Tuesday, 3 May 2016

A statue on Chanctonbury? If only...

I used to be a planning journalist. In those days, I covered the case of the fifty foot shark built on the roof of a terraced house in Oxford. I’ve written about the swordfish plunging through someone’s garage in Crystal Palace. I’ve applauded the way that a law pushed through by the Thatcher government to allow stately homes was used to allow eco-villages in the woods.

But when I heard about the plan to build a 100-foot statue of The Redeemer, a copy of the one that towers over Rio de Janeiro, right on topof Chanctonbury Ring, I thought for a moment of all the money I could earn writing about it. Selfish, I know.

It might even be possible, I thought, with the permission of the landowners (the Goring family) and from the South Downs National Park authorities for a temporary structure. There are far less inspiring temporary marquees put up on the Royal Parks in London all the time.

But since no foundations have been paid for so far, except media ones, I have to assume that the Steyning Festival’s idea is not going to happen. A pity: someone should build it.

Chanctonbury is in the zeitgeist for two reasons now. First, because it features as the crescendo of Robert Macfarlane’s successful book The Old Ways, where he describes an eerie – not to say downright terrifying – experience he had sleeping on the top of the hill.

I’ve experienced something related myself, though milder, up there too, so I take his description of a non-animal scream that circles the crest of the hill seriously.

The second thing to say about Chanctonbury is that, even if it isn’t the site for a temporary statue of Christ, it will still preside over the Steyning Festival when it opens on May 21 – with people like Craig Charles, Cressida Cowell and Calum Chase (and that’s just the Cs).

The truth is that Steyning is a strange, otherworldly place, nestling in the South Downs, at one remove from the hurly-burly of modern life, a precious stone set in a sea of green, a demi-paradise, if not quite  Seat of Mars. But once every two years, for the festival, it explodes into the cultural life of the nation.

I’m now writing one of the official Steyning festival blogs and will be accelerating the production of these from now on. So if you want to know what’s really happening around the festival, I can’t promise to cover everything. But that is certainly going to be a good place to start. I'll provide a link when I know what it is.

You can see the full programme here.

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Monday, 25 April 2016

Why the Left needs to embrace the monarchy

Let's just take a king at random: King Arthur. It was he who was supposed to have, like so many politicians, taken exception to anything which detracted from his image. In this case, it was the legendary head of Bran the Blessed, buried on Tower Hill in London, the magical properties of which protected the nation from invasion.

So that everybody could see that it was his efforts alone which held back the Saxons, he had Bran's head exhumed.

I was reminded of that story, as I so often am, thinking about some of the Facebook carping about the Queen's 90th birthday last week. Because the monarchy has a secondary, somewhat mystical function, which is little discussed or understood: it keeps us safe from fascism and authoritarian mysticism.

I consider myself of the Left, but I can't say I find much pleasure in my fellow lefties' complaints. The monarchy provides us with colour, extravagance, fun and a sense of mystical importance. There will be puritans among us who prefer life without maypoles, theatres and monarchs, but I'm not one of them. I find the dour disapproval of the monarchy in principle very hard to understand.

I know there is the old Charter 88 idea that monarchs imbue us with the habit of deference. In fact, I have a feeling the opposite is true. I feel more equal with David Cameron as a fellow subject than I would if he was president. I feel more equal with the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace than I would if they were sponsored by McDonalds after an election campaign backed by Murdoch. We can be citizens as well as subjects.

There is certainly a problem about prime ministers borrowing the powers of the monarch. That is a separate issue altogether, and doing away with the monarchy won't solve it.

But let's get back to Bran the Blessed (as distinct from Brian Blessed, a very different personage). You can't help noticing that nearly all the former imperial powers of Europe which got rid of their monarchies became fascist states - Germany, Italy, Spain and many of those in central Europe too. The exception is France, and I'm not absolutely sure that is an exception, but is certainly complicated by having two rival royal and imperial versions.

Why is this? Because former empires are subject to some fiercely nostalgic, not to say atavistic, undercurrents. There are dangerous, sometimes militaristic, yearnings for former greatness which attract dangerous and unpleasant people.

But monarchies dissipate this energy safely. People wave flags instead. They owe allegiance to the living monarch, not to imagined past glories. Monarchies inoculate former empires against authoritarianism.

Of course, there are some on the puritanical Left who want to protect the nation from fascism by their own campaigning power alone. I'd prefer not to take the risk.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The secret history of the Jungle Book

I've never forgotten my childhood trip to the cinema in 1967 to see the Disney Jungle Book film for the first time. It was enormously fun, with even a cameo role for the Beatles - which they refused to take part in - as Liverpudlian vultures. But there was also something, I remember, which I couldn't put my finger on, which also unnerved me.

I'm not sure what that was, but suspect it is the basic fear which the film and the book tap into, of being a child in a place you don't quite belong.

There is a new Disney version of the film out this week. Another remake is on its way. Something speaks to us from deep within the Jungle Book these days, but what is it?

Well, I had a clue about this earlier this year, when Sarah was on the train from Jaipur to Delhi and found herself talking to Swati Singh, an Indian critic and an expert and admirer of Rudyard Kipling.

It struck me, hearing about their conversation, that we needed an Indian perspective on Kipling in these post-colonial times, so I asked Swati to write a short book for the Real Press and I'm very glad she not only said yes, but wrote it. So The Secret History of the Jungle Book: How Mowgli can save the world is now published in time for the film's release.

I hope it will be widely read. Because what she does is turn The Jungle Book upside down. And what she finds is a masterpiece of children's literature which means something very different to what we all thought it did - and finds also a message in it that is directly relevant to an agonised multi-cultural world, torn apart by terrorism and identity politics.

Because there is a message of hope buried in The Jungle Book, by a man who - though he didn't say so - knew all about multiple cultural identities and the pain and possibilities they bring.

You can buy The Secret History of the Jungle Book as a £1.99 ebook or as a paperback.



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Monday, 11 April 2016

Should we aspire to a Japanese economy?

I apologise for the fortnight's silence, but I have been in Japan. Eating as much rice and sushi as I could.

I don't really have an excuse but it was a fabulous trip and I learned a great deal, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned is about Japanese growth. Put simply, there isn't any but it doesn't appear to be a social disaster.

I have been wondering, and I'm not the only one, whether Japan is not so much struggling economically - though it's economy has oscillated around the same size since their disastrous property bubble burst in the 1990s - but is actually some way ahead, pioneering a new kind of no-growth economy.

Japan is a paradoxical place, as I wrote in my book Authenticity - it is particularly paradoxical when it comes to embracing the real. So on the other side of the equation, you would have to set out the fact that the current lack of growth worries the Japanese.

It may or may not have something to do with the serious problems of rural depopulation - to find work, you kind of have to go to the cities. It is clear once you are there that their IT infrastructure is not really compatible with ours - it is hard to get money out or make phone calls - and this may be to do with under-investment. The economy carries huge debts.

They also work too hard. There was a fuss while I was there about a government department that keeps secret the companies where employees have died from overwork. This isn't a problem we have really faced here.

But unemployment is low, there is very little poverty to be seen - though there are homelessness problems, as you can see in some of the Tokyo parks. There isn't the appalling divisions of wealth that so scar London these days. They genuinely are all in it together.

"If the business of a state is to project economic vigour, then Japan is failing badly,” wrote David Pilling of the Financial Times. “But if it is to keep its citizens employed, safe, economically comfortable and living longer lives, it is not making such a terrible hash of things.”

Yet if Japan represents the future, then we will need some effective system - not to stimulate demand - but to provide the money in circulation that can keep the economy going at the steady rate. Japan has not succeeded in discovering this yet, though their 'helicopter money' version of QE clearly has useful elements about it.

Perhaps the key moment is not when Japan rejoins the nations who succeed in stimulating growth, but when they accept that they are the first post-growth economy and start seeking out ways of making it work for them. We will have to catch up.

And I suspect the biggest change between a growth and a post-growth economy is going to be something about scale. Big investments, big projects will not be able to attract the big investment they need. Progress is going to be in smaller steps, and perhaps therefore more human ones. And I for one am pretty pleased about that.

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Thursday, 24 March 2016

The new enterprise revolution that Whitehall can't see

What with Facebook and Google and Uber, you might be forgiven for thinking we were living in a great entrepreneurial age.

It is true that, in the UK, the number of startup companies rises every year – though the growth in London completely dwarfs everywhere else.

But in the USA, the number of successful company launches has been in decline now for fifteen years, and – since the UK always seems to copy the least attractive economic trends in the USA sooner or later – I’m sure the same will happen to us.

The academic researchers, and the Federal Reserve, who came to this conclusion have no idea why it is happening, but the Fortune writer and doyen of American business journalists Geoff Colvin put it like this:

"What happened? The academics don’t know and are trying to find out. Regardless of the explanation, one can’t help imagining that maybe these trends are contributing to several intractable problems in the U.S. economy: stagnating wages, long-term unemployment, low productivity growth, and overvalued unicorns as VCs compete for ever fewer high-growth startups. There’s no firm evidence yet. But to understand today’s business dynamics, let’s start by accepting this disorienting reality: At least for now, the 21st-century corporation is actually less likely to be a high-growth newcomer..."

I can also hazard a guess. The semi-monopolies have so many privileges they are harder to challenge. The international corporates, and especially those operating online, have huge tax privileges (they don’t pay it). The banks and unicorns and angels are scrabbling over a tiny few start-ups they think could scale up and may actually be getting in the way.But there is one other reason, and it appeals to me because I have been hailing a new entrepreneurial age: that the new entrepreneurs, and their new start-ups, don’t look like the old ones. They defy categorisation and may operate entirely outside the data.

Certainly there is little or no awareness of the new enterprises in cities, and the new entrepreneurs that are busting out of accepted political categories too.

The new divide is between those who want to wait, patiently or impatiently, for the Chinese to invest or until they clutch the national reins of government and launch a new regeneration programme to kickstart the local economy of our cities – and those who want to get on and do something themselves.

That means seeking out what resources are underused, whether it is people, ideas, money flowing through the local economy, or local energy or other kinds of local enterprise, and using them to meet local needs. It means taking back some responsibility for shaping local prosperity.

Together with my colleagues at the New Weather thinktank, I have been travelling around the country to find out, and then tell the stories, about some of this new generation of local entrepreneurs. And that was what they had in common: they didn’t want to wait.

They were not quite the conventional model of entrepreneurs, if indeed entrepreneurs ever really fell into that category. They were more along the lines that Anita Roddick used in her famous definition. Entrepreneurs, she said, are people who can imagine the world differently. Hence perhaps the failure of this kind of enterprise to register in the accepted categories of the Federal Reserve.

That is not to imply that the new generation of local enterprises are not interested in making a profit. Or that they don’t need to in order to reshape the rules of the local economic game. What they have in common is a denial that there is only a national economy, and all they have to do is wait for the tide to come in.

But it is strange, on the face of it, that national policy-makers haven’t noticed what is happening, even as power is devolved to Manchester (the next working day after Easter).

There are two main reasons, it seems to me, why national politicians – and even many local politicians – don’t understand this new enterprise revolution that is emerging.

First, they don’t measure it. They collect little or no data about where money flows through cities or about local enterprise, its health or its needs.

Second, they don’t talk about it – and, in particular, they don’t talk about it because they have no stories to tell about it.

Stories are the raw materials that politicians use, to think, communicate and take decisions. Without them, they don’t see things. That is why we have been meeting the new entrepreneurs so that we can tell their stories – of big ideas and hurdles and re-thought plans and frustration and success and the difference it can make.

Not as dry thinktank case studies, but to tell their tales in depth. The result is a book of eight stories, Prosperity Parade, funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, and a showcase of what is really going on at the front line of economic innovation. It is available as a free pdf here and on kindle here. I hope that politicians, local and national, will not just read them – that they’ll go on to tell them too.
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Tuesday, 22 March 2016

How services can prey on users

It so happened that my post about the 'failure demand' generated by the disastrous attempt to automate universal credit happened to coincide with a fascinating post at the New Statesman blog on the same subject - this time from a claimant at the sharp end (thank you, Brendan!).

It transpires that some corner of the Department for Work and Pensions appears to have been drumming up business for its expensive helpline (45p a minute on mobiles) by sending out letters - apparently at random - instructing people to phone up and provide more unspecified evidence.

The writer found that one call, immediately dismissed by the helpline, cost them over £7. By definition, callers don't have much spare cash.

What is so sad about this case, and outrageous, is that - if it is so - it isn't terribly surprising. It is an example of how targets linked to earnings transform public services from humane institutions dedicated to supporting the public, into narrow, corrosive machines that quite deliberately prey on their customers.

I'm not, at the moment - I'm glad to say - a customer of DWP. But I am of the NHS: I got a letter from my local health centre only on Friday saying that I had been chosen as someone at risk of diabetes, and could I therefore go in immediately for a blood test.

I'm not saying this is complete nonsense, only that I'm not overweight, don't drink alcohol and hardly eat anything sweet. Maybe there is some obscure reason why I may get diabetes shortly, but I suspect I'm the victim of failure demand driven by Goodhart's Law - the overwhelming shift of resources from providing useful services to meeting targets linked to cash payments.

So my health centre earns a little extra, and I have an extra visit there - I don't really mind. I'm middle class, so they don't charge me for turning up as they would if I called the DWP helpline.

It is a scary story - not just because of the corrosive shift in public services which began in the Blair years. It is also scary because of the huge waste of resources.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

The real sin of Iain Duncan-Smith (it isn't what you think)

The unexpected resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith has got all the political comentators in a big tizzy.  The best explanation I've heard was that he had initially decided against resigning but had a rush of blood to the head when he saw the Treasury's statement after the budget, trying to shift the blame onto him and his deparatment.

There is no doubt that, since the Cosnervatiev Party effectively divided itself in two - there being little effective politial opposition to them these days - it means that the insurgent coup plotters around Johnson, Gove and the Brexit advocates are able to wrap themselves in the mantle of social justice, which they have little right to do.

I know this is unfashionable to say so - except anmong Cosnervatiev Party spokespeople carrying knives - but Duncan-Smith has all the attributes of a political hero. He thought deeply about social justice. He had a series of hypotheses about why social exclusion remains ednemic when there's money and when there's not. He worried away at it.

I'm not saying he was always right: the invasion of Atos into the lievs of disabled people was a major mistake. But he did realise there was a problem that needed solving - that, all too often, the welfare state appeared to be trapping families and communities in dependence. At least he understood that the convetional Fabian solutions had been failing. His ability to ask difficult questions was in many ways his greatest attribute.

He also deserves credit for wrestling with the short-termism of the Trasury, who appeared to have little interest in his project. And for pushing ahead with bundling all the complex benefits into one universal credit - the first step, it seems to me, to bringing the tax and benefits system together into a basic income to underpin people's lives.

But he has made one serious mistake.

He isn't alone in making it. Whitehall has been making the same mistake over and over again. It dates back to the Blair years and, as I may have mentioned before, the coalition failed to look critically enough at the Blairite legacy in public services.

It is the faith, based on no evidence at all, that automating all systems - removing the human element - makes things more efficient and more effective.

This single mistake threatens to torpedo the whole universial credit policy, which would be a tragedy.

The truth is that, when you take the human element out of the system, and expect peope to interact with infleible systems - or keep the human element in and make them inflexible (another DWP mistake) - it can work for people who have standard problems, situations and reactions. But for anyone else, who doesn't fit into their assumptioms, starts bouncing around the system seeking solutions. And because there is nobody with the flexibiltiy to listen and act when they land, they create costs.

It is the absolutely classic  'failure demand' phenomenon identified by the system thinker John Seddon, who has his own things to say about universal credit too.

This is doubly tragic. Not only does it threaten to sink an important reform, it also adds huge costs to the system when there is pressure from the Treasury to cut costs, and those costs inevitably fall where they shouldn't - on people who need the money rather than on the stupid system that is too inflexible to be cost effective.

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