To this we’ve come…

Young people want to travel, learn and contribute to society. But for anyone hoping to come to the UK to volunteer in a charity, a Kafkaesque labyrinth of incomprehensible bureaucracy awaits.

Imagine… your daughter has found an opportunity to travel abroad to spend a year volunteering in a community charity. She will learn great skills and build an interesting CV, learn another language and culture, make lifelong friends and make a positive contribution to society. The charity is small, so having a volunteer will make a huge difference to their work. Their client group, who are people with disabilities and other factors that prevent them from travelling, will get to meet someone from another country, another world. A local family will gain income by renting a room to the volunteer, and the wider community will be enriched by welcoming a young outsider. And it’s all fully funded through an official scheme, with accommodation, travel and insurance provided. Being on a low income yourself, you could never dream of paying for all this.

You know that your daughter will need a visa. It’s expensive – over £200. And there’s a risk – if for any reason the visa is refused, she’ll lose the £200 anyway. But you decide it’s worth finding this money, somehow. Why should she be refused? She is not a criminal, and has no intention of staying on when her volunteering year ends.

In order to apply for her visa, your daughter must provide a certified copy of her entire passport (yes, entire, including the front and back covers), signed and stamped letters from several different organisations, copies of agreements, detailed descriptions of the duties she will undertake, the precise place of work, residential address and so on. On arrival for her placement, the host charity is obliged to report to the authorities. If she leaves their location for any reason, they will have to report. If she wants to go home for a Christmas break – well, that is not allowed. The visa permits only a single entry.

After all this, you find out that she will also be charged over £600 for a “health surcharge” in case she should need medical treatment while abroad – despite having insurance cover. You have no idea where to find this money. But that’s not the end of it: the immigration authorities also demand that she should prove that she has over £1,200 in her bank account – not a one-off payment, but regularly, over a period of several months. This is way beyond your family’s means. With bitter tears, your daughter tells the friendly people in the charity that she can’t afford to come.

Where and in what era is this hostile country? The Soviet Union in the 1950s? North Korea? The Central African Empire under Bokassa? No. This is the United Kingdom – “our” United Kingdom as politicians love to call it – today, in the 21st century. But it gets worse, so if you can bear to, read on.

New immigration rules mean that young people coming from the EU to the UK to study, volunteer or undertake (unpaid) work placements now require visas. This change was a ghastly shock to everyone working in the international education field. Until this year, after offering a volunteering placement, one could expect a young person to be on a plane to the UK within a fortnight. Now you are looking at 4-6 months – if you are lucky.

Nevertheless, for young people funded by official programmes such as the European Solidarity Corps (ESC) or Erasmus Plus, a “Tier 5” visa is available, on condition that they can show a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) from the host organisation in this country. One might imagine that a Tier 5 visa would be more straightforward to obtain than a regular one; and given that many charities are small and lack the capacity to register as “sponsors” themselves, news that the British Council, which is the National Agency for these programmes and is rated as an “A-grade sponsor” by the Home Office, could provide the CoS came as some relief.In practice the system is a disaster. To begin with, the British Council provided no information at all. Eventually, guidelines were published on their website, but no information was sent proactively to organisations, and no training has been offered, even online. Every organisation has been left to make sense of the rules by themselves.

A nightmarish game of snakes and ladders

Small organisations desperately need help navigating the new system so as to keep their volunteering projects, and the hopes of young people, alive. The Centre for International Learning and Leadership (CILL) has been trying to help them – not because we have any official role, but because there is no support from those who do. To understand the depth of the problem and the baleful apathy of the people responsible, you have to look at some of the detail.

  1. The information provided on the National Agency website appears to be systematic but is difficult to follow in practice. Furthermore, changes to requirements have been made without notice or advice being sent out to organisations, meaning that they may complete a lengthy process of gathering documentation only to find that the rules have changed and they are sent back to square one. It feels like a nightmarish game of snakes and ladders.
  2. Information and advice are given selectively and indeed secretively to different organisations. Some have actually been asked not to pass on information to each other.
  3. The National Agency staff dealing with these matters lack knowledge and experience. Some appear to be new recruits. Tasks are allocated to the most junior level, without a corresponding delegation of authority. If their manager is on leave, even the simplest action is put on hold. No one is able to exercise common sense or reasonable professional judgement. Many of these staff are unaware of the most basic operation of the ESC programme, for example leading them repeatedly to insist on provision of “grant agreements between the National Agency and the Sending Organisation” – a form of document which simply does not exist.
  4. There is no sharing of information between the unit responsible for the official programmes and the Tier 5 staff. So beneficiary organisations are being asked to provide documents and information which the National Agency already possesses (having authorised the projects in the first place), which is hugely inefficient.
  5. One small charity, trying to complete the placement of 5 volunteers under a single project, has had to communicate with a different member of staff for each of these volunteers, requiring repetition of information and a great deal of nugatory work.
  6. In relation to the same project, these 5 National Agency staff members have communicated directly and separately with the 5 prospective volunteers. This is not only inefficient but also highly inappropriate: it causes extreme anxiety to young people who are already scared by the visa process and now feel threatened by demands from an unknown person for documents which they do not have access to (e.g. project grant agreements). Their English in any case may not be sufficient to understand the nuances of the communication.
  7. Having prepared and submitted all the necessary documents according to the original published rules, the charity was then unexpectedly informed that additional documents were required – leading to a further month’s delay and one volunteer deciding to drop out.
  8. They were then told that the project start date on all documents must be amended to 11 weeks in the future, rather than the original 8 weeks. This meant that the entire process had to be started again. Given that this could itself take an indeterminate time (at least 2 weeks), would even the new start date remain valid?
  9. Late in the process, the charity was told that each volunteer’s passport must be valid for a minimum of six months from the end of the year’s placement. One of the volunteers has a passport that would expire after 5 months (16 months from now). Should they (can they, even) apply for a new passport so far in advance? And if so, how much more delay will this cause to their placement, given that they will have to start the whole process again from scratch? And here is an added gall: the passport validity would have been fine, if the project hadn’t been delayed by the bureaucracy in the first place.
  10. Meanwhile these seemingly infinite delays have undermined the entire project plan. How processing the Certificate of Sponsorship can take 8 weeks, let alone 11 weeks (given that these are already approved projects under an official educational programme), is impossible to imagine, and no explanation, plausible or otherwise, has been offered. It is bureaucracy gone mad.
  11. ESC volunteers are typically those “with fewer opportunities”, as explicitly encouraged by the programme. The visa fees and NHS surcharge now required are far beyond their means. These costs were not included in any grant applications because the new immigration rules had not been introduced or even intimated at that time. Yet the British Council has issued no advice to hosting organisations on whether their grants can be used to cover these exorbitant costs, or how the relevant payment should be made to volunteers.
  12. No technical guidance has been given on how to complete a visa application if and when a CoS has been issued. The online process is confusing, even down to what sub-category of application should be made.
  13. Similarly, the British Council has publicly stated that Tier 5 visa applicants will not need to prove they hold over £1,200 in their personal bank accounts – but official visa information indicates that they do. If so, this would be simply impossible for most ESC volunteers. No one knows who to believe or what to advise young people.

Leadership, empathy and service

The extreme bureaucracy of the British Council and their National Agency partner Ecorys UK is legendary among organisations involved in ESC or Erasmus Plus. Most have long since submitted to it, knowing that any complaints will be stonewalled with a universal “we don’t make the rules, Guv” response. But the CoS process has reached new levels and created an extraordinary amount of additional stress. One member of staff recently described it as by far their worst experience in a 30 year career. This is a tipping point at which we must finally say “enough”.

The British Council will probably say that they have no influence over Home Office immigration policies. While in a technical sense this may be true, the fact remains that at the most senior level they could undoubtedly do more to alleviate the effects of these policies by making the case for the official programmes that they manage – and by taking a moral stand for the rights of young people. It is also their duty to help UK organisations to manage the new visa processes as painlessly as possible, by making their own procedures as seamless, efficient and humane as they can, and by providing leadership. As things stand, precisely the opposite is happening. The British Council has many years’ experience in issuing Tier 5 certificates. Why are they not building on this and offering an improved customer service?

I am being honest, I am currently not doing very well and struggling with my mental health. Don´t get me wrong, I am still motivated and looking forward … it’s just this uncertain situation with all the bureaucracy that is kind of getting me down. — An ESC approved volunteer (after 3 months trying to get a Tier 5 visa), November 2021.

Ultimately it is young people themselves who are suffering. A cynic might say that the Tier 5 process has been deliberately made as convoluted as possible, in the hope that they will not come to the UK, or that small organisations will decide the difficulties are not worth the candle, and cancel their projects. This is already happening.

Like it or not, the UK is still an ESC and Erasmus Plus Programme Country for projects funded under the 2014-2020 programme. This means there is an obligation to enable the successful implementation of these projects. But the British Council and Ecorys UK have washed their hands of all but the most basic functions, shedding staff, reducing customer care to zero and limiting public communication mostly to chirpy little messages about the new (and widely reviled) Turing programme.

Ecorys is a private company, so one presumes it is interested only in fulfilling the commercial and technical obligations of its contract as the National Agency. The British Council on the other hand is one of our prized cultural institutions: it is supposed to care about improving cultural and educational relations with other countries, including the mobility and intercultural learning of young people. The education and youth sector has long been one where the British Council has enjoyed a higher than average level of recognition and, generally, a positive reputation. Sad to say, this is no longer the case. A change in culture is required, from weak leadership and bureaucratic enforcement to people-centred engagement, empathy and service.

The day will come

In Menotti’s opera The Consul, a desperate young woman in an unnamed totalitarian state is trapped “in endless waiting rooms” as she tries to get a visa to escape to an unnamed western one. In what is surely one of the greatest arias in all opera, she addresses the petty bureaucratic consular secretary:

“To this we’ve come, that men withhold the world from men. No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea. No home nor grave for him who dies on land… If to men, not God, we now must pray, tell me… tell me who are these men? Who are these dark archangels? Will they be conquered? Will they be doomed? Is there anyone behind those doors to whom the heart can still be explained? Is there anyone who still may care?… Oh, the day will come, I know, when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains. That day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls. That day will come!

That opera does not have a happy ending. But ours still might: all we need is kindness. We owe it to every young person, to sing aloud for them: “that day will come”.

You can support the national campaign for a Youth Visa by signing the petition at

This article may be freely quoted, copied and shared (with acknowledgement please). It is based on an open letter to the Chief Executive of the British Council and the Managing Director of Ecorys UK. The letter has been widely shared with professionals and organisations around the UK. Here are a few of the responses received so far:

I completely agree with everything you have written.  It is a shambles, with nobody taking responsibility and many people, especially smaller organisations and their volunteers floundering.

We’ve all been so overwhelmed with the visa struggles that it has overshadowed the other massive issues with the National Agency shortcomings, and especially with the fundamental approach and attitude of Ecorys.

It is a disaster and will put back [the UK’s] reputation in learning & development for years to come.  It has felt like “blowing in the wind” – no-one appreciating or recognising the harm they are doing.

The new visa rules are proving such an impediment to all categories of educational, cultural and youth travel.

The feeling of helplessness has been with me now for years as I see a steady decline in the formation of any strategy.

There’s a reason why I stopped applying to host programmes…. very simply it was the National Agency.

The British Council is a national disgrace.

A brilliant critique of the nightmare wejhave all been facing – for no reason other than incompetence and mismanagement.

Why we absolutely should go on shouting about Erasmus Plus

The government’s withdrawal from the European educational mobility programmes exposes the bleak, deliberate meanness at the heart of the Brexit ideology – and gives us a way to start the fight back

For the last fortnight, social media channels have been echoing with howls of protest at the announcement that, as part of the UK-EU “deal”, our country will cease to participate in the Erasmus+ or European Solidarity Corps programmes. Articles and letters in the mainstream media have also complained about the loss of “Erasmus”. Most of these voices are probably, though not necessarily, those of Remainers. But one thing is clear: few of them seem to know the details of what they are talking about, why the government’s decision was entirely unilateral, or why these European programmes are so worth defending.

Particularly disappointing is that many pro-European commentators share this ignorance, which weakens their position as advocates for the people most damaged by Brexit, namely the young. Some go so far as to say that we should shut up about “Erasmus”: in a recent tweet, James Ball of the New European wrote:

“Please, please please stop talking about Erasmus. It will not change a single mind, and it completely helps the framing that Remainers are mainly concerned about middle-class gap years. It is an absolute loser and a sign we have learned nothing in four years.”

He could not be more wrong. It is the commentators who have not bothered to do their homework who give strength to the Brexiter narrative.

Setting the record straight

There is every reason to bang on about Erasmus+ and its younger sibling, the European Solidarity Corps. Let’s begin by correcting some of the misapprehensions which the Brexit mountebanks are happy to peddle.

  1. It’s called Erasmus. No, it isn’t. “Erasmus” was a university student exchange programme, started in 1987 by 11 founding countries including the UK. The current programme, which began in 2014, is called Erasmus Plus. It incorporates the former Erasmus scheme, but now includes a wide range of other activities – youth group exchanges, primary and secondary school links, vocational education, lifelong learning projects and much more. That little “Plus” sign matters a lot.
  2. It’s a “student exchange scheme” for universities. Wrong – see above.
  3. It only benefits middle class liberal metropolitan elites. Untrue. The explicit aim of the programme – and its reality in practice – is to benefit young people “with fewer opportunities”, increase employability, and encourage active citizenship. It has nothing to do with gap years.
  4. It’s just a jolly. Anyone who says this, has no understanding of non-formal education or youth work: a voluntary, structured, equitable programme of activities that encourages active participation, positive behaviour, social interaction and a sense of possibility. International projects enable young people to escape from their narrow, everyday environments and discover a wider world. And yes, it’s fun because learning bloody well should be.
  5. It only benefits a tiny number of people. Well, that depends on your point of view. Since 2014, almost 300,000 young people and professionals have directly participated  in around 7,000 projects run by UK organisations, across the whole spectrum of education (schools, vocational colleges, adult education providers, youth groups, community arts groups and, indeed, universities). This doesn’t include participants on projects overseas, funded from other countries’ budget allocations, or indirect beneficiaries such as schoolchildren involved in classroom twinning activities.
  6. It’s expensive. Hmmm. About 1 billion euros for the UK, over 7 years. That’s an average of roughly €3,000 (approximately £2,700) per participant . Considering the alternative life chances that can be created, it is fair to compare this with the monthly cost of keeping a young person on the dole (£520) or in a young offenders’ institution (£7,950). By the way, a significant percentage of grants to UK organisations is actually spent in the UK (for accommodation, food and activities) to which one can add participants’ personal spending. So there is a direct local economic benefit too.
  7. It only covers the EU. No. The programme funds projects with all parts of the world. Even my small organisation has cooperated with partners in the Middle East, China, Latin America, India and South East Asia, as well as the Caucasus, Russia and Eastern Europe, funded by Erasmus Plus.
  8. Its added value is questionable. What value do you put on giving a young person a life-changing experience, broadening their horizons, awakening their social conscience, helping them to get a job, or (unintended consequence) finding the love of their life?
  9. It’s not in the national interest. Ever heard the phrase “global Britain” recently? Quite apart from the development of practical and soft skills, the self-confidence which helps young people to get jobs, and the consequent benefits to employers, international experience gives you an appreciation of cultures and ways of life different from your own: diversity becomes something lived and real, not just abstract political correctness. This contributes to improved community cohesion and, ultimately, national security.
  10. It was a necessary part of the Brexit negotiations. False. While we were in the EU, we were able to negotiate our participation in Erasmus+ or otherwise. Several non-EU countries are full members of the programme. It’s always been a matter of free, sovereign choice.
  11. Its aims are political. The preamble to the Erasmus Plus programme guide, quoted below, makes clear that its aims are firmly social and educational. But there is also a cultural relations dimension because, as a side-effect, young people who get to know another country will very often return home with a positive view of that country – including those who come to the UK. If they have learned to cooperate on a European level, they will also have a positive view of what it means to be European. If you think that’s a bad thing, then you are beyond redemption.

The European Solidarity Corps

In addition to Erasmus Plus, there is the European Solidarity Corps. This has been dismissed out of hand by the government, without explanation. One assumes they simply don’t like the name. Well, it’s hard to find anyone in Europe who does: most would have preferred to keep the name of its precursor, the European Voluntary Service (EVS); but that doesn’t detract from the value of a programme which, with similar aims to Erasmus Plus, provides opportunities for short- and longterm volunteering, internship and work placements abroad, as well as youth-led community projects in your own country. If we are going to enable the younger generation to solve the really big problems facing the world, then solidarity is exactly what’s needed.


No one pretends that these programmes are perfect. They have many faults. The way they are administered is heavily bureaucratic. The application process is difficult, cumbersome, and therefore off-putting to most small organisations; assessment of grant applications is often a lottery and lacks strategic vision (each country can set its own national priorities within the programme: the UK is the only one never to have done so). They are not well enough known – the government has done practically nothing to promote them; although the Eurodesk information network (originally a Scottish initiative) does a good job with limited resources.

The programmes are not big enough: we should be giving international experience to every young person, regardless of background. Alongside those with fewer opportunities, perhaps it is the privileged who need it most: if the Rees-Moggs and Duncan Smiths of this world had actually experienced an Erasmus+ programme in their youth, they would have had the life-changing opportunity to meet and understand people different from themselves. In that parallel universe, maybe they would have led the Remain campaign.

The “Turing Programme”

Quite apart from what one may think of the choice of name, the new scheme announced by the government will scarcely begin to replace what has been lost. It has been cooked up in a hurry with minimal (if any) consultation. From the sketchy information so far provided, it seems to be an academic programme for universities, colleges and schools only, and will be one-directional: students will be able to travel abroad from the UK but not vice-versa. Mutual benefit, intercultural learning and social impact are nowhere to be seen. There is an emphasis on the anglophone world; Europe is not mentioned. It is likely to attract young people who are wealthy, well-educated and self-confident enough to travel around the world.

A budget of £100 million has been allocated, to fund 35,000 participants. Curiously, that’s almost the same per head as Erasmus+, which the Prime Minister has declared “too expensive”. No one seems to know whether this level of funding is for one year or many, a rolling programme or a one-off. In any case, it will require an agency to administer it, and a whole new set of rules and bureaucracy. In all probability, the money will go to large institutions who already get the lion’s share of publicly funded schemes.

Few would deny that we have long needed to build more educational links beyond Europe, especially with the USA, the Commonwealth, China and Russia. Erasmus Plus allowed this to some extent, but the UK had a golden opportunity to exploit its unique position as a portal between these different spheres (Churchill’s three circles of influence, and more) by creating an exciting global programme and dovetailing it with Erasmus Plus. The Turing scheme does not come anywhere close. It is a dismal failure of imagination.

The Brexit world in a grain of sand

The decision to abandon Erasmus Plus and the Solidarity Corps, and to create a “pure British” alternative, tells you in microcosm all you need to know about the Brexit project and the people behind it. The agenda is mean and narrow-minded; it’s all about limiting opportunity, not expanding it. The concepts of “global Britain” and “levelling up” are a sham. Retaining the UK’s position in the European mobility programmes would have been an easy win, signalling to young people that their voices and futures were valued. It would have been an opportunity to reach across the Brexit divide and create a little unity at no political cost. That this did not happen indicates that – just like Trump – Johnson, Gove and their acolytes prefer to foment disunity in order to energise their political base.

Much more serious, however, are the implications for the UK’s international cultural relations or what was once called “public diplomacy”. In recent years the slightly sinister phrase “soft power” has crept into currency instead, perhaps as a term more palatable to those politicians who prefer power to relationships. It makes little difference. DFID has already gone. The British Council’s grant for Europe has been slashed at the very time when we need to build bridges there. The BBC is under threat, and no doubt its World Service too. With the loss of Erasmus Plus, another line of writing is on the wall.

We need to band together to promote the value of cultural relations and to save the great institutions which for almost a century have given the UK a good name around the world. A rearguard action around Erasmus Plus is our first barricade: that is why we need to keep on shouting.

A cause for hope

Campaigns and petitions are already taking shape in support of Erasmus Plus (or, in most cases, only “Erasmus”). But campaigns directed at Westminster are unlikely to succeed. A government that ignored 6 million signatures will not be bothered by a few thousand. No amount of evidence, argument or (least of all) emotion will convince them to change their minds.

Those of us who care about this must take the future into our own hands. We need to find our natural allies and convene conversations with people who don’t need to be told why broadening young people’s horizons matters, or the value of international experience for employment, social mobility, community cohesion and national security.

Let us work through our collective networks of European partnerships to grow new, local initiatives in parallel to Erasmus Plus. At a local level, young people can more easily find an audience for their stories, and a more meaningful lobbying process can begin. The Irish government has announced its intention to support Northern Irish students to access the programme; Scotland is looking for its own way back; other countries and even the European Commission may be sympathetic. None of this will yet amount to replacing what has been lost, but it is a start and it tells us we are not alone.

“Remain” is dead; “Rejoin” is for the future. But piece-by-piece, in the sectors where each of us has experience, small conversations and modest actions will eventually add up and break through into the national mainstream. Young people have been disproportionately harmed by the nationalist agenda of Brexit. It makes sense to begin by creating something for them.

So many people have said, since Christmas Eve especially, that they feel powerless to resist the flood tide of lies from the worst government in our history. Building our own “people’s alternative” to Erasmus Plus is one way we can actually start to fight back. If we can start projects of our own, however small, we will find many friends willing to help us in the UK and across the rest of Europe. Step by step, we can get the UK back into the lost programmes and there will be nothing the hardliners can do to stop us.

Making a noise about Erasmus Plus is a practical and direct way to show our rejection and resistance to the nationalist virus that has infected our body politic. It’s our first vaccine.


“Education, training, youth and sport can make a major contribution to help tackle socio-economic changes, the key challenges that Europe will be facing until the end of the decade and to support the implementation of the European policy agenda for growth, jobs, equity and social inclusion.

“Fighting high levels of unemployment particularly among young people is one of the most urgent tasks for European governments. Too many young people leave school prematurely running a high risk of being unemployed and socially marginalised. The same risk threatens many adults with low skills. Technologies are changing the way in which society operates, and there is a need to ensure the best use is made of them. EU businesses need to become more competitive through talent and innovation.

“Europe needs more cohesive and inclusive societies which allow citizens to play an active role in democratic life. Education, training, youth work and sport are key to promote common European values, foster social integration, enhance intercultural understanding and a sense of belonging to a community, and to prevent violent radicalisation. Erasmus+ is an effective instrument to promote the inclusion of people with disadvantaged backgrounds, including newly arrived migrants.

“Another challenge relates to the development of social capital among young people, the empowerment of young people and their ability to participate actively in society, in line with the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty to “encourage the participation of young people in democratic life in Europe”. This issue can also be targeted through non formal learning activities, which aim at enhancing the skills and competences of young people as well as their active citizenship. Moreover, there is a need to provide youth organisations and youth workers with training and cooperation opportunities, to develop their professionalism and the European dimension of youth work.

“Well performing education and training systems and youth policies provide people with the skills required by the labour market and the economy, while allowing them to play an active role in society and achieve personal fulfilment. Reforms in education, training and youth can strengthen progress towards these goals, on the basis of a shared vision between policy makers and stakeholders, sound evidence and cooperation across different fields and levels.

The Erasmus+ Programme is designed to support Programme Countries’ efforts to efficiently use the potential of Europe’s talent and social assets in a lifelong learning perspective, linking support to formal, non formal and informal learning throughout the education, training and youth fields. The Programme also enhances the opportunities for cooperation and mobility with Partner Countries, notably in the fields of higher education and youth.

“In accordance with one of the new elements introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, Erasmus+ also supports activities aiming at developing the European dimension in sport, by promoting cooperation between bodies responsible for sport. The Programme promotes the creation and development of European networks, providing opportunities for cooperation among stakeholders and the exchange and transfer of knowledge and know how in different areas relating to sport and physical activity. This reinforced cooperation will notably have positive effects in developing the potential of Europe’s human capital by helping reduce the social and economic costs of physical inactivity.

“This investment in knowledge, skills and competences will benefit individuals, institutions, organisations and society as a whole by contributing to growth and ensuring equity, prosperity and social inclusion in Europe and beyond.”

No internationally-minded person would disagree with these statements. But if you prefer “British” to “European”, then mutatis mutandis, the point should be clear.

The Meaning of 2020

The World turns on its dark side… Man has measured the heavens with a telescope, driven the gods from their thrones. (Michael Tippett, A Child of Our Time)

In his powerful book “The Meaning of the 21st Century” the late Dr James Martin gave a wake-up call to the world. We have a choice, he says, between a dark future characterised by war, environmental disaster and (yes) pandemics, leading to the collapse of civilisation and possible extinction; or, alternatively, a sustainable renewal based upon the best qualities, ideas and achievements of humanity. All we need is to make the right choices.

Now we have a comparable but more urgent question to ask: what is the meaning of the year 2020? Is it a ‘lost year’ in our history, or something else altogether?

During these days of lockdown, many people are talking of the “new normal” that will, they assume, emerge from the upheaval of the global pandemic. This may variously be presented in terms of a bright future with benefits for the work/life balance, communities (put vaguely) and the environment; or in a bleaker view, as a future where we are all accustomed to perpetual isolation, social distancing, queues, limits on freedom of movement and assembly, and large scale surveillance, ultimately supporting and increasing wealth divides, populism, nationalism, protectionism, authoritarianism. New technologies, applications and ways of working may have seemed to liberate us during lockdown, but could increasingly isolate us through over-use and mission creep, creating long-term mental health issues and leading to increasing atomisation and anomie. James Martin’s alternative worlds in a grain of sand.

So far, so obvious. But underneath all this there is an inescapable sense of something more profound. We realise that we are living through a moment of history, but we cannot say what that means. In a storm, the waves break on the shore and cast up all kinds of flotsam and jetsam that in themselves have no meaning but are signals of vast, deep and distant ocean swells and currents: hard for us to discern directly or properly comprehend.

There are aspects to the public mood which suggest the kind of changes that might be coming, or at least desirable, at the end of the immediate crisis (if it makes sense to speak of an end at all). We might – or should – find ourselves in a society that is more caring, connected, cooperative (in other words, more of a society); where community is once again prized over the rampant individualism and consumerism of recent decades, and where profit is no longer the only motive of business. The politics of the libertarian right could be rejected. The positive role of the state may be acknowledged and valued: it has already shown its stabilising power and its ability to jettison the sacred cows of Mrs Thatcher (whether you regard her as sacred or a cow).

Moreover there is the greater crisis confronting the planet: climate change and environmental catastrophe. The lockdown period has at least shown us that we can make rapid and dramatic changes to our lives, to the way we do business, to society itself. We are looking at the world, already, from a different angle. Fewer car journeys, more cycling, fewer planes in the skies, noticeably clearer air in the cities. What if these changes could endure? Perhaps the Covid crisis may come to be seen less as an event per se, but as the start of a process to save the planet.

And yet…

None of that seems to go far enough in explaining what is happening and why, or in helping us to understand the deeper meaning of it all. Perhaps we are looking at it all the wrong way round. What if this extraordinary year is not a cause of things to come, but a symptom: an effect of a sea change that we cannot directly observe? The waves on the rocks and the deep ocean current and the pull of the moon: the chain of causation can only go in one direction. This is not to suggest that the virus is literally caused by something else, but that metaphorically the present stands in reverse causal relation to the future – and indeed that metaphor, not literal description, may be the only way to make sense of the time through which we are living.

These thoughts are provoked by two more exceptional books, very different from each other yet strangely complementary.

The Master and his Emissary by Ian McGilchrist is quite simply one of the most remarkable, erudite and profound works I have ever read. If not life-changing, then certainly mind-altering. It is hard to disagree with one reviewer, who said “McGilchrist might just be one of the most learned people in Europe”, and at times it is a difficult read, at least for someone not as fully versed as the author in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, sociology, history, linguistics, literature, music and the arts. I would not presume to summarise it or claim to have understood even half of it. Yet it is full of light-bulb moments. In an absolute nutshell, it contends, in the span of 500-odd pages, that the history and culture of the Western world over the last 2,500 years can be explained in terms of a power-struggle between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, each with its own way of seeing and making the world; that at different periods of history, each has enjoyed periods of primacy; but that since the late 19th century, the left hemisphere has triumphed, leading us to where we are today.

To appreciate the intricacy of this hypothesis, all those 500 pages are needed, so if I oversimplify, it is perforce and knowingly. The left brain is characterised by methodical deconstruction, precision, abstraction, exclusion, literality, straight lines, clinical distance, calculation, willpower, and the inability to arrive at principles and truth other than by induction. It cannot see the wood for the trees, but it knows there is a wood, which it “re-presents” in its own terms.

“The left hemisphere loves straight lines, not curves or circles. It can approximate a curve… only by the expedient of laying ever more tangents. No straight lines are found in the natural world… Even space, it turns out, is curved.”

By contrast, McGilchrist shows (and clearly prefers) the right-brain world view: creative, passionate, holistic, inclusive, communal, connected, curvilinear, with a preference for metaphor, and rooted in the physical. It comprehends the wood, including all the individual trees.

Our humanity, of course, depends on the inter-operation of both these aspects, but they need to be in a particular balance, with the right side having primacy, in order to work properly in concert. The problems of our age are explicable in these terms. Left brain dominance gives rise to environmental damage, the blind pursuit of profit, the loss of community: “there is no such thing as society”, as Thatcher is reputed to have said.

It’s hard to find a more apt description of the modern / post-modern world than what the left brain produces:

“… a combination of urban environments which are increasingly rectilinear grids of machine-made surfaces and shapes, in which little speaks of the natural world; a worldwide increase in… the population who live in such environments… in greater degrees of isolation; an unprecedented assault on the natural world, not just through exploitation, despoliation and pollution, but also more subtly, through excessive ‘management’ of one kind or another… an extreme pace of change in the physical environment, fuelled by consumption…; the transformation of agriculture from an ancient culture into a business;… and the fragmentation of social bonds within communities… leaving us feeling less and less as if we belong anywhere”.

We are all familiar with the increasingly excessive bureaucratic and administrative demands  that prevail in all areas of work, and particularly in relation to third sector activity and funding. This too is a left-brain thing:

“The essential elements of bureaucracy… [are] the necessity of procedures that are known, and in principle knowable; anonymity; organizability; predictability; a concept of justice that is reduced to mere equality; and explicit abstraction. There is a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness.”

Things which cannot be measured are écarté, accorded no value: so across science, culture, education, social work and so many other fields, everyone becomes obsessed with measuring the inherently unmeasurable, or gives up altogether.

In terms of education, we see

“the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, [seems] more ‘real’ than… wisdom, which  [seems] too nebulous, something never to be grasped… Knowledge that [comes] through experience, and the practical acquisition of embodied skill… [is] replaced by tokens or representations, formal systems to be evidenced by paper qualifications… Skill and judgement, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come only slowly and silently  with the business of living, [are] discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes.”

Ian McGilchrist is the champion of metaphor and the admirer of “Renaissance man”, of whom he shows himself to be the finest example. His description of the struggle between the two hemispheres, to which he attributes their own motives, should itself probably be taken as metaphorical, and therein lies the triumph of his book: it allows the right brain to speak unmediated by the left. The explanatory power of this is extraordinary.

Having breathed a sigh of relief and wonderment at getting through this demanding book, I turned for my next read to Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks”, which he calls “a book about the power of language… to shape our sense of place”. It is a celebration of the British landscape and the amazing variety of words that exist to describe its features – words which are mostly on the linguistic endangered species list. I expected something completely different from the cultural implications of the divided brain, but within just a few pages, I read:

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo – or to which silence is… the best response. Nature does not name itself… Light has no grammar… Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say ‘Wow’.”

Here we are again, unexpectedly but unmistakably, in the realm of the right brain, speaking in terms which Ian McGilchrist would surely approve and might indeed have quoted in his own book, had the two been written in reverse order. Macfarlane’s focus is our relationship with the natural world through, and beyond, language. He too presents disturbing evidence of our increasingly left-brain dominant view of the world, and a passionate if implicit case for reversing this trend. There could be no clearer sign of our deliberate disconnect from nature than his report that, a few years previously, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published which had omitted a large number of nature words (such as acorn, beech, buttercup, fern, kingfisher, newt, pasture – and many more) while adding a host of new information technology-related words in their place. This indicates

“an alarming acceptance of the idea that children might no longer see the seasons, or that the natural environment might be unproblematically disposable… [There were] numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages”.

And Macfarlane continues:

“It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.”

Thus another marvellous, thought-provoking book unfolds. Taken together, these two inspirational works describe convincingly the world in which we have been living, a left-brain world that has broken down, suddenly, unexpectedly and irretrievably. 

It is only a small leap of imagination to say that this is the meaning of 2020: far from being a ‘lost year’, could it be the logical end-point of the left-brain world, the catalytic shock that enables the transition to a new age that future McGilchrists and Macfarlanes will show, was coming all along? The signs are encouraging.

This is a right brain vision, grand in scale, uniting humanity, reconnecting with nature, exalting all things curved, and appreciating metaphor. As Robert Macfarlane puts it:

“Metaphor is not merely something that adorns thought, but is, substantively, thought itself.”

The path is clear. We all need to start walking.