NORMAL ISN'T NORMAL
40 Books in 2018 / #15 Robert Peston WTF? 304pp Hodder 2018
Who would be better to write an overview of our current political and economic landscape (a.k.a. Brexitrump): 1) A grandson of Ashkenazi Jews, immigrants from Austria and Poland?
or 2) An 'Honorable' son of a member of the House of Lords? Fortunately, Robert Peston fits both profiles.
TRACK RECORD Well-known - and much-spoofed - for his exaggerated diction, Peston has the most complete journalistic pedigree. In the press he has been on the staff of Investors Chronicle, The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph,and The Sunday Times. He’s also written columns for The Spectator and New Statesman. Oh, and he was both political and financial editor on the Financial Times. (My first boss took the FT everyday. Not because he was particularly interested in share prices; instead, he said that the first five pages gave him a clearer, more objective report of the world than all the other daily papers put together.) After moving into broadcast media, Peston became BBC’s business editor, then economics editor. After ten years, he moved to ITV to become political editor. If that wasn’t enough, he has won the following 'of the Year' awards: Financial Journalist, Business Journalist, Political Journalist, Investigative Journalist, Television Journalist, and Broadcast Journalist. All not so bad for a Highgate Wood Secondary School boy.
His father, Lord Peston, was a Labour life peer and spokesperson on energy, science, and education. He was a firm believer in State schools; hence all three Preston offspring were sent to comprehensives. The point of all this personal background is that ‘WTF?’ is both a macro view of the political and economic landscape, and a personal reflection of the state of the world immediately after the death of his father. “DEAR DAD” In his journalism, Peston has to tread a fine line, shining his public light on both (all) sides. Anyone who has been called “a Tory, a leftie, an EU lover, an EU hater, an opponent of Scots independence, a proponent of Scottish independence, a Blairite, a centrist, a member of the establishment, a hater of enterprise, a modern-day Freemason, and a part of the international Jewish conspiracy” must be doing something right. Or left.
But in his book, Peston does not hide his personal beliefs, because it’s a 300-page letter to his Dad. He obviously thinks the Brexit referendum was a mistake, and that the outcome will not be in the best interests of the country. Especially for the regions which, ironically, gave the greatest ‘Out’ vote. He states that the politicians’ handling the negotiation are making a “complete Horlicks” of it.
Indeed, for all his FT and BBC training, he is not afraid to use even more vivid language in expressing his views of individuals, institutions and organisations. The book’s title is a clue. JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM However, as a former economics editor (and Peston Sr. was the founder of the economics department at Queen Mary's College, London) Peston Jnr knows to back his rants with data. For example, focus on the impact of the UK’s ‘recovery plan' from the 2008 financial crisis. Ten years later, the average gross disposable income in London is now 55% higher than it is in the North East, and 52% higher than in Yorkshire and Humber. At a more global level, Peston quotes a McKinsey report about income growth. Between 1993 and 2005, 10 million people saw their incomes stagnate or decline. Between 2005 and 2014, that happened to 580 million. What matters is the long-term neglect of places and people, worsening inequality, and perceived unfairness of financial globalisation. We can't allow millions of people to be left behind. But that’s exactly what’s happened, and is a plausible rationale for the outcomes of UK and US elections and the Brexit referendum. IN THE THICK OF IT At something of a tangent for a moment, here’s a brief electoral explanation from Armando Iannucci, the satirist and director of In the Loop and Veep:
“The Thick of It was borne out of the Iraq war. I asked myself how can one person - Tony Blair - get away with it. “It tells you that there are no checks and balances. The Prime Minister, if he or she has a healthy majority, can do absolutely anything. There's no judiciary that can step in, there's no second chamber of any worth. “Also the tendency for politicians is to point themselves forensically at the centre - the middle England, the 100,000 voters in marginal constituencies who will swing it either way. They (the parties) concentrate exclusively on them, taking for granted their left or right of Centre core support, so not speaking to them. “What you then get over the years are fewer and fewer people taking part in elections because they feel they are not being spoken to. “And therefore you get Government in power on the back of fewer and fewer votes. “In the 1950s, the turn out (in the UK) used to be 80% and the two main parties together used to get 90%. Blair's third government only got 34% - and still a workable majority. “Now that's the system just falling into disrepair. And there hasn't been a party with a decent majority since… “And now we have a bizarre Coalition (that isn't a Coalition) with a party that thinks it can run Brexit strategy - the biggest thing to happen to Britain since the Second World War - as a minority government. “That's why government has gone into disrepute. And you get two sections of the political spectrum getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and feel like they’re not listened to - so they gravitate towards people who are not like conventional politicians. Because if conventional politicians are not listening to you, what do you do? “That's why we got Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, and the US got Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.”
SLOWLY SLOWING Peston’s father was part of the ‘Silent Generation’ whose journey went from the East End of London to the House of Lords. The post-war rapid expansion of the middle classes was always going to lead to a drop in social mobility, almost by definition. But, Peston argues, the slowing has been exacerbated by:
banks that continue to finance asset and property bubbles
an ageing population that is dragging on growth (surely statisticians and politicians could foresee THAT happening?)
a decline in savings and investment returns
a declining share of national income going to workers
a growing void in holding boardrooms to account: In 1989, the UK ratio of average worker to CEO pay was 1:20. In 2017, it had reached 1:130.
As Peston asks, “Have executives become 110 times more talented, special and valuable?”
(In the US, the ratio is 1:300. ‘Nuff said.) THE NORMAL ISN'T NORMAL Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, there will be something in ‘WTF?’ that you’ll think is out-and-out wrong and, on the next page, something that will make you think again about what is or should be “normal”. Like the case that 78% of all predictable physical work can and will be automated. According to the Bank of England, 15 million British jobs are at risk; That on the edge of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, our schools are teaching the wrong things. Maths, reading and writing are vital for living, but no longer the ‘value add’ of humans over machines;
That Grenfell Tower fire and the 2008 banking debacle both exposed the same massive flaw - the absence of effective chains of command and responsibility for decisions that have far-reaching consequences;
And, if nothing else, Peston will make you think about the role of social media, it’s click-bait culture, and how you/me/we are falling into a deep trap of algorithm-driven, feel-good, fact-free nonsense. Peston doesn’t just wring his hands and despair. In his penultimate chapter he lists 11 ideas at a national and international level to deal with WTF has happened and is happening. After all, you may or may not have voted for it, but we are all in this together.
(1335 words. Thanks for reading)
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