Ah, the media! You’ve gotta love ’em. To our intrepid fourth estate there are some very handy default positions with regards to their (i.e. our) elected representatives. You’ll see them in use for eleven months of the year. But especially in the dog days of August, when news and insight are in short supply, they are the gift that goes on giving.
They are as follows. First, MPs are a bunch of idle slackers endlessly troughing in Westminster at the taxpayer’s expense. Second, the only place they ever do any work is within Parliament itself, so they must spend as much time there as possible. Thirdly, the political summer recess is a two-plus month holiday in which MPs joyously desport themselves on foreign beaches, while the nation’s business goes unattended. Fourthly, MPs constitute a self-serving class who live in a political bubble entirely insulated from the concerns of their constituents.
The joy of this approach is that its claims are inconsistent with each other, and do not require evidence. So the attack can be switched from one flank to another with lightning speed; while the whole thrives on anecdote and gossip, of which there is rarely a short supply in politics. And of course, they encourage those in charge to push for ever-longer parliamentary terms, which keeps the gossip coming.
But even so, I found myself inadvertently disproving some if not all of these claims last week, when I took a leaf out of my colleague Rory Stewart’s book and did a series of five walks around my constituency, alongside the Herefordshire Ramblers.
OK, OK, cards on the table: let me make one important admission at the outset. Herefordshire is a place of rapturous beauty, so this was not work in the usual sense, unless you count flogging one’s way straight up the face of Hay Bluff as work (I do). And it had an ulterior motive. I wanted to celebrate the county, get people out and about, and catch up on local issues; but I also wanted to raise £1,500 for the magnificent St Michael’s Hospice, which is being redeveloped. You can support the appeal here.
With the help of the Ramblers’ local Chairman Arthur Lee and one or two others, I designed a series of walks ranging from the fairly serious (from Craswall up and along the Cat’s Back in the Black Mountains and back) to the straightforward (the Buggy Route around Ross-on-Wye). There was one key stipulation: all the walks began and ended at the pub. We advertised the walks and the Hospice appeal extensively beforehand. The idea was that anyone who wanted could come on a walk (some came on several), or otherwise bend my ear at the pub afterwards. I wanted to be as open and available to my constituents as possible. You don’t get much more available than a four hour walk.
How did it turn out? Well, I was expecting it to be fun; but in fact it was a pretty undiluted joy. Numbers ranged from a fast-moving foursome to a sedate sixteen; and ages between Isla (3) and George (80). We didn’t get much sun, indeed it rained on three of the five walks. But the going was excellent and the views spectacular, from the Bluff, from Merbach Hill, and along the lower River Wye towards Symonds Yat. And as so often with a long walk, you get a completely different sense of the country: slower, more considered, as meadow yields to cornfield and in turn to upland pasture.
Just how much there was to take in was brought home to me when I walked one day hand in hand with Marika Kovacs, a visually impaired rambler. Marika has almost no sight at all, but is a mustard keen walker. In May, she led a walk herself through the orchards at Breinton, a task requiring huge preparation: deciding the route, taking notes on a dictaphone, then carefully transcribing them back into Braille for everyone to use along the way. As we tramped last week up Merbach Hill, Marika stopped at one point and suddenly asked if I could hear the swallows. I hadn't been listening, but she had, and she knew the songs of a vast range of birds.
And of course the rhythms of conversation were very different. So many of our personal interactions with each other today are purposive and transactional: a chat, a call, an email. On a walk, however, there is rarely a point as such to conversation; the speakers change around, there are long silences, and anyone tempted to grind an axe finds it hard to do so for long. News and obvious points of commonality soon yield to a deeper interrogation, and closer listening.
Over five days I had dozens of conversations, ranging from the medicalisation of mental health to how to create a fishing industry in Somalia. A stop at Abbeydore yielded a completely unexpected tour and talk about the magnificent 12th Century Abbey itself and the history of the Cistercian monks. A pause at Lydbrook allowed Sam Philips to discourse about its role in supplying 15,000 miles of cable to the front in the First World War. There was a lot of joshing over a pint of local beer and cider afterwards, but it was never party-political. I took a quick collection at the end of every walk to support our online fundraising; almost everyone took part. You can support the appeal here.
And here’s the thing: in almost every way these five walks provided the antidote to the cynical views with which I began this article. So perhaps I may offer a series of closing reflections, in a tentative spirit:
1. We create our own politics. Committed MPs use the recess to good effect; they reconnect with their constituencies; they read, they write, they think and they recharge. We can pretend that they don’t, or that they are all rogues, or that only Westminster matters. But the result of this sloppy thought will be a worse politics. The solution is not sound bites, but a proper conversation.
2. The basis of democratic politics is and will always remain authenticity and legitimacy, and these come from the ground up. Authenticity answers the question “Is this person a phony?” Legitimacy answers the question “What gives this person the right to do that?” MPs should be like Antaeus, the son of the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, deriving their strength by having their feet firmly planted on the soil. You can get that by walking.
3. There is much popular hatred of politics, and political campaigning. The answer is not to stop campaigning, but to stop being so political. I was amazed by the number of unsolicited acts of kindness we had along the way—from a gorgeous piece of wimberry tart at the Bull’s Head to drinks at the Dog and Temple Bar, to coffee at the Pandy Inn to a whacking donation from the Saracen’s Head. And that’s just the pubs. That kindness came because people supported the cause. I was aiming to raise £1,500 for the Hospice; so far we’re at £1,845, and still going up.
4. Incentives aren’t enough. What matters is habit. Government is inevitably preoccupied with what it can control, and over the years that has meant tweaking the tax and benefits system to get people to behave differently. But the escalating obesity crisis gives the lie to this. You won’t get someone away from the TV by changing their marginal economic incentives. Only a profound shift of culture and habit will do that.
People come walking because they know someone else who does it and enjoys it. There’s a lesson in that. Oh, and did I mention you can support the appeal here?