Thursday, 14 September 2017

Is it time to turn the UK into ten separate nations?

This is cross-posted from the Radix blog...

The year 1992 saw the start of the new-look European Union and the Maastricht treaty which created it. It was also the year of an alternative proposal for the future of Europe, the much-ridiculed Eurotopia.

This was the brainchild of the beer billionaire Freddy Heineken. He suggested that Europe would be more prosperous, peaceful and equal if it was made up of 50 small states of no more than ten million people each.

Heineken’s proposal envisaged breaking the UK down into ten separate nations. Or to be precise, breaking England down into seven.

Let’s leave the European Union out of this for a moment and concentrate on the UK. I have considerable sympathy with the original premise. A group of small nations, held together lightly, would undoubtedly be more prosperous than currently arranged – for the reasons set out by Leopold Kohr in The Breakdown of Nations and Jane Jacobs in Cities and the Wealth of Nations. As long as nobody imposed the euro on them.

The problem is how you would get from here to there.

Let’s set that on one side for a moment. Because I can see the civilization, humanity and imagination that tends to emerge in smaller units, I’m not convinced that the radical centre ought any more to assume that large units are the most efficient way forward, nor the most peaceful. Nor am I convinced that Liberalism is really a unionist creed (because it certainly isn’t a nationalist one either).

I watched the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, and sang along with the patriotic songs – partly because I wanted to encourage my children and partly because I loved it and felt proud of the peculiar mixture of pomp and informality that the English have made their own.

I wondered if there was really any contradiction between the spirit of the Last Night and a collection of ten largely self-governing nations. I don’t think there is – on condition there is a recognisably British institution to hold them together.

I have written before about the urgent need to beef up the Council of the Isles, created by the Anglo-Irish agreement and left to wither since, as an ambiguously supra-national body able to hold together these disparate islands.

As long as it could still provide for the patriotic spirit about whatever unit you happened to want to celebrate. It would need to be, as the Blairites used to put it – ‘Daily Mail-proof’.

The supranational body would provide a kingdom for the Queen. It might manage defence. It might even provide a viable central bank. It must also credibly provide a focus for the continuing patriotic spirit, for Remembrance and trooping of colours, for Last Nights of Proms. It must not be a bloodless, bureaucratic creation or it will fail.

If we can still sing Rule Britannia as, in effect, separate nations, I see no reason why this should be an impossible arrangement – especially if we can bring the Irish Republic under the same arrangement without busting it (perhaps not).

But here’s the point. I could sing with more conviction that we would never, never, never be slaves in those circumstances than I could last Saturday night. It was all too obvious then that, actually, the slave-owners are queuing up in the shape of Amazon and Google and those like them, and we have a government only too happy to bid us farewell into slavery – as long as they can preserve their continuing illusions of pride and control.

The new ten-nation UK would need to have a similar set of relationships to defend them against other potential slavers – Putin and the Chinese financiers spring to mind. But we would claw back some of that multinational, multilocal identity that the little nationalists try to paper over.

That, it seems to me, is a future Liberal objective worthy of William Ewart Gladstone. It would also provide a peaceful model for the rest of the world, which seems to me what the English were put on earth to do.


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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

'May God help us all' - a voice from the future

Cross-posted from the Radix blog.

Don’t let’s carp about the way that government has developed in the UK – there is no doubt that, in two ways in particular, they have developed considerable skills: I would summarise these as the ability to grandstand and its opposite, the ability to walk crablike to avoid potholes.

Both of these skills derive from a government system that is highly aware of short-term issues, and so unaware of long-term issues that they can only see them at all when they are broken down into short-term ones.

Ours is not, at this stage anyway, to reason why. Just to point out that issues around rising global temperatures, hurricanes and climate change are tough ones for government in the UK.

I don’t know whether the complaints about the pointless helplines, and the slow response helping hurricane struck crown dependencies in the Caribbean, are fair or not. I do know that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson failed to reassure on the Today programme, dragging out the bluster which this style of government – one without depth – falls back on in these circumstances.

Yet I had a moment of revelation over the past week, listening to the final broadcast by the governor of Puerto Rico before the hurricane overwhelmed them, where he ended with the phrase “May God help us all.”

Governments designed like ours in the UK find evasive action, or preparation, extremely difficult. It requires a grasp of reality that needs to be urgently re-engaged. Yet brute fact, and especially the brute fact of climate change, has a habit of having the final word.

Those pathetic words are ones I fear will become a feature of the modern world, as the planet heats and small island communities find themselves making last broadcasts from the abyss as the next or the next, or the next wave of hurricanes hit.

By then, of course, it may also be American cities. Imagine the mayor of Miami making a broadcast like that: we may not have to imagine it.


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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The nature of post-crash culture

This is a crossposting from the New Weather blog.

There is a truism about fish, who are said not to wonder overmuch about the nature of the water they are in, simply because they are swimming in it.

I have to say I find that pretty unlikely. There would be many other reasons why they might not think about it - fish are not known for the depth of their thinking - but I'm sure they are actually concerned.

Still, we understand the general idea - it is hard to see whatever we swim in that clearly. In the same way, the features of the age we live in, shaped by the banking crash that began exactly ten years ago, are not obvious. Because we live in it.

I found myself thinking about the most obvious beliefs we live among, and how much they are attributable to the same tremendous crisis that so dominates the economy still. New Weather had teamed up with Prime Economics to organise a fascinating seminar to mark the tenth anniversary of the first whiff of disaster, the withdrawal of three investment funds by BNP Paribas - including Ann Pettifor, Professor Daniela Gabor and the writer Frances Coppola. It was called 'Finance Shrugged'.

The first shift seemed to be flagged up by the very existence of the speakers. Ten years ago, there was a handful of outsiders who tried to penetrate the financial world, because they knew its importance.
Finance still defends itself by being abstruse, but - Michael Lewis onwards - there is now a cadre of academics and writers who understand crucial aspects of the way finance works. They are also providing a critique which is increasingly compelling.

The tragedy is that there is still so little communication, let alone debate, between the insiders and the informed outsiders.

Three other changes, now that we live in the world of Post-Crash Culture:

1. We also now have a post-ideological world, or perhaps a gap between ideologies, when nobody - not even the Treasury - believes in the old 'trickle down' certainties. It opens the way to new possibilities, just as it has opened us to the most dysfunctional reactions. But the age we live in remains ideologically lost.

2. We are in an age of security, when those who rule us believe security is more important than prosperity. So we now have banks that are in some ways less likely to fail - but they are that much less effective. The new Basel III rules make loans to small business that much less affordable. Consequently, the age we live in is also an age of growing monopoly.

3. "We used to be regarded as geeks," wrote some of those on Twitter who, like Ann Pettifor, predicted the crash. Now they are respectable commentators, if not yet respected by mainstream finance, as are others who have been able to show how previous patterns are not necessarily a predictor of the future. Because, rightly or wrongly - and largely because of the crash - we also now live in a post-expert world.


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Friday, 11 August 2017

The fatal difference between real and virtual, and why officials don't get it

This blog is cross-posted from Radix and the Real Press.

You can see how this kind of manufactured argument happens, especially in the period they used to call the silly season.

The Children's Commissioner takes over the lead story of the Observerurging parents to limit their children's online bingeing. Then the Telegraph hits on the idea of asking a former head of GCHQ to hit back, bizarrely, in the national interest. Then that becomes their lead, and so it goes on.

And actually, this is a real debate and a vital one which has not yet been joined. There is acres of newsprint and bookshelf space about online safety, but next to nothing about how much time children of various ages should spent glued to their games or mobiles - a figure that has risen to an average of over six hours a day.

By coincidence, my own contribution to the debate - a guide for parents, by parents (Techno Tantrums: 10 Strategies to Cope with your Child's Time Online- has only just come out, and is selling very well. People who doubt what they are told by the tech companies, the schools and by ministers, need to find out how other parents deal with it.


So, thanks to the silly season, the great debate is finally grinding into life. What is bizarre is what it says about politics now. Why should the left take the side of parents? Why should the right claim, oddly, that children should be in front of screens as much as possible, to help the nation recruit the right knowledge base - though why GCHQ can't find the right staff, given that children are spending six hours a day online, I simply can't imagine?

My own experience suggests that too long online leads to depression, no matter how happy the messages people read there. Too long playing online games also makes children bored of real life.

These things matter very much indeed. And oddly enough, some of the original tech gurus knew that - as I explain in the book, Steve Jobs rigorously controlled the time his children spent on ipads. But that didn't stop UK schools gorging on them in the vain hope that it might help disadvantaged children learn - we all know that what helps people learn is good teaching and good relationships with teachers.

But there is a more fundamental disagreement below the radar here. It is the fundamental difference, which the official mind seems unable to grasp, between real and virtual.

Former GCHQ director Robert Hannigan said this in his Telegraph article:

"Parental guilt is also driven by a failure to appreciate that life online and 'real' life are not separate: they are all part of the same experience. Millennials understand this..."

Quite the reverse, in fact. The extent that millennials fail to understand the distinction between online and real life is precisely the extent to which they are disadvantaged. Or are your Facebook friends your real friends? If you really can't distinguish the two, you are in trouble, it seems to me.

This is a confusion, not so much among children - who tell the difference often and easily - but among officials. Their bureaucracies create the same kind of virtual simulacra of the world, and they need to believe there is a continuity between the two worlds, the real one and the bureaucratic copy.

Yet actually the real world is almost infinitely more complex, unexpected, magical and humane.
This is an absolutely vital debate and I would like to do more to make sure battle is joined.


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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The secret message of the new Dunkirk film

This is cross-posted from the Radix blog.

I was called quite late a few nights ago by a reporter in Toronto to ask me why it was that I thought the Canadian Dunkirk hero Jack Cracknell had been excised from history. And, more particularly, excised from the new blockbuster Dunkirk film, which is still packing them in across the USA, but has been less well reviewed on this side of the Atlantic.

There were two reasons why I was interested to see the film myself. First, because I've written my own book about the affair, recognising the parallels with the current Brexit crisis. And second, because of Vince Cable's contribution over the weekend, about older's people's nostalgia for a partly-understood imperial and wartime past.

The film itself is a strange mixture, part cliche, party subtle message - which I, at least, felt the director Christoper Nolan was intending us to understand.

Let's deal first with the Cracknell issue. Of the three architects of the naval operation, Ramsay, Tennant and Cracknell, only Cracknell - who had spent more than a week as piermaster on the mole at Dunkirk - was killed, on the way home, heroically giving up his place in the MTB which came to pick him up from the sea, because he said it was too dangerous for them to stop.

I can see why the film-makers wanted to remove reference to individuals, but they gave the name 'Bolton' to the piermaster, which seems to me to have missed an opportunity.

The main difference was that, instead of a pristine naval uniform as Kenneth Branagh wore in the film, Cracknell wore a white steel helmet and a week's growth of beard. These kind of inaccuracies were irritating, but perhaps just for me.

More annoying were the cliches about the little ships which, brave as they were, made a far smaller contribution than the ferries and destroyers. But you can see why the idea of getting people 'home', so emphasised in the film, might appeal to American audiences.

Yet, oddly, there was a more subtle message in the film, which I took. It was that almost nothing in the story portrayed turns out to be as it seemed. There are soldiers in British uniform who turn out to be French, spitfire fuel gauges that don't tell the truth, safe ships which turn out to be death traps, and the man giving out beer at the railway station turns out to be blind.

In the end, the characters tell each other lies about what they have just been through: the shell-shocked sailor who knocked down and kills a boy on a small boat is told, at the end, that the boy is fine and takes comfort in that.

In short, the film Dunkirk seems to me to have a subtle secondary message about the lies those who took part had to tell themselves in order to survive the trauma. The message appears to be that nothing is what it now seems to be.

If so, this is at least accurate. The whole Dunkirk tragedy was a national trauma, a betrayal of European allies (perhaps a necessary one), a bizarre snatching of survival from the jaws of disaster. Those who took part and survived appear to have done so by drinking deep at the draught of national forgetfulness - replacing memories with the fantasy of pleasure cruisers popping across the Channel, forgetting that nearly a third of the little ships and boats never returned.

It was a sudden, traumatic Brexit in the sense that it left us alone and without the resources or the policies to defend ourselves. But, as it turned out, we had the people, some imagination and determination. But the old guard had to be dumped to make survival possible.

I'm not, of course, claiming that all this is hidden in the Dunkirk film. What is there is an admonition by the director to take nothing on trust and to look beneath the fairy tale to the trauma within.

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The most important question in economics now


I've just been to Wales to the beautiful, and more than slightly damp, valley which stretches between Abergavenny and Hay-on-Wye. I've written about what I concluded about agricultural subsidies in a blog on the Radix website.

But one thing stood out for me since and I wanted to set it out here.

I have been closely involved in the RSA's Inclusive Growth Commission, and in the inclusive growth debate which has followed, but I believe that one linked question is now the most urgent and important question in economics.

You wouldn't think that from the timidity of so many economists, but that need not stop us asking it - and asking it even if there is no immediate prospect of an answer.

It is this. How can we re-grow a local economy when it has been corroded or monopolised? How do you replace money flows when they have disappeared?

That is such a vital question that it maybe no exaggeration that the peace of the world, long-term, now hangs on somebody finding an answer.

It will certainly involve enterprise and free trade - though not the kind of literal, fundamentalist interpretation of that doctrine that diversity is driven out.

It will involve self-imposed determination to buy and sell locally where possible and to take part in the regeneration of local life.

It will involve the adaptation of local energy and local food and building the infrastructure to support it.

It will involve government support to tackle the monopolies and to organise the euthanasia of the rentiers, to coin a phrase.

It may also involve the kind of anchor institutions that the valley once had in the form of Llanthony Priory.

But is that enough? And who is going to try wholeheartedly to do it?

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Why should parents be on their own to tackle online games and social media?

This post first appeared on the Radix website...

Let's give credit where it is due. UK governments over the past decade, and perhaps most of all, those led by Tony Blair, demonstrated a kind of obsessive technophilia which meant that, the bigger a proposed solution was, and the more obsessively, blindly linked to IT, the more the government would embrace it.

Also, and linked to that, the more they would pay. But that is another story, as Rudyard Kipling would say.

As I say, let's give some credit to Theresa May's government that they have begun to row back a little from the official mantra 'Human bad, IT good'.

They have dared suggest that Facebook should be accountable for what goes on their platform, and they are absolutely right to do so.

They have not so far dared stand up to the looming monopoly power of the internet companies, particularly Amazon and Google, perhaps aware that - outside the European Union - their powers to tackle monopolies like this are that much weaker. Particularly as they are now supplicants to the Trump administration.

There seem to be no complaints from them either that Amazon is subsidised by US Mail for every package they send.

I suppose I feel that, as a parent, the mismatch of power between me and the tech companies who are supposed to serve me has never been greater. If I complain to Youtube that somebody is online bullying my child, there is usually nobody there to reply - let alone help.

If I want my school to use their pupil premium on human beings, they usually get pushed out by ipads (in fact, Apple said that their ipad profits in the coalition years had been boosted by the UK school system).

And if I fear that too much time online, playing games or on social media will undermine imagination, build aggression and promote depression, then I'll get no support from the government (or the schools, which are great pushers of the online world).

So what do parents do? Well, Judith Hodge and I have interviewed a range of parents, to write a book called Techno Tantrums: 10 strategies to deal with your children's time online - a guide book for parents, by parents, to navigate a world where they feel largely on their own. Also available in paperback and on kindle.

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