Cheltenham’s Literature Festival brings hundreds of the world’s most brilliant writers, performers and political thinkers to the town. It is astonishing and always delivers. But this year truly was exceptional.
Most agree that one of the highlights was the event with Jacob Rees-Mogg (Conservative MP for the mid-eighteenth century) and Jess Phillips (the self-described “gobby” Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley). In it they talked about their unlikely friendship, which transcends different political views and backgrounds. It’s not always entirely clear what their bond is based on. Much of their exchanges revolve around Jess asking Jacob questions like “When did you last eat at Greggs?” and then laughing like a drain at his answer.
But their ability to get along, whilst fearlessly cleaving to their political beliefs, is actually quite important – not least because it’s increasingly rare. We live in a world of ‘confirmation bias’, where people tend to engage (particularly online) with people who agree with them. Political views become more entrenched as preconceived ideas are confirmed and hardened. Before long they are associated with character or morality. Witness the new Labour MP, Laura Pidcock, entering Parliament and promptly announcing that she could never be friends with a Tory. I think that’s a shame. I sit on the Justice Select Committee with Laura. I believe that cooperative, cross-party scrutiny of issues like the state of our prisons is vital for the health of our democracy.
Another Festival highlight was Hillary Clinton’s turn at the Racecourse. She was fluent and engaging – funny too. The audience enjoyed her account of what George W Bush whispered in her ear after Donald Trump finished his demagogic ‘America First’ inauguration speech (apparently he said “That was some weird ****”).
But although I would be a Democrat in the US and backed her campaign, I wasn’t surprised that many in the room thought her performance lacked self-awareness. After all, any politician who titles the book about their campaign defeat ‘What happened’ ought to expect the response ‘You lost.’ And in placing so much emphasis on her gender disadvantage there was no mention of the recent political successes of so many other women – Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, Julia Gillard.
Meanwhile, I am delighted that, following a strong campaign by local Conservatives, the local council have abandoned their pettifogging (as Jacob might say) plan to rip up the colourful seasonal flowers in the centre of town. Cheltenham is a beautiful town and our flower displays are part of what makes it special. It’s also helps to bring in the tourists to events like the Lit Fest. I’m sure they’re planning next year’s visit already.