“The road to character” – David Brooks

Just finished reading David Brooks’s latest book. Three cheers (or if you prefer, five stars) for both the crystal writing and the theme. His book and mine share a concern about the loss of focus on what broadly I call values and he calls character in modern culture, not only as to substance but even as to the ability to discuss matters of “morality” because the anchors of meaning have been lost (a point Alisdair Macintyre was making forty years ago, mind).

You could be fascinated by this book even without interest in its crucial theme just for the biographical sketches of the subjects Brooks chooses. I particularly liked Samuel Johnson (and I suspect Brooks did too) though in my case partly because I knew woefully little of his life. Holiday reading sorted!

This biographical/anecdotal method has its drawbacks, however, though it is the default method for tackling serious subjects for popular consumption since Malcolm Gladwell’s first impact. The strands of Brooks’s main theme are sometimes obscured, even contradicted, because inevitably no two of his subjects embody exactly the same traits or follow the same path. Also, it is inevitable that he can choose only relatively famous, well documented lives, which means both that the examples he chooses are not necessarily typical and even that some of the traits he admires may be artefacts, more to do with the individuals’ success and fame than their character or values – or in Brooks’s terms, more Adam 1 than Adam 2.

There is throughout the book a justifiable disdain for simplistic ethical theorising, a theme that life and the world are too complex for simple maxims. True enough, but in the end we all need some touchstone by which to make our most difficult and even our everyday choices. Brooks acknowledges this in the final chapter by stating a series of lessons he feels emerge from his biographies. I can’t help feeling – but of course I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – that by condemning theory the hard philosophical work has been shirked a bit. You could for example seek to model your life on George Marshall or Samuel Johnson or one of the others, much as religious believers often seek to imitate their founder. But the life you chose would never quite fit the conditions you faced and you would have to rely on a simplified version of the exemplar’s life anyway, which might mislead. And that ignores the philosophical heart of the matter – why choose that particular life?

But all that said, this is a fine book which because of Brooks’s justifiably high reputation will do more than I ever could to bring an important – crucial – theme back into public debate. Three cheers.

Regional devolution

One thing (among many) that Scottish nationalism highlights is that there is very little substance in the idea of English nationalism. Englishness is a synthetic thing, although perhaps no more than the northern variety since Scottish nationalism is often more a question of anti-Westminsterism than local ethnic pride. The North East, the South West, even the polymorphous capital attract stronger loyalties than attach to a mythical St George’s Land, except of course when sport is involved. I speak incidentally as one born in the North East, brought up in Kent and then in Yorkshire, educated in the East of England, who worked in London and now lives in the East Midlands.

Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but to me the SNP shows a very undemocratic contempt for the people of Scotland. Independence apart, the SNP cannot hope to command a majority for their programme in the UK so they demand a different electorate. If that electorate returns the wrong answer as they did in 2014, the electorate is wrong. They must do it again until they get it right, at which point their decision becomes the irrevocable and timeless will of the Scottish people! But for all that, Scottish independence will inevitably come, partly because of that autocratic logic, partly because UK politicians have not been and still do not seem to be able to think of anything other than to take step after mesmerised step into the swamp.

But before anyone gets carried away with the idea that we should have English devolution to match the next inevitable round of appeasement of Scottish Nationalism, why can’t we think again about regional devolution? Scotland after all is in population terms only middling among the existing recognised regions of the UK – look at the regional population figures. London already enjoys significant autonomy and an autonomous Greater Manchester is George Osborne’s pet project. Why not devolve more powers to the regions – North West, North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands, East, South East, South West, London, Scotland , Wales, Northern Ireland – and turn the UK Parliament into a federal parliament exercising whatever powers need to remain at the federal level?

OK, there are many reasons why not. But mostly they have to do with vested interests. First, since the genie is a long way out of the bottle, every region would have to have as much autonomy as Scotland. That is complicated, and would require incredible sacrifice by Westminster for the greater good. But is it really a bad thing? Huge national organisations have very few advantages and always need a regional structure even now – think NHS. They could still exercise powers federally if they saw advantage in so doing. Taxation would vary regionally, which might make income and corporation taxes tricky to administer, but surely rules could be devised to cope. If the taxation problem proved really to be intractable that would be a signal than certain taxes had to be federal.

There would of course be some “post code lottery” problems. But it would be up to regional powers to keep up with their neighbours or face the wrath of their people, so such problems should generally be short term. Westminster would lose power overall, which would be the biggest obstacle, the biggest vested interest and the reason why national parties and politicians would not even like to have this option discussed. It is the reason however why it needs to be discussed.

Then there is the “wasteful extra layer of government” argument. This is a good argument, so why not abolish the county level as a quid pro quo? Already the shires can be heard stirring, too many pockets of power, too many cosy relationships and political careers threatened! Yes, it would be a big change, but after the dust settled? Regions and districts without the middle layer would make a lot of sense.

Another objection is that some regions would be dominated by one or more conurbations. Well, they are! If the conurbations are where the population is concentrated, what principle of democracy suggests the conurbations should not be dominant in their regions? If the fear is that the leaders of conurbations cannot be trusted to understand rural matters, maybe there should be some federal powers to protect rural areas. But there is an immensely patronising assumption built in there.

On the plus side, regional loyalties and traditions are far stronger than any Shakespearean appeal to Englishness. Regions are real. They exist already, not just in the administrative arrangements of many national organisations, including government, but in the hearts and minds of the people who live, say, in Yorkshire, or the South West. Nationalist separatism within the UK is little more than this regional loyalty wrapped in a resentful history. So why not recognise what already exists? In this way separatist sentiment has a better chance of being contained and regional resentments can be recognised and channeled for the good of the region. It is the best option for retaining a United Kingdom, by embracing a federal form.

Many regions chafe now at the dominance of London and the South East. Regional devolution allows, indeed challenges, any region to do something about that, especially if at the federal level all regions are equal in political power. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have more power than their population numbers justify, but no change there. Westminster, assuming the federal capital stays in London which should certainly be up for debate, would be diminished. But the UK would be stronger.

In the next five years we face an unremitting assault on the integrity of the UK and an attempt by one region to separate on, let us be honest and who can blame them, terms which are as favourable to them as possible – which means as detrimental as possible to everyone else. A federal structure of government based on regions is no Utopia. But it might just create a fairer deal for everyone in the UK.