Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: November, 2017

So long Remembrance Day, lets move on.

We will observe the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war on Remembrance Day next year. Whilst this year’s ceremony is still ringing in my ears, I want to plea for the whole event to be rethought and scaled down thereafter.  I do not understand why Remembrance Day grows in attendance and importance every year, as opposed to diminishing in stature. I suspect we hold on to it for the wrong reasons.

A caveat: I know that soldiers have died in combat in recent years and agree their memory  should be honoured. There are memorials in my church  to Kevin Leech  who died on active service in Iraq, aged 20 and to Derek Armstrong who died in the Falklands War, aged 22. They come from a long tradition of young men from Prudhoe  serving Queen and Country.

Another caveat: I always find the two minutes silence extremely moving. In Prudhoe, a long parade of military personnel, ex service men, cadets, scouts, guides and brownies led by a  pipe band marches along Front St and assembles outside the lychgate to church, which is the town war memorial. They are joined by several hundred members of the public for two minutes silence. I have no doubt that we should gather together in silence more often.  It speaks louder than words.

The Church was full to overflowing for the Remembrance Day service.  We did not sing the now controversial ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and made a shared commitment to strive for peace, heal the wounds of war and work for justice for all humanity.  It is a valuable statement of reconciliation and aspiration, but it can be lost amidst the marching boots and the military banners. It may also be a missed opportunity for the Church to attract back young people, who are frozen stiff  in their uniforms by the time they enter church, and facing a cumbersome liturgy.

The loss of an individual life in a close knit community is always tragic but it does not scale up in my view. I am bemused by the hold of  Remembrance Day  on the nation. It may not have become commercialised like Mothers Day, though the British Legion is a force to be reckoned with in fundraising.  But the event competes with  Children in Need in capturing the public imagination.

I scrambled to find my poppy on the way to church realising that these days it is politically correct to wear the poopy for a good two weeks beforehand – preferably a handmade designer poppy. Even the dancers on Strictly had poppies embroidered into their costumes and Moeen Ali was harshly criticised when his apparently fell off in a team photograph. Jon Snow calls it “poppy fascism.”

I think that grief and homage should be more personal and less of a public requirement. I prefer the quiet observance of All Souls Day at the end of October when families who have lost a loved one  gather quietly in church in candlelight to remember them and pray for strength to go on. And grief has a natural and healing passage. It should not go on forever. There is time to forgive and forget.

Although no one does ceremonial as well, we are not as a nation given to parades and commemoration. The national identity gets expressed  through just  the one collective act in November. Perhaps we should wave flags and express feelings more often. Commonwealth Day has disappeared but what about St Georges Day, which would be popular with Brexiteers, Thanksgiving Day, if we don’t mind adopting another American custom, or, my own favourite, World Peace Day.

Remembrance Day primarily recalls the good old days when Britain ruled the waves and  the ‘few’ triumphed. Their stories continue to fill endless books and films. It may not be a coincidence that these were wars that our history books tell us we won. We still evoke ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ in every public emergency and appeal for everyone to “keep calm and carry on”. We delude ourselves that these mottos can still sustain us in more nuanced days we live in now.

The first world war was the war to end all wars. There was a resolve in 1918 that the  sacrifice of 1 million lives and 2 million wounded should not have  been in  vain. But the commitment to end wars has been lost in what can be seen as an affirmation of our military prowess. Hence the white poppy movement to acknowledge the continuing loss of life in armed conflicts like Mosul and Raqqa this year, where now 90% of causalities are innocent civilians, and to campaign for swords to be turned into ploughshares.

By chance, two different voices helped me make sense of the event this year. Firstly, Rev Sam Wells on Thought for the Day who suggested that we should be grateful for all sorts of people who had made sacrifices to save our lives; our parents, our teachers and even the back seat driver who screams out that we have driven though a red light. November 11th should be called Gratitude Day.

Secondly, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, who argued that whilst we are meant to remember lest we forget, it is much more difficult and much more important to eventually forget and to move on. When we have marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice in 2018, lets try ‘Forgetting Day’.




Doughnuts could save the planet

My Book Of The Year is all about doughnuts. It could be mistaken as the history of Greggs The Bakers but  is actually about a doughnut that  is really good for you.

Doughnut Economics  wins the Award for stimulating, provoking and encouraging me to feel that  economics has turned a corner and there may be a future for the planet. Unlike other similar tomes, I enjoyed and mostly understood it.

The author is Kate Raworth who describes herself as a renegade economist. She has worked for the United Nations and for Oxfam and  is now an academic  at Oxford and Cambridge but still talks about  the real world in a forthright and punchy way.  Get a taste from her TED talk.

For too long economics has been dominated  by the thinking of the two giants of the last century, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek , whose ideas are still the bedrock of mainstream political thinking,  but  their time has passed. It is the day of the doughnut.

Kate copied  another great economist of the last century, Paul Samuelson, who when challenged to write a textbook that engineers could follow, used diagrams rather than words. It became a best seller  and sat on my desk in the sixth form.

Raworth  drew a doughnut to sum up the kind of economy needed to tackle the world’s problems. It  is an American doughnut with a hole in the middle. The aim of the economy is quite simply to keep everyone in the ring of dough which is the Holocene era where crops will grow,  ice will not melt and everyone can thrive.

One in three people on the planet still do not have access to a toilet, Raworth tells us. Economists should stop people falling into the hole in the middle of the doughnut  by ensuring a basic level of subsistence and they should equally prevent anyone living in the lap of luxury beyond the outer ring of the doughnut where the planet is put at risk..

In describing  seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, Raworth shows how homo economicus is not as self seeking as is traditionally assumed. She lists the cast needed for her modern day economic play  which includes a few newcomers like’ the household’ , ‘the commons’ and   ‘the powerful’  – who must be constrained. She drops in facts that make you stop and think. For example, the resources of five planets would be required if everyone lived like an Australian or a Kuwaiti. She uses metaphors  like airplanes that may never land. It is a romp of a read.

The heart of her argument is that economic growth has been the cuckoo in the economists nest  ever since the Great Depression.  John F Kennedy pledged to grow the U S economy by 5% a year back in 1960.  Growth is a proxy for progress. No one has ever been brave enough to forecast whether growth can go on forever  and now growth rates in advanced economies are flattening out.

In  popular parlance, ‘upwards’ is good. ‘Feeling down’ is bad. Growth is a political necessity, conventional  economists  tell us. Just imagine an election pledge to restrict growth and prosperity. But the same economists are no longer sure it can be achieved.

Growth also means that the rich inevitably get richer. The three richest man in the United States  own as much wealth as the 160 million people in the bottom half of the country’s population and Donald Trump’s proposed tax reforms will make them even richer.  It is an inevitable spin off from the capitalist system , Raworth argues, even though we now know, thanks to Richard Wilkinson, that no one, not even the rich, benefit from inequality.

Growth means  that the environment gets ever more polluted and precarious. It is not good enough for developing economies like India to go for growth and clear up the mess they make later. We are, Rowarth says, “the first generation to properly understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household and probably the last with the chance to do something transformative about it.”

“ We have an economy that needs to grow whether or not it makes us thrive”” Raworth tells us but “ we need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows”.  The economy of the future  must  be redistributive and regenerative by design.  This is a tall order as “no country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy “ or “ended ecological degradation with one”.

In the final chapters,  Raworth proposes a whole host of good ideas that together might just work. She commends  the butterfly model of regenerative manufacturing and  the generous city movement of  climate positive cities like Oberlin, Ohio.  She sees great potential for the internet to freely exchange innovation, for the state to invest in renewables and tax finite resources and for texting digital cash direct  to the world’s bottom billion –  to name but a few.

Kate Raworth  has an infectious optimism about economic change  even when faced with formidable  challenges which inspires me  to put a copy of Doughnut Economics into everyone’s Christmas stocking and to encourage you to give broad  hints to Santa too. Here are the details: Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist , (Random House) £20 with the paperback due in the Spring.

Published in Newcastle Journal 14th November 17