Unlike last year, when we were facing a poll that had been announced far enough in advance for the Festival to theme a series of events around it, this year’s snap election caught Hay on the hop. Fortunately – aside from hastily convened local constituency hustings (Brecon & Radnor) – there were plenty of sessions that acquired additional resonance in the wake of Theresa May’s opportunistic and hubristic dash for near dictatorial power.
Eddie Izzard, on the first evening, sauntered through an occasionally multilingual history of the world which, while its accuracy might be disputed by scholars, nonetheless seemed to capture, in colourful, spike-heeled spirit, the horror of past and present absurdities (not least Brexit). But next day Nick Clegg offered merely “shades of grey”, along with the well-rehearsed self-justification for the disastrous Coalition that I’m sure a different set of scholars will also, in due course, find equally dubious, though certainly not as funny.
Quizzed by creepy Guardian columnist Matthew D’Ancona with his fist in a glove so velvet he couldn’t have made a splash in a vat of runny custard, Clegg was self-deprecatingly pleasant enough that one might almost have been deceived into forgetting – as many in this particularly suffocatingly ‘liberal’ Hay audience clearly had – that by joining that Tory government in 2010, having leveraged so little in return, he ought to bear considerable responsibility for our current, seemingly irremediable plight. It’s not enough to have refused to countenance an EU referendum, when asked by Cameron and Osborne to agree to one, at a time when it could have been held in much more favourable conditions, but quite another to have agreed to a different referendum, on the Alternative Vote, that absolutely nobody wanted, which because of its pointlessness was inevitably doomed, and which put back the cause of electoral reform possibly by decades.
D’Ancona did not see fit to raise that embarrassing subject, but then neither did he mention the Orange Book movement by which Clegg and his chums re-positioned the Lib-Dems – in contrast to the Charles Kennedy period, and in opposition, indeed, to the majority of the party’s members and supporters – as neo-liberal softish Tories, right rather than left of centre. It explains Clegg’s enthusiastic readiness to join Cameron beneath the sheets having extracted so little payment in return and would have offered some narrative alternative to Clegg’s hackneyed argument that as the Tories were the largest party, and Labour could not have achieved a majority even with Liberal support, he was almost obliged, as an adult politician, to enter into a deal.
Well, bollocks, of course. As a neo-liberal Clegg found his natural home in the Coalition, and almost destroyed the Lib-Dem party in the process. It is interesting, if pointless, I suppose, to reflect on how different the history of the last seven years would have been had Charlie Kennedy not so fatally, and so frequently embarrassingly, pulverized his liver.
As D’Ancona ended his hour of obsequence by describing Clegg as someone who would have been a “great Prime Minister”, a woman in my vicinity whooped and clapped in near-orgasmic approval, having been building up to this climax throughout the session. I hope someone was comforting her when, on the morning of June 9, Clegg got his well-deserved, if belated reward in his (now former) constituency of Sheffield Hallam. One wonders how sales of the book he was promoting (Politics: Between The Extremes, Vintage, £9.99) will fare in the election’s wake.
Though Clegg’s groupie was exceptional in her personal enthusiasm, this year’s festival was notable – bearing in mind the normal restraint of the liberal intelligentsia – for standing ovations. Almost incredibly it was Harriet Harman who started this trend (A Woman’s Work, Allen Lane, £20). Not normally noted for her crowd-rousing charisma – and even here at Hay presenting a somewhat severe countenance – Harman nonetheless won over the packed house with a heartfelt account of her experiences as a woman in law and politics, with all the sexual harassment and patronizing dismissal that involved.
Whatever her shortcomings as a swiftly, and humiliatingly, discarded ministerial Blair Babe, her later treatment at the hands of Blair and Brown was shameful – not least after her election as Deputy Leader, when she was denied by Brown the position of Deputy Prime Minister (held by previous Deputy Leader John Prescott) and then exiled to the nether reaches of the Cabinet table in favour of the odious Jack Straw.
She accepted the slights, on the grounds of not wanting to rock the boat, but now rather regrets it, and accepts that advances for women in politics have taken, and still take too long. She may not be the most likeable or talented woman in Labour’s recent history – and her willingness, despite her radical roots in the NCCL, to toe an obedient Blairite line on most issues was not analysed here – but she deserves admiration for her efforts as a practical feminist to highlight women’s issues in the higher echelons of a still very patriarchal political party.
A more predictable and even more enthusiastic ovation sent Yanis Varoufakis (pictured above) on his way after another charismatic Hay appearance. This one was essentially to promote his book Adults In the Room (Bodley Head, £20, to be reviewed in a future issue of Tribune), his account of trying to resist the neo-liberal forces of austerity from further impoverishing Greece. I confess I was briefly won over to the Brexit camp by the treatment of Greece by the EU, and the way in which its people were sacrificed to save the French and German banks, but I found my own way back to very much the same position taken by Varoufakis: that leaving the EU would be political and economic suicide, and that it was necessary to remain in the EU to fight for reform of what should be a valuable and progressive instutution.
Yanis’s prescription would have been for Cameron to have avoided the referendum, but disrupt the workings of the EU, presumably indefinitely, in order to force through reforms. Of course, Cameron would never have had the cojones for that even if such tactics could have brought about the desired result, and we don’t know if Varoufakis himself would have stuck with such a plan since his boss, Greek PM Alex Tsipras, bowed to the EU’s pressure to ditch him as Finance Minister and swallow the austerity pill.
Varoufakis insisted that IMF chief Christine Lagarde agreed with his analysis of the Greek debt crisis but took the pragmatic view that it was more important to maintain the IMF and EU’s prescribed economic line (and thereby, of course, protect the banks). It’s difficult not to believe him. A better speaker and writer in English than most natives, he is eloquent, humourous, self-deprecating (“I’m a loser,” he said. “Everything I touch goes wrong.”) and persuasive.
Perhaps it is indeed his honesty and incorruptibility that makes it impossible for him to succeed in conventional politics. There are certainly many who dismiss his credentials as an economist and a politician and describe him as an egotist and charlatan, and while his Democracy In Europe Movement might attract enthusiastic audiences of one or two thousand – very much like the 1700 or so crammed into the Hay tent, no doubt – it has yet to make any significant mark on Europe’s political landscape. But if the real Varoufakis is anything like the image he presents at such events, we would certainly benefit from a few more like him.
Varoufakis was interviewed by Kate Raworth, who was promoting her own book, Doughnut Economics (Random House Business, £20) at a later Hay event, so there was some talk of economic theory and the teaching of economics as an academic subject. Sadly, no-one raised the issue I would like to see properly debated – whether economics in reality can be regarded as anything other than an ideological tool that produces solutions, on paper, entirely dependent upon the political assumptions one starts with, and the political outcomes one requires. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as early computer programmers used to say – and garbage may be what you want, as long as the right people end up having to live in the mess.
I was not persuaded by Doughnut Economics, either. Raworth’s heart seemed to be in the right place, but the presentation of her slightly New-Agey theory left me no wiser as to how it differed in practical terms from conventional Keynesianism, other than by its greenish tinge. Perhaps I need to read the book – that is, of course, what Hay is supposed to persuade one to do.
More ovations next time.