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Halfway to wisdom
December 2017 / January 2018


(Illustration by Michael Daley)


Learning to say “no” is a great wisdom of age. I’m still not halfway there. Some months ago a book festival asked me to speak on a panel about Brexit. As my most recent book is not remotely about Brexit I explained that they must have misunderstood the title. They claimed not, and insisted I should come. With a book to sell I foolishly said “yes”.

On the day I slept in for the first time in my adult life, encountered the worst delays of British rail and arrived halfway through the panel in time to be thrown a question about my thoughts on pharmaceutical patenting post-Brexit. This is not my subject, and I said as much, only to realise that much of the hall, as well as the rest of the panel, had clearly been waiting for their sacrificial Brexit victim, upon whom they could pour all their rages and frustrations. As the subject of my latest book didn’t come up once and one of the other panellists had recently confided to me that they had found a way to stop Brexit I soon began to find the whole thing unappealing as well pointless. I fear this showed, deeply.

There are many reasons for the Brexit ennui. Apart from everybody having become an expert on everything, worst is the confidently specific predictions of the critics. To talk with confidence about the future has always invited scorn, but today it should invite aggressive opprobrium. Who knows what on earth the rules of causality are these days? Did anyone anywhere ever predict that Harvey Weinstein would bring down the British Defence Secretary? Yet still people confidently pronounce on the financial situation in the second financial quarter after Brexit. The only positive thing is that opinion polls show that the public understands that while we may have a couple of rocky years, the long-term outlook remains positive.

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Some people have compared the recent Westminster sex scandals and the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. But the important element is undermentioned — which is the degree of fragility all this visibly produces in politicians. Nearly all the MPs I have encountered in recent weeks have been more than ordinarily nice, indeed almost beseeching. This seems wrong — as well as unwonted. I am all for the power of the press, but events such as these exacerbate an already troubling inversion of power. Watching what used to be Fleet Street moralising over often distinctly minor sexual advances is a strange sight. It is true that in a secularised society it is not at all clear where moral authority does, or should, lie. But from what I know of journalists the press is a very unlikely candidate for the task.

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