Our Planet Matters to Auntie

The BBC’s year-long project, ‘Our Planet Matters’ could be a great thing if it is a wide approach, and of the essence of the BBC’s educational mission.  It may just become a narrow propaganda piece.

The announced project is “a year-long series of special programming and coverage on climate change” with “a raft of news services and shows”. There is a false note there: real environmental issues worldwide cover a wide range of challenges, and of these climate change is the most minor. It is real, but nowhere near as important as pollution or the loss of habitats, for example.

The BBC has the resources to drag in all the wisdom of the world and create an unequalled examination of the many, complex issues within the field, but it mostly chooses a narrow, simplistic approach, for it is still at heart a part of the entertainment industry.

We respect the BBC because it can do wonders, and has David Attenborough; they can draw upon brilliant men and women; but it is part of the entertainment industry and the decisions and editing are made by those who are at a level with the Victorian music-hall.

I want Auntie to do its environment series and do it well.  This blog has carried articles on environment issues before and will do so again. Technology has reached a stage when the world can and should step into new ways of doing things that tread more lightly on the earth. In a timely way, Prince William no less has created the ‘Earthshot Prize’ to encourage solutions to the world’s pressing problems, and declared the coming years a decade of action to repair the Earth.  Excellent; and so we should.

What Prince William recognises in the framing of his prize is that ‘environment’ is a broad heading within which there are many practical issues crucial to our time: pollution of the air, land and oceans; lack of fresh water; biodiversity; and climate change. That is all good. For all that though, when I saw that announcement of a year-long BBC series, I knew that they will get it completely wrong. The press release says just “climate change”. Maybe that is just the PR people writing and ‘Our Planet Matters’ will look at the wider field, but I am not hopeful, by past experience.

The environment has been an issue since 1989 when Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations:

Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.

Mrs Thatcher began a global movement, and she was not alone. The greatest philosopher of our age, Sir Roger Scruton, whose passing we mourned this week, wrote at length on issues of protecting the environment, and he realised that it is a very conservative concern:

It needs to be pressed as a conservative issue. It comes across in the mouths of radicals and socialists though, whose ideas would destroy the very things they are claiming to support. The conservative voice for the Earth came first and must be heard loudly. I am not confident of its breaking through he walls of New Broadcasting House, but Conservatives should not make the mistake of dismissing the whole field: just the unscientific mistakes that will be propagated.

Back to the BBC’s year of programming, it has started badly by linking the Australian bush-fires to global warming. They are two completely separate issues, and the worst fires are in the coolest parts of the continent.  That was lazy. They need to do better if this project is to fulfil its educational brief.  The fires are an environment issue, in a broad field, but it is not connected with global warming.

However, global warning is the posterboy of the green movement and everything seem reductible to it, to the exclusion of all else; well, that and waste plastic, which is actually more important.

(I recall in the 1980s the two big environmental scares were depletion of the ozone layer above the poles, and heavy-metal pollution from vehicles, which are both real, and completely unrelated. You still got people protesting to remove lead from petrol ‘to protect the ozone layer’.)

Start by asking who will want to push themselves forward to talk about environment issues to all the living-rooms of the nation.  Frightening isn’t it?

Even if it is a year on climate change, the next concern is what conclusions they imply. As has been recited in many other places, the simplistic solutions suggested by the extreme-green movement would lead to mass starvation and worse environmental degradation, and even if the venting of carbon dioxide into the air ceased at once, it would take two hundred years to bring the levels down. Will the BBC accept some subtlety into their broadcasting? We will see, but I am not hopeful.

The BBC started broadcasting in colour in 1967, but it only broadcasts opinions that are black and white.

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Who are the Iranians?

We do not understand Iran and maybe never shall. It is not a normal country, and that is meant in a good way. Half a century of dealing with fractious, artificial Arab states in the Middle East, and suddenly the face of conflict is not one of these but Persia, and we cannot behave the same way.

Iran is an ancient land. We once knew it as Persia and by that name we had more understanding of it. The land was not renamed: Persia was always called ‘Iran’ in its own tongue, going back five thousand years, but in the 1920s the king demanded that the native name be used by outsiders too. In doing so he unwittingly built a wall of incomprehension. Had we continued to use the name of ‘Persia’, then the nature of this extraordinary land would be more apparent to us all.

Persia echoes throughout our history and our culture. Biblical Judah encountered it; the Greeks fought it; Alexander conquered it and his followers became Persian as they ruled it; the Romans met the Persian Empire as an equal throughout their long Empire; but long before Rome was founded and long after it fell, Persia remained. Their language too is so deeply embedded that it became a lingua franca across the middle of Asia, and was even the official language of British India until Macauley’s reforms.

This is a fundamental distinction with the fractious Arab world we have become used to. Those states are a loose collection of emirates and new republics, the largest of them carved from the flesh of the old Ottoman Empire just a hundred years ago and they have no deeply rooted sense of nationality, beyond the name of ‘Arab’. Persia however has had that idea of itself for five thousand years. When Saddam Hussein invaded the Iranian province of Khuzestan, he thought that its people, as Arabs, would rise and join him, but he could not appreciate that the Persian Empire has embraced a variety of peoples and languages for millennia and the Arabs of Khuzestan were just as proud to be Iranians their Persian-speaking compatriots.

Therefore when the west confronts Iran, the Iranians may see us as precocious children: the western states, even the oldest, have nothing to say to a country which was a mighty empire of cities, craftsmen and armies when our forefathers were living in mud shelters.

It hurts such a nation if it is belittled or humbled, as it has been in 19th century conflicts with British India and Russia, in the concessions wrung out at that time, in that it took European archaeologists to display their own ancient treasures, in the almost casual military occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union in 1944.

The current sickness in the heart of the Iranian state comes from an existential conflict. Iran, Persia is ancient, but the ruling ideology is not. Extreme Islam will tolerate no rival identity; even that of the nation, and this leaves a problem for an average Iranian. Iran is 98% Muslim, which is a religion brought from outside by conquerors to supersede their culture, and there lies a conflict that has never been resolved. There is no consensus about whether the 7th century Arab conquest can be considered a liberation from evil practices, or a national humiliation. The late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, incurred the wrath of the Ayatollah by modernisation, but it is said that the final straw was when n 1971 he lavishly celebrated 2,500 years of the Persian Empire and those aspects of Persian history which predated Islam: Khomeini called it “the Devil’s Festival”.

I do not believe an entire culture can be provided by Islam alone, to the exclusion of all other influences. If you look at Pakistan, it was an equal inheritor of India’s heritage, but in creating a separate, artificial country its rulers tried to create a difference, casting out their inherent Indian identity and millennia of rich culture, which left only the Mohammedan religion to be their basis. It seems as if the Iranian rulers are attempting the same.

This division, between popular culture and religiously defined culture is a powerful one. Iranians personally are delightful people in my experience, intelligent, aware, celebrating life and culture as well as anyone might, and they are very aware of their country’s seniority. Against them are the religious authorities which guard the state and would define every minute aspect. In 2014, you may recall, the young folk who filmed themselves joyously dancing to Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’; only to be shut down and sentenced to 71 lashes.

A division between state and society is apparent and is growing, and as I grows the state must react against it, deepening the division. I dread to think how that may end.

When we ‘precocious children’ in the west stand against Iran, as we must, it is the wayward government of the country that we confront. Threatening economic ruin makes little sense if the government could not care what happens to the people, and threatening war plays well with the ‘victim narrative’. Behind it though is a most remarkable people waiting to be let out.

Between two fires

I do not want to write about the bushfires of Australia unless in a respectful or mournful way, and I do not want to write of those caught in them other than to praise fortitude, heroism, and to sit with those who have lost their homes and livelihoods, and I know that anything I say will be open hypocrisy as I have no intention of flying to Australia and doing anything to help (and if I did, I would just be getting under everyone’s feet). The Lucky Country does not feel like it at the moment.

It is a land the other side of the world, but to native Britons it is no more foreign than if it were a couple of counties away. We feel the heat, and thank God for providence for our own land that does not suffer in that way.

I should not speak of events of which I have no real knowledge or people, cousins, who do. But then we come to the point of my writing anything at all, on anything, and that is for the insight that events give into the heart of man, and what to do about it. Those fires are illuminating some ugly sides in man that we recognise amongst ourselves.

There have always been bushfires in Australia, since before Captain Cook; before even the Aborigines arrived. This year (by the accounts I have heard) seems the worst in living memory.

There are fierce arguments going on amongst Australians. We can put aside the Twitterstorms calling for the Prime Minister to be sacked – presumably they think he is responsible somehow for the fires, governments being omnipotent of course.  No, the argument is over detached cause.

Everything bad is caused by manmade global warming, according to some, and in Australia that is being pressed hard in the glow of the flames. On the other side are those denying any link to warming or climate change. That deaf-to-each-other polarisation is very familiar to those of us in living Britain over the last three and a half years. In reality, neither side has the whole truth, and neither are they the only sides there are, much as they would like to shut all others out. In the meantime, homes and farms are burning. The heroes are not shouting into the air on Twitter or ABC or in Canberra, but hefting their hoses deep in the glowing bush.

The BBC recently ran a piece in order to demolish a conspiracy theory on the denial side, namely that the fires are caused by hundreds of arsonists – and some have claimed it is even arsonists paid by the green lobby. (I believe it is only a small fringe who go that far, though these days you cannot tell.) The BBC piece was along the lines “this is a mad, fake-news conspiracy; so the climate change theory is the whole truth”.  It is not though.

This is not a binary issue: it is not one thing or another, the exclusion of one meaning embracing the other.  Both sides are a bit right and mainly wrong. It is not one-cause-and-no-other and not truth against falsehood, but a complex process of countless factors in the continent’s environment leaning on the probability of wildfire, for it and against it, until the incendiary factors prevail. In some of these the green lobby are right – but on others their actions may have caused the extent of the fires.

The green lobby being partly responsible is a dangerous thing to assert in an atmosphere where a side is deemed always right or always wrong. Here it is an inescapable conclusion though. They have not set fires (whatever the conspiracy theorists claim), they have not forced policy that has dried the climate, and they have warned that the actions of mankind can cause global changes, and in this there is nothing but praise – but if in the pursuit of guarding the environment one environmentalist or a group has forced a change in forestry practices which allowed fires to spread further and faster, then he or they might as well have set the fires.

I am in no position to say whether Greens have stopped back-burning of undergrowth, as always used to be done to prevent fires spreading: they have been accused of it even by the Prime Minister, but maybe it is an effect we are familiar with here: no one gives the order, but someone who is not in power gives out a strong impression that causes local officials to change their practices without being told to. I am not there though and cannot tell.

As to the arson theory, that one has been exploded, surely? Not quite: there have been arsonists. Why, beggars belief, except in the twisted recesses of the heart of man – to set a fire is to exercise power, which is a fundamental motivation. There have been very few, mercifully, but they have been some, so that idea cannot dismissed as 100% wrong.

Looking at the natural environment as the greens tell it: yes, Australia has been drying for decades. It has always been dry, but last year was exceptional – the driest on record across much of the continent, and the previous year was dangerously dry too. Two years without ran turned the forests into a tinderbox. That is not a win for the global warming theory though: if it were the gradual increase in world temperature this drying would be a pattern, but just eight and nine years ago much of Australia was the wettest on record. It runs in cycles, not a progression.

In any case if this were a smooth increase across the whole world it would just mean a southward shift in weather patterns, but this is all across Australia. Australia has been warming – but only by about 1 °C since the War, and that makes not a blind bit of difference to the combustibility of woodland. The drying climate does, but that has not been consistent, and may be nothing to do with manmade effects. There are manmade effects on the environment, but this does not look like one: the patterns are not consistent with it.

(Neither is it Australia’s own dynamic position – the continent has been moving northwards at 2¾ inches a year – but even 16 feet since the war will not change the climate.)

The arguments will continue, long after the fires have died down and long after the rains have come at last. Both sides will be right and be wrong, and neither will concede anything to the other.

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The work begins: constitutional reform

The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established probably this year.  Nothing in the Conservative Manifesto suggested radical changes in the constitution – it is, after all, a conservative manifesto – but Parliament would be failing in its duty were it not to knock a few blocks back into line where they have become dislodged.

Even a majority of 80 is not enough to overturn the fundamental elements even if that were tempting. The changes proposed are barely even changes. This reality has not stopped incontinent rages on social media.

The Commission from the first day must handle its work sensitively. The objective has been set out up front:  rebalancing our understood constitutional norms, strengthening the rule of law and strengthening the operation of democracy.  Momentum-type commentators like Owen Jones and his endless identikit clones are prophesying instead the destruction of democratic norms and the rule of law, rather like a socialist state I suppose:  this accusation must be met by such demonstrable practical contradiction that the likes of Jones are humiliated.

The motto for any Conservative with a position of strong political power should be one from Shakespeare:  “Oh it is marvellous to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it as a giant”.

The essential duty is to do the right thing.  Politically though it is not enough to do right – the whole process must be handled in an open manner with clear, unarguable objectives and all decisions must be traced to those objectives.  Left-wing commentators will claim credit for preventing a destruction of democratic norms (which is a lovely irony), so politically the derivation of the result must appear as a logical outcome of principles.

There is a trust issue.  It is legitimate for commentators to be wary of constitutional changes when there is a government with enough strength in the Commons to drive through almost anything. Trust must be won by demonstrating trustworthiness.

All this will not be enough to quieten shouty people on Twitter as reason does not rule in that sphere.  Lack of credibility does not stop people getting on Sky News to talk of their fantasies of tyranny. (In America, where not a jot nor tittle of the Constitution can be changed without 34 bickering states and Congress agreeing every word, there are Twitter warriors sincerely telling their followers that the President can cancel elections and rule for life.)  The answer to lunacy is lucidity.

Nothing grand will come of this – Parliament can do anything to the constitution, but  Dire warnings are welcome, but thy must be realistic to be credible, and so we start with what we know.

There will be popular and unpopular decisions to be made, and timing these will be crucial.  It is tempting to make unpopular choices at the beginning and finish the rest of the term with popular ones to boost poll ratings, but government does not work like that, and voters are not so daft either.  Tony Blair announced from the beginning of his time a serious of measures to win over opinion, and the warm glow in opinion permeated through his period in office in spite of all the other things he did. Establishing goodwill and trust early is valuable.

The problem areas are measures which do good but sound bad. Tax cuts for the wealthy may fall into that sphere.

The most relentless drain on poll-ratings must be cuts and virtual cuts – ‘virtual cuts’ being where money was spent as an exceptional item one year and is not available the next, or where the same money is switched to different priorities.

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The year begins – 2020

There is no time for our politicians, in any party, to sit back and enjoy the ride. The work began the moment they set foot in Westminster, and the time to the next General Election is ticking away; presumably 1 May 2024.

There are few unavoidable fixtures before the election.

It starts with Brexit Day, finally, on 31 January 2020.  This is then followed by negotiations to reach a free trade agreement, or the essential parts of one, based on the Political Declaration, before 31 December 2020.

The next is the Budget each year;

The local elections, and in particular the London mayoral election on 7 May 2020 (in which the egregious Sadiq Khan is expected to walk home in spite of his having been worse that useless in office).

The Olympic games in Tokyo in 2020: not political, but a national morale-boost, usually.

The creation of the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission is likely to happen in 2020.

Then the American Presidential Election on 3 November 2020 – which will determine the course of negotiations for free trade across the ocean, and by indirect influence set a tone for political debate.

First thing though: Brexit. Consummating the event must not be the end of the Brexit campaign as the following months and years will be filled with claim and counterclaim about the effect it is having on the economy, and the ‘Rejoiners’ must not be the only voice heard.  The statistics must therefore be available and up front.

That same spirit of openness and demonstrable achievement must permeate through the years ahead. The new blue north is not a given in four and half years’ time, and the generation too young to know the reality of socialism will continue to fill the electorate from the bottom. A great deal of trust must be built up in spite of a cynical age.

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