Thursday, 18 September 2014

The two Scotlands

Yes, I know, it's almost too late to comment on Scottish independence - they're voting today.  I suspect that the result, whatever it is, won't be the end of the debate, so I'm having another shot at it.

It is interesting, watching the news coverage, how much of the Yes case is bound up with anger about what might be broadly termed 'inequality'.

This is the sense I get from the vision of Two Scotlands.  It isn't so much the haves and the have-nots, but it is about different beliefs about how the have-nots might eventually have.

The financial elite believe inequality is an outdated irrelevance, which has little to do with them.  Meanwhile the currency shoots up and down in value because of the fears of secession across Europe - and all driven precisely because people no longer feel a stake in their own nations.

The truth is this: inequality is market sensitive after all.

Having said all that, I don't know - in the new world of interdepedence - whether nationhood really means anything any more.  Not in practice.

And that fact is, as much as anything, down to the legacy of the Scottish enlightenment, and its emphasis on humanity and rationalism.  That is the message of Adam Smith, Lord Kames, James Boswell and all the rest of them.

And here we really see the Two Scotlands.  In 1745, when the highlanders reluctantly rallied to the flag of Bonnie Prince Charlie, those involved in the Scottish enlightenment barred the gates of Edinburgh and Glasgow against the rebels.

Bonnie Prince Charlie was a Roman Catholic, and therefore wholly unacceptable to the traditional Calvinist elders in the central belt of Scotland – the great medieval cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow

But he was also opposed by the new traders of Glasgow and the new middle class academics and publishers of Edinburgh. He was a symbol of the old-fashioned world for those who were lighting the first sparks of intellectual excitement that were emerging, and would be known to history as the Scottish enlightenment.

The irony was that it was this dismal moment of Scottish defeat that made possible a new kind of Scotland which gave itself to the world. The final capitulation of the other Scotland, the medieval memory of clan loyalty and absolute authority, was finished.

It was dead and mourned, but its destruction had made way for the new Scotland to emerge. It emerged in a way that it did almost nowhere else in Europe, among a group of like-minded writers, philosophers, historians and lawyers, who wanted to dispel the old fog of Calvinism and look at mankind differently.

Human nature and the scientific study of mankind was at the heart of the beginning of the Scottish enlightenment, and the defence of Edinburgh against the rebels also fell to the enlightenment.

They were led by the mathematics professor Colin Maclaurin. The future historian William Robertson joined him as a volunteer on the battlements. The seventeen-year-old future architect Robert Adam  was his assistant. The defence failed and the volunteers repaired to Turnbull’s tavern for claret.

When the news of Culloden came through, celebratory bonfires were lit all across Glasgow as well.

David Hume was away tutoring the Marquis of Annandale, who was classified as a ‘lunatic’ (it was not a happy relationship). Smith was having his nervous breakdown in Oxford. The future writer James Boswell was in Edinburgh, but still only five years old. They missed the excitement, but it was really only after the trauma of the rebellion that the enlightenment was free to spread its wings.

So when we think of the Two Scotlands today, remember that it is in this sense a longstanding division, and it has at its heart a different understanding of nationhood.

I think of it as closer to Robbie Burns' idea that human beings, whatever their nation, "shall brothers be for 'a that".

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

On selling out to Microsoft

At moments like these – moving house – I realise that the real division between rulers and ruled isn’t left or right, public versus private, or any of the other issues that the political class appear to think should motivate us.

It is systematised versus human.  Small scale versus big scale.  Community versus hierarchy.  Rationalised versus personal.

That is the story of people’s real lives, these days, whether those organisations are nominally public, private or voluntary sector.

This came home from me forcibly as I opened my post yesterday.  

Three identical letters from Southern Water in identical envelopes all informed me that the address I had moved into doesn’t exist (though it was actually built in 1957 and Southern Water and their predecessors have been providing it with water ever since).

They told me they are therefore sending an inspector to view the ‘new property’.

It doesn’t bother me except of course for the boneheaded waste, which I will presumably pay for at some point, and extreme lack of common sense.  Looking it up on the internet would have helped them find their own records.  But it reminds me why we mourn when enterprises with energy and intimacy are taken over by great lumbering systems and processes.

Like when the energetic online game Minecraft, which my children adore, was bought by Microsoft this week.

And we know that this spells the end for imagination, flair and intimacy – not because Microsoft are inherently bad or employ bad people, but because they are too big to provide it.

Ironically, it is also partly a side effect of IT which makes this so.  A generation ago, when I started work, I was uncontactable outside the office.  I had to use my initiative to make things happen.  

Now the big bosses can make every decision by mobile phone or by imposing IT systems which regulate their staff and render them incompetent – so that they can’t identify addresses which have been there for half a century.


This is what I wrote about this dismal sell-off in the Guardian yesterday.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Come to think of it, whatever happened to England?

I lived in Crystal Palace, on a hill in south London, for more than half my life.  Now I don't.  As threatened during July, I've moved into a very English small town, nestling in the South Downs, and I have no regrets.

But I am slightly flummoxed and I thought I would share this perspective.  Maybe one of you might enlighten me.

My town is outside the commuter belt, one of the advantages of being impossible to commute from, and it is in some ways a step back into a bygone age.  People are patient and polite in the street.  There are four banks in the thriving high street.  There is an effective and forward-thinking GP practice.  The local library is open six days a week.  There are more cubs, scouts and beavers than most people could count.

I sat in church on Sunday, marvelling at the full pews, the identically dressed, healthy-looking people on final salary pensions, the contingent in RAF uniform for Battle of Britain Sunday, saluting as we sang the national anthem.

I am staggered really that all the promises made to me about my adult life at my expensive independent school appear to have come to pass here.  And they seemed peculiarly old-fashioned even then, when I left in 1976.

But ironically, I get no feeling that this is a naturally conservative place.  There are green campaign groups, farmers markets, more solar panels than I've ever seen before.  It has more community activity than I've come across anywhere.  There is an arts festival and a literary festival.  It is a place that works.

It is certainly middle class but this is no stockbroker belt either.  It is also too friendly a place to be entirely complacent.  I had no idea such places, so overwhelmingly English, still existed.

I'm not saying that everywhere should be like this.  It would send some of my colleagues quite round the twist.  But there is something that makes me cross.

I ask myself the following questions.

How come there are sections of the nation that feel like this, when so much of the rest of us have to live with libraries that open for a few hours a couple of days a week, where the GP surgery is so overwhelmed that you can't get through to get an appointment, where the high street is struggling, and you have to take a couple of buses just to get to the nearest free cashpoint?

The answer I come up with, perhaps because I'm a Liberal, is that it is generations of poor government - of bone-headed conservatives with their economic experiments, of authoritarian, of unimaginative socialists packing people into concrete hutches, and of government by centralised lobotomy.

The real political division, at least since I left school, has not been between conventional right and left, but between an ideology that believes the rich should rule (pernicious and unEnglish) and an authoritarian rival which believes people should be forced into simple boxes to make them easier to process.

That exclusive choice has been the curse of the nation.

I also ask myself, as I did on Sunday, whether my fellow inhabitants realise how much on a knife-edge this civilisation is perching.

The economic trends threaten to sweep it away, as it is busy sweeping it away for the middle classes in most of the rest of the nation, perhaps rather faster in Scotland, depending on which way the vote goes this week.

Because the first defence against the corosion of what makes us civilised, before we can organise ourselves to do anything about it, is to understand what is happening.  May I humbly recommend my book on the subject: Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis?


Monday, 15 September 2014

John Cabot may have been the greatest of all

The discovery of the wreck of either Erebus or Terror, on the ocean floor in the Canadian Arctic, has been widely covered in the media - and not surprisingly, since they have been missing since 1845.

But it has made me think about John Cabot again, one of my heroes. Not least because he was included in the story in the Guardian, since deleted. Other reports also referred to Cabot's voyage, in search of the North West Passage, on which he also disappeared in 1498.

This is the conventional account, but it is coming under the spotlight.

We know that one of Cabot’s fleet of five ships turned back into an Irish port. The others carried on, not into the unknown, but in the sure and certain hope that they would follow that strange forested coast all the way down to China - which was actually the purpose, not at that stage the North West Passage.

Then nothing.  But not quite nothing.

There have been rumours of rocks carved on the Massachusetts coast with the names of Cabot’s sons.  Venetian ear-rings found by a Portuguese expedition a few years later.

And echoes of what you might call a violent encounter between English pioneers and Castilian settlers as far down south as the coast of what is now Venezuela

Every nation has its own conspiracy theory about how it was them, really, who discovered America.  For the past century or so, we have what you might call the English conspiracy theory – that America was called, not after Amerigo Vespucci, but after Cabot’s Welsh backer Richard ap-Meric.

Then, a few years ago, a Bristol historian called Evan Jones came up with evidence – or rather evidence of evidence – that Cabot might have survived and come home after all.

It turns out that the great historian of exploration, Alwyn Ruddock, had been commissioned to write a book to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Cabot’s landing.  There were rumours that she had made some staggering discoveries in a series of newly discovered archives.

But she wasn’t satisfied with the book, tore it up and started again.  When she died in 2005, her will instructed her executor to destroy all her notes and research.  More than thirty bags of papers were burned.

Two years later, Evan Jones asked the University of Exeter Press if they’d ever had a book proposal from her.  They had, and it launched a flurry of research in Cabot circles to see if Ruddock’s outline could be proven, still continuing, and with some success.

Because she seemed to have found evidence that Cabot and his accompanying priest Giovanni de Carbonariis reached Newfoundland safely in 1498.  Also that the expedition headed south along the coast of what is now the United States towards some kind of encounter with the Spanish on the coast of what is now Venezuela.

Cabot then struggled north in Autumn 1499 with the remainder of his expedition, presumably riddled with shipworm.

But the real bombshell was that Ruddock believed that Cabot left Carbonariis and his fellow friars on Newfoundland, where they set up the first European colony in north America since the Vikings.

She also believed that Carbonariis sent his own expedition north to Labrador, before the Portuguese, on a ship called the Dominus Vobiscum, possibly sent out from England for the purpose in 1499.

When Cabot got home early in 1500, the political situation in England had changed.  The proposed marriage between Arthur Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon was now back on.  The news that Cabot had ventured into Spanish waters, instead of finding China, was a threat to the marriage treaty and was suppressed.  So was his pension.  He died in despair a few months later.

This version of the story looks like a conspiracy theory, and has yet to be confirmed.  But if it’s true, then Carbonariis was the great hero of the 1498 voyage, setting up the first European church in North America, probably in the Newfoundland town of Carbonear, and dedicated to St John

But the idea of Cabot going all the way down the coast of north America suggests that he was in fact the greatest of all the explorers who set out from our shores.  We shall see, but you can find out more in my book Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America, now an e-book.

In the meantime, I would have thought Cabot's voyages north were as important as Franklin's in the emerging international dispute about who claims the Arctic.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Public services really need to be flexible

I note in passing that the new Lib Dem policy paper on public services has now been published. Before I go on, I should issue one warning about it. The name is nearly as long as the paper.

I also need to be transparent about this. I spent many a wintry and spring evening on the committee which wrote the report, and having now re-read it some months later, it is rather better and more coherent – and more radical – than I had remembered.

Lib Dem watchers will know that it wasn’t all plain sailing, or all sweetness and light either, but my friend Jeremy Hargreaves did a huge job pulling it all together, and herding us into vaguely the same place and I didn’t envy him (whatever I might have said at the time).

I write about it now to flag up what is, I believe, a tremendously simple and important proposal: the Right to Request Flexible Service Delivery. This is what the report says:

“An example would be a social care user who might want to request that the support to put them to bed for the night be provided in the evening, and not at 5pm, simply because that suits the service.”

You might add that it would apply to secondary school pupils whose reasonable choice of A level subjects has been stymied by the timetabling arrangements. Or the long-term patient who wants a consultant who will let them ask lots of questions, and many other small flexibilities.

It seems simple enough, and it won’t solve everything. But it is one of those proposals that can give more power to service users, without having to go through an exhausting and expensive structural re-organisation, which never quiet achieves what you want anyway.

It is also a simpler and potentially more powerful route than legislation to give people a legal right to choose. But it would have a similar effect of shaking up the system from the inside.

It was something that I proposed in the Barriers to Choice Review report which I wrote for the Treasury and Cabinet Office last year.

Despite what people say, and as I discovered for myself during the review, ‘choice’ is an extremely popular concept among people, but they are hazy about what it means.

There are, of course, a whole range of ways in which service users are given a choice – two of them are used by the Department of Health alone (the NHS and social care use very different systems).

The difficulty is that, sometimes, formal systems of choice, especially those invented by economists, can render the service even more inflexible than it was before. What people really need is more flexibility to ask for what they need, not what the economists deem is relevant.

That is why the right to request service flexibility is potentially such a powerful tool. It breaks out of people’s set views about formal choice and gives them a far broader choice of options, no matter how inflexible the systems are.

It would be modelled on the Right to Request Parental Leave. Service providers would not be obliged to meet your request, but they would have to explain publicly why they can’t.

It is also an antidote to pile-it-high-assembly line services, which claim to be cheaper but actually just spray costs elsewhere in the system.

I believe it is a human solution in a giant, inflexible system, and much more inflexible thanks to the Blair-Brown years. I hope the party adopts it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

What the Scottish enlightenment would say to us now

Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, it seems to me that there is now a momentum towards independence, backed by a grassroots movement, an optimistic albeit somewhat vague vision and by the offensive technocracy of Whitehall and Westminster.

It may not happen now or for a generation, but – unless there is a revolution in the administrative relationship between the two nations – I can’t see the debate just withering away.

It would be a pity to lose the union, but it may be the tide of history is driving forward-thinking nations to divide into their constituent parts.  That is the logic of the prevailing market doctrine which now manages the world.

Yes, Thatcherism is the cause of the current constitutional crisis in more ways than one.  There is no point in blaming Salmond or Cameron, who are just acting out the roles assigned to them by the previous political generation – the one that first started testing out their social theories on Scotland.

I can’t think of another threat to the union quite so potent since Prestonpans in 1745.

In fact, the Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising is quite a good parallel.  On one side the rump of the highland clan system, reluctantly taking the field for emotional reasons and for reasons of honour.  On the other side, Butcher Cumberland and the Georgian elite.

Between them, even more reluctant, were the people we ought to be identifying with now – the pioneers of the Scottish enlightenment, barricading Edinburgh and Glasgow against the rebels, and the young James Wolfe, who refused to murder a captured highland chieftain when he was ordered to by Cumberland.

What would our independent-minded forefathers in the embers of the Scottish enlightenment say to us now – Boswell, Kames, Smith, Hume and the rest?

I think they would say this?  Scottish independence would not be the end of the world or the end of the debate. 

Geography insists that there is a huge amount of interdependence among the nations of the British Isles.  Independence simply raises the question about how that needs to be managed: what kind of enlightened supra-national organisation do we need?  What flesh do we need to put on the bones of the Council of the Isles, negotiated during the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

I doubt very much whether there is anyone in Whitehall thinking about these issues – the outlines of a new settlement between the British nations to take us through the next post-modern century.  But I wish there was.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sceptical about schools that do well in the tables

I'm now living in West Sussex and, every five minutes or so, some kind of comparison with London occurs to me that would make a blog post.  Perhaps the most obvious is in the schools.

West Sussex County Council has put my children in two different schools, which is I suppose a comment on public service choice in education (I know - it's only supposed to be a right to express a preference).  I have no idea what the education is like - though one of them is a very small school, very high on the league tables (more about that in a minute) - but the schools themselves are absolutely delightful.

They are informal and friendly. They are helpful and inclusive, by which I mean they are welcoming to newcomers.  They are not bossy.  They don't talk down to me.  Their walls are full of pictures, not attendence and punctuality graphs. They are about as different to London schools as it is possible to be.

My children are themselves excited to be in a school where they are allowed to talk to each other outside break time.  They can talk in the corridors.  They can learn from each other (the basis of education as far as I'm concerned) by working in groups.

This is unheard of freedom from Gradgrindism and I applaud it.

As I did the rather longer school run yesterday, I happened to listen to a fascinating diatribe by the headmaster of Eton about Ofsted and the examination system.

Tony Little said that the great success of Ofsted is to insist that low standards are never inevitable.  This is correct.  You only have to look back two decades, when Southwark for example (in its pre-Lib Dem period) got only 15 per cent with five GCSE passes in the first league tables in 1992.

He also said the exam and measurement system is archaic.  In fact, he's been leading the assault against measurement over the summer.

In doing so, he is both asserting that the exam system is failing young people, by undermining the way they prepare for the modern world, and also peddling a very traditional message about broad education and its importance.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the independent sector has become a bastion of the case against Ofsted.  It is a pity that they are also allowing themselves to slip out of the hands of ordinary people in the UK - the prices charged by independent schools increasingly make them the preserve of foreign millionaires and the offspring of the financial services.  They are not for us any more (see my book Broke for more on this).

Which is a pity because the case is vitally important.  It is why I am usually sceptical about schools at the top of the league tables.  What does it say about them?  What creativity are they sacrificing to get there?  How are the figures being gamed?

There is clearly a tendency for the schools at the very top to provide the narrowest, Gradgrindian education.  That is the real message of the league tables, just as it is across public services.

We need to be a bit suspicious about any service provider where the output figures look too good.

There is a counter argument, and I'm only too aware of it.  According to the figures, London schools are doing a good deal better than West Sussex schools, even though they are not allowed to talk in corridors.

But we need to be a little bit sceptical of that too, because of the circularity in the argument.  London schools have a more slavish devotion to the tables and the exams, and perhaps they needed to if they were going to drive up standards.  Of course, then, they look better in the measurements that result.

The question is - how much is gaming and how much is real achievement.  It's going to be a mixture, but one thing is absolutely clear: you won't be able to tell from the figures.

The 'deliverologist' Michael Barber says that targets and numerical standards were require to force the system to improve - and they may well be less useful later.  That may be true: but having let Barber's measurement demon out of the box, I'm not sure it is possible to put it back in.