breaking news from the world of ideas

by Freya Sanders
Friday, 27
September 2019
Event
14:36

Hissing at dissent, at women’s event

Inevitably, a recurrent theme at last night’s Intelligence Squared ‘Women in Power’ event was the importance of avoiding aggression and listening to other points of view. 

And so, there was condemnation of Boris Johnson’s rhetoric. Classicist Mary Beard called the PM “juvenile”. Tory Peer Sandip Verma said that this sort of language can spill “out onto the streets”. Rachel Reeves MP reminded us that her friend, Jo Cox, died believing we have far “more in common than that which divides us”. As the discussion continued, there was support for language policing and all-women shortlists; the overwhelmingly female audience nodded approvingly. I did, too. ...  Continue reading

by Freddie Sayers
Friday, 27
September 2019
Video
11:18

Watch: John McDonnell takes a swipe at Ed Miliband

This was quite a moment. First up at the NEF event at the Labour Party Conference this week was Ed Miliband, who gave a lively speech in which he bent over backwards to be complimentary to the leadership and the importance of what “John” was announcing about a four day week.

Next up came John McDonnell himself, who didn’t exactly return the favour.

Looking straight at Ed Miliband, Labour leader until four years ago, seated metres away from him in the middle of the front row, he said:

When you think how, as a movement, only a few years ago how cowed we were, how willing to accept austerity, how willing to accept the ideas of neoliberalism as common sense – just how much over the last four years we’ve been able to reject all that and develop our own ideas, but do it with not self confidence, almost into a cockiness quite honestly.
- John McDonnell

Ouch. You could feel the temperature drop, and Ed left shortly afterwards.

Brutal as McDonnell’s assessment was, it hurts because it’s true. I never accepted the narrative, pushed by many at the time, that Labour lost the 2015 election because it went too far to the Left; in reality, Ed Miliband’s braver instincts lost out, and Ed Balls’ acceptance of the framing of the deficit debate by the Tories lost them their opportunity to offer something different. The final offer was messy and weak as a result (and the election of Corbyn shortly afterwards proved the appetite for something different). ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 27
September 2019
Idea
07:00

How much is a prayer worth?

Economists have been trying to put a monetary value on prayer by testing how willing people are to pay for it. 

In a bid to reduce tender human experiences to pounds and pence — or dollars in this case — participants in the study were given $5 notes which they could either take away with them, or exchange for thoughts or prayers. 

As you might expect, religious people were willing to pay to be prayed for (more if it’s a priest, not a stranger). Rather more surprising, was the fact that the non-religious were willing to part with cold hard cash in order not to be prayed for. They wanted shielding from prayer. Christians, meanwhile, weren’t particularly keen to receive ‘thoughts’ from a non-religious stranger. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Thursday, 26
September 2019
Idea
16:58

Why “Green Growth” is a have your cake and eat it philosophy

I believe Greta is correct when she speaks of “fairy tales of economic growth”. Here she echoes that well-known observation of David Attenborough:

We have a finite environment—the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.
- David Attenborough

But the very people that applaud her for her radicalism are still wedded to the language that Greta so passionately decries. The above screenshot is taken from a Labour Party broadcast from earlier this year.

The same language of growth is there in the Labour Manifesto: ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 26
September 2019
Seen Elsewhere
12:45

Greta Thunberg, post-liberal prophet

Amid the continuing tumult of Greta-mania and Greta-phobia, Jeff MacMahon of Forbes has noticed something in Thunberg’s words to the US Congress that everyone else has missed. Here’s the relevant passage:

Wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up and telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep. These are ‘feel-good’ stories about how we are going to fix everything. How wonderful everything is going to be when we have ‘solved’ everything. But the problem we are facing is not that we lack the ability to dream, or to imagine a better world. The problem now is that we need to wake up. It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science. And the science doesn’t mainly speak of ‘great opportunities to create the society we always wanted’. It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action – unless we start to act now.
- Greta Thunburg

MacMahon argues that this implies a criticism not just of the those who deny there’s a climate crisis, but also those who accept the science and advocate action to deal with the problem – selling it to voters with promises of all sort of side benefits. Even something as radical as a Green New Deal, as proposed by the Left of the Democratic Party in America and, in the UK, by the Labour Party, is promoted as something we’d want anyway – a new New Jerusalem. ...  Continue reading

by Freddie Sayers
Thursday, 26
September 2019
Reaction
10:06

Hannah Arendt on Boris Johnson

On Newsnight last night, Paul Mason quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt on “the alliance of the elite and the mob”, (see 39:55 here) with reference to Boris Johnson’s incendiary language in the House of Commons.

I looked up the relevant passages from her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. He’s right that her description of the shredding of respectable norms is highly pertinent to today, but she is much more nuanced in understanding the appeal, as well as the danger, of that atmosphere. She doesn’t put it down to cynicism but to an initially righteous instinct to burst through a culture of “fake sincerity, fake culture, fake life”: ...  Continue reading

by Freddie Sayers
Wednesday, 25
September 2019
Event
15:39

Mark Thompson: the BBC is the answer to Brexit

OK, he didn’t say exactly that, in his speech last night to the Royal Television Society, but that was the implication of the New York Times CEO’s argument. It’s an interesting one.

He began by asserting that the root causes of the current Brexit impasse were cultural just as much as political:

If you claim that the concerns which led to the Brexit debacle relate to political rather than this kind of cultural sovereignty, my reply is that it’s impossible to separate the two, that national self-expression – recognising your language, your life experience, your community in the prevailing culture – is not just an important element, but a necessary pre-condition for national self-determination and a sense of individual and collective agency.

A society which loses its shared culture loses much of its sense of distinctive identity. A society in which different communities and groups can no longer listen to and come to understand each other’s pasts and presents shouldn’t be surprised if mutual incomprehension and division are the result. If you doubt that any of this connects to big politics and national well-being, you’re not paying attention.

- Mark Thompson

He then goes on to suggest that the BBC, as the only media player that can possibly fulfil the role of protecting a distinctly British cultural voice and projecting that voice internationally, should really be seen as the ally of Brexit voters, not their enemy. He even supportively quotes JM Keynes’ famous “death to Hollywood” remark, before calling for more investment in the BBC to maximise its cultural power: ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 25
September 2019
Spotted
11:51

Meanwhile in America… President Yang?

There’s a good chance that Donald Trump will lose in 2020 (assuming he doesn’t get impeached first).

Therefore we should be paying more attention to the race for the Democratic nomination. Way out in front is a leading group of three candidates: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re old. Sanders is 78, Biden 76 and Warren 70. While Warren is on top of her game, Sanders and Biden have put in some rather rambling performances in the TV debates so far.

If any of these three withdraw from the contest, they’d leave a big gap. That’s especially true of Biden – the standard-bearer of the Obama-Clinton wing of the Party. Which is why the rest of the candidates still matter. Without Biden, a younger moderate would be catapulted into the front ranks and quite possibly the White House. But who? ...  Continue reading

by Paul Embery
Tuesday, 24
September 2019
Video
17:58

Stephen Kinnock Interview: the Labour Party is in danger

I sat down with Stephen Kinnock MP at Labour Party Conference in Brighton, to discuss his prospective Brexit deal and the future of the Labour party. He is emerging as a leading figure within the party for re-establishing its core values and respecting the referendum result.

On a possible Brexit deal, Kinnock calculates he has “a solid two dozen” Labour MPs who can support the cross-party package. If the DUP can be satisfied on the backstop, he thinks it could pass (“I’ve never met a Labour MP who is worried about the backstop.”)

On the future of the Labour Party, he said the party needs “a clear message to our communitarian heartlands that we believe in the value of place.” ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 24
September 2019
Reaction
13:00

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the constitution

I told you so. The other week on UnHerd, I argued that it is time that the UK had a proper written constitution – but not the kind of constitution that the establishment would like to write for us, which would establish the establishment more deeply than ever.

Lady Hale delivering her judgement this morning

In fact, it is already happening. The Remain parliament, the Speaker, the Supreme Court are effectively re-writing the constitution and doing it without a democratic mandate. Their cheerleaders insist that this is just our existing constitution working as it should do. Well, I’m no position to gainsay the expertise of Lady Hale and her colleagues – their grasp of the letter of the law would appear to be firmer than that of the Government’s legal advisors. ...  Continue reading

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