Monday, 1 September 2014

How to avoid war in Europe

I’ve never claimed that this blog provided any kind of authority on foreign affairs. Public services is the main area where I have things to say that I feel might be useful, and even then authority hasn't been exactly my strong point.

But the prospect of some kind of open war between Western Europe and the Russians over the Ukraine has been talked up over the weekend by the Telegraph, and we don’t need to be Telegraph readers to be nervous about that.

I have been putting finishing touches to a book about the Christmas Truce in 1914 (to be published by Endeavour Press) and it has made me more sensitive than I might otherwise have been about the accidental and unexpected outbreak of war.

You don’t have to condone the brutal tactics that Putin has been using in the Ukraine, nor his gargling with the nuclear threat, to understand the basic forces that are causing this escalation – and to realise how counter-productive the European Union’s tactics have been.

It would clearly have been intolerable for Russia to have had a neighbouring state like Ukraine as a member of Nato and the EU. It was where they parked their fleet after all.

Nor is this exactly unreasonable, just as it would have been intolerable in 1962 for the Russians to have put nuclear weapons in Cuba.

But the cold war warriors wanted to push the Russians into an impossible position. They wanted humiliation or over-reaction. They seem to have achieved the latter.

This is only a useful thought if it implied some kind of action now, and it does. You can imagine an agreement that might satisfy the pride of both sides:

1. Russian forces to help disarm the rebels.

2. A legal endorsed agreement the Ukraine would never be a member of Nato or the EU.

3. Ukraine to sign free trade agreements with the EU and with Russia.

4. Russia to pay a reasonable purchase price for the Crimea, along the lines of the Louisiana Purchase.

You could imagine this forming the basis for some kind of settlement, and the Financial Times proposed something along these lines over the weekend – but insisted that the Russians would have to withdraw before the negotiations could begin, which would make it extremely hard to happen at all.

Russian intervention is leading to greater Nato influence in eastern Europe.  It can't be to Putin's benefit.  But it would be insane for us to set up one global confrontation against Russia in the Ukraine and another one on the same side as Russia against ISIS.  It makes no sense.  We need a diplomatic settlement that can save Ukraine from dismemberment.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The perils of factory primary schools

I have some sympathy for the Department of Education.  They have only known for years and years that the population was rising and the birthrate shooting up, and could hardly have had time to plan for it.

And when children have to be found places - and the population hotspots have serious problems already - what can you do but add a new classroom on the remaining green space?  I understand that, but I have rather more sympathy for the local education authorities who have the responsibility for finding places but none of the resources with which to provide them.

It is one of the strange contradictions of the Gove years at the DfE.

Then again, there is a fatal preference even at local level for the quick fix.  Yet then again, maybe they are given little choice.

Unfortunately, the policy will have serious effects - plunging small children in to mega primary schools of over a thousand pupils can often be an alienating experience.  It needn't be, of course, but the greater the size, the better the management and the more inspirational the teachers will need to be.

One of the continuing themes of public service wrong turnings is the way that the professions are often still wedded to size.  It means higher salaries, more status, for a few of them - so the Whitehall tradition of economies of scale is not challenged as it should be.

In fact, what research there has been suggests that hospitals are more expensive, schools and police forces are less effective, the bigger they are.

Of course, this sounds a bit glib. I've altered my view about very small schools in the light of my children's experience.  You can imagine companies, factories, schools, hospitals or doctor’s surgeries that are just too small, or rely too much on one individual. What we have to do here is to strike a balance so that institutions stay human-scale.

That is certainly confirmed by most research into small schools over the past generation, which has challenged the idea that schools are better when they are bigger. It is a wonderful example of the way that 'evidence-based policy' tends paradoxically to confirm rather than challenge prejudices.

They seem to have started the Big Schools push in the USA after the successful Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft. They persuaded themselves that somehow only huge schools could produce enough scientists to compete with the USSR. It is one of the peculiar ways that Soviet thinking filtered into the West.

The first challenge to it came from Roger Barker, describing himself as an environmental psychologist, who set up a statistical research centre in a small town in Kansas after the Second World War and researched the local schools to within an inch of their lives. 

It was his 1964 book Big School, Small School, with his colleague Paul Gump, which revealed that – despite what you might expect – there were more activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there were in the bigger schools. There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. He also found children were more tolerant of each other in small schools.
Most of research has been carried out in the United States, rather than the UK, but it consistently shows that small schools (300-800 pupils at secondary level) have better results, better behaviour, less truancy and vandalism and better relationships than bigger schools. They show better achievement by pupils from ethnic minorities and from very poor families. 

But why should smaller schools work better? There is some consensus among researchers about this. The answer is that small schools make human relationships possible. Teachers can know pupils and vice versa. 

“Those of us who were researchers saw the damage caused by facelessness and namelessness,” said the Brown University educationalist Ted Sizer, who ran a five-year investigation into factory schooling in the 1970s. “You cannot teach a child well unless you know that child well.”

More about scale in my book The Human Element.  The point isn't that there are no such things as economies of scale, it is that these are very rapidly overtaken by diseconomies of scale.  There is still a tendency for Whitehall to look at the first and ignore the second.

And, as a report by the BBC suggests, there are still some members of the teaching profession who still think that big schools provide choice when - in practice - they tend to negate choice as they become more inflexible.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Whatever happened to the big issues?


I must confess feeling a moment’s sympathy for Austin Mitchell, the retiring Labour MP for Grimsby, wriggling on the hook of his BBC interview for saying the unsayable: distinguishing between the different contributions of men and women MPs.

I can’t say I agree with him (he says quickly). But this issue about Big Issues versus domestic issues does need a bit of unpacking, because I do think something is going on.

I don’t believe it has anything to do with the influx of women MPs. I think it has to do with the demise of socialism as a coherent intellectual force, but there is a problem – and it does become evident at times these, when (for example) a ferocious insurgent force starts cutting people’s heads off.

I’ve also been wondering why the Big Issues have begun to disappear from public discourse, and actually they have been disappearing for some time.

It is as if mainstream politics no longer aspires to create major change. Minor tweaks they can handle, but we have stopped believing that major shifts are possible and we shrink from the disappointment and prefer not to discuss it.

Is the design of money, or the banking system, fit for purpose? What is their purpose anyway? If the middle classes are entering willingly into indentured servitude to their mortgage provider, what can we do about it? What about the new servitude by monopolistic employers like Amazon, and any of the other issues around growing poverty or ill-health?

These are issues that modern politics was forged to tackle, but for some reason it all seems too difficult now. It is all so intractable or ... what were those issues again?

Instead, the left has fallen back on issues where they still can aspire to make change happen: making sure that people are described accurately – women, disabled people, people who are different in some way.

These are useful projects. Somebody has to be vigilant about whether we ought reasonably to be offended by something or other a Top Gear presenter may have said.

Descriptions matter, I’m not saying they don’t – but when the politics of language pushes the rest aside, it seems to me that what it does most of all is remind us of our own powerlessness.

I’m suggesting that we have abandoned the old levers and the old issues because we can’t bear the sense of disappointment: there is no coherent ideology available which seems capable of looking forward to any kind of new order.

So we amuse ourselves by feeling nostalgic about the old order (we couldn’t go back to the ‘Spirit of ‘45’ even if we wanted to), and inspire ourselves by policing our adjectives.

And behind all that, there is something even more frightening. It is a political class that seems unable to abandon the assumptions of a generation ago, and are therefore able to do little about it as those assumptions crumble one by one into dust – except sharpen up their Blairite rhetoric for defending the increasingly indefensible status quo.

What else is there?

Last year, a book by Peter Mair called Ruling the Void seemed to say something related to this, describing the looming crisis in Europe as the political elites render themselves increasingly impotent and people turn to some rather unpleasant populists – as they will.

Mair called this the Tocqueville Syndrome: if the political elite becomes impotent, then why should we put up with them any more?

This is a sharp dilemma and becoming ever sharper. When the economic system has been shaped to funnel power and wealth to a tiny elite, and our political rulers are unwilling or unable to tackle this, then they will eventually be swept aside by those who can.


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The digital tax collectors

As I write, I'm sitting opposite a brilliant young textiles artist called Honami.  She's been in the UK from Japan studying, and I spent yesterday evening taking up cudgels on her behalf against Virgin Media - which has hit her with a bill for £150 for ending her internet contract a few months early.

Now, this isn't an argument about whether or not Virgin has the right to enforce the terms of their voluminous contract.  In fact, their manager explained to me that they actually have the right to charge the full £227 which they would have earned from the rest of the period, but they kindly refrain from doing so.

I'm not claiming that they have gone beyond their rights.  I'm saying that it is a pity that foreign students come here, paying huge fees to the government to help with the UK's struggling balance of payments, only to fall into the clutches of what you might call the digital tax collectors.

Like so many other foreign students arriving to study in London, she didn't realise you don't have to sign an 18-month communications contract allowing them to extract £32 a month for a bundle of benefits, just to get an internet connection.

But let's be fair to Virgin Media.  They answered the phone after only about five minutes.  They didn't cut me off inexplicably and they allowed me to talk to a friendly 'resolution manager'.

The trouble is, he failed to do any resolving.  He said that she should have consulted the students union before signing their contract if she didn't understand it.

This is the philosophy of 'buyer beware', and it is self-evidently true.  But there is a moral problem here: we all have to sign obscure contracts the whole time, with a click of the button online, just to operate in the world.  It is all very well for the digital tax collectors to say we signed the contract in good faith - when a fifth of the UK have difficulty with the instructions on a bottle of aspirin.  What other options do people have?

It is a useful fiction for them.  It is also a kind of tyranny whereby they can impose what rules they like on citizens, who have no redress except withdrawal from the world.

And like the bankers who earn such stratospheric salaries even if they are sacked, the rules the digital tax collectors impose allow them to do business virtually risk free.

The resolution manager explained to me that the first five months of this contract made them no profit.  That implies that the next six months provided them with a profit, and I wish they were satisfied with that - as I am when my clients end a relationship with me, when they want to.

Why should they be guaranteed a risk-free profit at their customers expense?  What if their service is terrible?  What if circumstances change?  What if their customers feel restless in this legal imprisonment and want to go elsewhere?

Why should any business deserve a risk-free relationship?  Especially the digital tax collectors who rake in such huge fees from our need to get online or to communicate.  Who smile when we sign the small print which allows us an adult life.

When people make a risk-free profit, it is an abusive relationship.  It is the very opposite of free trade in its original, Liberal sense.

Personally, I am pretty wary of Virgin.  They are a private company, registered in the Caribbean, and they don't even own most of the companies that bear their name - they simply licence the brand to businesses like Virgin Media (Branson owns just 15 per cent of Virgin Media).  They are a vast great network of interlocking enterprises with little at the heart except a database.  More about this in my book Eminent Corporations.

I do occasionally have to travel by Virgin Trains, but I hold my nose - mainly because of the bizarre smell from the lavatories.

But, hey, I might be wrong.  There may be something human at the heart of Virgin.  They could get back to me even now and do something about the punitive, unearned charge slapped on my Japanese friend, and I will eat my words, publicly and with relish.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Self-employment and independence of mind

Sorry to have disappeared for so long.  I've been to France and, even more onerous and about a hundred times more stressful, I've been exchanging contracts on a new house.  Yes, as promised in a recent posting, I'm escaping the increasingly unhealthy smog of London.

Packing and moving takes place over the next 48 hours, then I shall be taking more than a few days putting up shelves.

How can I spare the time to do this?  How do I get the flexibility to look after my home when I've got a busy workload?  The answer is: I employ myself.

I am, in that respect, one of a growing number in the UK.  Another 750,000 of us are self-employed compared to before the 2008 crash, and the downs - but mainly the ups - of self-employment were set out today in a fascinating call-in programme on Radio 4, Call You & Yours.

There are definitely downsides to self-employment if you don't want to be.  It isn't clear how many people are added to the statistics because their previous employers just want to shed responsibility, to stop paying employers NIC.  This is a serious problem and it isn't clear to me why it is tolerated by the HMRC, especially if they are basically working for one contractor.

There are even downsides for those of us who became self-employed by choice - the fallow periods, the isolation, the uncertainty, the lack of clear management (I never was a very good manager and I don't manage myself very well either).

Though, one of the features of self-employment that is actually no different is the regular need to reinvent yourself and re-think the way you earn money.  You have to do that whoever employs you.

But if the drawbacks are not overwhelming, self-employment can be life-enhancing.  It is a wonderful thing to be able to work at the tasks you were born to do, and to organise your working life as you see fit.

Working for yourself is a way of life that needs to be encouraged in schools - but then, one of the drawbacks of UK education under Labour and Conservative is that it doesn't encourage thinking for yourself nearly enough.  The late great Anita Roddick used to define an entrepreneur as someone who sees the world differently, and the old ideologies and bureaucracies don't like people doing that.

Because of this thinking, I believe self-employment breeds an independence of mind that seems to me to underpin Liberalism.

Two decades ago, I stumbled across a piece of research which ranked councils in order of their self-employment.  Those were the days when you could count Lib Dem MPs on fingers and toes, but at least half the top districts or self-employment were still strong Lib Dem areas.

Was it a coincidence?  Because, if it wasn't, it could have taught us something important about the kind of people who might support the Lib Dem party too.

I took the research to a senior Lib Dem who I very much respect, but won't name.  He said: "Well, we have to be careful not to be Poujardist about it."

Poujard led the uprising of small shopkeepers in France in the 1950s which propelled Jean-Marie Le Pen into politics.  I don't believe for a moment that self-employment leads to intolerance, but that reply was revealing - because, even among Liberals, there can be a fear of too much independence of mind.

The question is - is there any link any more between Liberalism, sturdy independence of mind and self-employment?  Because I think we should find out.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

British business can be so contemptuous of customers


I had a brief lesson yesterday evening about what is wrong with administration, public and private, in the UK after unfortunately entangling myself with the Direct Line call centre.

This is no bureaucracy, after all.  It isn't the public sector.  But unfortunately, in a weak moment some years ago, I seemed to have taken out car insurance with them.

My call was to facilitate what should have been a simple business of extending my car insurance to cover a brief drive in France later this month.  It was the culmination of a private sector bureaucracy encounters while undergoing the trauma of trying to buy and sell a house recently, and it really isn't at all impressive.

What strikes me most of all is how unresponsive and inflexible they are.  But let's stay with Direct Line.

It took me just over 40 minutes and four different phone calls to talk to anyone human at all - and I don't think, judging by their website, that this transaction can be carried out online.

Still, I happened to have the phone to my ear when the human being answered and the transaction was pretty quick.  It was then that I noticed that my card details they keep for me are out of date.  Could I change those at the same time?  I had after all just paid using the new card for this French trip.

No, because that was a different department.  I could be transferred but would have to go to the back of the queue.

I said the life was too short and gave them my phone number, and asked them to call me.  No, they couldn't guarantee it.

I tell you what, said the man.  I've just checked and the accounts department has no calls waiting.  Shall I put you through now?

Clever move this one.  Of course I said yes, and went through the usual hideous recorded messages, only to discover - as he must have known - that there was a very good reason why the accounts department had no calls waiting.  It was closed.

Now, let's unpack this a little. There is no good reason these days why any consolidated insurance company should not be able to deal with all my transactions in one call.  The US insurance giant MetLife has a new app that allows them to see into all their 70 different and incompatible databases and see what each customer needs. Guess how long it took to build? Ninety days.

Once again, UK business clings to outdated technology - big IT systems - which make them inflexible and lock in all the inefficiencies.

But there was one other infuriating element of the experience.  Like most call centres, we started the ordeal with the obligatory recorded message explaining that they are dealing with unprecedented demand and there is therefore a wait (they were right about the wait, and I paid for it via an 0845 number).

I am an admirer of the system thinker John Seddon, and find myself approaching these issues as I believe he would.  Are these periods of high demand not predictable?  Why don't they organise their rosters around the patterns of demand, rather than squeeze their customers to fit in with their inflexible rosters? 

As it was, the man I spoke to met his target for the time taken to get me off the line, and they were happy.  More about these issues in my book The Human Element.

All of which makes me think three things:

1.  Once again, why is UK business so timid, so inward looking and so contemptuous of their customers - presumably because they are so often consolidated beyond usefulness?

2.  This isn't an issue of public versus private, but even so...

3.  How do we prevent Whitehall from believing that this is an efficient model for public services?

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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Let's celebrate Englishness in school

My cousin Sally is over from New Zealand, which involves a great deal of robust exchanges, mainly about child-rearing.  Sally is scary but absolutely right.

One of the things she asked me is whether the children have to sing patriotic, morale-boosting songs in school, like they do over there.  In other words: is there an English equivalent of 'It's Cool to be a Kiwi'?

I asked my ten-year-old and he couldn't think of an equivalent, and I must say I can't either.  After all, we English do have an aversion to That Kind of Thing, and I'm not altogether sure we are right to have.

Certainly, the American hand on heart at school assembly, while they are saluting the flag, rather sticks in the throat - and is wholly unEnglish.  But still.

I wondered about this when I was an an overwhelmingly Canadian wedding at a pub in Peckham.  At a late stage in the proceedings, everyone started singing 'O Canada!'

I wondered afterwards whether, if I had been at an English wedding in Toronto - or New Zealand for that matter - whether we would have sung 'God Save the Queen'.  I came to the conclusion that we might have, but with more irony.

I am a Liberal, after all.  I am wedged into a political tradition that scorns patriotic fervour, in a nation that finds this kind of thing embarrassing.  I had an article in the Guardian yesterday about Richard III and got what I deserved among the comments below the line for writing with any pride at all about even this rather distant member of the royal family.

But I have a feeling that, taken to its current extreme, this is not really liberalism - it is just world-weary cynicism.  It is post-modernism.  It believes in nothing and ends in a kind of nihilistic surrender to the forces of intolerant people who do believe something.

Let's imagine for a moment that the Scots vote after all for independence, and somehow navigate the nightmares and frightening side-effects of breaking up a union that used to be an empire.  Perhaps then the English will start celebrating what is great about themselves.

Because as long as we have things to be proud about - and we don't have to revel in those aspects of our history that nobody could be proud about - then it seems to me to give us confidence to celebrate it, and to give our children confidence by doing so.

But, and here's the rub, we have to stand for something as a nation - and it has to be more than getting richer or excluding foreigners.