Robert Peston: What will survive of us is love

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston explores the question "what makes us human" in the light of the tragic loss of his wife.

This is an online extract from this week’s New Statesman magazine, published on Thursday 3 October. To read the rest of the articles in our “What makes us human?” series, in collaboration with Radio 2, click here.

What is it to be human? Since the death of my wife, Sian Busby, about a year ago, I have been thinking a good deal about this. How could I not, having been wrenched savagely from the person with whom I have been in love for the best part of my life? It is a version of “what’s it all about?”

It is immediately clear to me that a small part of the answer is taking pride in the achievements of those to whom we feel closest, since I feel obliged at this juncture to tell you that Sian was a brilliant writer, wonderful mum, devoted sister and all-weather friend. And she was my soul mate.

Her last years demonstrated another quality of many humans: bravery. She was much braver than me, and her courage during five years of lung cancer was exceptional. Sian hoped for the best and was never pessimistic; she only ever revealed to me her fears and anxieties, protecting our children and friends, so that life could be as normal as possible; she rarely complained when wracked with acute pain. If she occasionally remarked that, as a non-smoker, rare drinker and healthy-living person, it seemed a bit unfair that she was afflicted with a disease more normally associated with a life of indulgence, would that be so terrible and shameful?

Sian was not a saint. She could be intolerant and damning of those she considered vain and stupid. But she was the best human I will ever know. 

What I really want to explore however is the link between the social – our connections with people – and the essence of being human. Sian built her life around mutually supportive, intimate friendships, which were often artistic collaborations. These connections for her were largely in the private sphere. In this sense, we were a “Jack Spratt” couple, because she did not enjoy public life, whereas I revel in trying to reach out to a wider audience – both through my work as a journalist, and through founding an education charity, Speakers for Schools.

One motive for setting up Speakers for Schools was a conviction that everything works better, the economy, communities, society in the broadest sense, when we are connected to as many varied people as possible. And the connection has to go both ways. It is a two-way pipe.

Life is dull and poor for those with limited knowledge and a narrow outlook. There are fewer opportunities to create wealth – material and spiritual – in the absence of challenging conversations. It is other people who help us both to see more of the world as it is, and to understand more about ourselves.

That is why I often think the eminences who go into state schools under our scheme derive as much benefit as the students whose ambitions they are trying to spark, because they are asked challenging questions that their entourages would never put to them, and they are taken out of their cossetting monied ghettos.

But the kernel of my reflections on humanness are about what it means to lose the physical presence of the person to whom you feel closest. What happens to the connection to the one you love when he or she dies? As you will have gathered, in an important way I feel lucky – because, for all my recent trauma and heartache, with Sian I had the kind of bond that for years I thought impossible. And just because Sian isn’t sitting next to me, that does not mean the bond or connection has gone.

Of course, there are really important things that I miss, beyond what words can convey. She was beautiful in every way, and just entering a room to be with her made me feel happy. The loss of physical intimacy is brutal, horrible.

But we also had an unusually deep intellectual and spiritual connection. That intangible connection cannot be destroyed; it is manifest in a continuing internal dialogue with Sian in my heart and head, and through the warmth that memories generate. 

We were always confident of the connection between us, not possessive of each other, or jealous of each other. This does not mean we were similar people or agreed about everything. She was (is) a Celtic artist; I am a Jewish hack. She kept my ugly vanity in check, and I helped her become more ambitious in her art and writing.

We were more as a couple than we could be apart. And more than anything I do not want to be made smaller by her departure; I will not allow myself to lose her wisdom and guidance.

Even when Sian was acutely ill, all I could see was the two of us growing old together. We knew intellectually that there was a high statistical probability that the lung cancer would kill her, but that was not a prognosis we accepted in an emotional sense. Neither of us was ready for or reconciled to her death.

Throughout our time together, we would often talk of being together forever – which may have been the unremarkable endearments of lovers, but there is, for me, an important truth in them. So here is another thing about being human. Many of us put a search for the eternal at the centre of our lives. As a Jew by birth and an agnostic through choice, I do not look for immutable truth in conventional religion. But I found something that transcends physical existence in my connection with Sian, my love for her.

That is what defines me, as a human.

Robert Peston is the BBC’s business editor

I found something that transcends physical existence in my connection with Sian. Image: Getty
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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.