Monday, 8 February 2016

The stupidisation of Southern Water (and many others)

I moved house to Sussex nearly 18 months ago. None of the public services I used found it easy to grasp this idea. Some proved incompetent; some proved downright malevolent (TalkTalk springs to mind). But all of them, in their different ways, have managed to sort out the glitches, except one.

Southern Water. And their failure seems to me to have important lessons for services generally.

The problem stems from the fact that my new house boasts both a number and a name. I enrolled with Southern Water (not that I have much choice) using the number; though I didn't realise it at the time, they used the name.

I realised they had been worried about this when I started getting letters asking me who I was and addressed to the named house. I phoned them back, rather generously I thought, a couple of times to explain the situation but the letters kept coming. A month or so ago, they sent round a real person to seek out why there seemed to be only one water meter for two properties. I explained the situation to him. He grasped it immediately. But no change.

I began to worry about it when I started getting letters warning me that the named house would have its water cut off.

This letter led to a long conversation with their call centre when I insisted I should have a second letter accepting that they now understood that it is only one house, and withdrawing the threat. They promised.

Unfortunately, the next letter I received said that they had closed my account at the numbered address (now an 'uncharged property', apparently) and opened a new account for me at the named address.

I rang them back and told them that this was a lie and that lies tended to have serious consequences. Not a bit of it, I was told. Everything was fine, everything I had paid had been transferred and there would be no further problems.

After a flash of inspiration, I asked that my new named address should be changed so that it also has a number. This has to be done 'offshore', I gather.

Only a week later, I started getting bills for 34p at the numbered address to close my account, and letters asking me if I have moved elsewhere in the Southern area.

I should be furious about this waste of my time. I should be railing at the stupidity of the brontosaurus that is trying to make sense of my actually rather simple address. Actually, I've been feeling rather sorry for Southern. They have an IT system, managed offshore, which has rendered them unable to deal with variety - the fatal cause of extra costs identified by John Seddon, the system thinker.

All that investment has rendered their system extra stupid.

Perhaps my address doesn't matter, but think of the same effect repeated time after time - not just across Southern Water but every public service using the same kind of inflexible IT system. Think of the extra costs that we pay for. Think of the escalating costs involved in trying to treat a very simple variety virtually, when a more human, less controlled system would be able to deal with it instantly.

It is actually scandalous that governments and corporate suppliers should have been so misled. Unfortunately, they are still being misled.

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

An unprecedented moment of fear in the UK

It was Saturday 6 April 1895. The weather was windy and drizzly as the passengers packed onto the quayside at Dover to catch the steam packet to Calais due on the evening tide.

Perhaps it was packed that night because of Easter the following week. Perhaps it wasn’t as packed as some of the witnesses claimed later, or the downright gossips who weren’t actually there. But it was still full. Those waiting on the quay wrapped up warm against the chilly Channel breeze and eyed each other nervously, afraid to meet anyone they knew, desperately wanting to remain anonymous.

Among those heading for France that night was an American, Henry Harland, the editor and co-founder of the notorious quarterly known as The Yellow Book, the journal of avant garde art and writing which had taken England by the scruff of the neck in the 1890s.

Harland had a good idea why the ferries were full, though he was still surprised. He was also aware of at least some of the implications for himself. Oscar Wilde was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ that evening, having lost his libel action the day before. The rumour (wrong as it turned out) was that Wilde had been arrested reading a copy of The Yellow Book.

The news of the warrant for his arrest was in the evening papers, and Harland could only guess the motivations of those who were now suddenly crowding across the English Channel, but it looked remarkably like fear.

There was an unnerving atmosphere of menace that evening. One item in the evening papers implied that the nation was perched on the edge of a scandal that would make the establishment teeter: “If the rumours which are abroad tonight are proved to be correct we shall have such an exposure as has been unheard of in this country for many years past.”

Did it mean the exposure would reach those who run the nation, or did it mean something even more terrifying – that the exposure would spread downwards through society?

As the passengers knew only too well, the combination of events which they had feared for a decade had now come to pass. It had been a few months short of ten years since the so-called ‘Labouchère amendment’ had been rushed through the House of Commons, criminalising homosexual activity of any kind between men (sodomy had always been illegal, back to the reign of Henry VIII, but that was all).

They did not want to be accused, as Oscar Wilde was accused, by a violent aristocrat of doubtful sanity, and would then have to respond in the courts or the press. They could not face the fatal knock on the front door from a smiling acquaintance who would turn out to be a dangerous blackmailer.

But now the unthinkable had happened. Wilde had been stupid enough to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, and had lost.

The public had driven each other into a crescendo of rage and it seemed only sensible to lie low in Paris for a while. Or Nice or Dieppe, or the place where the British tended to go in flight from the law – Madrid. Anywhere they could be beyond the reach of the British legal system.

And one of those who fled, as I discovered during the research that led to this book, was my own great-great-grandfather – escaping for the second time in a just over a decade, in a story that my own family had suppressed for three generations.

We know now that, in the event, the threatened conflagration did not take place, but in the remaining 72 years while Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Labouchère Amendment, stayed on the statute books, 75,000 were prosecuted under its terms, among them John Gielgud, Lord Montagu and Alan Turing.

Many thousands of lives were ruined – Turing committed suicide not long afterwards, having been forced to undergo hormone treatment that made him grow breasts.

Yet that moment of fear in Britain in 1895, unprecedented in modern times, has been largely forgotten. It is remembered as a sniggering remnant of gossip, about the number of English aristocrats or others in public life, living incognito in Dieppe, or glimpsed in the bars in Paris, and the awareness as a result that they had something to hide.

That morning, Queensberry had received a telegram from an anonymous supporter, which read: “Every man in the City is with you. Kill the bugger.”

Why did it happen? Partly because of growing public concern following the Labouchère amendment, sneaked though Parliament in 1885, but even that was more than the individual brainchild of a lone radical.

Why this shift from tolerance of the changing role of women and emerging new ideas to this threatening public rage? How did homosexuality emerge as a key issue in English public life?

The answer lies in the events that took place in Dublin a decade before, starting with the political aftermath of the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire and the newly-appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland.

The murders shocked the public on both sides of the Irish Sea, and to claw back the moral high ground, Irish Nationalist MPs launched a campaign to identify homosexuals in the Irish government, or part of the establishment in Dublin in some way – starting with the senior detective in charge of the Phoenix Park case, James Ellis French.

The campaign led to huge torchlight processions and mass demonstrations, with bands, in many towns and cities of Ireland.

Most of the defendants were acquitted – the main issue at stake was whether it was physically possible to commit sodomy in a hansom cab.

The scandals barely ruffled feathers in London, except among campaigners linked to the Irish nationalist cause, or political friends of their parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Among these, the maverick radical Henry Labouchère, was particularly frustrated that sodomy had been so difficult to prove.

So when the opportunity arose the following summer, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act – designed to raise the age of consent for women from 12 – crawled through Parliament, Labouchère seized his chance and proposed his amendment. It was passed practically on the nod, though its relevance to the bill was questionable.

It is a lesson of the huge dangers of politically inspired sex accusations, and Lord Bramall reminded us of that today.

But, as I said, I had a more personal reason for finding out the answers to some of these questions. My family lived in Dublin in the 1880s. The reason that they don’t any more, and that I was born in England not Ireland, was because of those same events there in that decade.

Until the last few years, when I began researching my book Scandal, I was unaware of those events.

All I knew was that my great-great-grandfather, the banker Richard Boyle, had left Dublin suddenly and under a cloud around 1884. His photograph has been torn out of the family photo album, with only his forehead remaining.

I had always been interested in what might have happened, but had assumed that the memories were now beyond recovery, just as the fate of my great-great-grandfather was lost in the mists of unfathomable time.

As it turned out, I was wrong. I was working on another incident in Irish history in the British Library, and discovered as I did so that a whole raft of Victorian Irish newspapers had been digitised and were now searchable online.

On an impulse, I put in the name ‘Richard Boyle’ and searched through the references in the Dublin papers. Then, suddenly, my heart began beating a little faster, because there it was – the first clue I found to a personal tragedy, and a national tragedy too: this was the spark that lit the fuse which led to the criminalisation of gay behaviour and the great moment of fear that followed the arrest of Oscar Wilde.

That first clue led to others, which led to others. I will never know the whole story. But what I did discover took me on a historical rollercoaster, and an emotional one, which catapulted me back to the strangely familiar world of the end of the nineteenth century – and a glimpse of that sudden fear in April 1895 that drove many of those affected so suddenly abroad.

I tracked him to a new career as a stained glass artist, among the glass industry in Camberwell, and – among other revelations – living with a man who was with him when he died, during the terrible London smog of Christmas week 1900.

Pinning down why he fled, twice in 11 years, and why Labouchère drafted and passed his notorious amendment, it is pretty clear that the whole moral panic began with a political witch-hunt which got out of hand.

The story suggests that there are serious dangers when political campaigns wrap themselves in populist intolerance in order to drag down an elite.

That is what happened in Dublin in 1883/4 and within four decades, the nationalist cause had been won; perhaps not because of the sexual accusations and cruelties. But those had unpredicted and unpredictable effects, not just in Ireland but across the British Isles.

Politicians have made sexual accusations against their political opponents since politics was invented. But these campaigns often leave a legacy of hate and fear which don’t dissipate easily.

You can read a ebook version of Scandal here or a print version here, or see the new website of The Real Press and shop there!

Monday, 1 February 2016

The insanity of high densities and the struggle to limit London

The leader of Richmond Council, a Conservative these days, has warned that London is set to become a mega-city on the scale of Rio or Karachi or Shanghai – with 13 million people by 2050.

I will be 92 in 2050 and unlikely to be popping up to London for the night life (though who knows). The question posed was whether there should be limits on London’s population growth to avoid this eventuality.

These are uncharted and uneasy waters to commentate in, let alone swim in. Is there hidden racism in his message? How should progressivcs react? It isn’t at all clear.

Yet, whatever his motives for raising the issue, this is a potential problem. More than a problem: if London was to gain in size half as much again, enough to fill two new boroughs, it would be disastrous for those who live there. The infrastructure (transport in the centre, schools in the suburbs) would be completely overwhelmed. It would be an overcrowded, unhealthy and uncongenial place, and that is the best one could say.

What’s more the most intense negative effects would be felt by the poorest, in the insanity of high densities, the pollution and noise and technocratic responses.

It is also clearly possible given the rapid rise of population since the 1980s, after a good seven decades when it was declining. It does have to be debated.

The difficulty is in the word ‘limits’ which betrays the current mindset of civil servants everywhere – that all you need to do is to set limits or targets and sit back and relax, job done. It says more about the fantasies of the current generation of policy-makers, that all they need to is to set down some numerical boundary.

The truth is that limits only have political cache, and they are only hostages to fortune if that is all they are. There has to be some humane and effective mechanism to limit the size of the city and to divert population, even perhaps to move population if people are willing.

This is not revolutionary. The Attlee government did precisely this to avoid what was then called ‘town cramming’, and they did it in two ways – bold and effective.

They set the green belt around London, not to be sacrosanct, but to be wide enough to prevent London growing any further. They also set out the first generation of new towns around London, built to high environmental standards and with their own work and economies.

We abandoned the new towns programme in 1976, thanks to Labour’s Peter Shore and his determination to focus resources on the inner cities, but we have been tiptoeing back there. Ebbsfleet has been designated a ‘garden city’ though it is probably more of a garden suburb (back to the old Edwardian debate).

There is scope for new settlements in the Thames estuary, but there is little scope to expand in the south east without reigniting the Auld Alliance of the 1950s – urban Labour authorities who wanted to keep their voters and shire Tories who didn’t want them decanted into their areas – which gave us the high rise flats disaster.

New settlements and garden cities in the north make more sense, but not if they end up like Corby or Skelmersdale, hotspots of high unemployment.

So what do we do? We think about what kind of devolution of economic power might make it possible to build thriving garden cities in the north – how in practice do we move shift business and government decision-making northwards? What kind of banking policies would shape a regional financial sector?

Second, we have to crack the local economic problem – how do we grow economies from scratch, a subject tackled in my co-written book People Powered Prosperity.

Finally, we have to tackle the opposition from London. The GLA, since the days of Ken Livingstone, has become a greedy, blood sucking creature, dedicated to the growth of London (motto: what I have I hold). Because if London is going to keep its own tax revenue, then it will also have to pay for the decentralisation of its population.

Actually, this may not be so bad for London. Experience of the last three new town programmes was that it was also immensely profitable.

A megalopolis is a monstrous energy-guzzling thing, inconsistent with human liberty or human dignity, caught between regimentation and disorder. We must avoid it at all costs, but the costs will pay for themselves many times over.

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Monday, 25 January 2016

The five political sins of middle England

It is six months now since my book How to Be English was published, and I have seen it around on bookshop tables more than my books are usually seen. This is, of course, a thoroughly good thing.

But it has also made me wonder a little about the opposite. The book is full of those memes - a hundred of them - that might allow you to knit another English person from scratch. It hardly needs saying that I love and revere Englishness.

I say that even though I now live in the middle of Middle England, and every time I venture out in my car, someone hoots at me - often they wind down their window and shout. This may be because I'm an appalling driver, but I don't think so - or at least, I'm not prepared to accept it quite yet. I was never hooted at in London, and that wasn't through any lack of aggression on the part of London's drivers.

No, I think people drive differently here. They drive as car-proud people drive, with the rather pompous slogan which comes upon them behind the wheel: What I Have I Hold.

Because despite the great benefits and virtues of Englishness, there are drawbacks - and they are political ones. These are my five:

1. They don't like to make a fuss. My parents live in a small village in Hampshire - I won't say which. A local defence manufacturer allowed their chemicals to leach into the ground water which meant anyone not on mains water was forced to drink bottled water for nearly a year, while the water company dragged its lethargic limbs into action to put them on the mains. In any other country, there would have been a state of emergency - like the one in similar circumstances in Michigan - or at least some legal action. But in Middle England, no, nobody wanted to make trouble.

2. They are obsessively apolitical. I went canvassing in a by-election - also in Hampshire come to think of it - and found, in one relatively wealthy housing estate, that everybody was in and nobody, without exception, was voting. Not because they were apathetic, but because they thoroughly disapproved of the way the establishment parties posture. Not apathy, in fact, but rage - but not rage likely to make much difference.

3. They are boneheadedly unspiritual. This may be patronising to say so, and there are certainly many exceptions. But even in these enlightened ages, the Church of England remains too much dedicated to the spirituality of rising property prices. With a vague sense that the main thrust of Jesus' teachings had something to do with homosexuality (he never actually mentioned it).

4. They believe far too much in the objective reality of market values. Let's stick with the church. On two occasions in my adult life, the Church Commissioners - about as hard nosed and unspiritual a bunch of people as you are ever likely to meet - managed to lose a third of the Church's accumulated wealth because of their obsession with property. They then compounded the problem by selling up at the bottom of the market. I don't know what happened to them, but let's assume they managed to find their way into the honours lists.

5. They blind themselves to criticism. The American historian Barbara Tuchman famously criticised the British military for their bizarre tolerance of failure in the India campaign in 1942. Once you reach a certain level in the establishment, you can lose battles, mess up the customer service at HMRC, invade the wrong country at the wrong time, and you will still be a gallant, revered member, deserving of gongs.

This is what she said:

"No nation has ever produced a military history of such verbal nobility as the British. Retreat or advance, win or lose, blunder or bravery, murderous folly or unyielding resolution, all emerge clothed in dignity and touched with glory. Every engagement is gallant, every battle a decisive action, every campaign produces generalship hailed as the most brilliant of the war. Other nations attempt but never quite achieve the same self-esteem. It was not by might but by the power of her self-image that Britain in her century dominated the world."

So how, given these extraordinary weaknesses, do the English manage to make change happen? That remains a mystery. All I can say is that they do and, when the time comes, it all seems to happen very quickly. And it will again, and remarkably soon.

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Monday, 18 January 2016

Why don't they believe in competition any more?

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write an article about the future of food by the Environment Agency, since I had written a series of these fictional glimpses before. For some reason, that I now forget, I chose a future based on a kind of Lion-Witch-Wardrobe kind of world, where there was only one company that sold us everything. I called it TescoVirgin plc.

This turned out to be too controversial for my employers. It was naive of me to think otherwise, but I had enjoyed writing it.

I think of that article, which has been published in my short ebook The Age to Come, every few weeks now as the future I envisaged, that aspect of it anyway, seems to creep closer and closer.

My experience moving house 18 months ago, when I was unable to switch any of my services – not phone, nor electricity nor gas and certainly not internet – without infuriating problems, convinced me that the market had become seriously overconsolidated.

I thought of it again this morning listening to the head of Ofgen on the Today programme, saying much the same thing, but calling in aid the failure to cut energy prices not the appalling customer service.

I was wondering why this is and realise that it is often the most doctrinaire market fundamentalists who get appointed to these regulatory positions. And market fundamentalists think that prices are the only measure of anything.

In fact, it must be partly the fault of regulators that so many public services have built their customer service systems around a model that copes brilliantly with absolute normality, but for some peculiar reason can’t cope with small anomalies – like moving house.

What is most peculiar about the whole issue is that these are often privatised utilities, privatised because competition seemed to provide a better deal for customers – as it does – yet now consolidated so much that competition seems impossible.

The best example of this isn’t the electricity market, which is dominated by a handful of deaf, exhausting brontosauri without human emotion. It is the mobile phone market, especially now that the merger between EE and BT has cleared its regulatory hurdles.

That gives BT about a third of the mobile market, when the Office of Fair Trading believes that market distortion begins to creep in when a company builds up a share of over 8 per cent

Now we have the next merger before regulators in Europe, with 3 wanting to merge with O2.

The real question is why the market fundamentalists don’t believe in competition? Or perhaps more accurately, why they don’t think – despite a few centuries of evidence – that monopolies and oligopolies don’t fleece and patronise their customers.

The answer, as I’ve argued before, lies with Milton Friedman who taught that monopolies are not a serious problem. Because the Liberal voice has been muted in government circles, and – when it hasn’t been muted – it has forgotten the central pillar of Liberal economic thought: that monopoly is a kind of slavery. And a profit-making monopoly is an all-powerful beast, dedicated to its own survival.

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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Mental education versus physical education

I have been reading the great unread classic autobiography of Victorian and Edwardian life, Frank Harris' My Life and Loves. It is vast and sprawling, part pornography, part political memoir, part self-help manual.  

I found myself reading it when I was researching my new book Scandal, about the strange story of why homosexuality was criminalised in 1885, and Harris knew many of the people involved.  It is bizarre and hard to put down (and not really because of the pornography, I assure you).

The trouble is that Harris is widely believed to have been a liar, and his first biographer chose the sub-title 'The biography of a scoundrel'. It doesn't help that he had extraordinary powers of recall, which means - for example - that most of the copious poetry he quotes in his autobiography are clearly taken from memory and therefore not completely accurate.

This is a pity because Harris really did know everybody in the 1880s and 1890s in London and beyond and what he remembers is worth remembering. The pornography meant that unexpurgated editions were banned until 1962.

By the fourth volume you begin to feel his concentration is flagging, only to have what is an absolutely gripping account of his investigation into the abortive Jameson Raid in 1895, which led to the Boer War and arguably the rift with Germany.

But I have learned something from Harris and it followed from his own conviction that he was too short to be a great athlete. He decided he had to develop in himself the physical and mental control he needed to succeed.  These are detailed at great length. Extraordinary self-confidence clearly helped.

But it made me realise how little our own generation spends on developing their minds, compared to the vast time and money they spend developing their bodies. Harris tried both, but the time he spent learning European languages and mastering French and German literature, and deepening his Shakespeare scholarship, puts my own generation to shame.

Or perhaps it just puts me to shame...

By coincidence yesterday, there was an item on BBC Radio 4 about education and the mismatch between the effort put into physical education compared to what you might call mental education, or at least mental health.

This is the emerging debate in education policy these days, and it is hampered because it isn't clear what works - certainly David Cameron's Blairite backing for parenting classes are not the holy grail we are looking for. The question is, if people don't want to develop their own potential, whether anything really ought to be done about it.

The answer seems to be yes, but punishing them with parenting classes seems paradoxcially like treating them too like children.

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Monday, 11 January 2016

Could Labour and Conservative unravel simultaneously?

I must admit I'm feeling confused about UK politics right now. We have a slow-motion unravelling of the Labour Party going on, as the old guard defend their right to insult their leadership - rather a peculiar idea, though for a Lib Dem of course it is absolutely de rigueur. Yet at the same time, on the other side of the Westminster divide, a similar process seems to be under way, even if it isn't quite so bitter.

The decision by David Cameron to allow his ministers to speak against government policy during the Euro-referendum is really remarkably like what is happening in the Labour Party. For the time being, the break up of the Conservative Party seems more controlled, but I suspect that - given that Ins and Outs are pretty equally matched - these divisions will become increasingly bitter.

So what conclusion should we draw from this extraordinary parallel?

First, I reckon that the reasons for the bitterness is also remarkably similar. The Labour rebels believe their new leadership is destroying the party. The Tory mainstream believes the same about their rebels: if they were to succeed in wrenching the nation out of the European Union, they believe it would undermine the economy.  Those are life-and-death struggles, or the political equivalent.

Second, the unravelling of one side may make it safe for the other side to unravel at the same time.  It might be possible that both government and opposition parties may in fact divide simultaneously.

Third, this might provide an opportunity for the Lib Dems, but only on two conditions. They have to demonstrate their own revived electorability - perhaps in Rochdale (strange to have a Sunday without new revelations about Rochdale's MP). Also they need to set out a genuine alternative, and believable, plan for national prosperity.

This is something that Tim Farron has been moving towards. The trouble is that nobody is listening right now. That may not be entirely a disadvantage - the time has come, not to hibernate, but to think and involve as broad a number of people in thinking as possible.

In fact, this is what I would do.  Form a major inquiry, chaired by a prominent international economist, to set out the future radical direction for a global economy that works: one that provides for a civilised life for everyone that doesn't require increasingly frenetic and global speculation.

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