mistake alone.” Yes, approval ratings for the CDU have dropped, but her apology is reminiscent of old-style statecraft, even if still odd language for the current season of infantile functionalist government, which seeks to arrest volatile trends generated by social media. Was this genuflection by Merkel evidence of the long-shadow of Brandt’s marriage of vision and pragmatism and holding nerve through the long-cycles of change? 

Essays on power and change in western democracies: Gen Z curing Baby Boomers’ addiction to ponderous rationality

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2020 at 9:56 am

AMERICA goes to the polls on 3 November. The popular vote (aggregate of all votes) is trumped by an Electoral College system. Small states are kept warm to the federation by being gifted proportionally more Electoral votes than larger counterparts. Enviably, independent states act as countries within a country. By contrast, post-war statism continues to choke political grassroots in the United Kingdom.

For Trump’s achievement (aside from not going to war, a feat in itself) is stoking engagement amongst young voters; and he’s achieved it at the scorched earth level of the disenfranchised American underclass, in addition to Baby Boomers’ standard allegiance. The latter having shaped US and British politics since the early 90s. The Tories did not Brexit because it is theirs or Labour’s passion. Remember Heath’s passion and Wilson’s ambivalence towards the European project. And it was as much a hot debate then.

Millennials and Gen Z will represent 40% of the US electorate this autumn. A shift happening everywhere in the West. Issue-based young voters’ influence is gradually eclipsing party-based Boomers’. Educated millennial women with degrees will have a view on one Boris Johnson. Some of the underlying positive US economic metrics will nudge US voters towards Trump. Even so he is still looking at losing by five points in the popular vote, and 70 votes in the Electoral. If Johnson arrests the UK economy by 2024, he will still have a difficult job engaging the emergent political class.

Below the surface younger voters have another layer of changing experience that leads them towards change. Their structure of rationality no longer takes its cue from an unquestioned authorised canon of scaffolded knowledge, one largely formed in the early 20th century. Boomers, known for their chopped logics, binary and reductionist views, and so-called ‘common sense pragmatism’, are faced with Gen Z’s preference for the individual’s lived experience as the arbiter of truth.

Which brand of Camelot will Americans choose?: John F Kennedy held an interesting place in the minds of Western Europeans, symbolising Western democratic principles that had rescued Europe and set it on a path out of demagogic imperialism; offering a clean, white-goods model-society, a life-style. But the myth of American innocence finds its full stop in this coming election. A known known in Biden versus the colour and carnivalesque of Trump. Biden’s cool-charisma, a restoration of a US Camelot, a measure of the JFK myth making; versus a Trump presidency where there is a measure of real politik, the ‘eat what you kill’ Wild West that doesn’t lack its own integrity. Gore Vidal revises Kennedy: “I never believed in Jack’s charisma… one of our worst presidents…; but Jack had great charm. So [had] Obama. He’s better educated than Jack. And he’s been a working senator. Jack never went to the office – he wanted the presidency and his father bought it for him.” (Quote from Melvyn Bragg interview – Times Newspapers Ltd, May 2008).

As Trump’s carnival float leaves town what if we take a closer look at the sociological landscape beneath the hoopla. I argue we rarely shine a light into the dark corners of the shifting Western mind and socio-linguistic structures which give rise to voter intentions and consumer behaviour.

Christopher Hitchins said that the noise you keep hearing in the background is the ‘falling scenery of the British Empire’. This backdrop was held up by our addiction to the scaffolding of bold reason. The sort of reasoning where all logical statements ultimately interlock into a neat irrefutable phalanx. And we Boomers have spent our time trying to stick the scenery back rather than push it over. Thatcher gave it a meritocratic shove of course. Her not being ‘a suburban housewife of little import’ but a major actor on the stage.

To consider how the dominant prism of Western rationality is revolving let us turn to the ordinary younger man and woman at the bus stop as a way of seeing how new generations will think over time. Where the Boomers are a Gutenberg generation, educated with the ‘authorised canon’ of knowledge, Gen Z are bi-directional learners, educated by ‘chasing the deer through the woods’ of a socially mediated encounter with knowledge. Where I sweated Shakespeare and logarithms by rote new generations are ‘educationally present’ in a number of different universes of meaning at the same time, with the classroom being just one. Their minds juggling multiple space and time encounters. Where I walked continuously through left-to-right time-and-space younger generations skip endlessly around chopped reality.

Boomers’ privileging of scaffolded rationality as arbiter of ‘good knowledge and action’ now looks rather ponderous. Where my education implanted a rationality constructed floor by floor towards a completed curriculum, framed by the view that logic intersected with other logics, to form a coherent overarching whole; we now find such notions harder and harder to promote. The father of modernity Friedrich Hegel put forth that there is an upward and forward movement of progress based on a regular interchange of ideas (dialectics). Based on the assumption that there is something inherently rational in the effort to map the structure of the universe as a form of cartographical exploration, enabling a steady advance of human society. Diametrically opposed to such an imperialist rationality was Hegel’s arch-enemy Søren Kierkegaard. Hegel’s universality of reason is challenged by Kierkegaard’s view of good human action being born out of the absurdity of lived experience (dialogics), in all its particularity. One that is closer to younger generations’ privileging of the individual’s worldview. A worldview that is cosmologically more discrete than Boomers’ desire to construct a shared canon of experience.

So, imagine for a moment you are at the bus stop, listening in to contemporary language in all its individuality if not absurdness and consider this from both a Hegelian (dialectical) and Kierkegaardian (dialogical) perspective:

“I love you!” says the man.

“I love you too!” says his lady friend, both sheltering from the drizzle.

What makes their love-making more profound is the desperation in his voice. What he meant was: “I really do love you; don’t you believe me?” and what she meant was: “Don’t worry I know you do.”

What we like about the phrase ‘I love you’, is the level of risk in saying it out loud. Speaking out loud here is a leap in the dark; a form of irrationality based on its inherent absurdity (we never know what love is ourselves, let alone expect someone else to know, so here in this vignette it represents my attempt to pose ‘a moment’ of typical absurdity). It is different from ‘love ya’ pop lyrics which dissipate into the ether. Bus stop man and woman are genuine interlocutors who are present in the same moment and have raised the stakes of their existence by attempting to say something quite transformational. Søren Kierkegaard would regard them as ‘knights of action’ not as ‘knights of resignation’.

That is to say neither are living off the memory of past love but are in the act of creating it. Here Kierkegaard attacks Friedrich Hegel’s notion of knowledge as a universal experience. To live by shared understanding of the universe, even shared ethics, is a form of resignation from the potential creation of the new. In a dialectical society (shared canon of knowledge) we become selves based on what we know universally (knights of resignation) rather than ‘leap into the unknown’ (knights of action).

Kierkegaard borrows the epic imagery of Abraham lifting his knife to plunge into his son Isaac. Christopher Hitchens said if God asked him to do that to his children he would say to God: ‘F*** you!’ Hitchens was a romantic idealist whose affection for rationality and knowledge as the basis of the good life was unbounded. Kierkegaard’s understanding of action was rooted in the fact that knowledge is frail and rarely forms the basis of action. Even Hegel states: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.’ Meaning seasons of life are rarely understood until a pool of knowledge grows sufficient to explain in rational terms; and knowledge’s coherence is too late to be genuinely useful. As opposed to living sensually, and thus avoiding the ponderous notion of rationalising experience post hoc.

Rationality on one level then is the ‘knight of resignation’ and the potential enemy of action. As we are forced to wait for the critical mass of reason to gather a force of argument sufficient to garner societal approval. It lives on its past provenance that then awaits the appearance of further philosophical critique to form the basis of solid knowledge (arguments we recognise). Hitchens dismisses Abraham’s act as barbarism. But for Kierkegaard Abraham knew his action of lifting the knife would be followed by another ‘inspired action’, one that resolves the situation. Importantly, Abraham did not need Isaac for his own meaning and worth in the world. He was not resigned to give away his life in order to preserve his son. Shockingly unethical. And that is Kierkegaard’s point. Timely action requires independence of spirit. One free from argumentation, explanation and endless life-sucking analysis.

Nietzsche’s cynicism that ‘we do not love our children but love what they can do for us’ points to our struggle to exist without the props of other people. Kierkegaard invites the good life as one lived without fear of loss. For Kierkegaard Abraham lifting the knife precipitated an alternative pathway. But in the act of irrationality and absurdity the world was changed. Waiting for the owl of Minerva to gather knowledge from sufficient data would be too late for a world needing change now. Hence Kierkegaard took aim at Hegel for slowing the world down to a grim rational dialectical process of constipated slow change. One that Gen Z equally finds ponderous. The Hegelian self is a ‘knight of resignation’ waiting for information, rational arguments, known knowns to form, before s/he takes a step forward. And voila: the modern Western democratic world where injustice waits for the law to catch up with it.

This brings us to John Major. I am reliably informed he was more impressive in person than he was televisually. Gravitas travels through airwaves and either dissipates or concentrates. Bus stop man’s tremor was partly his cluelessness as to how his self travelled through the night-time drama. The action was a risk of unknown quantity. Because what they could not do was put their text of experience into a con-text. The passer-by on this occasion had more con-text and brings it to bear on their moment of consummation. Paul Ricœur infers that hearsay then becomes an even more potent form of learning than formal knowledge. As our hearsaying does not disrupt the event itself.

And therein lies the problem of modern progress. The more technologically urban creatures we evolve into the less potential for us to exchange agreed experience. We have tried to resolve this through modern knowledge. But this has only compounded the struggle of ‘meaning what we say’. The extent to which knowledge is a genuine reflection on experience is a growing question. Often modern knowledge is a treatise on largely one form of knowledge: the denotative. To denote is to label. This is the equivalent of a clay pigeon shoot. Up flies the clay of experience and we instinctively take aim, unloading both barrels.

Periodically we hit the clay of experience and congratulate each other on labelling successfully an agreed experience. Even if the clay was only grazed. It is still in our view ‘true knowledge’. We have all agreed that a chair is a chair. Putting aside semiotics and Plato for one moment. We apprehend a new experience and our first action is to share it and then label it, and then agree its value. This happens in such short order we ignore what has taken place. In seconds we have gone from an unknown to a known. But in truth, as Sartre would agree, we have gone from stumbling apprehension of the unknown, to it being a foregone conclusion called: modern knowledge.

What has taken place is profound if not momentous. As genuine power sits in the space between apprehension of ‘the new’ and how this datum is converted into what we innocently term modern knowledge. Who decides on this process? Which committee double checks for authenticity? In truth the accident of experience collides with the accident of social agreement on ‘what is knowledge’.

This brings us back to John Major, and TV. TV has shaped knowledge and the modern landscape quite like nothing else. The eye of the beholder was ripped from its ‘point of view’. It meant we no longer communally stood on the same spot to review a shared way of seeing. We all began to encounter the same image from a profoundly mobile perspective. Here our bus stop anxiety can be understood. Our two interlocutors look generationally from the same pool of perspective. But their different paths of formation are strikingly separate.

Enter the postmodern fraternity to cheer the last point. I am ushering them away for now. They have had a good go at arguing for complete fragmentation but our physiological selves offer boundaries which they struggle to dispute without excessive solipsism. Our consciousness still operates in tandem with our embodied selves, and these selves share a physical milieu, which is persistently static enough to say we inhabit the same wider landscape. Our movement within that landscape still retains a physical boundary for the potential of experience to be shared. There is enough in our milieu to make life interesting and varied. And there is an ethical reason for accepting our milieu as saturated with enough repeatable encounters for us to learn about them and re-apply them when we encounter a similar situation. I am therefore not arguing for post-structural (loss of real world beyond our senses) landscapes where all experience is divorced from other’s experiences (postmodern fragmentation).

If there was infinite variation then knowledge will fall away completely as we would be stumbling blind through endless new encounters. Hence art. We introduce art because it disrupts the hard patterns of urban modern life which has become overly repetitive. As John Self says in Martin Amis’s Money: “Taking a leak is boring, isn’t it, after the first few thousand times? Whew, isn’t that a drag?” In other words modern experience, under a rationally ordered urban existence, has become too repetitive. Not because of modern architecture alone, but minds bent towards an overly reasoned order of society. This overly familiar landscape diminishes our ability to locate ourselves. Recovery is always found through new contexts but also through exchange of experience. And art restores this foundational counterbalance to hyper-rationality.

And art has to be re-inserted between apprehension and knowledge. That space between encounter and its social agreement. This is the space good education operates. But do not suppose for one moment that this space is open. The space is crammed with media, of all kinds. For media means middle. We might say all major domains have their central operational HQ in the middle space. The lecturer at the front of the class is in the middle. The news anchor too. They portray knowledge as a known known. Our role again is to recognise there is an antibiotic treatment known as: connotation.

To connote is not to denote. It is to allude to the potential of experience. Hence power is operating most keenly in the ability to insert the possibility that there are infinite ways to interpret a new apprehension. Modern anxiety is rooted in the horror of the scale of life’s contingency. Kierkegaard would say anxiety is the awareness of our requirement to make choices. A clear indicator we are alive. To enable a community to see that all of history is open and available for redescription is a remarkable achievement. John Self, in his descent, adds: “Television is cretinizing me – I can feel it.”  Politics, in truth, is inserting the necessary doubt about the forms of knowledge that TV, education, party-politics, or other power bases say are not up for negotiation.

As when knowledge is boxed for consumption, through labelling, we recognise rationality has been at work. That rationality has a source and we can trace it back to either money or vested interest. Whether it is the authoring of an ancient text or yesterday’s tabloid, nothing at all comes without a political interest. This is decidedly uncomfortable, as something within us demands a pure experience, as we want to exclude any possibility that a rich encounter comes without prior manipulation. Nothing wrong with gasping at the waterfall and celebrating its wonder; but inviting a community to only stand in wonder, and imposing an interpretation is too near to an imperialist rationality.

So we shoot at the clay but often only clip the edge of experience. But if we take a community and shoot collectively we might hit more. Nothing gains the attention of central government than a collective community clay shoot. Post-war rules-based leadership tried to argue that communities needed their encounters with the world moderated through supra-national institutions. And this is partly true. Poor leadership says we will hold communities in infancy well into their adult lives. Listen carefully to narratives from popular media and marketing. A fundamental Adult to Child relationship. Someone recently stated a woman of 16 frequently has more capacity to assume responsibility than a man does in his 50s. Is this partly due to the male socialisation and institutionalisation? The willingness for male identity to be drawn from occupation not collaboration? Increasing capacity for relational fairness comes early in feminine socialisation. Vulnerability towards others invites others towards us. I encounter constantly the exhausted Alpha Male in touching distance with their vulnerability in their 50s. Only to let it slip away.

What is noticeable about Alpha in his ‘prime’ is that power is predicated upon conquest. Feminine socialisation may on occasions feel it needs to dominate to achieve similar heights, but I wonder what if we combine the two leading traits into a whole. Modern egalitarian societies have flattened usefully, but only on the surface. What Alphas should explore is their presence in the middle space without pointing at objects and naming them. To occupy the space between apprehension and knowledge long-term is to create meaningful spaces ready for communal interchange. This is very difficult when hyper-individualism remains so dominant.

The French Revolution of course attempted to deal with many of these concerns of ‘the middle space’; between religious hegemony (mythos) and nascent reason (logos). “Messianism, [is] the mania of incarnations so carefully inculcated by Christian education…” So says Michelet’s introduction to the fifth volume of his History of the Revolution, dated 1869. As Conor Cruise O’Brien points out he is referring not to Christ but to Robespierre and Napoleon III. Power rests heavily in the middle space and often with one or two individuals. Removing these individuals just leaves the space for others to occupy. Revolution is an attempt to adjust the middle spaces between hierarchies. The hierarchies do not go away but rather they reform, and can reform more oppressively as history tells us. But the principle is reforming of the middle space offers a wider encounter.

With Western economies struggling from limited social mobility the emphasis turns to education as the key mediator. Not for the access that merit alone attains but the potential of personal formation. The awareness of con-text for our bus sheltered couple is something of a destination. The angst of ‘love’ can be added to with inflections. If Tristram Shandy is right and ‘love is a situation’ then the word love connotes an infinite variation of meaning. If you do not immediately agree then what does ‘love’ denote? Point to the object that the sign signifies. Hence Shandy takes every deviation possible, with ‘love’ only ever as analogous to events.

At the bus stop we are now aware of the gap between the sensibility of love as a series of possibilities; all of which were momentarily boiled down to ‘I love you!’. If the passer-by was of the literal variety they might say: ‘ahh, how sweet’. Before wending their way into the night. If the passer-by notes the tone and texture of the ‘I love you’ they are likely to perceive the danger our male interlocutor was in. His love appealed, hoped, faded, fell; all between the utterance of the ‘I’ and enunciation of the ‘v’ in ‘love’. Power existed in the ability for Lover A to arrest themselves at the moment of vocalisation and reckon with Lover B’s potential disappointment for becoming the object of unequitable hope. No human can satisfy another’s hopefulness, nor should they.

Gen Z’s concern for the meaning of love and experience to be extricated from rationality and into the type of digression Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy allows is commendable. That is to return to more dialogical connoting of life as crucial to the joy of being, versus Boomers’ rationalising of encounter into a known known; as articulated in the dialectics of modern knowledge (to know categorically). Here then are the layers beneath the political allegiances on the surface.

Essays on power and change in western democracies: Intersections of rhetoric shaping the civil landscape

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2020 at 2:55 pm

THE DREAM CITY megachurch Phoenix, Arizona, hosted Donald Trump last month. Supporters waited in 110-degrees for the Students for Trump event. Covid’s damage to the US economy is affecting Mr Trump’s re-election chances. 128,000 deaths are a tragedy. Politically it is clearing some of the path for rival Joe Biden. During his Arizona trip Mr Trump autographed a plaque at the 200th mile point of the US-Mexico border wall project. But there are changes he cannot effect. Universal health care moves forward gradually. Mr Biden will aid its journey if elected. He will also turn the country towards net-zero emissions and new foreign policy relations. But what of the deeper historic divisions? Last week the Governor of Mississippi signed into law the bringing down of the Confederate battle flag. It had flown from the Capitol building since 1894. It is the final state to unpick the emblem from its official symbols of office.

For the present America has returned to the level of rhetorical warfare worthy of Richard Nixon’s period in office (’69-’74). Only a few weeks into Mr Nixon’s presidency he ordered the air force to start bombing Communist supply lines in neutral Cambodia. But, the bombing was kept secret until the New York Times broke it as a front page story. Mr Nixon called in FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to install wiretaps on the phones of four journalists and thirteen administration officials. History records Mr Nixon prolonging the Vietnam War, pitching white against black with his “southern strategy”, and causing American citizenry to regard each other as enemies. All, one biographer argues, for his own political ends. He was the only President to resign in shame. The parallels with Mr Trump’s tenure have already been rehearsed.

On 27 April 1994 Reverend Billy Graham delivered the sermon at Mr Nixon’s funeral. It was a peroration that sanctified: “the world has lost a great citizen”. Mr Nixon’s record was momentarily reborn and deeper questions flattened. Importantly the presidency was resurrected through hi-spiritual rhetoric. Keeping faith with the office of president is a non-negotiable element of America’s wars of rhetoric. Mr Graham’s narrative was a rescue mission which worked for a congregation already sitting awkwardly knowing what they knew. Elsewhere, away from the grieving, Mr Graham further absolved human frailty by stating Mr Nixon’s ‘drugs and demons’ had ‘play over him’. It is easier to blame demons after death than face them during life. Whether the office of president was a demon that had play over Mr Graham and now other ‘white evangelicals’ is a rhetorical battle still in play at the White House.

For America democratic change is proving painfully slow. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated analysis of American democracy in the 1830s, he noted the curious paradox of America’s commitment to free speech being undone by an absence of independent minds. In 1963 writer James Baldwin argued this absence was rather: “White Americans… [who] are terrified of sensuality…,” adding: “It will be a great day for America… when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.” For Mr Baldwin foam rubber stood for the ‘apprehension of life’ and the ‘historical role… Christianity’ had played in shaping the American consciousness. But more importantly its unconsciousness towards America’s unequal sociopolitical systems and structures. Kelly Brown Douglas writes: “…fundamental aspects of Christian theology have been used to legitimate white supremacist realities and have become a part of the collective theological consciousness.”

Great American Paradox: The extent to which critical writers like James Baldwin reflect aspects of the New Testament’s emphasis on power and change more acutely than institutional religion begs the question of the relationship between Christianity and the sociopolitical systems to which it has climbed into. James Baldwin wrote: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” The potential for a new American Identity may already be planted in its marginalised communities. To this possible end The Episcopal Church’s Virginia Theological Seminary ‘has set aside $1.7m for a reparations fund… Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey… $27m’ (Sojourners, July 2020).

America’s troubled soul is self-evident. Its social contract is being written long after its Constitution. With its truths drawn from an indeterminate mix of Enlightenment philosophy, Thomist natural theology and traditional Judeo-Christian revelation the Republic could still be lost. These contradictions are often revealed in the power politics of American Christianity. It still is a young country. Double Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell reveals what an old country England was even in the early 1500s: “You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells.” America’s Constitution not so much ‘shows through’ but overshadows.

Did a conflicted soul make it easier for George W Bush to be ‘transformed by 9/11 from a compassionate conservative into a neocon who started two of his country’s longest wars’? Or the anti-intellectualism of Mr Trump’s base joining with the White Christianity of middle-America? They have both turned Right for their ideology’s salvation. Either way it is a turn away from the complex nature of the relationship between faith and justice. Not helped by American Protestantism taking the form of a solus ipse spirit; to go with its Reformation sola fide and sola scriptura. A confidence in self actuality rather than a communal interpretation of ancient meaning. This individualist brio became an almost perfect partner to neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism. But the power of American optimism struggles to come to terms with limitations.

The American writer Saul Bellow called death the black backing on the mirror. It enables us to see our lives and selves in reflection. And White Christian individualism has not evolved a theology of death that sits well with eternal optimism. James Baldwin opened profound theological questions in Sixties America. But mainstream Christian apologists such as Billy Graham would not engage in dialogue. Mr Baldwin was a symbol of a growing black consciousness. This contrasted strongly with Mr Graham’s evangelicalism, which was a symbol of a persistent spiritual innocence that is still pervasive today.

It is important to remember that Billy Graham-style evangelical rallies were vast. So much so when you got up out of your seat to respond to the nightly altar call, there was a very real danger that you would not find it again. And that is the challenge of American quantification. To reach a mass audience exaggeration is essential. For square-jawed evangelists to convince an aircraft-hangar-sized congregation with Sixties amplification ar-tic-u-la-tion of the gos-pel in hyperbolic form was needed. For the message to reach the back row it had to have been launched with such force those in the front rows were transfixed. Megaphones need monosyllabic language to travel through the air. Subtlety is stripped off and the remaining bones are chewed for nourishment. Mr Graham’s speechness invited no echo.

Homespun religion was a coherent personal theology that did not invite a discussion. It was a style of faith that releases the self into a private internal struggle. But private crises are rarely resolved through private reflection. Mr Baldwin’s critique of white culture with its plastic bread that tasted of nothing could be seen in white evangelicalism. White Christianity could see the murderous violence of segregation. But it relied on changing the human heart. Not addressing discrimination meant gagging the raging prophets from the Old Testament who burnt incandescently for justice above ‘harps and sweet music’. Where Martin Luther King Jr offered the prophetic, and generated collectivised power, Mr Graham offered a depoliticised Christianity.

The power of crowds should not be underestimated. Despite the hubbub, oratory was personal. When the Sergeant Major bellows on parade, soldiers are convinced he or she is the ‘orrible piece of work needing extra drill. When troops overseas have been in male-only company, and a comedian is sent to entertain, invariably a small female dance troupe go along. Every man believes the impossibly unmale vision has eyes only for him. The impossibly certain pastor poses, pauses and pounces; and all believe it is to them this message is supernaturally directed. Today’s mass rally, political or religious, is held together by stagecraft and nervous expectancy.

This command-from-the-stage steers White Christianity to choose low powered targets. Conservative evangelicals sometimes gather against the arts, rather than for them. Often in protest against artful representations of Jesus. Their sensibilities are hurt. Accompanied by guitar choruses heavy with mawkish sentiment. Folk religion without any edge is prone to flat earth anything-goes-thinking.

Mr Graham I argue would privately agree with me. He cited the 20th century’s leading theological voices. Reformed protestant giants Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They wrote a withering critique of a paganised Christianity that had become a God is Great reduction. From the story of the builder from Nazareth, White Christianity had created the Christ Idol. This figure loomed with threatening texts on the walls of Christian homes. But Mr Graham bowdlerised Barth’s critical message. Barth accused White Christianity of presenting God as a ‘simple, absolute being… a cosmic dictator’.

Instead Mr Graham postured and brought all to attention. The ancient text was a divine codex. And looking back it is possible he struggled to understand its core themes beyond headline messages. At times he held it in such a way that he feared its spontaneous combustion. Whatever I’ve got here is beyond my literal reading; I’m scared of its mysteries and you can feel my own fear. If I don’t tell you just how scared I am then we’re all in danger. His honesty was American. A lot of the genius of America is in its fronting up. George W Bush would say: ‘Iraq is a war of revenge’. No guile. Gothic bare boards of truth.

A Product Of Americana?: Chronicler of American provincial power Philip Roth wrote a response to President Richard Nixon’s politics by re-characterising “The president’s chief ally… [as] the Reverend Billy Cupcake—a stand-in for the granddaddy of the religious right” (Greenberg). A republic constantly in danger from its own energy is likely to produce figures whose popularity stems from their ability to flatten out the stark contradictions between modernity, America and Christianity.

In contrast Martin Luther King Jr read his ancient text and it was a reportage of present day Black American experience. The violence of crucifixion and exile in Egypt was another front-page story from within black communities. When George Orwell trundled out of northern English coal mining communities, his southern benefactors refused to believe Great Britons lived in abject squalor. They recoiled from its implications for their own lives and communities. Mr Graham’s rural theology was in no position to face the reality of African-American experience.

Ultimately Mr Graham’s Kingdom was a bit too much like Oz, far off and magical. And a misreading of New Testament theology. He found it hard to tell truth to charismatic ceasaresque power. He was resistant to Barth’s opus magnum. A radical new relational ecology far from the production economy at the heart of neoliberalism.

The backdrop of post-war America did not invite cool reflection. Images of ICBMs raining from open Kansas skies and America’s superpower status being erased steadily in the jungles of Vietnam kept folk flocking to apocalyptic preachers like Mr Graham. The Barth, Bultmann et al corpus argues what Mr Graham missed was the Christ Event’s metaphors. The apocalypse related to humanness in all its potential. New Testament theology was a restoration of the Human Epic. The Kingdom narrative was ‘life now’ as counter to the ennui and anomie of industrial living. Rather than ‘life future’ as captured by the American Dream and western civilisation casus foederis. That is not to say people could not find a version of Jesus through Mr Graham. But his conversion experience was devoid of Jesus the revolutionary, and Jesus the ‘essence of reality’. This figure physically and metaphorically attacked the temple complex’s alliance with Romanus Economicus. Instead newly minted evangelicals would not look at top shelf magazines again. But now they were in danger of not wanting to look if they were not careful. What the original Martin Luther might call a spiritual death by religious legalism. For both Calvin and Luther reckoned if the human spirit was not engaged then everything else was superficial nonsense.

Early on American Christianity broke off from a European magisterium and evolved into a culture that was stripped of cultural handrails. A pure liberal ‘eat what you kill’ existence. Mr Trump’s often poor Republican base is voting for tax breaks for the rich based on the remotest possibility they too might ‘make it’. Such ideological patriotism remains hidden in plain sight. It is partly fuelled by conservative Christianity’s tacit support for feudal capitalism.

Lazy preaching also fitted TV too well. America is a TV nation. Its role in shaping the national consciousness cannot be underestimated. Preachers could be dazzled by US presidents who knew the political value of a religious talisman. Mr Graham’s puritanism did not allow him to think ill of these men. They remained flawed but because they told him they meant good, and said it in homespun inflections, we should believe them. Such grand naivety set the tone for the hokey spirit. The Holy Spirit was found amongst the dust and devastation of crucifixion. A peculiarly sadistic end reserved for the detritus of the Roman World. It brooked no televisual quality as popular culture ruled the airwaves.

Preachers were spiritually formed in religious seminary climates almost unique to the US educational scene. Where private institutions proliferate. Unchecked, lecturers could avoid giving off the dank odour of intellectualism. Intellectualising was a dark European modus that would lead to the sordid perversions of liberalism. Or worse, Communism. Newly fledged college minds tended to look at nuance as if it was sexually ambiguous. An androgyny that robbed economies of their animal spirits. Much of this is found in the Make America Great Again narrative. Mr Trump, like Bill Clinton, borrowed this phrase from Ronald Reagan. It has the megaphone quality that travels to the back of the arena.

Mr Trump said earlier this year during a live briefing session: “Why is it three or four times more so for the black community” to be impacted by Covid-19? Writer Kierra Jackson noted that social media reacted with: “The white man said it, but we have been screaming this for years,” with another adding, “Blackness is not a risk factor. Anti-blackness is the comorbidity.” Also a registered nurse Kierra Jackson cites US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams: ‘Minorities are not more predisposed to infection “biologically or genetically,” but rather they are “socially predisposed” to it’.

What the pandemic is doing is opening spaces to recognise how White Christianity has struggled to pull its theology back from Christian nationalism and importantly an unquestioned authoritarianism.  Martin Luther King Jr argued many remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” In an article by Sophie McBain the New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen talks of the pandemic as an ‘amplifier’ and that the lockdown plus protests ‘have provided a renewed sense of purpose and connection’. These are the sorts of debates that James Baldwin was surfacing back in 1963. Gessen describes this as a journey out of a tacit authoritarianism. Ultimately is the pandemic a key moment, the backing on the mirror? Of course White American Christianity is not ready to see itself. It is still too busy exporting its cultural artefacts. But this is the nature of authoritarian hegemonies. Hegemonic power is held in a constant transmission of its reasons for existence. Rome’s collapse was due to rampant inequalities as wealth was concentrated in the hands of a senatorial clique who refused to act.

Pathways to reform: Economic recovery will rest increasingly on new levels of mutuality and tolerance

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2020 at 2:31 pm

ON the morning of 26th July 1945 Britain woke up to the results of the General Election. The Daily Mail newspaper warned the Labour Party to ‘accept an adverse verdict like men and not like spoilt children’. As the day wore on it became clear the Conservative Party was in trouble. Duncan Sandys, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, and wartime Minister of Works lost his seat in Parliament; so too Churchill’s son, Randolph, turfed out of his Preston constituency. By 7 p.m. Labour had gained 225 seats, up from 165 to 390. At No. 10, as Churchill packed his cigars away, apparently in ‘good grace’, underlying concerns rumbled: could the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, stand up to Stalin?

Leo McKinstry’s study of Churchill and Attlee’s wartime partnership reckons that it survived because it was “partly a reflection of Churchill’s greatness and partly of Attlee’s patience”. Churchill would be known to pontificate: “Well, gentlemen, I think we can all agree on this course,” with Attlee responding: “You know, prime minister, a monologue by you does not necessarily spell agreement.”

1st February 2016. The start of the American primary season. Donald Trump had as yet no support from major Republican backers. From nowhere Trump started to win: New Hampshire, then South Carolina. The endorsements grew. No-one was more terrified of these events than the Republican Party itself. The senior guard fired off warnings, only to end in damp squibs.

Any student of American politics knows that when the campaign trail commences political issues get thrown overboard. For America is the land of ‘reaching out’ for ‘consensus’. Its main chambers are curved with opposing parties effectively shoulder to shoulder. They face the Speaker, unlike the adversarial House of Commons where opponents are two sword lengths apart. Just enough thinking time before delivering a fatal blow. The discomfit we feel about British political life is the shift from statecraft to US-style cheer-leading. Dominic Cummings is in the mould of the professional campaign manager whose focus is ‘authoritarian alignment’. Here is the failure to gate-keep both US and UK political systems.

Rome’s ancient Forum complex: The model for every town centre in the UK. The institutions of state gather round an open space where they are intended to echo ‘the voice of the people’. Or as they used to say in Rome on a Friday night: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” Meaning: ‘And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness!’ The elections of ’45 and ’16 reveal a ‘mass society’ struggling to voice its desire for a new social order.

Both 1945 and 2016 reveal the tendency for underlying human affections to remain hidden from view. No amount of punditry or prophecy can predict. But more critically little of the surface events of the election circus dent the institutional layers beneath. For western democratic institutions do ‘know’ in an almost biblical fashion ‘their people’; as they are in fact ‘the people’. Dedicated citizenry run the machinery of nation states but no journalist is going to write about the boiling intrigue within the finance function of St Godric’s Borough Council. Virtually all our media attention is directed towards agents who have little genuine power.  

Paradoxically the core of Western democracy is its ‘separation of power’: this is the style of architecture that bogs down political charisma in protracted committee room processes. As intended. This truism ties nations like Britain and the US into the same category. What separates us quite violently is the social landscape.

As a grandee of American literature and even greater political polemicist, plus darling of the liberal intellectuals, Gore Vidal, points out: ‘Empires absorb energy, they give out energy, but when they’re over they are like a cold dead mackerel at five in the morning’. Europe after WWII is by comparison to the US a collection of dead mackerels with nearly all its hopeful attention turned towards the supercharged American landscape for inspiration. With US soft power reaching far beyond the gunboats of the British Empire, it has proved more effective at drawing people groups towards change.

Currently what the Trump presidency is doing is offering a portent of America as a ‘dead fish society’. And what we Europeans are wondering is what state will its institutions be in after their world dominance reduces. As up for grabs is America’s core notion of freedom, one that was written into its founding documents. This is of little value if their institutions cease to function due to a hobbling of essential components: that of mutuality and moderation. For Western democracy is rooted in a level of civility and shared purpose that defies easy recognition.

After Attlee’s victory the new consensus is as striking now as then. Clapping for the NHS revealed the durable goodwill of the British people to suspend the Brexit divide and collectively support  what remains a British Project. That of the British socialist/capitalist hybrid of welfarism and market forces. To sustain this requires ongoing post-war mutuality of the voting public. On the day of Attlee’s victory a docker in the East End of London carried a placard with the words: “This is the hour of triumph for the common man”. Few at the time had read common woman’s true intent but the social shift was profound.

What remains unexplored is the new emerging mutuality post Recession 2020. Although we don’t know it publicly we are about to re-negotiate the social contract, whether we like it or not. What WWII illustrated was the preparedness to fight for our version of civilisation. It was not a foregone conclusion as no-one knew that an isolationist America would get involved in what was another European war. There is of course no special relationship between Britain and America. It is a ruse for public consumption. Roosevelt regarded the Europeans as leaving the ‘stench of Empire’ wherever they set foot. Plus he wanted in on Britain’s imperial markets. Which we effectively gifted away early on in WWII.

The rapid collapse of colonialism left a huge vacuum. The only possibility to fill this gaping hole was newly minted liberal democratic systems. The NHS being a shining and more obvious institutional symbol. What makes the NHS an almost sacred emblem, one that not even Atlee’s 1945-’51 new government could have foreseen, is how an aspiring working-class made its social-economic journey in willing lock-step with this particular bureaucratic institution.

Such mutuality is at the core of economic adjustment. Without the new middle-classes tied into national direction Western democratic principles become eroded. Why Westminster style adversarial politics can continue to square up to each other is because its institutional architecture offers a reflection of its wider core values. America is desperate for a new consensus but it is currently finding none. It is throwing its nascent civility out of the window leaving its notion of free speech tarnished. Britain is therefore in a remarkable head start as its ability to hold a civil national and international conversation is considerable.

Far from wishing to tear up its institutions ‘common woman’ wants to deepen her partnership. But this still means opening institutions up for new dialogue. With the coming pain new spaces will have to open between all institutional players. Where America is a country that has ‘written itself down on paper’ Britain can still write itself new versions of history. If Americans do not really know what ‘life, liberty and freedom’ mean because they cannot as yet hold a meaningful exchange due to their social landscape Britain can open up the public sphere with confidence. Vidal called the US a country that is obsessed with the ‘foetus and flag’. And one that has yet to let go of the ‘conquest model of leadership’. A deeply socially divided nation cannot yet find the forums to exercise its freedoms. The quality of debate has yet to match the quality of its constitutional vision. We can take great pride yet in our community’s ability to exchange deeply opposing worldviews without descending to screaming.

For it is one thing to have forbearance written down as a principle it is another to educate people to understand how to compromise on their individual desires. Britain’s future will be based upon the principle of a new generosity towards concession. That communities collectively agree what is important over and above what is desirable will be a shift as great as the post-war dividend of a welfare system. In ’45, despite 200+% debt to GDP ratio, new lock-step institutions staved off unrest.

This is about solidarity with future generations and interpreting well their investment in partnership with liberal democratic systems. For sure America is a land of great contradictions. There are few greater contradictions between the grand rhetoric of American aspirations and provincial life. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain reveals the difficulties of language and meaning in the pressure pots of small town America: “People are bored here, they are envious, their life is as it is and as it will be, and so, without seriously questioning the story, they repeat it…” Like small town provincial Britain what is said by the external ‘rooted cosmopolitan’ voices has to be re-voiced when it travels into communities. And vice versa.

And this is part of the pathway to reform. As the joke goes it doesn’t matter what American politicians say about Make America Great Again; as the American citizen imagines greatness to be a society of prosperity, democracy and security, along with good government. Currently that society is called: Denmark! If America wants to get to Denmark it is not going the right way about it. As America creaks from the power of the lobbyists buying off its politicians the question for Britain is how it establishes a fuller alignment of its bureaucracies to public purpose in the way the Danish have.

It’s difficult to see this transition in Britain without leadership that re-engages the provinces on their aspirations and invites regional leadership that voices these desires. This then is an extended and tolerant dialogue across the whole community at all levels. Grassroots mobilisation is closely linked to education. For education gives access to economy and economy gives a politically charged voice. The ability to translate a complex British landscape within local communities is a task for gifted facilitation. The ability to understand the balance between state, law and accountability is a crucial component for a recovering economy. Unless regional communities can argue their broad interests then full progress will inevitably be slowed.

Core institutions then are in a powerful interplay. That doesn’t mean an automatic devolution of power will equal vibrant and newly engaged communities. But it does mean exploring Weber’s relationship between traditional charismatic and rational authority. The spiritual energy from traditional communities has to interface with the institutional rationality of a functioning state. This is where we are back to fostering significant compromises between competing aspirations. Mixing the vibrancy of the pluralistic and cosmopolitan into the provincial and traditional requires patient debate about what we mean by social mobility. Nonetheless, this will be traumatic.

American despair currently is less about Trump but rather the inability from the 1950s onwards for successive US administrations to appease a newly socially mobilised populace. Its post-war society had heeded the call to get a college education, tempted by the promise of middle-class rewards. But the fruits of ‘hard work’ didn’t materialise in lock step. As social mobility crawls along in Britain, despite the efforts of the Blair government to expand education, the ‘hot debate’ that is brewing is about the relationship between expectation and government accommodation. This isn’t all bad news. But it will require mature public spaces. Facilitated by even more tolerant and patient forms of leaders who understand the under-currents of public opinion. They weren’t read well in ’45 and ’16 but presently they are shifting firmly towards a new social contract which could be as radical as we have ever seen.

How to develop shrewd senior leaders who will address northern Britain’s productivity challenge (and Covid-19 recovery)

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2020 at 11:17 am

ONCE UPON A TIME an organisation had supercharged leadership, new buildings, expanded vision, ‘wrong people’ fired, ‘right people’ hired, but, the toilets did not get cleaned. Then, by magic, they were sparkling. What, pray, made the difference?: “Management spoke to us,” said the cleaning staff. And so they lived happily ever after in the Land of Increased Productivity.

Covid-19: Our greatest strategic leadership challenge since the 1970s? UK premier Margaret Thatcher was a ‘declinest’, viewing post-war Britain as a failed state, and one needing her drastic surgery. Others viewed the transition from imperial power, establishment of the NHS and a welfare society, to membership of NATO and the European Union, as a great achievement of social economic transformation. The scale of the current crisis is still being calculated socially as well as economically. Is this further decay of the Western model, a super-test of civic resilience, and possible evidence other social fabrics are better woven for future trading?

This story is not quite true. But the truest bit is management action is oft presented as fairy dust. Sprinkle and productivity transforms. We love magical change. To portray northern Britain’s productivity crisis, however, gritty realism is our genre.

There is good news. Britain has a greater number of high productivity companies than France and Germany. The bad news is, we have a longer-tail of below-average companies dragging down the whole. Many of these are in the north. Northern leaders are focused and assertive, if not aggressive, but ‘like fairy gold, it will be dead leaves in the morning’ if we do not unpack this puzzle together as we head out of the EU.

How did we get here? Well, in 1960 the UK had the highest productivity in Europe. Over the next 50 years, our performance increased (yay!) but at a slower rate than our major competitors (boo!). And then slumped dramatically following the financial crash (eek!); down to 0.4% (from an annual average of 2.4% growth). Today we are 16% less productive overall than our G7 partners (leading advanced economies). And now with Recession 2020 via Covid-19 we are facing our greatest strategic leadership challenge since the 1970s.

Growth in finance and professional services was stellar up until 2007 but these stars are slightly less bright. The top performers tended to mask the wider picture. Now, even the most productive companies have also slipped out of the fast lane.

This then is a story of lost-momentum. Especially in northern regions. This is also a story of management and leadership, plus ye olde story of skills. More so, it is a riddle inside a puzzle. Certainly a whole region conversation. We can point to tendencies, the toxicity of control freak management, underinvestment, difficulty measuring the emerging economies, London, Brussels, low wage rates, fractured communities…  stop! You say.

There is no single solution, not even Boris Johnson’s infrastructure stimulus. No Sir Lancelot Spratt to come onto the Sick Man of Europe ward and bombastically order cod liver oil for all. As the picture is so contradictory. Hamletian ambiguity is with us. And returning to a Frankensteinian mechanistic management toolkit will prove lethal. When performance drops, the temptation is to run faster. Tighten the nut by all means, but you are still holding a spanner awaiting the next rupture.

Currently, the most productive firms are exporters. Businesses focused on local markets are part of the UK’s long-tail of underperformers. But, you might say, we all know businesses that are surviving despite the chaos. I can name a few high street top brands who still have pennies in the bank, but are dying before our eyes. Their management teams fiddle, destroying brand value. Pragmatic management can be prone to saying ‘cash is king’. But these poor performers lack the ability to stand outside of their institutionalised selves.

Under pressure, tunnel vision becomes a condition. Boardrooms are messy places and some senior figures will hammer contradictions flat rather than explore through dialogue. It is always a matter of time before loyal consumers become adulterous. Spotting their first flirtation is leadership’s responsibility. Cash then is not the same as value and does not signal loyalty. The opportunity for UK plc is to wrestle better with the amorphous notion of complex change along with the even more foggy notion of economic value. The company accountant and Finance Director, for all their virtuosity with balance sheets and investments, still need to be in an extended dialogue on value creation. Activity x rarely leads to profit outcome y.

This requires renewed imagination to conceive the complex web of value-adding activity. Science only first conceived of the human body’s network of blood vessels when the scientist pictured it as a possible interconnected whole prior to full dissection. Extending a glimpse into a 3-D hologram that is projectable onto the boardroom wall is as vital as any pithy bullet-pointed executive summary.

We have been guilty then of championing evidence-based-thinking. Just because it is visible? No, because, as T. S. Eliot said: ‘our modern eyes have been cut wide open’. We are dazzled by the bright glare of so-called evidence. A collective shooting from the hip. Bright data gets us through scrutiny sessions but not into the grey corners of long-term value. Of course any data from any source, are still tiny fragments of a whole, by definition. 0.01 is easily presented as 0.99 from under-pressure directors. Why? We have the tendency to prefer answers to questionsExplanation has become Caesar’s thumb. To explain of course is to close inquiry, and just when we needed to open up an extended search for new understanding. This is the weakness of our modern minds which prefer dialectics (systems thinking) than dialogue (holding competing logics in play).

I term this tendency ‘sunshine leadership’, one that seeks to fix the weather, ignoring the vast ecosystem of contradictory data. Rainy days are not to be despised. This a shift in the image of future leadership. A chance also to refresh the national fish tank of intellect through which new senior minds are formed. Leaders who recognise the ecosystem’s complexity, collaborate, hold dialogue and craft new business models cut shrewder figures. When a leading North West CEO recently mentioned Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (master of irony over chop logic) in the same breath as Friedrich Hegel (suggested father of modern systems thinking, if not modern thought generally) the sea state has clearly changed. The French champion their philosophers over their entrepreneurs, surely?

This is, of course, a story of post-war Britain. UK plc struggled to distribute its industrial largesse to the people who dug coal, built planes, and fought epic wars. The NHS and welfare state were hurried actions, part of the double movement of free-market societies. A correction to the turmoil of market revolution. However, post-war Germany and France invested in technical colleges while Britain invested in high-sciences. Its applied science vision evolved a middle management ethos that could translate concepts into products where UK management inherited a patriarchal and patrimonial legacy that was radically out of step with a liberalising workforce.

We conceived of beautiful concepts but could not convert them into durable products. New Jaguar motorcars sat beside the road with their owners puzzling at the engine’s failure, to discover later that the undertrained workforce had (folklore tells us) poured sand into the radiator as a means to communicating with untrained managers. A major failure of both irony and logic.

And British public and political life is going through this rupture still. Britain is torn between professional management (meritocracy) and continuity management (institutional). The UK’s slow rise of professional management and leadership capability is because at heart UK society still values continuity over change. Typical of a non-professional craft-based British model that served its industrial growth through to the beginning of the 20th century. I argue neither are silver bullets to increased productivity. Both have important offerings and should be kept in tension. We need our crafts, arts and sciences in healthy balance.

A fully modern meritocratic Britain is then on hold. The rise and rise of the professional politician/lawmaker is not addressing Britain’s performance on the world stage.

Productivity itself is a combination of business efficiency enabled by a nation’s institutional efficiency. Business will take the hit via its order book if we invest in grand infrastructure projects, but not schools, roads and rail (HS2 being a chimaera). Ironically and logically, productivity is a whole nation exercise and it is an exercise in creating a climate where the loos are cleaned because of a purpose well beyond management’s ingenious ‘employee of the month’ scheme. Tokenism, gimmickry, gestures are just that. The value of effort is measured by alignment to long-term outcomes. Business leadership and political systems being in a lively dialogue achieve this. We have seen this dialogue strained through over-regulation. But also we are looking for leadership that is capable of speaking into these issues. And often we continue to appoint leaders who are technically adept, pragmatic, excessively action-orientated but unable to hold dialogue overtime on evident complexity.

Leadership development activity that expands space for competing systems of thought, their ambiguity and ecology, is enabling. We can aid leaders to walk for longer, and more happily, in these dialogue spaces, renewing their capacity to lead into future economies. Such patient vulnerability is genuinely ‘strong leadership’; and tends to lead to creativity, with this shrewd figure seeking conversations that carry their message across an ecosystem.

It is true to say Frankenstein’s monster was erudite, intellectually sensitive and motivated. But dissolved when his myopic goal was thwarted. Hamlet cuts an even more flawed figure, and one moving into the shadows and out again. But, as Wilson Knight suggests: a ‘man almost supernaturally shrewd; he has ‘seen through humanity’’.

From Churchill to Covid to the collective good: in a media-saturated now a voice from elsewhere

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2020 at 5:32 pm

IN a media saturated moment here are some tangents that offer a ‘voice from elsewhere’. With the leadership space being dominated by the Immediate Actions of crisis leaders this is in the spirit of dialogue-on-the-margins which travels a little more slowly through this period. There is a suggestion here that a ‘dialogical approach’ is useful at this stage as we search for deeper understanding.

Link below:


Avoiding organisational burnout whilst increasing your profits: through balancing leadership and management

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2019 at 10:20 am

ONE very successful CEO said to me that every now and then he enters his office, shuts the door, drops the blind and does nothing all day and then goes home.

As shocking as that is to a workforce who can’t do that, or can’t do it as easily, the truth is that often when a leader leaves well alone the organisation he or she is responsible for ‘gets on with the job’. That particular CEO has been known to arrive on the shop floor and do the opposite, which he regrets later. He says he can’t help himself. It relieves his stress. But not the company’s.

Good management then can be a beautiful thing. And leadership can be very costly. But good managers are sometimes as rare as a completely dry day in Cumbria. When you have one cherish them. As good management remains the zone of efficient profits, effective communication, service quality, sustainable change and settled human relations.

I say this because organisations, from businesses to churches, last only 30-40 years on average. An organisation is born, grows, plateaus, and either grows again or declines and dies. And leader-founders whose drive is the source of the ‘birth phase’ are prone to throttling it at the plateau stage: ‘The seeds of demise are frequently sown during periods of success’. But what I term ‘the small town leader or entrepreneur’ can learn early to delegate daily operations to their staff. And sometimes this simplified but not simplistic truism remains ‘the art of leadership’. And who better to leave it alone to other than: the gifted manager. Who should be rewarded for their profit potential.

When I say leadership is costly I mean that as an organisation grows, both in scale and value, it’s able to produce more from less. And this is the moment when leadership must give way and enable management systems and practices, as boring as that is. And humans need boredom as unrelenting novelty is damaging (note the often failed but fashionable ‘change programmes’).

When a family firm employs its first agent (manager) it buys the manager’s ‘general management’ skillset. The General Manager takes the passion (blood, toil etc) for the organisation’s mission and converts it into a set of processes that gradually reduce the need to interrupt the leader (who periodically should be up the mountain top surveying the surrounding landscape). It allows decision-making to turn from the leader-founder out towards procedures and their managers, and then further to the administrators, who are diligent bureaucrats, and likewise often beautiful creatures.

The Western world in its relative success is run by faithful bureaucrats. During the now faltering Arab Spring one protestor spray-painted on a wall: “We need institutions!”. Evolution is less brutal than revolution. The French Revolution still rolls on of course. As Macron is finding. It’s fashionable to knock bureaucracies. But business success is reliant on its state’s institutional efficiencies. From banking to taxation. And business leadership is reliant on instituting its core values through good policies and systems.

The leader delegates to management, management to administration. And the world goes round. The firm expands its capacity. You all know this but it is worth rehearsing as 96% of the UK’s businesses are micro-businesses. And most want to grow. And relying on the first stage rocket fuel of leadership or entrepreneurial spirit is a costly exercise.

What management has sometimes been able to do in its 100 history is re-capture the core values of a functioning human society. When it doesn’t ‘managerialism’ arises. This is where systems serve themselves not the mission. Of course much of our organic society was ripped up by industrialisation and urbanisation which gave rise to the ‘modern society’. And management as a profession is in some self-reflection. Is it an exercise in modern progress (modernity = building a free society via capital owning individualists) or aiding ancient institutions (tradition = restoring an ordered, natured pastoral society based on solidarity between the generations). This is a paradox for later discussion.

Of course currently we want both: ancient and modern. A loving home, supported by ancient institutions within a law-abiding safe society, but with the freedom to escape via technology. We probably can’t have both in their fullness which the Brexit debate has discovered.

So, leaders then are required to establish good governance frameworks. They either hand over decision-making authority to appointed managers or potentially restrict their organisation’s longevity. The American corporation boomed in the early 20th century in large part to their exemplary ability to delegate responsibility as part of the impressive American management ethos. For professional management is very much the vision of the American corporation. Britain, renowned for its inventive spirit, struggled to form an egalitarian society and engage its workforce in adaptation. Its social fabric tore in the 1970s as it recognised too late its economic model was long dead.

In response, British management has followed its American counterparts into business school classrooms to place the art and craft of practice alongside the science of organisational study. British managers have over the decades begun to discuss ‘strategy’ and ‘leadership’ through the lens of the theoretical as well as the lens of experience and pragmatism. All lenses are needed to compete.

What this academic contribution won’t do is limit the impulses of leaders to either have the arrows of decision making pointing in towards them or out towards the members of the organisation. The role of the leader-founder is to recognise their consciousness might be 100 feet wide and their colleagues’ consciousness 50, but once you combine and collaborate with colleagues’ thinking it forms a much greater whole.

If our bi-weekly refuse collection relied on an entrepreneur’s ability to manage it we will have the streets piled high. Human society needs ritualised practices that require institutionalisation of the organisation. As dull as that sounds. But this is where the tension between leadership and management lies. My own ritual of teeth cleaning every morning and evening is done in an unconscious back of brain fug of unthinkingness. Such ability to pass front of brain activity to the rear (I know that’s not scientific) means human energy is conserved and my frontal lobes can get to work on new thinking. And so the organisation that constantly has to think and discuss its regular activity will burn out. Often because of a leader’s need to be at the centre of activity is a deeply personal one. The leader who recognises their role is a servant of the wider good will happily give away responsibility all day long. Usually to the grey-suited general manager. Who are beautiful things.

First published for University of Cumbria:

Where will The North find its authority?: In the soft power (Nordpolitik) of British institutions

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2019 at 2:33 pm

AUTHORITY is not what it once was. In 1950s Britain it was located within social hierarchies, collectivised industries and nation-based politics. Efforts to distribute that power via popular culture were successful. My four older sisters took to Sixties culture in various forms. Our Edwardian, war-time and now late parents looked on mainly in bemusement, remaining at a safe distance. Having obeyed social convention, duty and family they assumed these pillars were a sound basis to govern. The seeds of a New Modern Civilisation planted in the early 1800s bloomed colourfully in the 1960s. A warfare generation climbed out of austerity into full employment. The new National Health Service distributed the pill. And mothers gathered less in church halls to share the burden of child-rearing. The nation-state gradually took on its welfare role. Sub-urban developments drained mass inner-city housing projects and council estates.

Continuing to dive deep into this debate: Britain flattened its social ranks and shed its remaining communitarian culture in an expanded middle-class vision of ‘cosmopolitan living’. Socialism was  dealt Thatcher’s coup de grace: home ownership plus privatisation of collectivised industries. Authority then went into capital owning organisations who could meet the needs of the hyper-individual. And into the hands of the consumer, whose growing discretionary spend would shape government policy. Neo-liberalism celebrated the liberation of capital. Capital had gone mobile. The moral argument from neo-liberals was people would buy justice for themselves. A socialism by the back door. Capital had come out of bank vaults into Joe Public’s purse, and she will decide where it goes. Those on the margins would surely follow suit?

Authority drew its new power from distributed capital. Liquid capital in the form of Coca Colonisation brought down the Berlin Wall. Levi Jeans proving themselves seductive to Soviet citizens trapped in bread queues ended the nuclear arms race. With the end of the Cold War globalisation could accelarate the power of organisations unabated. This second Great Transformation was a new game with new rules. Brexit further revealed how the ‘nation state’ has lost its authority to direct its affairs. Authority was spread across global actors and Brexit is attempting to gather up the marbles.

Nordpolitik meets Ostpolitik agenda: Tempting to recall Willy Brandt (left) and Willi Stoph in Erfurt 1970, the first encounter of a Federal Chancellor with his East German counterpart, an early step in the de-escalation of the Cold War. Re-unifying around the symbol of the nation-state appears inevitable. It is the preferred arena to debate our collective will and identity. Northernness offers a growing symbolism for the re-reunified nation known as the United Kingdom. Northernness (Nordpolitik) appears to be a counter-power to the cosmopolitan-vision of a global-citizenry whose place is unknown, and identity is homogenised. A citizen of nowhere-ville?
Nordpolitik meets Ostpolitik agenda: Tempting to recall Willy Brandt (left) and Willi Stoph in Erfurt 1970, the first encounter of a Federal Chancellor with his East German counterpart, an early step in the de-escalation of the Cold War. Re-unifying around the symbol of the nation-state appears inevitable. It is the preferred arena to debate our collective will and identity. Northernness offers a growing symbolism for the re-reunified nation known as the United Kingdom. Northernness (Nordpolitik) appears to be a counter-power to the cosmopolitan-vision of a global-citizenry whose place is unknown, and identity is homogenised. A citizen of nowhere-ville?

Not good news for Old Labour Left. Their international socialism is not the rip tide against resurgent nationalism. Their efforts along with the reactionary Right were to give voice to those who have not found a place in a ‘cosmopolitan vision’ of Britain. Their appeal is to nation-based political power. Just as politics has lost much authority. Workers in the North of England face uncertainty as global capital will seek new sources of cheap labour in the open markets of India or Eastern Europe. It is maybe no comfort that wealthy European welfare states are facing the same dilemma. The increasingly global citizen is unable and unwilling to move as fast as global capital. The newly won authority of the cosmopolitan world citizen, freed from social convention by capital and home ownership, is facing a more precarious future than their socially constrained collectivised forebears.

But just as The North is enjoying new social freedoms through capital ownership its economic balance is about to be rocked. The EU was a bulwark against aspects of global power, enabling its wealthier welfare members to retain their bloc power against rampant globalisation. As The North of Britain now looks to nation-state-power to develop its strategies rather than EU power it is asking where it will sit in the new post-Brexit world.

The London-Brussels nexus did well for London. It sits atop the globe as one of the most dynamic cities for global business. When the EU thought Britain it frequently saw London. Its transport and finance infrastructure is impressive. Talented jobless young southern Europeans flooded London. In one sense they were departing Europe as much as coming to London. The Anglo-Spheric Britain and America share joint capitals in London and Washington DC. Both centres retained the desire to distribute risk to its citizens in a way that is at odds with the European Project. The EU has found itself in a No-Man’s Land ideologically. Its desire to lower nation-stateness of its citizens to create a bulwark against globalisation and American neo-liberalism has floundered by becoming a supra-nation-state. It has unwittingly proven that nation-states are persistent and enduring. More importantly institutions are not being swept aside by globalisation. Formed over centuries institutions are enduring. And it is where citizens turn in the face transnational corporate power.

This is the curious outworking of the cosmopolitan vision. It turns out it was not a vision after all. It was an amorphous notion with no real handrails. As party-political membership plummeted from the Sixties (membership was often a symbol of social ranking) membership of societies such as The National Trust have rocketed. These now treasured institutions are lightning rods for the hyper-individual as they collectivise around national priorities. And these institutions lobby nation-states to focus on their value-based priorities. As the green movement in Europe indicates, rowing back from the hyper-notion of a global cosmopolitan citizen, there is the rise of a newly conscious conserving citizen.

Despite fogey Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq.’s re-heated 50s patrician shtick, there is a new admiration for British institutions. As Corbyn similarly re-heats class struggle there is an emergent movement in The North. Educated vocal leaders recognise the power of British institutions, from the church to enduring social structures. The archetypal Young Person walking into a cathedral and asking ‘so, where did this come from?’ might be overplayed but you get the image.

What global capital seems unable to overpower then are non-modern institutions. It is of course trying hard to measure institutions by commercial economics. But global capital’s hard power when measured against institutional soft power is interesting. If the resurgent nation-state is anything, it is a collection of institutions as first agents. Politicians are largely lawmakers. However, institutions operationalise new legislation. And what are British institutions? They are traditional social hierarchies. Despite modern liberal politicians’ efforts British institutions have resisted efforts to modernise. Largely as ‘modern institution’ is a contradiction in terms. To institutionalise is to withdraw from economic measurement in large part.

If plastic capitalism and junk culture have become synonymous with a homogeneous global culture then the reaction is felt in The North by those who choose to stay and build a future. If a cynical South has imbibed a nowhere society where there are no patterns of identity The North has retained its social frameworks. The North as a public sphere offers an important dialectic between its heritage and future. Something almost unheard of in The South. Where there are no dialectics of identity.

Where students pre-austerity imagined working three days a week, playing in the band on Thursday, five-a-side on Friday austerity Britain has refocused education on its economic role. Where a global citizen imagined their lives in the abstractness of a global cosmos the combined effects of obscene property prices and low-waged economy have induced a serious interest in nation-based politics and a search for power. There is anger in the air for those who see their parent’s sacrifices and property-owning prosperity as an aberration. A willingness to re-invent politics at grassroots level via a Northern Leadership that has found legitimacy and entitlement through a reflexive spirit is more than a hopeful wish, it is a growing reality. What I mean by reflexive is the ability to enter the debate armed with the same power of reason and self-awareness as the traditional British Brahmin. It is curious to hear Mockney accents of Tony Blair, George Osborne and David Cameron, even Prince Harry, as they try to mash together their Standard Southern Dialects and Received Pronunciations with regional South East dialects, not without a hint of African-American Vernacular. This search for authenticity by those without Northern Heritage is curious. The social history of The North offers its own authority. Having established a distinct cultural position it has successfully challenged the dominance of The South as a de facto national centre of gravity. The direction of travel is north politically and financially.

As the frenetic attachment to global economic measures falters, there is the return to traditional notions of domestic policy and nation state governance. Britain PLC will not be able to divert its attention from domestic politics through the vision of a European federalism paying back at some point. The fruit of funding Greek super-highways is now unlikely to be seen. As attention turns to the North-South economic and social contract, symbolised by the wobbly nature of High Speed rail projects and Northern Powerhouse (note the hyperbole), there will be a pressure to turn dolls house projects into a more serious debate. And probably only a Northern Spirit can successfully speak about the Future Shape of Britain and its institutions. It is our turn. This is the era of Nordpolitik and the underlying symbols of Northernness informing institutional power. The good news is that symbols themselves are not subject to the dramaturgy of the media. Symbols grow and fade without human intervention. They are the root of institutional power as institutions form round their immanence. Global capital will bend, as do markets, to the power of homo economicus’s preference for ‘a good life’.

Regional economies leading the global post-Brexit charge: breaking free from the benevolent state through networked leadership

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2019 at 11:41 am

English philosopher Gillian Rosemary Rose died tragically young. Her thesis is that contemporary lives are functioning in ‘the broken middle’ between the ideal and real. My thesis increasingly is senior leadership is working in this space. Between ecology and economy, law and ethics (life), church and state, theory and practice, charisma and thought and so on. Brexit has been largely a failed attempt to spin centrifugally towards unified ideal systems. The Utopian traditional pastoral on the Right or the Utopian modern socialised on the Left. We are stuck in the gap between modernity and tradition ever more firmly. And our western democratic process has thrown everyone back into ‘the broken middle’. Extended dialogue through parliamentary process has saved us from alienating one half of the nation. All hail parliamentary democracy!

What are the narratives of power behind these competing images. In fact what does Brexit mean for the regions? Well, we are stirring through the oil of European doctrines and the water of Anglo-Saxon pastoral feudalism. To be European means to imbibe european humanism, placing the individual at the centre of policy making. To be Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American means to explore a solidarity with a natured society (liberalism), one closer to organic structures, a natural order of being. It is these two holograms that are competing.

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Suddenly a space has opened: “All the debates… of the modern state and society… have been re-opened,” Gillian Rosemary Rose (1947-1995). Photo by Pixabay on

I like both. Hence I like Rose’s appeal. And make the appeal myself for us as leaders to work in The Broken Middle. This is where the Regions are. Between centralising power and Domestica/ordinary life. The regions connect home and State. And this is a good thing. To re-visit the social contract in the regions cannot hurt. As rules-based supra-national bodies like the EU decay they create a space into which regional leadership has been waiting to step. But there are many other gaps in a Western post-war rules-based globalising world. And we are prone via Brexit fatigue and fear to question ‘what is the Good Society?’.

The great journey of western philosophy was to attempt a resolution between reason and experience and the noumenal (the world beyond our senses and logic). The good society would hold these competing narratives in tension. The church for example was re-balanced via the Reformation as one component of the nascent nation state. And lately modern secular society has privileged the rational technological urban life as the fruit of that re-balancing. But it is this assumption that Brexit has attacked. The provinces are wanting a voice in the social contract.

Contemporary theologians argue we are now in a post-secular society. That faith not only survived communism and revolutionary republicanism but continued to thrive. Yes, the French Revolution had propelled a ‘grown-up’ society into the unquestioned modern secular world, where knowledge reigned supreme, and we should ‘know how’ to lead and be, but modern economics is no match for ecology. Burning vast amounts of bio-matter to make decreasing amounts of metal is looking increasingly troublesome.

So the emergence of the post-secular reveals the limits of knowledge itself and more so the rational society. It is rational to help you to live to 105 as this is measurable, but the quality of your life is too ambiguous so we will not ask you your perspective. What you measure is what you get. Even the hyper-rationalist existentialist Sartre noted we cannot be ‘complete’ in this life. Which means we cannot find completeness through Knowledge of the Self in a modern individualised society. His rational introversion flushed out the self not in dialogue with the world around but as alone, removed and overly simplified. Not the vision the regions have of themselves.

The regions are saying to the urban liberal politico we cannot completely know ourselves from an isolated vantage point of city based society. UK cities are no longer the model society. This then being the end of the road for a Cartesian world of ‘I think therefore I am’. We are increasingly comfortable with Heidegger’s ‘I’m here, aren’t I!?’. I am here in the regions and it is where lived-life is far more real than in the brutalist landscape of the non-communitarian. Modern secular technological society remains two-dimensional.

The modern secular self was an attempt to reason and explain our existence. The rise and rise of Freud and Jung via rationalised descriptions paralleled the urban self missing their communal narratives, stories and myths. But psychology remains a pseudo-science. Psychologists study the objects generated by language. It remains an empirical lens, and cannot peer into the human consciousness beyond the objects language generates. And we are increasingly agreeing Subjects are not Objects. And Subjects are only Subjects when in communal living. The only mirror to form a coherent self image is not pop-psychology but Other Selves. Dialogical living. Of course the city is a great melting of Other Selves. Let us not get too purist here. But the city is being purged of its mixed citizenry. Not just gentrification but the creation of ‘prickly spaces’ as Bauman puts it. Spaces which are clearly designed for commerce not living.

So, the ‘broken middle’ is the gap between the limits of reason and empiricism (objects of knowledge) and the flourishing human being (the subject in the process of becoming). Becoming a leader, a father, a daughter etc. The subjective self refuses to be objectified as knowledge. The self only becomes when it leans into life and asserts its self as a self. Here I am! And to be a self means using knowledge but knowing its limits. Rose attempts to say that reason has been misused. As many writers who were proto-post-secularists would concur. The ancients (not the stoics) to romantics warned against reducing human society to a system of knowledge devoid of human relationships. The social contract must find a way to recognise that the masses do not want to self-actualise through knowledge, but through living.

A knowledge society is giving way gradually to the emergence of a network of relationships as western minds search for meaning ‘in relationship’. The collapse of the ideal state, which was a combination of moral absolutes reflected in the state’s legal architecture, has been devastating for industrial economies. Up until the First World War leading european nations, and America, were building the New Jerusalem. America still is. But the devastation of Flanders ripped up the symbiotic relationship between the church and State. It was the church and its narratives of life and the self that operated as a barrier to the market. And the church, as the counter to economics, has struggled to resist State power.

German reformed theologian Karl Barth’s Barmen Convention in 1934 sought to reverse the Nazi’s overpowering of the German Christian Church. German theologians before WWI saw a biblical rightness in the unified ‘God ordained’ nation state going to war to protect its sacred existence. Barth’s dismay at the church getting immersed in propping up the State led to him being among a depressingly few Protestant German Christians who would stand against Hitler’s ‘ideal state’.  Germany’s Confessing Church is much celebrated amongst Trump’s American evangelical base but we see again a depressingly few leading Protestant figures in the Christianised gospel-soaked States wishing to lose their social standing. Questioning the direction of travel for a Make America Great Again re-heated nationalism that borrows its legitimacy from bible belt is not easy for a moralising society: ‘one nation under God’.

And it is worth deviating here into a reflection on the pastoral role of the Church in our social contract. The journey of the church reveals much as it was was meant to be counter to hyper-rationality. A place where reason and life were held in tension.

The collapse of Christianity into a moral stated society has meant the church has lost its abrasiveness. It is difficult to be salt and light whilst being so respectable and polite and conformist to state agendas. The return to Pauline teaching by New Atheist thinkers is interesting here. The rationalists went for the church’s dogma. The excoriation of bland churchianity by Dawkins was much needed. Burn off my rusts said John Donne. And there is a lot of rust in moralising Christianity. Saul of Tarsus was not respectable or polite. Torturing the Christian sect at its outset required an educated conscience. But a warm Sunday Christianity generally avoided Paul, its founder. The evangelicals focused on the gospels (the Starter), the charismatics on the Acts (the Dessert), but avoided the epistles (the Mains). The epistles, letters, are where the church understood the source of its power: in unity. Marx sought power from the working classes. Paul sought power from all in the church, united with the apostles in shared mission, but not identity. Whatever shade or persuasion unity was not ‘sameness’ it was an alliedness with what had gone before. Where the law excluded, grace included, as it resolved the questions of justice.

Power and legitimacy come into tension. Christ’s sustained legitimacy was secured from his irrevocable non-violence. And subsequently Paul’s. Religion exercises violent authority frequently, lowering its legitimacy. Marxism likewise lowered its legitimacy through violent struggle. Sustainable power requires legitimate use. The power of Christ is raised by legitimate reflection within the church.

To deviate further, once an enthusiastic Christian arrives at Paul, the Paul who has spent ten years back home in South East Turkey, his ears still ringing from his breakdown on the Road to Damascus, it gets messy. Paul is not just a serious Pharisee, he is a serious scholar who has just re-read everything over again. And finds the gap between the law and grace vast. He writes a deeply philosophical treatise in his letter to the Galatian Christians. A book which evangelical/Charismatic teachers tend to avoid after theological college due to its Greekness. That is its rational outworking of the law and its intent. In effect the law is not what you think it is. It is not the objective. The end game. The law is not a criminal code.

In short Paul realises the law is a temptation. To stand on the law and profess yourself judge is sin itself. Not so much breaking laws (all 613 of them) but casting judgement using the law to achieve power is sin. It sounds like a trap. And to some extent it is. Paul spends a bit longer revealing this but in essence the law is frail he says. It is only there to reveal our religious fundamentalism, our reduction of human beingness. To pronounce judgement on anyone using the law means! Wait for it. We are now immediately bound to live by every jot, tittle, iota, circumcision of legal code. We cannot pick and choose. To live by grace means to know you cannot live by the law, cannot stand in judgement. Unless you condemn yourself. Here is Paul’s message in a nutshell.

So, for Paul, the law is temptation. A society that co-opts Christian legalism into its nation stateness, and says it is being Christian is condemning itself to a shadow of what it could be. Here is America’s problem. Its Constitution is forever being seen by some as a legal constitution. Just as the Protestants are prone to use the New Testament as a legal text, and misread its intent. It is a revelation of the law as purely a stepping stone to lived-life. This then is not a deficit theology any longer. Thou shalt not is replaced by ‘try and stop me’.

What does this maze like wander into Christian theology have for UK regions and their renewal? Apart from the fact that the provinces have a social conservatism woven with Protestant narratives. It largely means the social contract needs re-balancing. Where the individual has looked at the state and seen it as a mirage of, say, a benevolent church like structure, she has sought a kind of absolution. The breaking up of a nearly theocratic Britain during the First World War has left extended confusion, or what Eliot termed The Waste Land. How could european Powers who were quasi-sacred God ordained structures reap such destruction on their congregations? The state had invited unquestioning conformity to a socially conservative agenda. And now the state had been unfaithful itself. Disillusionment with church extended to dismay with the state and its power.

This means then a separation of not just church and state however. As Brexit is as much about disentangling collapsed entities. It means restoring the separation between knowledge and life, action and talking, money and value and so on. The UK regions have largely accepted a collapsed middle as the power of money has increased. Centralised government remains a benevolent dictator measuring by economics. As one local leading businessman said recently: ‘Brexit is the kick in the backside Britain needs’. Meaning we need a space for dialogue on how we shape regional growth and separate out life into its constituent parts.

Back to Pauline theology. Bureaucracy in Britain has grown to become a replacement for more leaderful regional economies. The Regions are tempted to accept the status quo of Westminster policy making as regional legal structures often see themselves as powerless. When the regions receive the law they enact it with diligence. This of course is unfair as we are served by faithful regional servants but their hands are tied by a nervous centre. As Paul is on his fifth flogging by the authorities for trying to get his point across that the law is not an end in itself you cannot blame him for feeling a tad irked at the slow take up of his mission. But he knew that blind obedience to statute was death itself.

The UK regions, in their fatigue, are finding new impetus through recognising their future is working between Westminster and their only power base, networked leadership. When regions move further into collaborative networks their power to shape policy grows considerably. Westminster is very sensitive to the ‘general will of the region’. The Nation State may think it has power to act, but in essence the general will of the people judges the good and the bad. A regional network is made up of a number of institutional actors who through the Blair years were pulled closer under central government. The government ministers who said they wished to modernise their departments really meant they sought to gain control through modern management. Osborne continued Blair’s modernising mission but as the Brexit process has shown you cannot ‘manage’ complexity. You have to structure central and regional government in such a way that you protect its ability to act autonomously and freely. Once you pull the control strings too tight you get a loss of leadership across the whole.

A grand process of re-balancing is taking place, and should continue to take place, which includes devolution. The law of modern management has reached its limit and the spectre of automatons is laying waste to their departments. Institutions are by definition not modern. They are ancient structures where The Law is interpreted. They lead by a form of grace not the law. Slavishness to legal prescript by overpowered regional structures has rendered central government overwhelmed. The tumult over Brexit is the space for UK regions to shoulder bravely the load via networking  their leadership locally and globally. We will have to make global connections just to live. But this is ultimately the space Britain works best in. Between the EU federalist vision, the American liberal project, and emerging markets. Of course the EU is a network, but one that got bogged down in its legal prescription. Highly rational, logical and bureaucratic but not a body that invites shared ownership across its membership. The people of the North West England would find it difficult to own the problems of the Latvia rail service. As much as we value it, the general will of the ordinary citizen is towards its region. There is the moral imperative.