Top hat: Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at a party rally. Photo: Getty
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My passage to India, astrology versus Ebola and Ed’s “respect” for White Van Man

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts. 

In the west, most political leaders are ­despised by voters. Not so in India, from which my wife and I recently returned after a 17-day visit. Even in the southern state of Kerala, where red flags fly at the roadside and communist-led governments alternate with administrations led by the centre-left Congress, we heard expressions of warmth towards India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. Formerly chief minister of Gujarat state, where he failed to prevent and, according to some critics, tacitly backed a pogrom against Muslims, Modi is a Hindu nationalist and supporter of neoliberal economic policies. But as a child he helped his father sell tea from a railway station stall and this, we were told, enables him to understand common people’s problems.

Modi certainly has a populist touch. His “Clean India” campaign, launched with pictures of him wielding a broom in Delhi streets, strikes me as pure Tony Blair: an “initiative” unrelated to any plausible programme for action. Anybody can see and, indeed, smell that, in its public spaces, India is a revolting mess. Travelling by train, a Gujarati family cheerfully tossed empty plastic bottles and curry trays out of the window into pristine countryside and then roared with delighted laughter when I, presumably categorised as a prim, anally retentive westerner, ejected a biodegradable banana skin. But pride in the environment is hardly likely to flourish in a country where the absence of safe tap water compels everybody to carry bottles, lack of sanitation forces half the population to defecate outdoors, cows freely roam city streets, and litter bins are rare. What Modi intends to do about these shortcomings remains unclear.

Caste on not caste off

Modi was born into a caste listed among “other backward classes”, which are not as lowly as Dalits (“untouchables”) but, under India’s elaborate and largely theoretical system of positive discrimination, are supposedly entitled to more than a quarter of civil-service positions. Caste still matters enormously in India. Modi, despite his origins, is reported to be building “a social coalition of upper castes” and newspapers analysed his latest cabinet changes to show which castes gained most. (One also listed the value of each minister’s assets – a service that our own press could usefully imitate.)

Just over 5 per cent of marriages cross caste boundaries. In a newspaper “matrimonials” section, some ads were categorised by profession (“Medico Girl [wanted] for MD (PSYCH) . . . boy from Lucknow”), religion or nationality. But most were categorised by caste, with those headed “caste no bar” occupying less than half a column. Such advertisements have never been necessary in Britain, where these things were (and to some extent still are) arranged through word of mouth, gentlemen’s clubs, debutantes’ balls and attendance at elite schools and universities.

Trust in the stars

India is full of history and fine old buildings but most of what tourists see is Turkish, Mongol, Afghan, Persian, British, Portuguese and so on, rather than Indian. India’s history is a fragmented one, punctuated by repeated invasions, sudden withdrawals of ruling regimes (of which the British withdrawal in 1947 was as sudden as any) and episodes of appalling violence. Only over the past 67 years have Indians been able to develop any kind of national narrative; the English, by contrast, developed one over nearly a millennium before it was ruptured by loss of empire, with consequences that are still emerging.

This must explain why, despite their veneration for ancient customs, Indians have a rather careless attitude to the physical remains of their country’s past. The Taj Mahal and other attractions in the “golden triangle” are well preserved but, as travel writers frequently observe, India has many neglected and disfigured monuments. As V S Naipaul wrote in An Area of Darkness – first published in 1964 but still an indispensable guide to India – “Which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain?” Better to retreat into fatalism and trust in the stars: our hotel in Agra had a resident astrologer with a seat in the lobby and, as recently as 2011, the Bombay high court reaffirmed astrology’s status as a ­science fit to be taught in universities.

Birthday bugs

The visit to India was my 70th-birthday treat. My friend Francis Beckett, now revising his excellent Clement Attlee biography, points out that Labour’s greatest prime minister also celebrated his 70th in India and recorded that “about half a million locusts arrived to assist in the celebration”. I had no such unwelcome guests. However, the detailed questionnaire about our recent travels and health that we had to complete on arrival, and the nose and mouth masks ostentatiously worn by immigration officers, suggest an invasion of the ebola virus is expected imminently.

White van crash

Back to Britain, to find Labour in yet more turmoil, thanks in part to the editor of this magazine continuing the fine NS tradition (at which I like to think I excelled) of rocking the boat. However, the latest wound is self-inflicted. With a by-election loss imminent, the Tories, assisted by media allies, inevitably made the most of Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, tweeting a picture of a house draped in three large flags of St George with a white van outside. But it would have been a 24-hour wonder without Ed Miliband’s decision to sack Thornberry, which suggests growing panic and loss of confidence. What does he mean when he says we should “respect” the flag-crazy van owner? For what exactly? For his proficiency as “a cage fighter” or his endeavours “in the motor trade”, these being the only available pieces of information about his life and achievements? Perhaps I have it wrong, but I thought respect was supposed to be earned. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.