Hay Festival 2022

My thoughts and responses to some of the events at the Hay Festival 2022.


Alice Bell and Peter Stott talk to Thea Sherer

Sunday 29 May 2022, 4pm


"Ours is the age of global warming. Rising sea levels, extreme weather, forest fires. The next ten years are key to averting climate disaster". Peter Stott's book Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial describes the bitter fight to get international recognition for what, among scientists, has been known for decades: human activity causes climate change. Alice Bell's book Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis reviews the history of climate change research – how the world became addicted to fossil fuels and what tools we may have for survival. Dire warnings are everywhere, so why has it taken so long for the crisis to be recognised?


I’m not sure that they give an answer to this. AC Grayling answered it in his talk (see below) that if something can happen, it won’t happen if it harms the interest of those who can stop it from happening. What the history of the climate crisis tells us is that so far, we have not found a way either to compensate for the harm needed to be inflicted onto the self interest of the oil industry (and others), or to neuter their attempts to stand in the way of change.


Both authors don’t like or use the term 'climate sceptic‘ because scepticism is essential in science. Deniers like to call themselves sceptics because it adds a veneer of respectability to a position which is evidence free and frankly insane. It is telling though that climate deniers have shifted focus away from outright denial, towards one of partial acceptance of the problem yet they remain in denial either that the climate crisis is man made, or in denial about the urgency of the responses needed.


This strikes me as very similar to Brexiteer fundamentalists who we used to call euro-sceptics (who similarly should be called euro-phobics). They start out with one criticism of the EU and then shift ground when challenged onto something related but different. Every time they are given ground, they want more. There is no end point because however much ground they are given (and David Cameron surely understands this by now, but maybe not) they always want more. And that is because they forever criticise and attack what they don’t want rather than articulate and promote what they do.


Someone in the audience pronounced that she was disappointed that neither speaker had mentioned population as a factor in the climate emergency. Alice rather curtly but accurately replied that it isn’t about numbers of people but what and how they consume that is the problem. And we don’t have much time to solve this.


AC Grayling

Friday 3 June 2022, 11.30am


Grayling agrees. In his latest book For The Good of the World he addresses what he says are the three most dangerously critical aspects of our existence and the health of the planet: the climate emergency, the scale and speed of the development of technology, and the deficit of social and economic justice.


He covers well charted territory about the climate emergency and invokes a law of self interest - Grayling’s Law - which states that anything that can happen will happen if it benefits those who can make it happen. The corollary of course is that if something can happen, it won’t happen if it harms the interest of those who can stop it from happening. So an end to dependence on fossil fuel for example is unlikely to happen because to do so would harm the self interests of the various hydrocarbon industries and other players who have the power, influence and the resources to ensure that it will not happen. And unfortunately, the state of our democracies is such that by and large, we let them get away with it. Similar points relate to 'advancements‘ in technologies such as AI and gene therapy which go ahead without any healthy public debate about the alleged advantages and the actual concerns.


I thought he spent rather too much time on the technological examples and maybe not enough on the deficit of social and economic justice. But he did show how populists will step in to fill the vacuum if people feel left out and let down by their government - populists who promise much but deliver little - only enough to ensure they remain in power. He also provided an excoriating critique of first past the post electoral systems and how these create two party confrontational politics epitomised by antagonism and division - and how this creates the heavily damaged democracy that we have both in the UK and America. He admits this is a pretty depressing assessment and that the struggle to rectify and improve the situation is immense and formidable. But he correctly points out that there is little other choice.


He asks if human beings can agree on a set of values that will allow us to confront the threats facing the planet, or will we continue with our disagreements as we approach possible extinction? In his talk, I’m not sure he provided a very full or optimistic answer to this. But maybe his book does.


George Monbiot

Friday 3 June 2022, 4pm


In distinction to Grayling, Monbiot’s latest book Regeneration argues that land use is the most dangerous and critical challenge we are facing. He calculates that a huge percentage of our land use is for agriculture which in its present form is damaging to health and to the environment, whilst also being inefficient in feeding the people on the planet. He uses systems theory (no, I don’t know either) to critique the food supply situation where 94% of the worlds supply, transportation, packaging and retailing of grain is held by just 4 major global companies. And, like the banking system in 2008, it is system nearing inevitable collapse. He argues for an urgent rethink of how we feed the people without devouring the planet. He is critical of meat and diary production in general and also organic versions of this - for reasons I’m not quite clear about. He points out that any suggestion for farming to change is almost always met with a deeply rooted sentimentalist narrative around countryside and farming - witness the number of BBC programmes about sheep farming! He also argues that farmers and farming have never stood still - they have always responded and adapted to change. The change made theoretically possible by leaving the EU’s common agricultural policy - he says the CAP is an ecological disaster - could have been an opportunity for the UK to adopt more sustainable, and low impact countryside practices which would promote better agricultural standards and greater and more diverse wildlife. Predictably the government is making sure that absolutely non of that will happen. Again, something that could and should happen won't happen because the self interest of a variety of land owners and agrochemical industries pull the strings of the government to ensure that it wont happen. Thank you Jacob Re-Smog.


Devi Sridhar

Sunday 29 May 2022, 1pm


Arguably, the Covid 19 pandemic sits right up there with other clear and present dangers and challenges facing the planet alongside land use, climate breakdown and social and financial injustices. In her book,Preventable: The Politics of Pandemics and How to Stop the Next One Professor Devi Sridhar uses her experience of the Covid-19 pandemic to show how global politics shape our health. She has written numerous Guardian articles excoriating government action and inaction during the pandemic. She talked - very fast - about what the UK response has been and how other options were available - even though the science was shifting all the time. She felt that the Sage group were cowed into a group-think to go along with the heard immunity theory even though plainly, this is nuts. Maybe I had hoped for her to be more specific about some of the other government mega cock ups such as the care home tragedy, the PPE fiasco, corrupt procurement, and the woeful test system that was stood down far too early and the ensuing £37billion test and trace system that gave up completely on the need to help people isolate. I hope she is part of the public inquiry and the government not just learns lessons but acts upon them. Otherwise the response to the next pandemic - and there will be one - will be just as disastrous and deadly as this one has been.


Fi Glover and Jane Garvey

Saturday 28 May 2022, 5.30pm


Fi and Jane were interviewed by Dr. Rachel Clarke, a palliative care and A&E doctor who also writes excoriating critiques of what passes for government 'policy' during the pandemic. She is also very funny.


Fi and Jane are very funny - feeding off each other as they do in their Radio 4 podcast Fortunately. An absolutely flabbergasting / wtf moment occurred when Rachel interjects that Johnson has just announce a plan to return the UK to imperial measurements - no one can believe it. You couldn’t make it up.


Jess Phillips talks to Hugh Muir

Tuesday 31 May 2022, 1pm


The announcement about imperial measurements proves to be a near perfect example of what Jess Philips describes current government policy based on a need not to improve anything for anyone, but simply to pick a fight. She is wonderful in her determination not to be cowered down by the 'status‘ of people like Johnston who she regards as having just the same status as her at Westminster - that of elected MP’s. In stark contrast to the carefully constructed pr image built around him, she finds him weak, un-funny, a hopeless speaker, someone who shuffles around, has hopeless posture, avoids eye-contact and never answers a question. She is scathing of the outdated and pompous ritual of the house - not calling an MP by their name but by their constituency. And why do MP’s with a law background have to be called 'my learned friend‘ and those with a military background as 'my gallant friend‘? Why isn’t there on this basis a social way of addressing MP’s who are or have been carers? 'my caring friend?' (Or teachers, or nurses or whatever?) She confirms what others have stated at length that the Palace of Westminster is full of mice, falling apart and is a health and safety nightmare. No where else would people be made to go to work in such abject and dangerous conditions.


She is against a formal progressive alliance at the next general election as undemocratic - why should such a thing be cobbled together by MPs in Westminster and then forced onto voters who end up with no choice. Yes, but is an 80 seat majority on 29% of the available vote democratic? I think as in all things, principles like hers have to be ameliorated with a heavy dose or realism - do we really want another term of tory government? And will the country and many of its people survive if we do? This is an emergency ffs. She is in favour of PR so long as it maintains a constituency link. But she doesn’t explain how we get there from here. I just don't think it good enough for labour to drift along on the magical thinking that an outright majority is possible at this time with the first past the post system - see Paul Mason at the New Statesman for really good arguments on this. And what would be the point - when the tories finally get in again they will systematically undo any progress made during labour years (remember SureStart anyone?)


In her book, Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics, Jess lifts the lid on what a career in politics is really like and why it matters – to all of us. She makes the compelling case for why now, more than ever, we all need to be a part of it. Jess acknowledges an enormous debt to Harriet Harman who supported her in her early years as an MP.


Rosie Boycott and Carmen Callil in conversation with Laura Bates

Saturday 28 May 2022, 1pm


Laura, is the author of Why Men Hate Women, and more recently, Fix the System, Not the Women. She set up and leads the everyday sexism project - an ever-increasing collection of over 100,000 testimonies of gender inequality. Interestingly, Laura interviewed Harriett Harman at the 2019 Hay Festival - you can see this and other interviews on Hay Player at https://www.hayfestival.com/hayplayer/.


Rosie was the joint founders of the Spare Rib feminist magazine, and Carmen was the founder of Virago books - set up in 1972 to provide publishing opportunities for women.


A lot has happened to improve things since the 70’s when these two publications first saw the light of day, but also, there is much that hasn’t happened . A new and growing threat is the culture war aiming to cancel the concerns of women - see more on this below. And whereas in the 70’s perhaps the focus was formulated within the boundaries of the feminism of the time, now, the focus has become what is termed to as 'intersectionality‘ - a recognition that there is strong connectivity between the struggle for women’s rights and equality, with the struggles against racism, and all forms of suppression and marginalisation. This relates back to Grayling’s concerns about the deficit of social and economic justice.


Prospect Debate 2: How Cancel Culture Became a Blood Sport

Friday 3 June 2022, 5.30pm


Except I’m not sure they explained how it did.


They acknowledged that some people such as academics, journalists, and also people not in the public gaze are becoming ‘terrified into silence’ for fear of being attacked, misinterpreted, or misunderstood - and for the fear of the sometimes career-wrecking consequence of a single mistake. Some therefore operate a sort of self censoring, keeping their opinions or thoughts below the parapet. Perhaps this can be seen as an dangerous limiting of free speech, but can’t it also be seen as a good thing - to think about consequences before opening your gob.


But it seems that right now, there is increasing vindictive, vitriolic intolerance causing real pressure to silence or 'cancel' some people's opinions. This pressure is mainly emanating form the right, but ironically, it began as a term the right has invented to label and condemn the activities of a people on the left - initially a few student unions who sought to challenge invitations being given by their universities to some people that some students felt harboured views they found insulting, threatening or based on racism, misogyny or other forms of hatred. In the face of such student protest, some prospective speakers were uninvited - ie ‘cancelled’ in Daily Mail terminology.


The term ‘cancel culture’ only started to be used in 2018 and around 30% of its usage has been in the Daily Mail. Rather than bother finding out what concerns the students had or to differentiate between wide-spread or just isolated incidents, the right wing press (ie nearly all of it) thought to weigh in with the charge that people were being 'cancelled', and that freedom of speech was now widely imperilled - at universities of all places! David Olusoga feels Radio 4's The Moral Maze has trivialised and celebritised issues instead of opening up what need to be honest and nuanced conversations.


As with other media (social and otherwise) inventions and amplifications, the substance of what they are saying doesn't have to be true, it just needs to be said and repeated often enough and the damage is done, and 'cancel culture' has since become reified to mean that any criticism of potentially rubbish, untrue, slanderous, or hate filled diatribe is an attack on free speech. To be criticised is to be cancelled out. But the irony is that they criticise something and then do it themselves! One thing such commentators are good at is the cognitive dissonance of holding contradictory beliefs in their heads at the same time! “Complaints about “woke warriors” stifling speech often seek themselves to stifle speech, especially in the US, which is well into the book-banning phase of its Trumpian decline.” (Jon Allsop, The Guardian 17/02/22)


Is the concept of 'cancel culture' politically inspired? I think so. I think this is the reason that criticism has been weaponised.


Surely, it is far better to allow people to say what they have to say but then to critique and subject it to analysis. But that shouldn’t mean anyone has carte blanch to say what they want without consideration of consequences such as hurt, upset, being misconstrued. People should be free to say what they think within the rules of engagement but these rules need to be clear and publicised and people shouldn’t get strung out to dry if they make a mistake. There are always context-based rules which should clearly map out what is appropriate or inappropriate to say. Just as there are context-based rules which map out how it is appropriate or inappropriate to drive. There has to be consequences for mistakes but based on the rules. Not in every case cancelling people from speaking or banning them from driving. But even here there are exceptions - some people do need to be banned from driving. And some people should not be allowed to talk invective, poisonous and above all, hate-filled shit.



Serhii Plokhy, Oliver Bullough and Catherine Belton in conversation with Philippe Sands

Monday 30 May 2022, 2.30pm



Serhii Plokhy is a leading authority on the Cold War and nuclear history and talked about the background to the invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian mindset of victimhood and hyper-nationalism from which it sprang. This echoed an earlier talk by Anthony Beevor in which he argued that myths about a greater Russian nationhood existed even before the 1917 revolution and have been amplified by the narratives of conflict and war and are now being used in attempts to justify the invasion of Ukraine today.


Catherine Belton's book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West explains what has happened in post communist Russia and Oliver Burrough's snappily titled book Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals explains how post-communist Russia needed expertise from the capitalist west in order to manage and abet the widespread stealing of Russia's natural assets. UK lawyers and advisors act on behalf of the few hundred Russian oligarchs who 'own' over 90% of Russia's wealth and help squirrel it away in off-shore accounts and properties. More than half of 'their' wealth resides outside Russia - many times more than any other country.


There were rather too many people here to adequately do justice to the wide ranging issues and concerns that have arisen form Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Phillipe Sands is an international lawyer who explained in response to a question about Russian war crimes that of the four levels of war crime, the crime of Aggression to another country is the only one that is targetted directly at a country's leadership. And there is considerable international momentum building to formalise such a charge on Putin.


Peter Pomerantsev writing in the Guardian claims that “Russia’s aim in its invasion of Ukraine was to reset the world order, tilt it towards dictatorships, impunity and the right of great powers to crush the small.” He argues that “We shouldn’t be worried about “humiliating” Putin and his henchmen on the battlefield – humiliation in Russian politics and society comes from within, from centuries of not dealing with a history of repression and mass murder has produced a political culture that seethes with resentment and fear”. (Guardian 03/06/22). Simon Tisdall in the Guardian agrees but Robert Colls in the New Statesman is not so sure.


In Conclusion


Also writing in the Guardian, Andriy Zagorodnyuk who is a former Ukrainian defence minister asks "How often have people been told to tolerate something because 'it has always been like this'?" Or they are told that change is too difficult, or nothing can be done? These responses latch into our fatigue, our fears and our sense of helplessness whatever the issue, problem or crisis we face - land use (Monbiot), global heating (Bell, Stott et al), uncontrolled technology and the social and economic deficits (Grayling), the increasing and increasingly weaponised use of anti-woke culture wars (Manzoor), racial discrimination (Olusoga), sexual abuse (Boycott and Callil). And we could add to this list increasing domestic violence, endemic corruption, the growing refugee crisis, and widening social inequality.


Grayling asks whether we can agree on a set of values to steer us forward, out of all this mess, 'for the good of the world'. His book doesn't provide all the answers but does present a framework. People, communities, countries and nations have to overcome difference, become less competitive and more collaborative. Easier said than done, even if there is a clear and present threat staring us in the face such as the climate crisis.


Zagorodnyuk argues that "The only time things have changed is when people have challenged the old ways and refused to accept them any more. We cannot allow past approaches to dominate the way we live now". (Guardian 03/06/22).


Sometimes, I feel that this appeal to the potential power of people, public opinion and communities to challenge and change the mess we are in is a bit over done. It is governments that decide and increasingly, it is global corporations who make government decisions in their favour and no one else's.


And yet, since the mid 18th century, public opinion and the development of what Habermas called 'the public sphere' succeeded in pushing and persuading government to act on a range of issues such as prison reform, voting reform, treatment of the poor, and anti-slavery. Their efforts and their commitments to the cause worked.


And as Rosie Boycott and Carmen Callil showed, advances in feminism and women's rights have been made. And the UK is a less racist country than it was. And some aspects of environmentalism such as plastic waste and re-wilding have been addressed and the tide has turned.


Grayling's Law applies: A better world can happen and will happen if the people who can make it happen make sure that it does. And the people who can stop it happening are stopped from stopping it happen.


Glenn MacDonald-Jones, June 2022.