Hay Festival 2014

Hay Festival 2014: Prospect on Europe

Prospect magazine is in Hay for a couple of days, its presence spread across both the Festival itself and HowTheLightGetsIn. At that second festival they are doing political philosophy, while on the Hay Maes itself, the topic for both the magazine’s events is politics raw and right-up-to-minute. The nine and ten am slots on Hay’s third day have been well thought-out with the benefit of the double election results pouring in.

The panel of guests that Chair Bronwen Maddox leads has a virtue of breadth and depth. It features an economist in the form of the sharp veteran Anatole Kaletsky. Hay on this day is not doing mud on a Glastonbury scale but the weekend deluge has left the surrounding fields-cum-car-parks well drenched. It is a rare economist who joins the club of the super-rich. Economists are, however, not poor. This is not necessarily because they always make good decisions but more because they avoid bad ones. They know risk. Kaletsky uniquely, unashamedly and appropriately, takes to the platform in a pair of wellington boots.

Prospect consistently does a few things well that other journals and commentators do not. A monthly deadline means a little more space and time to commission long-form essays that get beneath the radar of surface events. Television is rarely more than feeble on China – although, to his credit Robert Peston got to point out that the revenues of that country’s local government are largely derived from larceny, the proceeds taken from builders and investors who leave fifteen percent of the country’s housing stock empty. Prospect has been publisher of the only popular essay that conveys how it has felt to have been in China over the last twenty years. It is the journal that has done the best accessible projection of quite where automation is most likely heading.

When David Marquand does the Union for Prospect he absolutely gets right the gulf between the polities of Wales versus the United Kingdom in its entirety. One’s theme is ‘choice, competition, customer’ and the other ‘voice, cooperation, citizen’. I have yet to meet a citizen of Wales who is convinced by the Private Finance Initiative. It is rarely used in Wales, and those in the know tell it as a Brown-Balls-City-of-London wheeze, that takes assets out of common ownership and puts them in Special Investment Vehicles. The spun purpose may well be enhanced project efficiency, but the only view that has ever come my way is that the sole motivation is to get them off the national balance sheet and nicely holed away in the Caymans.

Prospect also regularly employs Peter Kellner. It is not the habit of YouGov to knock up samples of a fifty or a hundred to grab a headline. It does the work to reach the requisite ‘n’ figure that gets error down to plus or minus two percent. Kellner has researched social class background in the electoral process and is authoritative on how it manifests itself. Kellner is billed for Hay’s first-morning session and Bronwen Maddox apologises for his absence on this most turbulent of post-election days. He is present but from afar as an amplified voice. Maddox with some solicitude asks whether the sizable audience can hear with an apology that the Kellner voice has the quality of a second world war broadcast.

But his is a voice that is worth listening to. Forget the flim-flam and the breathless rush of immediate reaction. Wales and Scotland have got proportional representation, but Britain threw it out when asked. Four and a half million people voted against the traditional parties on 22nd May. Of that, reports Kellner, one million are voting Conservative next May, another million-plus likely to. The harsh arithmetic of first-past-the-post means that maybe a seat or two in a depressed part of Lincolnshire is feasible for UKIP. Politics is a volatile thing but the view as of 26th May is that UKIP’s Westminster numbers will do well if they surpass Plaid Cymru.

Hay is great. It is a rare cultural event in Wales that breathes an air of such cosmopolitanism. It is the place where a question can be lobbed at a Nobel Prize-winner or where an audience can hear the world’s one hundred and thirty-fourth richest man declare how thoroughly un-evil remains the company over which he presides.

But Hay’s location is oft forgot. Kellner reports from polities all across Europe but omits the one where his audience has assembled. Now YouGov is not going to cross the Cambrians to do a statistically rigorous sample, and quite sensible too. But Jill Evans stays in Strasburg. Plaid in the West ran a strong campaign of defence and there is evidence, but not beyond anecdotal level, of tactical voting. Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire knew who they did not want and went for the incumbent. The Lib Dems paid the price this time but for the pundits and forecasters of next year there is the assurance that a vote for Plaid in 2014 may be consistent with intentions for 2015. Or well may not.

Anatole Kaletzky surmises the worst outcome of 2014 is that ‘the economic malaise in Europe may metastasise into political malaise’. He is ready to steer the dialogue into excoriating the Coalition’s economics but Bronwen Maddox firmly states that that topic is for another time and place.

John Kampfner, a strong and persuasive platform presence, has two topics to contribute that ring true. The first is the strange contradiction of the popular political culture that Britain has meandered into. The popular voice objects to political representatives keeping up jobs or professions, a belief fuelled by vengefully-toned websites that MP’s are employees. Yet the record of employment after Parliament is patchy and the stress on family life is colossal.

This means that the sample of applicants narrows precisely to those that the electorate most dislikes. I am with Kampfner. I value a parliament that at least includes Paul Flynn, Jesse Norman, Sarah Wollaston, Chris Mullin, Rory Stewart – party does not matter here. It is not because they are nicer but because they bring breadth. I recoil as much from the Conservatives’ choice for Oxford West and Abingdon as I do Labour’s 2015 candidate for Rossendale and Darwen. If Parliamentarians have never had a job, what exactly is it they are bringing? Kellner recalls the war-experienced likes of Willie Whitelaw or Roy Jenkins deep inside Bletchley. But it is probably a fight against history.

Kampfner’s second point is powerful. 2008 is closed, he says, as far as the Westminster bubble is concerned, but it is unfinished business for the public. There has been no equivalent to a Commission of Reconciliation. The one executive of seniority to be admonished reports that he was bullied to meet loan targets and to hell with the concept of risk. On a radio phone-in this last week a quite reasonable voice, much to the BBC interviewer’s sudden alarm, declared that the supermarket man with his pile ‘em high mortgages ought to be in gaol. A retailer who faked his way into an operating theatre or posed as a lawyer would be prosecuted. No-one has ever explained to the common voter why non-professionals were admitted into City boardrooms. At least the Co-op kept its amateurs as non-executives.

Kellner briefly touches on London’s vote against the trend of most other parts of Britain. London is already economically detached but 22nd May is the first marker of its political detachment. He skates at speed across the obvious. The multiculturalism is one thing but what matters is the age profile. Londoners are young, and Europe is akin to gay marriage. It’s a generation thing. Anyone under forty has grown up taking for granted the freedom to travel and work visa-free. Even if Faragism proves to have legs in the medium term – and has the effect of detaching first Scotland and then Wales in the process – it cannot last. Come the year 2045 and its acolytes will all be dead. Read Norman Davies on Vanished Kingdoms – it’s all in there.

Peter Kellner called the vote of 22nd May ‘a cry of rage’. I myself have a slight memory of the tempo of elections in the pre-unification Bundesrepublik. With their scrupulous mix of direct vote and party lists they were somnolent affairs. The time from now to May next year is going to be anything but somnolent, but those unexorcised phantoms of 2008 are sure to return. The premier at that time had the habit of interrupting any interviewer’s mention of the debt crisis with the phrase ‘global crisis’. It wasn’t. Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, Canada even, are part of the globe too and they were not in the mire.

Hay attracts an informed audience. An authoritative voice on the politics of Greece points out that journalistic short-hand of ‘Left’ for Syriza is misplaced. It is a pro-Europe party of small business owners. A young high-flier of a civil servant guides the panel towards the basic paradox of last Thursday. If the European Parliament had executive authority it would attract a vote of seriousness. As it does not and will not, ever, it gets the vote it asks for.

May Prospect make as stimulating a return to Hay in 2015.

Illustration by Dean Lewis