I am one of the guilty minority who have enjoyed a rural lockdown and I do not intend to abandon it.
Decades ago, before I was elected in Hartlepool in 1992, I spent every waking moment I could in a farm labourer’s cottage in a loop of the River Wye in Herefordshire. The first Kinnock-style remodelling of Labour was conducted from a fixed-line telephone which was the only modern accoutrement in this modest dwelling. Now I am renting a farmhouse in the Pewsey Vale in Wiltshire with excellent broadband, a Sonos system and a Portal TV which keeps me in contact with the most important people in my life. I have two dogs for company, a partner who works in London and visits regularly, and daily walks on the downs and in the woods. I have never experienced a bluebell season of this year’s magnificence.
I suffer occasional bouts of cabin fever and was saved the other week by a stay at the excellent new beach-side Machrie Hotel on Islay (no midges and I replenished my stock of Islay malt whisky).
If all this makes me sound rather detached, forget it. I spend a large part of every day keeping in touch through phone and Zoom calls. The best books I have read are Anne Applebaum’s superb Twilight of Democracy (she gives a highly readable and personal account of the descent of the centre-right into nationalist populism). I greatly enjoyed Charles Moore’s third volume of Thatcher and am now, appropriately, dipping into Paul Collier and John Kay’s short read Greed Is Dead: Politics After Individualism, presenting a powerful case for the rebirth of the radical centre in politics. I started Tracey Borman’s Thomas Cromwell but it began to sound a bit autobiographical. One great discovery, though, is Edward Stourton’s Today, a history of the world through 60 years of the BBC programme’s conversation and controversy, a brilliant endeavour which I found in the wonderful White Horse bookshop in Marlborough.
I have renewed my enthusiasm for thinking about the future through the lens of the Design Museum, whose trustees I chair, now located in the repurposed former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington. The museum has been closed throughout the lockdown, depriving us of visitor revenue. But thanks to an Arts Council emergency grant, we reopened with a fabulous new exhibition called Electronic about the culture and design of dance music and its multifarious labels, clubs, dives and live venues. Give yourself a treat and relive your mis-spent youth by visiting this exhibition.
The best way to predict the future is to design it, as Buckminster Fuller once said. With the onset of a fresh industrial revolution based on 5G connectivity and the new technologies of machine learning, AI and quantum computing, we have unprecedented opportunities to transform how we work, live, move, entertain ourselves, protect the planet, remain healthy and grow old. So I want the Design Museum to become more a museum of the future alongside all the other things it does.
Talking about the future, my faith in Labour continues to be rekindled by the replacement of Jeremy Corbyn by Keir Starmer. If you only needed natural intelligence, good character and attractive values to win an election, he would be home and dry, but it takes more than being the nice guy, the grown-up in the room. In the US, Joe Biden is just about to discover this. Trump has embarked on a nasty fight to vanquish the mythical enemy who hate America, dump on its history, want to destroy its traditional values and don’t take pride in saluting the flag three times a day. Time for Biden to take the gloves off.
Will Boris Johnson be the Trumpian defender of British tradition (think of his weighing in to the phoney storm over the Last Night of the Proms) or the radical slayer of sacred institutions like the judiciary, the BBC, the civil service and, of course, the House of Lords? Knowing him, he will do a bit of both depending on who has his ear.
The virtual then hybrid proceedings of the Lords have been a triumph of organisation. But asking questions and making two-minute speeches into your iPad is not anyone’s idea of a vibrant second chamber. Rumour has it that the prime minister wants to flood the Lords with yet more members so as to discredit it and make it easier to abolish. Would he dare take his populist torch to this bastion of pluralism and informed and independent debate ? I suspect wiser counsel will prevail but do not bank on it.