Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Bank charges: we need more competition

So the Office of Fair Trading is withdrawing its attempt to force the banks to reduce their charges for going overdrawn to reasonable levels. This is a pity: we all have stories about the way banks behave to their customers. For a week or so, I was charged every time my account fluctuated above the critical level. If I hadn’t bothered to put money in, I would only have been charged once.

But regulating the banks into reasonable charges was always going to be a difficult call when the underlying economics of the situation allows them to charge pretty much what they like. The real issue here is not about regulation, it is about competition. We have too few banks – far too few compared to our competitors. That is why Britain is taking so long too claw its way out of recession.

There are only 170 branches per million people in the UK, compared to 520 in Germany and 960 in France. No wonder small businesses, and individual retail customers, get such a raw deal. We will carry on getting a raw deal until the government breaks up the oligopoly they have allowed to build up, which can charge what they like – and pay themselves what they like – because there is barely any competition.

What is fascinating about this approach is how shy the Conservatives are about it, and here is the dilemma for the Cameron government. Do they allow the semi-monopoly to continue, in the name of some perverse version of the free market, and pander to the financial lobbyists (as seems likely) or do they step in and create a proper free market in banking.

The first is unthinkable – for anyone who wants to make the UK economy thrive – but the second is so terrifying that they seem unlikely to do it. We look set to have another government which espouses open markets in theory but daren’t put them into effect in practice.

It is, in short, precisely the issue that the Liberal government of 1906 was swept to power on.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Boyle's Law for public services

The writing is now on the wall for the combination of centralisation, process bureaucracy and inappropriate IT systems which have been such a disempowering feature of our public services for the past decade. Research published in the American Journal of Medicine shows that IT investment in health services doesn’t cut costs:

In fact, the hospitals which had invested most quickly in IT solutions had found that their administration costs had risen the most. Those on the ‘Most Wired’ list had not managed to cut their costs at all.

This is important stuff because it confirms that one of the most disastrous aspects of New Labour centralisation has been the massive IT projects in public services. They didn’t just cost a huge amount. They also set processes in concrete, so that they became inflexible.

That is the real disaster about the government’s misuse of IT: it has taken the exhausting bureaucracy and it has made it even more inflexible than before. It can’t now be reformed without dumping entire IT systems.

Go along to A&E at King’s College Hospital and you will find that nobody can help you until they have gone through more than 20 pages of questions on their IT system. This kind of inflexibility – more about satisfying the craving of the centre for data than it is about helping patients – is repeated throughout our public services, and goes some way to explain why they are as expensive as they are.

But there is an even more important aspect than this. The way IT has been use in public services has overwhelmingly been to remove the human element in healthcare, to make one doctor interchangeable with any other, just as they have tried to remove variable human beings from a range of other public service systems.

This is part of the agenda of the American healthcare industry, a slow shift to the position where real treatment decisions are based on a quick conversation about symptoms between the doctor and the insurance company, in order to slot patients into their huge database of NICE-style cost-effective practice. It is an agenda which has been driven, not by doctors but by health consultants, and it is parallel to the same kind of agenda that is creeping into education.

None of this is to suggest that IT is useless. Quite the reverse. It has obviously changed the way we all work and can vastly increase the efficiency of what we do, but not if we try and take people out of crucial relationships with professionals. Nor if we believe somehow that critical human relationships can be reduced to data.

The problem is that these systems are far more ambitious than simply easing people’s work with IT. They are moving into areas where they frustrate the process whereby change happens most effectively, which is in face to face relationships. In those circumstances, IT investment undermines people’s ability to use their intuition, trust and creativity. Huge IT investment is bound, therefore, to lead to less successful organisations, more mistakes, less imagination and more crass simplification. Hence the latest findings.

This is, in fact, my own version of Boyle’s Law: The more money that is spent on IT, the more it costs everybody else.

There are obviously exceptions to this law. I am not being a Luddite here, or not seriously. Where IT gets to be a problem is where technological solutions are used to suppress the brilliant possibilities of human beings. Then the shrinking ability of the organisation to learn, to achieve its objectives effectively and imaginatively, means that we all have to pay more – whether it is in buying the products or in our taxes because the health systems heal less effectively, or our schools educate less effectively. If people get ignored, it costs us.

That is the disastrous hidden narrative of Gordon Brown’s public service reform, but it needs a political party to articulate it clearly.

Reference: David Himmelstein, Adam Wright and Steffie Woolhandler (2009), ‘Hospital Computing and the Costs and Quality of Care: A National Study’, American Journal of Medicine, 24 Nov.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The disaster of Gershon

The news that Sir Peter Gershon has been swallowed by the Conservative Party is bad news for public services. It implies that Cameron will follow the Gershon prescription for efficiency – and that means more of the same.

In fact, the 2004 Gershon Review – which included coachloads of representatives from the IT consultants PA Consulting – has been disastrous for public services. It decided (surprise, surprise!) that huge investment in IT was required.

The result has been huge factory back office processing systems, vast waste, less human contact with the general public – who have to interact via call centres which may or may not have the particular issue they are calling about on their software.

It has meant a de-humanising sclerosis for public service systems, and it has locked inefficiencies into concrete processes. The systems thinker John Seddon reckons that public sector call centres are wasting between 40 and 80 per cent of their efforts as a result. See for example some of the discussion on this on www.systemsthinking.co.uk

But it does provide an opportunity for the Lib Dems for a coherent critique of public sector efficiency, if they have the nerve. But Gershon is not anything that should be emulated.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

How to save RBS from its directors

Vince Cable was quite right on the Today programme this morning. The response to the RBS director’s threat to resign if they are not allowed to pay the bonuses they want to their failed, cash-strapped, state-owned bank should be to say: go ahead.

But we need to look a little more closely at the business of banking bonuses. They are paid out of a percentage of the profits of the investment divisions, sometimes up to fifty per cent. The money would otherwise go to the shareholders – the same ones who failed to exercise proper control over the bank they owned.

There are some, and Fortune magazine is among them, who say that they are better shared with the staff than shovelled at the owners – and that’s right as far as it goes.

But the real question is not why the bonuses are so high. It is why the profits are so high. They come, after all, out of all of our pension investments, or the debt that goes to build productive business, or capital investments in public infrastructure. The real scandal is that these bonuses are paid out of fees which ought rightly to stay with the small investors who are watching the value of their pensions falling.

The fact that the banks are able to award themselves such hefty fees is purely because we have allowed a semi-monopoly to build up in banking, both domestic and investment banking. So here is the real solution: slash the bonuses, accept the resignation of the directors, put in their place bankers who are prepared to do what is necessary to break up RBS into its constituent businesses and regions.

In the process, they can rebuild the competitiveness of RBS and their investment arm by massively slashing the fees they charge borrowers, individual pensioners and savers. That is a business model that might work: genuine competition.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

£40bn, for what?

It’s about 24 hours or so since the announcement that the government is, after all, going to break up the banks they own. The re-discovery of old banking creatures inside the belly of Lloyds and RBS – Williams & Glyn’s, TSB and so on – is proof of what some of us have been saying all year.

But having thought about it for a day or so, it seems to me that – heavens – it is so incredibly timid. Ten per cent of bank branches will change hands. There are only 170 branches per million people in the UK, compared to 520 in Germany and 960 in France. It is barely going to touch that problem. Nor will it give us the huge diversity of banking that they have to support local economies in the USA.

As much as £40 billion and still nothing like the lending infrastructure we so desperately need.

What we actually need, it seems to me, is something equivalent of the Community Reinvestment Act in the USA (1977). By insisting that banks reveal where they are lending money, American banks have been persuaded to disgorge very large sums over a generation to new local lending institutions, for regeneration, low cost homes and small enterprise.

We badly need the same. I don’t understand why UK politicians are so timid when it comes to these matters, that the CRA has barely featured in debate. What is the matter with us?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Beware a world without the post

Since the Royal Mail seems intent on ritual disembowelling before our very eyes, I suppose we are going to have to expect to deal a lot more with the private courier companies.

I had a delivery from one called City Link this morning. I was taking the children to school, and when I got back there was a card with various options, none of them ticked. There was a phone number which took me through to a comouterised system which would only tell me that I had to contact the sender to get permission for another delivery (I didn't know, of course, who that was). There was no human option.

After I pressed 0 and # in no particular order 40 or so times, I got a message giving me a customer service number. They told me they could, after all, try and deliver again, but said they would only say they would come some time the following day. The children will still have to go to school, so it seems unlikely that I'm going to get my parcel - and why should I go all the way to Beckenham to pick it up?

Welcome to the world without Royal Mail.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The new frontiers

I went to the annual Schumacher lectures in Bristol on Saturday, and fascinating it was. In fact, so fascinating, that it has led me to try to put into words a bit better why I feel so frustrated with political parties at the moment – even my own.

It wasn’t that I heard anything especially new – though there were some fascinating insights – it was the sheer energy in the room that made me realise how much the world outside politics is shifting.

The Schumacher Lectures have toddled along for decades on the fringes of the mainstream, but something is happening. The huge conference hall next to the Bristol City Council chamber was packed with 400 people who showed up. My own workshop on the future of money attracted 150 people the first time, and another 100 the second time I ran it an hour later. We lefties are not used to workshops on quite that scale.

Those who came were imaginative, intelligent and interesting. I noticed a number of Lib Dems in the audience too, which was reassuring (hello Paul, George, etc!) I would say they were all pretty committed to the idea that serious changes are needed in our economics and politics because of the climate, energy and financial crisis. But they also believed in the future. They know it’s going to be different.

So why do I find myself, in mainstream political policy discussions, slogging through the same old arguments about taxing, spending and the size of the state, which we were doing three decades ago?

It isn’t that the outcomes are unimportant. I’m as committed as the next person to a fairer, more equal society. But I’m also aware of how little has been achieved in the conventional Beveridge consensus, or the privatising Thatcherite one that followed it. And if Liberal Democrats aren’t in the forefront of new thinking, who is? But are we?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

We can learn from Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize for economics is good news for Liberals everywhere, but it is also a challenge for Liberal Democrats. Her work on conserving the commons has set out an effective and efficient third way beyond state control and privatisation, and it relies on local networks, local negotiation and local knowledge. And, I may say, also beyond Tony Blair’s fake Third Way too.

Lib Dems have been a little lazy over the past generation about struggling to articulate this inherently Liberal option, taking for granted – for example – that it is their role to defend state solutions, or that somehow the promise of corporate solutions (GM food, for example) have to be taken at face value.

But the real importance of Ostrom’s work isn’t so much the commons, as has been reported in this country. It is her pioneering work on co-production.

It was her team at Indiana University who were called in by the Chicago police in the 1970s to explain why crime went up when the police started using patrol cars, rather than staying in touch with people on the beat. She coined the term ‘co-production’ to mean that crucial element of policing – or any other public service – that has to be provided by the service users or the public.

She explained how centralised, technocratic systems – like so many of our own under Blair and Brown – corrode this co-operation, encouraging a division in public services between exhausted, target-driven professionals and passive recipients, who are supposed to be quiet, grateful and to mould themselves into whatever shape is most efficient for delivery. She explained how this leads to failure and inefficiency.

The co-production idea has been developed since by the civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn into a major critique of public services, and the beginnings of an explanation for why Beveridge’s giants are still alive and well 67 years after his report.

And all because of Elinor Ostrom. Lib Dems would do well to use her as a model.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Detained under the Terrorism Act

Well, I can’t say this has ever happened to me before – I’ve just been detained under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.

That only meant being searched on Victoria Station, but still a surprise. It was particularly a surprise for three reasons. First, the embarrassed look on the British Transport Police officer who stopped me. I felt rather sorry for him.

Second, why it should take three of them to do it – one to search, one to hold a clipboard and one to stand around watching? It can’t have been target driven and I couldn’t help wondering whether there was some other priority that might have better taken their time.

Finally, why they stopped me. I asked them this and, after some persuasion, they said it was my stripy shirt. Apparently it made me stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t actually believe this, especially as the form I received as a souvenir said they are not actually allowed to stop someone because of their clothes. And after all, what is it about terrorists that make them wear multi-coloured striped shirts?

No, I’m sure they stopped me because they couldn’t categorise me – dressed like a tourist (white shorts, white socks), carrying piles of papers on my way to a library, evidently either unemployed or self-employed. What does this mean? I suppose, like so much else in New Labour Britain, it means that people and families who look non-standard are under increasing suspicion, whether it is as potential terrorists or child abusers.

The police were nice about it, though, and it kind of made my day. Also, most important, it gave me something to write about here.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Well done, Pullman, Horovitz, Morpurgo and Fine

I must say, I cheered when I read about Philip Pullman and his friends, and their brave stand against the government’s latest child protection database horror.

I absolutely endorse what Pullman says. Like CRB checks for people working with children, this kind of database simply gives the illusion of safety, and by doing so makes people less vigilant. In fact, like so much New Labour regulation, it punishes, frustrates and molests people who comply, but makes it easier for those who don’t – the real fraudsters or paedophiles – to slip through the net.

It is also a brave stand they are taking. It isn’t easy to defy the combined weight of the Sun, the NSPCC and the government, and only people of Pullman’s stature can risk it.

This is the real point. Very slowly, we are constructing a new kind of tyranny here, of suspicion and anonymous informants, which presses most heavily on non-standard families – on anyone who lives their lives a little differently. Who opts out of the school system, for example, or who has unusual approaches to fidelity or marriage.

By doing so, and by transforming professions like social workers and health visitors into checklist gatherers – policing those who stand out – we are creating a gulf between the professionals and those they are supposed to help. No wonder my new local Children’s Centre is almost completely empty.

This is a recipe for child protection failure. It will make more Baby Peters considerably more likely. I also find it increasingly scary, a new tyranny that Liberals everywhere need to challenge – not just because it is tyrannical and intolerant, but because it is supremely ineffective. How can it successfully protect children if every parent, and every adult who works with children, comes under suspicion?

I’m a member of the party’s federal policy committee, and as such am sworn to secrecy about debates there. But this week, we did briefly have a discussion about child protection, and I took my courage in my hands and said what I’ve repeated here, though I was even less articulate than usual. People listened politely and that was that.

Within five minutes of the meeting finishing, no less than four other members of the committee had come up to me and said they agreed with me.

To be fair, they none of them said they agreed with everything I said. But I thought about it afterwards and wondered whether the subtle tyranny was sharper than I’d realised. I’m sure none of them were too intimidated to agree with me in public – we all know each other, after all – and yet none of them did.

That’s why Pullman and his friends are brave, but not brave enough to go it alone. They knew they had to announce their defiance as a group.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The prize for cultural ignorance goes to Hampshire

The real motive power behind fascism isn’t racism or monopoly power or any of the other aspects that scare us about the BNP. Those things will never inspire the nation – or not our nation anyway. The power lies in its romanticism. Fine within limits, but when the authoritarians team up with the romantics, the imperialist dreamers, the folk historians and the cultural snobs, then you’ve got trouble.

I believe that is why the European nations which dumped their empires and their monarchies during the 20th century nearly all flirted with fascism at some point. Monarchies are safe conduits for this national romanticism. They render it harmless.

The point I’m trying to make in this roundabout way is that folklore and history is important politically. When it is misused, it encourages extremists and nationalists. When it is suppressed, it encourages them too.

So imagine my surprise, when I arrived at Danebury hill fort in Hampshire on Midsummer’s Day, an important Iron Age site, to find a notice from the county council explaining that this was the summer equinox – and setting out an absolutely bizarre outline of traditional midsummer beliefs and rituals.

Kostrub? Surely there was no celtic deity called that, I asked myself. Baked larks called zhaivoronky? I don’t think so.

I concluded that Hampshire County Council was so staggeringly ignorant of our national heritage that they had muddled it up with somebody else’s. A quick look on the internet confirms it. The county council’s notice was taken word-for-word from a website called ‘Spring Rituals’

As you can see from the address, it is taken from the Encyclopaedia of Ukraine. What does this mean?

Friday, 12 June 2009

All hail the Chelsea Barracks victory!

I don’t buy all this nonsense from the architects about Prince Charles.

It is an irony that it takes someone’s inherited influence to rein them in, to provide any space for ordinary people to comment on the buildings the property world seeks to impose on people. But it is the same irony that it takes the House of Lords occasionally to stand up against government tyranny. We could do with more of that kind of irony, if you ask me.

Lord Rogers’ assertion that somehow only qualified architects are allowed to take part in the debate about what buildings go where is tyrannical nonsense. In short, Prince Charles’ victory over the Chelsea Barracks site is only a victory in Round One, but it is a victory for democracy.

It is also a blow against the creaking assertions of Late Modernism. It’s ideological certainty. It’s tyrannical contempt for human scale. The truth is that the insidious alliance between architects and corporate power, in this case oil power, is not a good combination to decide on the future shape of London's skyline, the one we all have to live with.

The accusation from the RIBA (Remember I’M the bloody architect) is that Prince Charles’ interventions leads to bland design. It may do, but there is nothing as bland as the glass towers that are springing up across London – despite Boris Johnson’s promises to the contrary. The Chelsea Barracks site has been described by locals as a 'new Berlin Wall'. It was to be one of many bland bastilles for the future.

But they are something worse than bland. They demean people. They give a sense of unbridled and unchallengable power, and are intended to. Their contempt for human scale is part of the process of tyranny: they impoverish us all.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Why this is going to be the last ever Labour general election campaign

I know this is heresy, but I’m starting to feel sorry for Gordon Brown. Politics has a habit of projecting the worst kind of horrors onto those it appoints as fall-guy, and it’s certainly tough in human terms watching it happen.

That said, I believe we are seeing the demise of the last Labour government in history, and possibly the last general election platform by the Labour Party. It has no organising idea, there is no great policy debate between the plotters that might allow it to regenerate in intellectual terms, there is nothing left apart from vague and discredited management-speak. After the election, it will split three ways: Old Labour (to join the fringe lefties), New Labour (to splinter in turn into two factions: Managerialist and Lib Dem) and Brownites.

That puts the Liberal Democrats on the frontline. They are all that stands in the way of permanent Cameronian rule. All that stands also to prevent the slow mutation of the Far Right. We have to hammer out a platform that is angry enough, radical enough and new enough to fill that vacant opposition space.

I know this is irritating of me to put it like this, but I don’t believe that we can do that by trumpeting the usual ‘technocratic dross’ (I quote a senior member of the parliamentary party), or the same old Fabian mush that has allowed the BNP to get a foot in the door.

No, what’s going to make a difference is radical localism, real community politics, genuine handing power back to people, and a whole new approach to public services which chucks the whole massive edifice of factory call centres, IT bureaucracies and monster schools and hospitals into the nearest scrapheap – pointing out, on the way, that it has been such a feature of New Labour and Conservative rule.

We might also say, if we’re honest, that that hugely wasteful and expensive edifice – the real explanation why our services don’t work – also lies behind so much of the frustration among the white working class, and which seems to have led 6.5 per cent of them to vote for a party that blames minorities.

The truth is, of course, that the minorities suffer just as much. Worse, in fact, because they have to be supplicants to the Kafkaesque abomination we know as the government’s immigration service.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Bring back Paracelsus, all is forgiven

Blimey, I am so fed up with the positivists – those puritanical creatures who disapprove of anything that doesn’t fit their stringent ideas of academic proof. Evidence-based, of course, but only very narrow kinds of evidence actually count with them.

Now here is the poor old vice-chancellor of Westminster University being hammered in public for the temerity of running a course on homeopathy:

Now, I happen to be someone who has found homeopathy very helpful, and I’ve tried a lot of complementary therapies – some of them not very successfully, sometimes disastrously. But I’m not one of those people who is happy to be maintained in my chronic condition for the rest of my life by the NHS, at great expense to the taxpayer. So searching seems to me to be not just worthwhile, but a moral obligation.

Maybe that means I deserve to be berated by the positivists for dealing in ‘mumbo-jumbo’, but I don’t think so.

What is fascinating to me is that the leader of this bitter reproach this time is the editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald. Go back five centuries or so and you found a very similar stand-off.

On one side, the doyens of ‘approved’ medicine, backed by the reactionary forces of the Church. On the other side, the new protestant upstarts, barefoot healers ministering to the poor, and taking their inspiration from people like Paracelsus: calling for a ‘chemical revolution’ using pills and medicines instead of bleeding and shifting the humours. No guesses whose side the Catholic Herald would have been on back then.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The emerging great revolt

It is getting stranger, this expenses business, and even rather frightening – and, heavens, I’m only self-employed. I have to charge myself expenses. But I have been thinking about one aspect in the past few days, and it's this.

There is no doubt that the public is very engaged in the expenses story. I keep on overhearing conversations about it on public transport. But the mood seems to be dovetailing with a powerful shift which I’ve been detecting increasingly over the last few months of defiance and revolt against New Labour.

Only today there was the threat by one Steiner School to close down rather than implement the government’s technocratic early years curriculum. "I'm not prepared to struggle on month after month hoping a petty bureaucrat will say this school can continue as it is,” said the head of one of them in the Times Educational Supplement. “I'm not going to kowtow and have children on computers.”

Add this to the list. The police authorities that have rejected government targets. The primary school heads refusing to implement Sats. Something is stirring, and it is important and exciting.

I also think it began with Nick Clegg’s brave and inspirational statement during the leadership election in 2007 that he would refuse to carry an ID card. That was the catalyst it seems to me, but how will this mood dovetail with the public rage at politicians? That’s harder to call, much less predictable and a little nerve-wracking. A bit of populism is urgently needed, but it can be unpredictable, after all.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Time to break up the banks

Judging by the Today programme this morning, we may be moving into a different phase of the financial crisis. The opportunities for serious reform of the system may slowly be slipping away, and I’m frustrated that the party is still peddling what seems to me to be the wrong position on the banks.

Yes, we are calling for a UK version of the Glass-Steagall Act, separating investment banking from high street banking. That seems to be a bare minimum.

But the basic proposal is that we should use the government’s partial ownership of the banks to force them to lend more locally. We urgently need to face up to the fact that this hasn’t worked, won’t work and actually can’t work.

The UK banks are now so consolidated, and so focussed on the speculative economy, that they can no longer provide the kind of local lending infrastructure that we so desperately need – and which the USA has and which northern Europe has too. There is no local lending expertise; decisions are done according to formula, so in a recession, of course all their IT systems block the loans and tighten up overdraft conditions. They are not designed for that any more.

So for goodness sake, before we go any further, let’s take a distinctive Lib Dem position: break up the big banks, force them to disgorge the building societies they swallows, split them up regionally to rebuild our local lending infrastructure.

That is the way we can rebuild a real local enterprise culture – so we don’t have to rely on the next bubble just to fling us back into the delusion that we are wealthy.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Child abuse by the authorities

I don’t really know why, but I find I’ve been haunted all weekend by the story of the mother who hit her child on the arm with a hairbrush because he wouldn’t get dressed for school. Maybe it was a bank holiday awareness of the difficulties of bringing up children; maybe it was just wondering whether I had the nerve to write this. Who knows.

But I do have the nerve, so I’ll say it: this seems to me to be a story that accelerates the fear that all parents share, it seems to me, of the emerging atmosphere of witch-hunt created by the child abuse industry. Of the government-sponsored demand for perfect middle-class child-rearing in the approved New Labour style.

None of this suggests that I want to encourage hitting children – quite the reverse. Or that it doesn’t matter – of course it does. Just that loving parents make mistakes, and sometimes spectacular ones, and that sane authorities need to distinguish between these and child abuse.

But no, the mother who snapped has finally been given a 12-month community order. They have taken her child away (he’s eight) and say he may be allowed to come home once the sentence is over (by which time he'll be nine). Nor is she allowed to discuss it with him on their two-hour weekly permitted meetings.

It seems to me quite extraordinary, brutal even, that this ever came to court. There has been no suggestion that the child is in danger, or that the mother (who has just had a breast removed) is a danger to children. Yet these same authorities seem quite capable of allowing real tragedies to happen like Baby P and the horrific rape by Baby P’s grandfather.

If you doubt that there is a new tyranny emerging here, think of these two things:

1. The poor child, taken away from an apparently loving home with no immediate prospect of coming home, at the age of eight. Despite all the rhetoric of ‘what’s best for the child’, children must apparently expect punishment by the child abuse lobby for their own involvement in parental mistakes.

2. My own nervousness about writing this at all. I am not at all sure that, by voicing this kind of concern, I will not myself become a target and a figure of suspicion.

Those seem to me to be prima facie evidence that we have stumbled into a new tyranny. Worse, it is one that is punishing children and undermining our ability to tackle the real child abuse which undoubtedly exists.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The perils of giantism

I find myself arguing rather often these days that you can't have localism with over-large institutions, whether they are monopolistic supermarket chains or giant factory hospitals.

And there I was talking to a neighbour who has just given birth this week, and find some personal anecdote about merging hospitals means. She went along to Mayday Hospital, as she is supposed to, for the baby's hearing checks (Mayday is near West Croydon station). She was told that because of staff shortages, they couldn't see her - and had made her an appointment in teddington.

For thos not familiar with London, the journey between Croydon and Teddington in the far west of London, is well over an hour - even by car. She has a baby and two other children and no help.

I might add also that recent research in the USA says that hospital mergers inevitably raises costs for the hospitals as well.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Naming the Thing

Hilaire Belloc’s first piece of political writing was an essay on the origins of Liberalism: he said it began with William Cobbett and his rural radicalism, rather than with Richard Cobden and the free trade campaign. I think he was right.

I keep thinking about Cobbett as the various stories flow through every day of the outrageous salaries and bonuses, not just in banking, but at the top of the public and private sectors alike. I read yesterday that the top 123 executives at Transport for London all earn over £100,000 a year.

That doesn’t really compare to the staggering greed of Fred the Shred, or the secretive culture of Roger Jenkins, but it is bad enough.

William Cobbett had a word for this. He called this combination of useless, feather-bedded appointees, and the money system they colluded over, ‘The Thing’. We have The Thing just as much today, and its tentacles are becoming clearer. Just as it was in Cobbett’s day, The Thing feeds off the rest of us – we pay for these sinecures in the public sector, but we also pay through our dwindling pensions for the huge bonuses in the financial sector. They rightly belong to the customers.

We await a political force capable of first naming The Thing, and then taking it apart.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Knowledge that defines Britishness

A friend of mine does her 'Britishness' test today, to qualify to be a British citizen. One of the sample questions she has been provided with - apparently knowledge that no citizen should be without - is to define a quango.

It really is extraordinary, though perhaps not very surprising, that Whitehall Man believes knowing the meaning of government acronyms is one of those pieces information which defines Britishness - alongside knowledge of Shakespeare and all the panoply of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish culture.

I notice that this same narrowness of spirit is exactly the same in the privatised industries, proof - if you needed any more - that it doesn't matter if a business is public or private, it still shrinks the soul if it is too big.

The evidence: the decision by National Express to ban trainspotters from stations on the North East Main Line on the grounds that they are "a security risk". In fact, of course, they are quite the reverse: they know everything about railways, are inoffensive watchers and crime preventers, better than any security camera. But the bureaucratic mind believes they are untidy. I must remember to shun National Express in future.

Friday, 6 March 2009

More schools, smaller schools. The rest is noise.

I can’t be in Harrogate this weekend, which is frustrating, because I wanted to listen to the education debate – though it may be that I will actually stay less frustrated in the end by not doing going.

The proposals on offer are all excellent and urgent. I especially agree with the idea that local authorities can commission parent and voluntary groups to start new schools. But, let’s face it: there isn’t much in there which addresses the main problem about education, the one that looms over all the others. There are not enough schools.

No amount of changing the curriculum, ending micro-management and measuring differently is going to deal with that. Nor is the pupil premium, important though that is.

There are 5,000 pupils in London at secondary school level which have no places, and many thousands more who are being bussed across London to places they would not dream of applying to. Ed Davey is doing really excellent work on this.

The problem is partly that there are not enough good schools, and the proposals will help tackle that. But often they are not good enough because they are too big and inhuman and are therefore miserably letting children down, especially at secondary level.

It is also to do with this fantasy about ‘catchment areas’, as if everyone lived in one. In practice, the catchment area of our local primary school is only about 200 yards around the school. Most people in my neighbourhood live outside any catchment area and are at the mercy of the local authority (Croydon, ugh!).

Education ought to be central to the Lib Dem cause. It isn’t going to really be so until we come up with proposals for a massive programme of new schools and of breaking up the existing ones into smaller, more human and more effective units.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Yes to national service?

Who heard the item on the Today programme about introducing a non-military national service? Admittedly it came after the surprising skewering of the Israeli military spokesman over white phosphorous, but it was important nonetheless, and covers the article in the latest Prospect by Frank Field and James Crabtree. This is why I think it is vital for Lib Dems:

1. Because none of our intractable social issues are susceptible to permanent change without an absolutely massive injection of voluntary effort by ordinary people, way beyond our current volunteering infrastructure.

2. Because in the USA, this is a leading liberal issue. Clinton used it in his 1991 campaign and found that it got the biggest cheers from Democrats.

3. Because it provides a potential way forward for national cohesion that genuinely mixes classes and cultures.

4. Because it provides a political way forward for students to earn their tuition fees rather than having to pay for them – the very least the state should owe them after national service is university teaching.

5. Because, bizarrely during the recession, we might have the political will to raise the money to pay for it. It is a good deal more useful than paying people to do nothing on the dole.

How would it be organised? I haven’t the foggiest. I find it hard to imagine local authorities managing it very effectively, but there seem to be few potential infrastructures at national level capable of delivering meaningful local engagement, training and mentoring, except possibly the military, but there are good political reasons for not asking them.

But the basic idea is deeply Liberal. That everyone has a basic need to feel useful, whether they admit it or not – to find, as Kennedy put it, a cause beyond self. There are problems for Liberals with a compulsory scheme, but there is no doubt that anything less than compulsory would simply exclude those who stand to benefit the most.

The party has flirted with the idea behind closed doors for years now, and have now allowed the initiative to go elsewhere (oh, what a surprise!). I had a go at discussing this at a Centre for Reform event in 2004 (see http://www.david-boyle.co.uk/systems/britcorps.html). But I still think we should think about it more seriously. Am I mad?

Monday, 9 February 2009

The meaning of Red Toryism

The Red Tory debate, the subject of a forthcoming book by the Conservative theorist Phillip Blond, featured in a fascinating column by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian today.

I’m especially interested because I have been, in a small way, trying to suggest that a very similar mixture of small enterprise, localism, voluntaryism and anti-trust legislation against big business might be the way forward for political Liberalism. Yet here we are discussing it as the new direction for Cameron, backed by a whole range of Conservative luminaries.

I’m not saying I agree with everything Blond says, and there are some worrying areas – the strictures against immigration and free trade are ambiguous. It depends very much what he means by both, and certainly in his writings that I've seen, both get favourable and unfavourable slants.

Madeleine Bunting talks about the risks of this kind of romantic brand of Toryism, anti-Thatcher, anti-corporate (public and private), and it is certainly true that there are risks. Previous incarnations of this kind of romantic politics (Populism in the 1890s, Distributism in the 1920s, Social Credit in the 1930s) all flirted – once they had worn themselves out – with ideas we would consider dangerous.

Thinking about it a little more today, and translating it into American terms, I think the risks are clearer. Because actually this agenda is a neglected corner of Jeffersonian Liberalism. When it was used by the Left it ended up with the populist gangsterism of Huey Long. When it was used by the Right it ended up with the mildly malevolent communitarianism of Pat Buchanan. These are interesting byways, but not very attractive ones.

Only when it stays where it belongs, as political Liberalism – and I accept some of Phillip Blond’s analysis of the contradictions of liberalism – is it rendered safe. Because it is put in the context, as Jefferson intended, of the Declaration of Independence, where we hold some basic humanitarian truths to be self-evident.

So that’s my thesis. Take a closer look at Red Toryism, and be aware that the contradictions of Conservatism are also lurking, and take back those vital, neglected aspects of what are actually part of the Liberal heritage. An urgent part too: it is an antidote to the deadly technocracy of Fabianism which has been a kiss of death for so much of British policy, right and left, and which also lives on in the Liberal Democrats, seeking whom it will devour.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Faceless states

I do find it extraordinary what we will put up with from government and corporate alike.

For example. I bought a ticket down to Devon on Sunday. Nobody told me that, in fact, mytrain would not run, that I would be decanted at Exeter put into a bus, told I could not take my bulky luggage. They knew this but never told me when they took my money. They do the same to tens of thousands of people every weekend. Why doesn’t someone take them to court?

And another example (do I sound like a grumpy old man?). It is now past the deadline for filing my tax return on Friday. I met it, but if I hadn’t met it, HM Revenue & Customs would have fined me £100.

But it is also the deadline when I have to pay the rest of my tax for last year, plus half of it for this year (I’m self-employed). But HMR&C haven’t managed to tell me how much I owe.

They promised they would by the deadline when I called some weeks ago, but they haven’t. I’ve just talked to them again and asked them if they will pay me £100 for their failure. I need hardly say that they won't.

Worse, they will charge me interest from February 1 on my unpaid tax which they haven’t even managed to calculate yet, at least not in a letter to me with a paying-in slip so that I can pay it across the counter in a bank. Just imagine how they would all give me the runaround if I wasn't a grumpy old man.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The big speech

OK, I've got a small revival of flu, which is my excuse for not writing this yesterday. But wasn't the Obama speech a statement of modern Liberalism you could be proud of - committed to change, internationalist, but including a call to service, and an acceptance that politicians can't do it all?

Why can't we articulate that?

Monday, 19 January 2009

A new kind of money

Vince Cable was bang on with his phrase "giving the kiss of life to a corpse". The real problem is not that the banks refuse to lend, it is that they have lost the ability to do so. They have been consolidated to the point of uselessness to the local economy.

They also have no local infrastructure, and what structure they do have points towards the discredited speculative economy, not the real one. It is time to break them up, de-merge them and rebuild a local and regional lending infrastructure like they have in Europe and North America.

But just for a moment, take a quick trip back with me to March 1933, and Roosevelt's inauguration. About 5,000 banks had closed their doors a few days before. The second greatest economist of the age (Irving Fisher) had just published a book called Stamp Scrip, which urged a new kind of local money which lost value week by week, to encourage spending rather than hoarding.

Within a few months, there were 4,000 or so of these local currency systems across the northern states of the USA, following on from the highly successful models in Austria and Switzerland, and all based on the ideas of an Argentine trader called Silvio Gesell. Money that rusts. In Worgl in Austria, the very first, people had paid their local taxes months in advance and the council was able to invest in a range of new infrastructure: the originator there rejoiced in the name of Mayor Unterguggenberger, but that's beside the point.

There we are, some alternative economic archaeology. What's interesting about it is that Roosevelt was persuaded by the bankers to make stamp scrip illegal, in case it undermined confidence in banks. It was almost his first executive decision.

But what's interesting about it now is the reference to the whole affair on Barack Obama's blog, which really makes you wonder what is going to happen in the next few days:


Thursday, 15 January 2009

No pasaran!

The approval of the third runway at Heathrow is an extraordinary and historic event, and I kind of think we will all look back to it (15 January 2009) as the moment when everything changed.

Of course, it is also a miserable condemnation of the Labour government, which has never stood up to anybody rich and powerful and clearly never will. They have never challenged a corporate interest. Never imagined a way the world might be different, cleaner, healthier or fairer. They are, in short, utterly pointless and borderline corrupt in their miserable failure to shift us in any way towards a future where the planet might survive. History will condemn them for the bone-headed, utterly craven fawning on power.

But it is important for other reasons too. Because this is a No Pasaran moment for the green movement, shared by an extraordinary cross-section of society who believe there has to be a limit to what we sacrifice on the altar of wrong-headed progress. That there has to be a limit to the appeasement of those corporate interests that believe with so little evidence that the decision will benefit London, the economy, the jobless or anything else. The destruction of whole villages, twelfth century churches, the peace of great swathes of London, the sight of elderly ladies bundled into police vans: it will change the way people think.

In short, they will not let it happen, and the resulting clash is going to be painful for both sides. But there comes a point in history where the powerful so misread the signs that they lose their power, and so it will prove. I betcha!