The Sound of Silence

A politics beyond breakdown

It’s hard to focus on anything other than Gaza at the moment. Its incessant bombing won’t have had anyone celebrating Paul Simon’s 82nd birthday by singing “Hello darkness, my old friend…”. By margins

that are difficult to comprehend, we are well beyond Israel’s credible limits of ‘legitimate self defence’.

The collective punishment of Palestinians – from the denial of food, water and electricity to the bombing of hospitals and the demand that 1 million people evacuate their homes – has filled all the news coverage that followed the Hammas’ atrocities.

A land invasion of Gaza will widen this conflict, but that may be exactly what Netenyahu is looking for.

Gone are the hundreds of thousands of Israeli objectors who recently turned out to oppose his undermining of the Israeli judiciary and attempts to dismantle Israel’s rule of law. Gone are the thousands of Reservists who refused to turn out for him. Now volunteers queue up in greater numbers for a fight no one will win.

The Far Right in Netenyahu’s Cabinet seem intent on another Palestinian diaspora that would hand more land over to Israeli settlers. Israel’s enemies will use this as evidence that the ultimate plan is to ethnically cleanse Gaza. Israel’s friends reinforce it by drawing no line that Netenyahu is prevented from crossing.

Meanwhile, protestors – inside and outside Israel – who continue to cross faith and national boundaries in search of a more just and lasting settlement, are left to weep. In Britain, those who would build bridges are derided by those insisting that one side is all.

This is the politics of insecurity. Within it lie the seeds of fascism, in which fear, prejudice, division and polarisation become the cornerstones of political exchange. It is a long way from any meaningful ‘Sound of Silence’.

A world in meltdown

Beyond this tragedy, the world faces much bigger threats that know no national boundaries. Scientists have offered their bluntest warning about the risk of climate breakdown.

Runaway heat and runaway flooding may seem strange bedfellows but this is where ‘feedback loops’ take us. Storm Babet closed down large parts of Scotland and 160 severe flood warnings in England. It is an occurrence we are going to have to get used to.

The global warming connections are simple. As the planet heats up, evaporation from the oceans increases. NASA calculates that for every 1°C rise in global temperature there is a 7% increase in atmospheric water vapour. More heavily saturated clouds then pass over land masses releasing rainfall in much greater densities. Meteorologists refer to these as ‘rain bombs’ and ‘atmospheric rivers’.

Mere humans describe them as catastrophic flooding.

So it was that, in September 2023, Storm Rina hit New York with up to 160mm of rain in a day. At the same time, Storm Daniel hit Libya with 400mm of rain per day and Greece with up to 600mm.

For the record, 600mm is the UK’s average annual rainfall. Tell that to those suddenly flooded in London.

This is the weather roller-coaster we are locked into. But it’s implications go almost unrecognised in parliamentary exchanges. To engage with it we need a new ‘economics of the elements’. There is little sign that British politics even grasps this.

Rather than face the challenge, and radically re-think the way we live, Sunak has opted for a rapid descent into cheap politics. It is well known that, in times of crisis the human mind looks for security, either in the form of a unifying ‘big idea’ or in the proximity of someone to blame.

Sunak made his choice. He is with the motorist rather than children’s (or their parent’s) lungs. He is with the oil and gas lobbyists, not the purveyors of clean energy. He is with private flights rather than public transport. He is with those who pillage other people’s lands rather than those who would restore the viability of our own. His legacy will be to have presided over a government whose MPs set new records of political impropriety; an administration that has lavished cash handouts on their richest friends whilst waving their genitals in the face of the British public.

No wonder Labour won historic victories in the latest 2 by-elections. But these came from an implosion of the Conservative vote, not a swing to Labour. Traditional Tories felt sullied by their own party, and no wonder.

Victories are victories and the next General Election cannot come soon enough. But there are huge question marks over whether Labour has a stronger grasp of the existential threats humanity faces. No ordinary economics will get us out of this mess. No disciplined ‘middle-of-the-roadism’ will repair the planet. Safe hands on a sinking ship is not the answer the country needs.

Re-founding democracy

Labour is not without its radical thinkers. It’s just that most of them are currently muted, suspended or expelled. This doesn’t bode well for an engagement with transformative policy making. What it calls for are measures that strengthen democracy and climate resilience at the same time.

In an era where both democracy and climate are undermined by the influence of false news, this could hardly be of greater importance. The Right have been far more effective than the Left in their use of social media.

Disinformation gains weight in line with the distance people feel from any level of political control. This is what makes radical decentralisation, and the re-founding of democracy, such a critical part of transformative economics. It doesn’t make localism a panacea. It just makes holding people to account more central to public credibility.

None of this undermines the case for national leadership. It would just break from Britain’s obsession with centralised control and focuss debate around the structural rather than the procedural. There’s an easy example of what this might mean.

To meet its legal undertakings, Britain must cut its carbon emissions by 10% a year, for at least the next decade. Labour could make this a statutory obligation.

Local authorities would then be left to determine how best to do this within their own locality. Countries with more federal structures (like Germany and Denmark) have no difficulty in grasping this. Most importantly, it would shift Britain’s national debate from ‘let someone else do it’ to ‘what works best in our area?’

Unexpected alliances

The process would throw up some unexpected partnerships. Place the same duty on Ofgem and you could see energy companies forced into the rapid expansion of renewable energies and energy saving. They could only deliver the latter by offering households free energy efficiency programmes (or paying local authorities to do so on their behalf). Ofgem itself would have to force the pace of developing networks of decentralised energy generation, storage and distribution.

In agriculture, it would shift subsidies away from globalised food systems and in favour of radically reduced carbon mileage. This would bring Britain much closer to the European ‘slow food’ movement and more localised (and seasonal) food production. Farmers, faced with the same annual carbon reduction obligation, would face a similar re-think of the use of fertilisers (and their impact on water quality). All public subsidies would have to shift as part of this war time/peace time effort.

Of course it will be radically disruptive. But so too is flash flooding, drought and heat domes. We simply don’t have the time to be less than bold.

There’s a famous story about one of George W Bush’s press conferences in which Bush’s earpiece failed to give him any answer to a journalist’s question. After an embarrassing silence, and a completely blank expression on the President’s face, an audience voice was heard saying “Oh, my God. There’s no one in!”

Faced with the greatest existential threat we have ever known, it would be tragic if the same was said about the next British parliament.

Alan Simpson October 2023

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