Bim Afolami: Five books to read over the summer recess

9 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

For this piece over summer recess, I thought that I might take you through some books and articles that I have recently read. It might tempt you away from reading newspapers over the silly season of August which is now upon us.

First up is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist. I am rather a fan of his books, and believe this is his best. In my last column for ConservativeHome, I referenced the core arguments of the book, which attempts to revive the very principle of meritocracy – which is currently under attack from elements of both right and left.

It charts the history of meritocracy around the world well – the chapter on imperial China is fascinating – and sets out how far we have come in making government and economies and societies better, in large part because of a commitment to this principle, and abandoning it would be deeply unwise.

Second is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by one of the best-informed China analysts, called Dan Wang. It concisely demonstrates how the USA’s recent actions in seeking to attack the global interests of Chinese tech companies may be good in the short term, but over the longer term may lead to a faster development of domestic Chinese technology, rather than relying on American technology to supply its businesses.

That will have huge implications for the US, the UK, and the world. Grappling with how to approach a newly swaggering China, on issues as diverse as tech investment, human rights, and climate change is going to be one of the huge strategic challenges of the British Government for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I would urge everyone to subscribe to the newsletter on Dan Wang’s website. His memos on what is happening in China’s government and Chinese technology is far superior to anything I have read in the Western press.

Third up is a rare book. It is short. It informs you about a subject in an informal, entertaining way so that you remember what is written. And it leads you to investigate further. It is called Rare Metals War, and is written by a French journalist, Guillaume Pitron. It explores the dark side of our quest to go green to net zero, as it exposes the mining practices in various parts of the world, such as the Congo, where the rare metals (i.e: Cobalt) required in everything from solar panels to mobile phones to electric vehicles are extracted.

Spoiler alert: the conditions can be terrible, and the process not very green at all. In addition, the book clearly shows how the strategic importance to the UK of having a reliable and relatively cheap supply of these critical metals will only grow and grow. Unsurprisingly, China is already much further ahead of the game than most (if not all) Western countries, and it has secured supplies in most of the critical mining regions of the world. If our green reindustrialisation is going to be achievable (and we need it to be), we need to think hard about our supply of these metals, and not just hope for the best, as their prices continue to rise steeply in the years to come.

Fourth is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. If you like the countryside, I urge you to read this book. Rebanks is a farmer who manages his own land – the same that his family has managed for generations. He brutally illustrates how hard it is for farming to remain a profitable activity, and the damage that modern farming methods have wrought in order for agriculture to remain economically viable.

It also offers us hope for how we can better manage our green and pleasant land in the future. I really can’t do this book justice in a short time. Do read it: as a politician with a rural constituency (and I work closely with our farming community) it certainly got me thinking about how things need to change.

Finally, a list of book recommendations would not be complete without a political biography. I must recommend Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. It is a masterpiece. Obama is the first US President in a long time who can really write. He really can. If he wasn’t a politician, he could have made it as a first rate author. This book not only offers a good account of his presidency, but it is very moving (and candid) on how to manage trying to be a good father with a very demanding political career.

As a black politician myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how he managed as the first black President. He did it with grace and courage. Regardless of your view of his politics (I personally think he had many failings in both domestic and foreign policy, and his style could be somewhat arrogant and condescending at times), there is little doubt that he is an extremely good analyst not just of US politics but also US culture.

The final section is the account of how the US military took out Bin Laden, and despite the fact that you know the ending, it is a very gripping read. Can’t wait for the second volume and the arrival of Donald Trump….

Politicians need to reflect and read. I find it really helps me get a perspective on what is going on, whether in my own constituency or in the country more broadly. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned even one novel – a real failing of mine that I am trying to rectify. When I attempting to navigate the crowded beaches of Daymer Bay, I shall be re-reading a book that I haven’t read since studying German at school – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: a wonderful story about family, wealth, decline, and culture.

Neil O’Brien: Here are three urgent responses to China’s growing power – which we will soon have an opportunity to make

19 Oct

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Are we, in fact, losing the competition with China?

Consider current events. The IMF predicts China will be the only country with a positive growth rate this year. Since 2004 the UK’s share of world manufacturing halved from four per cent to two per cent, while China’s rose from nine per cent to 28 per cent.

Being a surveillance state has proved handy in the crisis: detecting a dozen Coronavirus cases, the Chinese city of Qingdao is testing its entire population of nine million people for Covid-19 over a period of five days.

Whether it’s the holographic windows on the Beijing subway, or the scary videos of the People’s Liberation Army showing off its new mobile drone swarms, the sense that we are being overtaken is palpable.

So is the increasingly authoritarian and militaristic nature of the Chinese regime. Every day the Chinese press is full of two things. First, ever more lavish praise for Xi Jinping, now officially elevated to “People’s Leader”, and increasingly exercising one-man rule. Second, increasingly dire threats to other countries that dare to cross China.

This week it was the turn of Canada, which was warned not to accept refugees from Hong Hong on pain of having more Canadian citizens arrested in China. There’s a steadily louder drumbeat of threats to crush Taiwan: the other day Xi called on troops to “focus all [your] minds and energy on preparing for war”, and Taiwan revealed it had been forced to scramble jets 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft incursions this year.

A new and not very friendly superpower is emerging.  How should we respond?

In the next month or two we should see the publication of the Integrated Review.  This is a big improvement on previous Strategic Defence Reviews in that it goes wider, to think about economic competition, not just military rivalry.

The Review is a big deal, and in a world with no virus it would be headline news.

Other countries are considering the same issues. The EU now officially describes China as a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor”, while the US is taking a huge amount of actions (on a cross party basis) to protect its interests from China.

While we’ve had less debate in the UK, we face exactly the same challenge.

In a speech last week, the head of MI5 noted that while Beijing’s espionage efforts typically take the form of “hacking commercially sensitive information or commercially sensitive data, and intellectual property”, UK spies have also detected attempts by Chinese counterparts to influence UK politics. China is “changing the climate,” he said:

“Sometimes our role is to spot the hidden State hand in the pursuit of promising UK companies whose acquisition might dent our future prosperity and security. On China, we need expansive teamwork – a broad conversation across government and crucially beyond, to reach wise judgements around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks.”

This is sensible. So what should the Integrated Review do on China?  For me there are three big things.

First, we need an Australian style counter-influence unit to combat attempts to meddle in our politics

Like the Australian equivalent, it should be empowered to tackle a range of issues. Top London lobbying firms paid by hostile states for starters.  We wouldn’t have let the Soviet Union hire Saatchi & Saatchi in the cold war, so why don’t lobbyists have to declare payments from arms of the Chinese state now?

Universities could use more oversight and guidance too – witness the Chinese cash-for-influence scandal at Jesus College Cambridge. The same issues apply in think tanks, businesses and even the House of Lords. China is quick to snap up ex-permanent secretaries and even ex-spies. We need a coordinated approach.

Second, we need a new partnership with firms and universities to protect our economic and technology security. 

At the moment, we have a completely one-sided relationship, in which China can help itself to whatever university research it wants from the UK, buy up any interesting technology firm and even get our universities to work for branches of their military – an approach described in Beijing as ‘picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China’.

Through coercive joint ventures and corporate espionage, China can perform a sort of supermarket sweep on the intellectual property of the west.  Meanwhile China bans investment in swathes of its economy, locks up people suspected of leaking industrial secrets and has just passed tight new laws on the export of key technologies.

It’s a modern version of the same mercantilism that saw China guard the secrets of silk-making for hundreds of years, but the real question is why we allow a one way transfer of technology?

A new unit in Number Ten or the Treasury should coordinate relationships with industry to help identify who is sniffing around new technologies – perhaps we need a UK version of the US Business Entrepreneurs Networks which help US government build up market intelligence.

We also need greater transparency on who is working with our universities. At present we don’t even collect data on who is funding them from overseas.  Many firms would love help to counter hacking of their secrets or advice on tie-ups with Chinese firms.  There should be an obvious place to turn to in government to get it.

Third, we need an “Office for the Future”.

China’s growing dominance isn’t just built on exploiting naive western countries, but on a relentless focus on research and industrial strategy which we should learn from. However, in government I felt that the different bodies which are currently supposed to help us think about technology add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Collectively the Government Office for Science, the Council for Science and Technology, UKRI, BEIS the Research Councils and learned societies have many brilliant people, but the system lacks a controlling mind or plan.

Some of this is about the wider civil service, and we should learn from Singapore: the world’s best civil service. Some of it is about our growing our pitiful level of investment in R&D, which has sunk over the decades just as China’s grew.

But we also need a plan. We need some part of government to be aware of the significance of new technologies and emerging firms before they have been snaffled and carted of to China or anywhere else. Research funding in government isn’t industrially-focussed enough. We need a unit to think commercially about where we should concentrate research investment, and where we shouldn’t. To work out what we need to do to be ready to catch the wave of new opportunities, in the way that Beijing is so good at.

In a new book, “The Wake-Up Call”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge sketch out how the virus has exposed the challenges facing the UK and other western countries, and the scale of the challenge we’re facing.

It reminds me a bit of the late 1970s, when Helmut Schmidt, then West Germany’s Chancellor, declared: “England is no longer a developed country,” and Nick Henderson’s famous leaked telegram highlighted our rapid descent.  Eventually we get angry enough to do something about it, and elected Margaret Thatcher.

This time the problems are different and we are already in government. But the urgency is just the same. Let us hope that the Integrated Review can be part of the wake-up call we need.