Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The three contradictions of anti-austerity

How does change happen?  Because God knows, we need it - and I speak as a supporter of the coalition.  Nobody should believe the coalition, ground-breaking as it has been, ought to be the sum total of radical Liberal ambitions.  Do they?

I've been asking myself this after a fascinating Guardian Long Read by Giles Tremlett about the rise of the leftist Podemos political movement in Spain, a combination of the New Left circa 1983 and anti-globalisation protest movements, with a dash of Latin American populism.

Podemos is the brainchild of a politics lecturer turned media star, Pablo Iglesias, who has taken his party to the top of the opinion polls.  It may turn out to be the model for a resurgent left across Europe, now dominated by the anti-democratic technocrats of the European central bank (Podemos means 'we can').

It rather depends how cross people are.  We have no real UK equivalent, unless it is the Greens, who are - in similar ways - radically anti-austerity.

But there are a number of contradictions about the idea that these kinds of movements represent a force capable of driving change.

Contradiction #1 - Anti-austerity is a conservative proposition. Anti-austerity, as currently expressed, implies that the pattern of government spending pre-2010 was some kind of ideal.  In fact, it was highly ineffective - pouring money into public services which had ceased to function properly because of the iron cage of targets and outsourcing contracts.  If anti-austerity means making sure the poor don't pay for the errors of the rich, then who can be against that?  But if it means no cuts to anything, and no major shift in resources in any direction, that is a deeply conservative position to take - and not one that will create the kind of radical change we need.

Contradiction #2 - Real change has to be based on a big idea. Major political and economic shifts happen, in the UK at least, with great regularity every 40 years (we are due for another in 2019/20), and it happens only when there are a set of new defining economic ideas that are available, after considerable debate, whose time has come.  It does not happen because of protest or protest movements.  People only listen to the protests when there is a practical intellectual proposition behind them.  A movement like Podemos remains a protest movement.

Contradiction #3 - Real change has to be based on new political divisions.  It is impossible to make change happen when is carried out entirely against the wishes of the majority, unless it is authoritarian in some way.  The great mistake the Greens have made here is to fail to find ways of reaching out to a somewhat conservative population.  I realise they wanted to appeal to disaffected Liberals and socialists, but they would have got their support anyway - and have by, allowing themselves to be categorised on the left, provided themselves with a rather low glass ceiling.

Podemos also appears to me only to be selling a new kind of protest.  It doesn't yet amount to the change we need.

I ask myself rather often now what I can do most effectively to make change happen, because Iglesias is right that the current apotheosis of bankers and banking is wholly corrosive and it would still reek of corruption, even if it was staffed by saints.

What I tell myself is this.  The main factor missing for major change to happen is a coherent set of big ideas, which have some potential to provide a good life for the vast majority of people - and to do so more effectively than the current failed raft of tired old policies.  So that's where I'm putting my energies.

Though it won't stop me from delivering the occasional Liberal Democrat leaflet in the meantime...

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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

We need a new Thomas Becket

Back in 2002, I came across an old copy of Hilaire Belloc's book The Old Road.  It was being sold off for 40p by my local library, along with many of their other books most worth reading, and I bought it and devoured his journey along the old Pilgrim's Way.

Reading Belloc changed my outlook on many things.  He was a former Liberal MP who left the party and launched one of those Liberal breakaway movements - like the Greens - this one called the Distributist League.

I've written elsewhere about the links between the Liberals and the Distributists, but it is a diversion and a controversial one, so won't do so again now.

The Old Road had been published in 1904, and Belloc described himself setting out from Winchester on old St Thomas Becket Day, 31 December.  I realised that if I did the same that year, I was probably leaving exactly a century after Belloc's own journey. And so it was that, on 31 December 2002, bearing umbrellas on a very drizzly day, Sarah and I set off past the ruins of Hyde Abbey and along the flooded route towards the Winchester bypass.

Every few months we would do a little more, eventually with a buggy and a baby, and then with two children.  On Palm Sunday, we finally reached the end of the pilgrimage.  We were even blessed by a resident chaplain in Canterbury Cathedral.

At the end of the book, Belloc writes:

"In the inn, in the main room of it, I found my companions. A gramophone fitted with a monstrous trumpet roared out American songs, and to this sound the servants of the inn were holding a ball. Chief among them a woman of a dark and vigorous kind danced with an amazing vivacity, to the applause of her peers. With all this happiness we mingled..."

The awkward transition back to modern life, from a medieval dream, which Belloc hints at rather strangely here, I have also now been through.  But part of the dream has stayed with me - more than part actually, but this is the relevant bit.  It is the meaning of the cult of Thomas Becket, the murdered archbishop, and how much we need something similar now.

Because Becket became a symbol of spiritual resistance to conventional authority.  That was the ideal which united all those pilgrims over three and a half centuries.  It was a celebration, not just of resistance, but of the possibility of supra-national authority.  Or a moral appeal beyond the king and parliament.

It would be too simple to say that this role is covered by the European Convention or the European Union, though they are the flawed successors of the Roman Catholic Church - it is no coincidence that Brussels now plays the same role in the English psyche as Rome once did, irritatingly interfering until we need it.

Becket was not just resisting civilian authority, he was murdered by the king.  In these days, the comparison is with Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero, and other spiritual leaders murdered by governments the world over.

You can see why Henry VIII, the great tyrant, was so keen to seize Becket's shrine and how frustrated he must have been that Becket's bones eluded him.

The trouble is, nobody knows where the monks hid Becket's bones, so they elude us too.  We need a parallel authority to the state, to support conscience and the possibility of spirituality.  The church can aspire to that but it is extremely rusty and very careful, and I remain enough of a modern Liberal to believe it might be stronger if it could unite its voice with the authority of the other faiths which now cover this island (heavens, I'm even intoning like Belloc now...).

Because if there was an annual pilgrimage which underpinned the possibility of moral and spiritual authority, powerful enough to hold the state to account where necessary, then I would set out from Winchester to follow it all over again.

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Monday, 30 March 2015

Why the election 'debate' was so dull

I watched the so-called debate that wasn't a debate with rising incredulity that any two men aspiring to the highest office in the last should be quite so dull and predictable.  The only element that was less predictable was Ed Miliband's unexpectedly human smile.

I don't know if it was authentic or not, but it came across as such - and I'm sure it lies behind his sudden rise in the polls.  But let's face it - it wasn't much.

I've been thinking about the political offering for next month's election and it really is staggeringly uninspiring.  Then I read the column in the Financial Times (thanks again, Joe) which talked about a similar disconnect in Washington - the growing gulf between the new thinking of Silicon Valley and precisely the opposite in Washington.

This is how Edward Luce put it:

"Every week, some audacious start-up aims to exploit the commercial potential of science. Many are too zany to succeed. A few will deserve to. Every week, it seems, a presidential campaign is launched. Some of the 2016 candidates are actively hostile to science. None, so far, have hinted at original ideas for fixing America’s problems. One will undeservedly succeed. The root of America’s intellectual disconnect is cultural. In Silicon Valley, “fail harder” is a motto. A history of bankruptcy is proof of business credentials. In Washington, a single miscue can ruin your career..."

We don't have the same extremes in the UK.  We don't have fundamentalist anti-science candidates for prime minister.  We don't have Silicon Valley mavericks either, except perhaps clustered around Silicon Roundabout and one or two other places.

But the basic division is horribly familiar.  It is as if UK politicians regard their failure to propose anything new as a demonstration of their fitness for office.  It makes them safer from Paxman of course, but also perhaps insulates them from each other.  They are dull enough to be safe.  It is the besetting sin of the British political elite.

On the one hand, we have the Conservatives failing to reveal where they are going to save huge sums form the welfare budget, as they say they will.  On the other hand, we have Labour wrapping themselves in the NHS, complaining about all those elements - outsourcing, PFI contracts - which they did so much in the 13 years to 2010 to encourage.

On the one hand, we have the English nationalists, on the other hand the Scottish nationalists.  Nationalists believe in a thoroughly old idea - nations - and seem to be muddled by the modern world in which the lines between foreigners and everyone else get blurred.

I am biased in favour of the Lib Dems, of course.  The pupil premium, the Green Investment Bank and free school meals as a means of socialisation - those are all new ideas, at least for the UK, and ones to be proud of.  But they played little part in the last election, which makes me wonder whether the list of those groups of people who really find new thinking pretty irrelevant, and rather inconvenient, should also include political correspondents.

It is the clash of slogans that interests them, and the more familiar the slogans the happier they are.

Nor are the Lib Dems thinking much at the moment, except for the narrowest policy opportunities.  Big thoughts are dangerous, but they need not worry - nobody in government has big thoughts any more.  There isn't any time to have them.

So there is a dilemma here.  The nation needs the Lib Dems in government like never before.  But the Lib Dems need a period in opposition if they are going to start thinking again.  It is hard to know quite what to wish for most fervently.

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Who dimmed the university mind?

I’ve always believed that fairy tales have a role in understanding the contemporary world, and therefore of politics.

This sounds a little sceptical or satirical, but I don’t mean it like that. You can use fairy tales as a positive way of extracting the underlying narrative and taking stark reality by surprise, so to speak.

Marina Warner is the great modern interpreter of fairy tales and I’m still reeling from reading her new demolition job on the management of universities in the London Review of Books.

Her devastating indictment was summed up most effectively in this letter she received from a professor who had just resigned from a top UK university:

"Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain – from people who don’t teach or do research at all, or if they ever did, think humanities departments should work like science departments …The incessant emphasis was on cash: write grant applications rather than books and articles in order to fund one’s research … accept anyone for study who could pay, unethical as that was especially at postgraduate level, where foreign applicants with very poor English were being invited to spend large sums on degrees … Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’ … It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s..." 

The bone-headed distortions of the Research Excellence Framework, the ridiculous managerialism, the gagging clauses in contracts, the embarrassing secrecy about top salaries, the bullying of staff – it all amounts to a disastrous dimming of the university mind.

Marina Warner compares the language of management to the bleak, simplified, meaningless language of Newspeak in 1984:

“As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, language is suborned to its ends. We have a heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated in a digitally generated voice.”

But there is a problem here, because I don’t think she is right that this has anything to do with austerity, or the politics of the coalition.

In fact, universities are about the only part of the public sector to have enough money. Vince Cable’s much-criticised formula for changing student loans has replaced them with a kind of graduate tax on the better off, combined with higher fees, which has made the universities financially secure for the first time in decades.

It also potentially frees them up from day to day government interference. The decline of arts research money has changed the dynamics, but – let’s be honest – it is the extraordinary waste of so much academic research, with its long, pointlessly expensive glorification of meaningless distinctions, that underpins the economics of this disaster.

No, the growth of corrosive managerialism pre-dates austerity. Nor can you blame business exactly.

The relationship between failed contemporary economics and the tyrannically dimmed thinking of contemporary managerialism is not quite clear – though there is one. Both shake off effective criticism by ignoring it – partly because there seems to be no alternative, partly because status depends on it, and party because of the way this approach has stifled innovation and basic questioning.

It seems pretty secure against ridicule too. What we need is the kind of thinking about alternatives to utilitarian process, and bogus measurement, that is beginning to emerge against failed economics

The same horrors are hollowing out business with its boneheaded KPIs. Just as we need to reinvent universities, we need to start reinventing business as an insurgent, challenging force, capable of driving aside these prehistoric management techniques by sheer effectiveness and boldness.

Once again, the corporate world is being hollowed out by this managerialism.  It is up to small enterprise to shove the old dinosaurs aside.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Tolstoy's lesson for climate change

1812 Moscow fire during Napoleon invasion
If all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, as they say, I have been wondering whether all politics might be footnotes to Tolstoy.  I've been reading War and Peace - at the age of 56, I thought it was about time - and I've been struck by his perceptive attitudes to human behaviour.

Take this for example, as Napoleon drew near to the gates of Moscow in 1812:

With the enemy's approach to Moscow, the Moscovites' view of their situation did not grow more serious but on the contrary became even more frivolous, as always happens with people who see a great danger approaching. At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second. So it was now with the inhabitants of Moscow. It was long since people had been as gay in Moscow as that year...

Now I've been excited by the stance of the Guardian to disinvestment in fossil fuels, taking on the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust at once, in order to force them to disinvest.  I'm sure they will succeed.

I am equally sure that removing investment from the richest philanthropists in fossil fuels may well be the quickest way to make change happen.

Until now, people have felt that the extraordinary double-think that our leaders have managed - both that it is urgent to tackle climate change and that we must have more airport capacity - is evidence that maybe we none of us need to take the threat seriously.

I know that, in the deep recesses of my heart, I draw some comfort from this myself, and it seems to me that Tolstoy nails the phenomenon.  But I also believe what I'm told by scientists - though we shouldn't accept it all without question - and they say that Napoleon is at the gate.

I find the case espoused by Matt Ridley pretty unconvincing.  Yes, I'm aware that often the disasters don't actually befall.  But that is often because of the warnings, not despite them.  Society acts, we think ahead, we avert disaster.  As Tolstoy reminds us, if climate change was taking place in the most dangerous way, what we would expect is an increasingly frenetic turning away from the problem by those who lead us - a determined concentration on what is irrelevant.  

As we hurtle to disaster, without taking action, we might say - as Tolstoy did of 1812 - that "it was long since people had been as gay in London as that year".

My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that we will act - the climate will change, but disaster will be averted - simply because we invest our money more effectively in new, renewable technologies.  As we do so, we will find the right wing critics of green energy split on this very issue, as they have been in Australia and the USA - because solar technology provides a kind of economic independence which people crave.

For a while, the critics will bluster and the old model will respond by taxing solar panels to pay for nuclear waste - or some similar horror - but, in the end, we will turn the corner.

But not because we always do.  It is because we stop partying at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and start taking action.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

An end to education for placid obedience

My father got cross with me when I was sixteen for insisting that I wanted to stick solidly to the arts subjects for my A Levels.  He insisted that my only chance of rescuing my renaissance future was to do an AO Level in Navigation - which I did and duly failed.

I'm not sure I could have survived a scientific A level, but I'm also pretty sure that I ought to have tried.  I'm almost sorry I didn't.

I have a great deal to thank the people who educated me for.  My grounding in literature, my fascination with ideas, their ability to let go and trust me sometimes to find my own way (though not my ability to speak a foreign language - how is it possible that I could have sat in classrooms for nearly a decade without being able to speak fluent French?).  But I was lucky.  I had the right teachers.

I was thinking of this when I was sent an article (thank you, Joe!) by the fabulous Gillian Tett about the decline of liberal arts in the USA, and why we need something of the kind over here.

She quotes Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host, in his new book In Defence of a Liberal Education:

"Thus, Zakaria reasons, what a country like America really needs to do is give students skills that robots cannot replicate (or not yet), namely the ability to think clearly and creatively..."

This seems to me to be spot on and some way in advance of most of our politicians.  The Lib Dems in government have an excellent record on vocational education, having finally eased the academic obsessives like Michael Gove out of office.  It wasn't good for the nation either that we were unable to provide people with the education that suited their talents, or the UK with the engineers it needs.  We've waited a long time for an effective intervention, and now we seem to be getting somewhere.

This is not a small achievement.  Nor are Vince Cable's apprenticeships.  But beyond them, the great mass of politicians have still not got beyond the rhetoric about the need for job-relevant skills and more programmers.

Joe Zammit-Lucia and I tried to see a bit further than that in our recent pamphlet A Radical Politics for Business.  Because what business actually needs, as opposed to what politicians so often say they need, is not so much programmers as programmers who can also solve problems.  They need creative people with a range of multi-disciplinary skills.  

Yes, they badly need engineers, but they also want problem-solvers and people who know things (I find people don't tend to these days, but I may be showing my age by saying so).

This kind of cross-disciplinary creative skill set is precisely the opposite of what the UK education system has been churning out so exhaustingly over the past few generations - academic specialists at one end; obedient machine-minders who can spell at the other.  

In fact, if Liberals can collect their thoughts about business together and sum it up, putting small enterprise at the heart of policy - as they should - it is kind of obvious what the implication of this is for education.  We need our schools and universities to knuckle down and start producing broad thinkers, creatives, problem-solvers and people who can, as Anita Roddick used to say, imagine the world differently.

In short, we need to be producing entrepreneurs - social entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial engineers, creative entrepreneurs.  

I hesitate to say it, because New Labour helped to turbo-charge the soulless utilitarianism that still besets some of the UK schools sector, but Tristram Hunt is right that we need to end the culture of 'exam factories', and - although he didn't say this - an end to anything else that educates for placid obedience. 

And while we're at it, let's redesign the curriculum so that we can have pupils speaking foreign languages quickly and easily by brief immersion, not by battering verbs into them slowly over a decade of wasted classroom time.  Or was it my fault I failed to learn?

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Monday, 23 March 2015

The 16 disadvantages of the pound, euro and dollar

I've decided it is time that I asserted my rights as the person who coined the phrase 'virtual currencies', which I'm informed by Wikipedia was not used until 2005 (my Financial Times report Virtual Currencies was published in 1999).

You might not entirely approve of bitcoin, with its mysterious, anonymous creator, but that need not stop you understanding that new ideas are out there and being put into practice - especially in the broader field of digital or virtual currencies.

There is no longer any need for a city or a nation to be defined by one single unit of value.  No reason why, if one country is imprisoned by debt in one currency - like Greece - that it can't open a chink of light that might keep people alive via another one.

Nor is there really any need to leave the euro, however disastrous a framework it has been, since these other options are now possible.

Which brings me to one of the great thinkers in the new economics, the former sidekick of the Australian corporate raider Robert Holmes a Court, and a former holder of the round Australia flying record.

Shann Turnbull has produced a list of 16 great advantages that a bitcoin-style virtual currency has compared with conventional fiat money.  He has couched them in terms of the disadvantages that the conventional design of the Australian dollar has compared with a new virtual currency, pegged to the value of sustainable resources:

1. It (the Australian dollar) creates government debt instead of government assets:
2. Australians cannot control its value;
3. It has been overvalued in recent years, closing down manufacturing and other industries to create unemployment.
4. It is impossible for the central bank to carry out its purpose: “to contribute to the stability of the currency, full employment, and the economic prosperity and welfare of the Australian people”.
5. It misallocates resources by creating misleading price signals.
6. Its value is not defined or determined by Australian sustainable resources.
7. Unlike bitcoin it can earn interest.
8. By earning interest it creates a disincentive for investment in assets that increase productivity that however lose value by wearing out of possessing limited life.
9. It increases inequality by making the rich richer with interest payments whether or not the money owner or the money necessarily increases prosperity.
10. It is not created by producers of wealth but mostly by bankers who consume a disproportion of wealth for their services.
11. It is not tagged like bitcoin to stop its duplication.
12. Its creation is not limited like bitcoin.
13. It allows a 'black' economy to exist from the use of untraceable notes and coins.
14. It cannot be traced like bitcoin to identify fraud, bribery, money laundering, profit shifting, tax avoidance, criminal activities or the funding of terrorists.
15. It does not incur a storage cost when not used like any real commodity used as money.
16. It does not inoculate the economy from internally or externally created financial crisis.

You don't have to agree with the letter of every one of these to realise that something is happening out there.  The multi-currency world is emerging.  It is possible to re-design the money we use. 

So here is the peculiar thing: how come the only people not talking about the pros and cons of these ideas are politicians and (with the possible exception of the Bank of England) mainstream economic policy-makers? 

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