Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why the Syria vote was lost

I know politicians are supposed to have firm opinions.  No, they are supposed to have convictions.  So are political bloggers, but my convictions about an attack on the Syrian government wavered to and fro pathetically in the days before the vote on Thursday night.

I have to admit it.  I should have surrendered my blogger's licence.

I listened on the radio to as much of the debate as I could, and found myself convinced by Paddy Ashdown's position.  Had anyone elected me to Parliament, I would have followed him into the voting lobbies.

Now that Parliament has rejected military action - for the time being at least - I am back in the waverers' camp.  I see no great humiliation for either Cameron or Clegg, both of whom have acted with dignity and leadership.

My generation has Harold Wilson to thank for not sending us to Vietnam (it is about the only thing we do have to thank him for) and that was hardly a humiliation for him either.  Admittedly, he didn't get defeated in a Commons vote on it.

Almost every commentator has talked about the legacy of the fatal war in Iraq, and certainly the phrase "without doubt" now rings alarm bells because of the misuse of the phrase before.  These days, when a politician needs to say something is "without doubt", it simply emphasises the doubt.

The latest claim, from an Associated Press reporter, that the chemical weapons were supplied  to the rebels by the Saudis and let off by mistake, does indicate a reasonable doubt.

But there is another problem, beyond Iraq, which I think led to the scepticism from all parties about military action.  It is the problem of the nature of modern technological warfare, and our collective denial about collateral damage.

We wage war now from safe bunkers back home, a virtual war which can only be virtually accurate.  We bomb imperiously, aware that innocent people will suffer and die for our just cause - and a million people seem to have died as a result of the Iraq war, in the original attacks and in the chaos that followed.

It is this imperious approach to people - not completely different from the imperious arrogance of the terrorists to innocent lives - that makes us so uncomfortable.  And we are right to feel uncomfortable about it.

Back in the 1960s, there was a famous Punch cartoon showing a police plane flying above New York, dropping bombs on it.  One NYPD officer says to the other: "Don't worry, we're bound to hit someone who is breaking the law".

There is a nervous truth about that these days.

The difference in intention isn't enough.  We try to minimise the loss of life, they try to maximise it, it is true.  But when we are waging war to defend an embattled people, it seems wrong to kill as many of them accidentally as we do.  It seems wrong because it is wrong.

I don't pretend I know the answer, because we can't allow every dictator to murder and gas with impunity.  There will be times that we have to act, using whatever technology is to hand.

But in the end, we had to abolish the death penalty because juries were so reluctant to convict murderers.  In the end, we will have to find a more civilised way to take military action, or democracies may not stomach it.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The Great Auditing Scandal that is to come

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty about numbers in policy-making, and why they caused such waste, expense and ineffectiveness in public services when wielded by the last government.

Numbers have the appearance objectivity.  They look hard-nosed and unanswerable.  They look like the kind of thing that people who gargle with the idea of 'evidence-based policy' might like.

But here is the tragedy.  The numbers are chained at the other end to definitions, which involve words, and these are endlessly malleable, often illusory, sometimes delusory.

The numbers are trustworthy, but the definitions slip through your fingers, are massaged by frontline staff and managers, by civil servants and also by politicians.

That is the terrible weakness of evidence-based policy.  This is not to say that anyone should embrace evidence-free policy, just that - by defining evidence so narrowly - it began to suck the life and power out of so much of what had been effective in our services.

It rewarded those who tweaked the definitions; it downgraded those who were brilliant at actually doing the job.

It is one of the themes of this blog that the coalition failed to define the problems with New Labour's approach to services - and the target numbers at the heart of their humming, centralised public service machine.  They therefore repeated many of the same mistakes.  They still are repeating them now.

You wouldn't expect that author of The Tyranny of Numbers to say anything different.  But there is now a new twist, and it is partly thanks to the policy-known as payment-by-results.

The cage created for frontline staff, partly by McKinsey, partly by wrong-headed notions like 'deliverology', meant that they often had to massage the definitions just to do their job.

I remember going to a public meeting around 2003, and overheard the organisers say to each other: "If any couples come in, mark them both down as women.  We don't have enough of those."

Ah yes, those days of innocence.  It was necessary to do a little light  massage just to get the funders off your back long enough to do a bit of work.

Remember Richard Elliott, ten years ago a member of the Bristol drugs action team, who had to keep his eyes on forty-four different funding streams, nine different grids and eighty-two different objectives imposed on him by managers, funders and the government. Before he resigned, he reckoned that he and his colleagues spent less than 40 per cent of their time actually tackling drugs issues.

Elliott compared his management regime to a kind of addiction on behalf of the obsessive and narrow measurement of his performance:

“Monitoring has become almost religious in status, as has centralised control. The demand for quick hits and early wins is driven by a central desire analogous to the instant gratification demands made by drug users themselves.”

But now, ten years on, money is attached to the figures.  Even if it isn't payment-by-results, there are legal contracts with the providers.  What was once a bit of mild massaging is now fraud.  It is a police matter.

Hence the news yesterday that the public services giant Serco is being investigated again for "irregularities in records keeping".  The second such investigation, this time for their prisoner escorting contracts.

There is much tut-tutting in the business pages about it.  But there is a much bigger problem here, and it is this: look under any stone in public services, and any private sector contract to deliver them, and there will be something like this.  Some of it will involve fake numbers; some will involve manipulated definitions.  But this is where the system of centralised targets leads to, inevitably.

We can blame the teachers and frontline staff and anyone else who is caught in this way, but it isn't really their fault.  The system is set up to demand this kind of manipulation of definitions, because the difference between success and failure is no longer how you actually perform for the people you help - it is in these little tweaks of definitions that can make hard numbers look so very different.

I make this small prediction.  It started with A4e, but over the next year, more and more of the big outsourcing companies will find themselves involved in this, more schools, more hospitals - until the rewards for the investigating auditors become unsustainable and some other solution will have to be found.

And all because this is a system for arms-length management that works by hollowing out services.

But remember, when it happens, that you read about the Great Auditing Scandal here first.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The demise of the middle classes - support at last!

Thank you, Suzanne Moore. 

All summer, I have been defending the thesis in my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes.  I have had a great deal of support, as well as a great deal, of the opposite thrown in my direction as the weeks have gone by, but have felt pretty alone in the argument. 

Most recently, I was called a 'gentleman squire in London'.  On my own blog too.  If only I was...

And now, here is Suzanne Moore in the Guardian coming up with much the same thesis (thank you, Simon), though basing it on the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.  The middle classes have had their economic purpose surgically removed by a combination of management re-engineering, globalisation and the internet – and it matters.

It matters because the existence of a middle – rather than the huge sprawling proletariat and tiny elite that Marx predicted, which seems to be emerging ever faster – is absolutely vital for democracy.

If the middle class can’t escape, then nobody can.

Suzanne, God bless her, points out – as I did – that the traditional values of the middle classes, smug as they may be, are completely at odds with the demonstrable values of the new elite.  Greed instead of thrift, irresponsibility instead of responsibility, immediate gratification instead of deferred.

Again, this matters.

One reason that she points out is that that it may produce – not so much a middle class fightback – but a bitter campaign to blame the poor.

This is true.  The English middle classes are so naive, so ignorant about economics (this is not so true of the Scots, Americas, still less the Brazilians) that you see them flailing around confused, when it ought to be obvious that they are being manipulated and impoverished.

So you get people pointing out how wealthy the poor have become (they have widescreen TVs, shock horror).  You have the poor manipulated put-upon middle class punters in Legoland hitting each other with iron bars, when they ought to have been laying into their monopolistic hosts.

But we are in the early stages of this process.  The middle classes – so clever in money, so stupid in politics, said George Bernard Shaw.

That is going to have to change.  And when it does, when the middle classes realisedthat their children will face the same tyranny from landlords and employers that faces the working classes now, then change will come.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

We need choice to mean something broader

A year ago, I was getting into my stride running the Independent Review into Barriers to Choice, wandering round the country asking everyone I met what their own experience had been.  More about this in the report published back in January.

But there is no doubt that ‘choice’ is a strange concept, when it is an end in itself. The basic problem in the NHS at least – there is a different basic problem in social care – is that choice happens despite the existing systems and institutions.  It is that much harder, if you are less confident or less educated, to push as hard as you sometimes need to.

That central issue - whether choice can make service inequality worse - is the one that the British Council in Denmark has been wrestling with.  They have commissioned five articles from radical thinkers about public services in the UK about exactly this issue, including me, and they are published today.

I have tried to develop the idea that emerged in the Review report, that we need to look again at choice - not as a semi-formal economic choice between different institutions, but as a way of injecting flexibility throughout the system.

My article suggests that broadening the scope of choice – so that it emphasises flexibility rather than just competition between providers – might make choice more widely accepted, might increase the equality between service users, and might open the way to cost reductions too.

That is the big question.

A more flexible system would mean fewer set systems, but more human connection. It would certainly require up-front investment, and it would mean a rigorous concentration on preventing those diseconomies of scale that cost so much in the inflexible systems. 

It would mean fewer organisations, more local, multi-disciplinary teams, and a shift from back office costs to frontline costs – and organisation for the huge number of volunteers that would be required to humanise services and allow them to reach out. 

It would be hard to prove its costs and benefits to officials wedded to the current industrial processes, so this is as much about a cultural shift – taking localism to its local next stage – as it is about organisational change.

But one anecdote makes the point. It is about the famous doctor’s surgery with the hedge outside which is trimmed once a year in the summer, and – when it is trimmed – all these rejected prescriptions fall out. 

 What happens is that patients come out of the door with a prescription they don’t really want and shove it in the hedge. It is wasted because doctors and patients were unable to communicate properly about what was needed and what was wanted.  

It is a symbol of the waste in the system when it is too inflexible.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The strange story of the Fairy Investigation Society

I've been away for the weekend and was astonished to discover myself quoted in Folklore magazine about the strange disappearance of the Fairy Investigation Society.

Folklore is the academic journal attached to the Folklore Society and the article is by the historian Simon Young, who has carried out the most amazing detective work about the peculiar and, ultimately, underground organisation.

A naval officer and telecoms inventor called Quentin Crauford founded the Society around 1927, designed to promote serious study. Over the years, it managed to attract a number of prominent supporters, including Walt Disney and the Battle of Britain supremo Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, whose post-war career was not helped by his public expressions of belief.

But by the 1970s, the Society could stand the cynical public climate no longer and it went underground. In 1990, I wanted to organise a TV documentary about fairies and was given their address - somewhere outside Dublin - by the Folklore Society.  I wrote and had a strange letter back. It was from a man claiming that he knew the society’s secretary, but he said he didn’t want to talk to anybody. 

Not only had the fairies disappeared, but the fairy researchers seemed to have fled as well.

I am fascinated by the unrecorded history of organisations like this, just as I am in the revival of interest in fairies - which the historian Ronald Hutton called the "British religion" - in the early years of this century (and of most centuries, actually).

This is also an excuse to mention my own attempt to put fairies back on the map, with my novel for grown-ups - involving Lord Byron, a missing lover, and the underworld somewhere under Surrey.  Leaves the World to Darkness is now published as an ebook.

I realise this isn't the kind of thing that a hard-headed policy-maker is supposed to write, still less a former Independent Reviewer for the Cabinet Office. But, when all is said and done, we do need to stand up for a bit of magic.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Why radical change is coming

There was an article in the Sunday Herald in Glasgow yesterday, by the financial journalist Ian Fraser, whose book on RBS is due for publication shortly. It reported on some of the events of the Edinburgh Book Festival with an economic slant, including mine. It quotes me being staggeringly optimistic:

"This is the calm before the storm. Given the poverty of the current political and economic arrangements - and our own understanding of the way things actually work - I believe that change is about to happen.  If we meet again here in five years' time, there will be a different political spirit abroad. There will be a much greater focus on finding ways for our children and our children's children to live meaningful, interesting, comfortable lives away from the tyranny of landlords and employers."

That is indeed what I said, among other things about the decline of the middle classes, relating to my book Broke – and the peculiar upside down notion of kick-starting the economy with Help to Buy.  A bit like looking after today by devouring your children.

A couple of people came up to me afterwards to ask me why I was so optimistic that change was coming, given that politics has become so stuck.

The answer is, I suppose, that I believe in human ingenuity. My reason for believing that new economic solutions are emerging is partly because I can see them – the emerging entrepreneurial energy, the rise of the employee mutuals, the growing understanding that the current banking dispensation is actively corroding our wealth.

It is also partly the opposite. Conventional economic thinking is so disconnected from the real world, so devoid of purpose, so empty of demonstrable success; the idea that wealth will trickle down rather than hoover up is so bereft of evidence.

Even the most conventional policy-makers will find that it sticks in their throats.

The third reason why I’m optimistic is that the middle classes are waking from their long dream, understanding that the economic destruction visited on the working classes is now in store for them – understanding the futures their children face: 25 years indentured servitude to their mortgage provider, in jobs they loathe, paying out such vast sums to tyrannical landlords in the interim that they can't quite manage to bring up families of their own.

What the middle classes want, they will eventually get. When they understand the dark future ahead – and the slow corrosion of UK life as our lives become unaffordable – they will create a political force capable of tackling it.

Every generation or so, UK politics generates a radical shift. It did so in 1906, in 1940, in 1979. It is now 34 years since the last one and we are due another. It will happen sooner than we think.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Will we get the first Liberal saint?

Some weeks have gone by since the strange news that the Roman Catholic Church is thinking of canonising G. K. Chesterton, author of ‘The Rolling English Road’ and other ditties.

It felt like a silly season story, but the time has gone by and it still seems to be true.

I’m sure it won’t happen. Chesterton was an early critic of Hitler, naming him for what he was before most of the commentariat, but his fatal admiration for Franco and Mussolini probably puts him beyond sainthood these days.

These issues were more complicated then than they seem now. Much of the staff of G.K’s Weekly, Chesterton’s newspaper in the 1930s, were followers of Mosley largely – it seems to me – because of the element of romanticism that Mosley retained when other political parties lost it.

But here is the irony. Chesterton was a committed Liberal for the first half of his life, falling out with the party over the Marconi affair along with his friend Hilaire Belloc, a Liberal MP.

If he was to be canonised, he would be – as far as I know – the first former member of the Liberal Party to be made a saint.

Instead, Chesterton launched and inspired his own political movement in the 1920s, which he called Distributism. It is a Liberal ‘heresy’ but one which attracts me enormously, because of the insight that economic independence for poor people was the basis of human liberty.

Small-scale ownership – emphatically not corporate or plutocratic ownership – of a home and piece of land, was at the heart of it. Belloc borrowed the idea in 1912 from Catholic social doctrine as the only possible inoculation against tyranny from big business or big bureaucracies.

It was also a kind of Liberalism without Fabianism, and Chesterton and the great Fabian George Bernard Shaw used to slug it out in a series of public debates in Holborn, into the 1930s.

Belloc borrowed the idea from Catholic social doctrine as promulgated by Pope Leo XIII, and drafted by Cardinal Manning, who borrowed it partly – you guessed it – from his great friend, William Ewart Gladstone.

So there are links. And they are made explicit in the 1938 Liberal policy on ownership, written by Elliot Dodds, the Huddersfield journalist who was so influential on Liberal thinking in the Grimond years.

"Tribute must be paid to the work of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton who, though they fell foul of the Liberal Party, were such doughty fighters for Liberal values," wrote Dodds in the acknowledgements, "and whose 'Distributist' crusade inspired so many (including the present writer) with the ideal of ownership for all."

There are also clear links between Distributism and mutualism, as long as the mutualism enables individual ownership – for Distributists, ownership which is entirely collective or theoretical (like the way we used to own building societies) was meaningless.

In that respect, St Gilbert Keith Chesterton remained a Liberal, and his Distributist call to arms in 1926 urged the defence of those economic units which were most threatened – and which provided a buttress for individual liberty. It still rings true today:

“Do anything, however small, that will prevent the completion of the work of capitalist combination. Do anything that will even delay that completion. Save one shop out of a hundred shops. Save one croft out of a hundred crofts. Keep open one door out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison.”

It’s good stuff, and I agree with it. But I’m not sure it will lead to canonisation.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Middle class tolerance - and the threat to it

I have just taken two very long train journeys, one to Devon and one to Edinburgh, and it has given me an unprecedented chance to listen in to middle class conversations with their children.

It has convinced me that I was right in my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?  I suggested that – far from the heady days of Mr Curry and Hyacinth Bucket, and the curtain-twitching disapproval of suburban life – the middle classes have been the driving force behind the unprecedented tolerance of UK society.

I know this isn’t a popular point of view, but as I listen to a crash just up the aisle from me, and an obviously middle class father saying: “Oh really, darling; you are not being helpful” – when she was being quite the opposite of helpful – I realise it is in fact the case.

No more are they the disapproving snobs of English life. The middle classes have actually presided over a period of unprecedented tolerance in society, embracing a community that – despite the difficulties – is more and more diverse and multiracial, more and more tolerant of the peculiar way that people live, if they are not harming anyone else.

And if this wasn’t led by the middle classes, who was it led by?

That is one major reason why we need the middle classes. More of this in my book.

But I have also wondered whether things have gone too far, especially among what you might call the public sector middle classes.

My youngest comes home from school these days, informing me in a very serious and concerned voice that “Jason didn’t make the right choices today”. Clearly, behaviour is now described in terms of ‘choices’ these days. I’m not sure it means much.

And when I hear another mother on the train to Scotland telling her children off because they are “behaving inappropriately”, I must admit I cringe at the new mind-control which appears to be descending on the middle classes at the same time as this tolerance.

I’m not sure that 'appropriateness' is a concept that will foster tolerance at all.  It seems more like the old curtain-twitching conformity to me.

I may be defending the middle classes these days, but I am still enough of a bohemian to want to behave ‘inappropriately’ if I possibly can.

Who wants to have on their tombstone – ‘He behaved appropriately’? Not me.

Friday, 23 August 2013

No, these jobs are really pointless

I've just heard David Nobbs, on Radio 4, restating the advertising slogan from Reginald Perrin's chain of shops called Grot: 'All objects for sale in this shop are guaranteed useless'.  It is extraordinary how the modern economy thrives on making a success of the useless.

The anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote an important book recently about money - challenging the mistaken claims of economists about its origin - has been writing about what he calls 'bullshit jobs'.  This is what he says:

"Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish."

This is not quite fair, nor is it intended to be - I know exactly what would happen without actuaries or bailiffs.  The pensions industry would collapse and nobody would pay their debts.  But there is an important message here about the way the modern world creates pointless jobs which gives people incomes but little satisfaction.

I remember Douglas Adams, struggling to come up with the most pointless job of all, for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, came up with telephone sanitisers.

Graeber's point is that this explains the attitude of some Republican types about jobs: if you are a nurse or a car-worker you have the satisfaction of a 'real' job - why should you want a pension too?

It is certainly bizarre the way the pointless jobs tend to be paid more than the useful ones, but there are two other categories of pointless jobs which Graeber misses or skates over entirely.

One is the category of jobs created by peculiar bureaucratic institutions, like NHS markets.  I would like to be paid £1,000 a day as an NHS coder, challenging the codings by which foundation trust hospitals bill their local commissioners - and vice versa of course.  But could I live with myself doing something so utterly pointless?

But even this misses the point. The American reform writer, David Osborne, a trenchant critic of command-and-control, estimated that 20 per cent of American government spending was devoted to controlling the other 80 per cent, via armies of auditors and inspectors. When Vice-President Al Gore led the National Performance Review in 1993, they found that one in three federal employees were there to oversee, control, audit or investigate the other two. 

 If you take some estimates that ten per cent of public spending goes on auditing, then it might come to around £50 billion in the UK. There is some confirmation of this because, if you work it out according to Osborne’s formula, it comes to somewhere around the same figure. By the end of the New Labour years in 2010, the wage bill for one in five of UK public sector staff was around £48 billion.

More on the way the UK public service system was built - to check on process rather than make things happen - in my book The Human Element.

But the other bullshit jobs missing from the list are truly pointless. These are the drones, often in Far East call centres and 'factories', which are manufacturing virtual realities, like Facebook 'likes'.  It takes time to manufacture Facebook people who can do the liking, and that is what they are paid to do.

Chinese factories are paying semi-slave rates to do online gaming – creating online ‘gold’ that can be sold to rich American gamers (there are supposed to be 400,000 of these, and that was years ago, doing what is known as 'gold-farming').

Here is the peculiar paradox of the modern economic system.  It is supposed to be so efficient, but it is paying people to do useless, inconsequential things, while it can't afford to pay people to do many of the useful things - teaching children, looking after old people.

Strange but true.  So don't please tell me that the economy is efficient.  It is busily creating pointless work in the hope that little bits of the proceeds will filter down to do useful things.  

Thursday, 22 August 2013

London's inhuman towers on the way out?

There I was trying to work in a Pret-a-Manger underneath the London Shroud on Friday (sorry, that should read Shard), and this conversation next to me kept butting in.

"I look at myself in the mirror and I don't recognise myself any more.  I should have stayed 34."

This was a conversation between an older man and a younger one, who must have been, say, 34.

"You're at the perfect age, you know."

"I don't know about that," said the younger one.  "I wish I was 18 again."

I thought about this conversation later, partly because it seemed to conceal a truth I could learn from (I will never see 34 or 18 again), and partly because of what came next.  "You know I look at all this new development round here," said the older man - and there certainly is a lot of it: hideous, glitzy, inhuman...

"And I think to myself: 'Who is all this for?'  It certainly isn't for me."

This seems to be rather an important thought, especially at the south end of London Bridge, once the venue for the heads of traitors, which is now facing development pressure from the City one way and the South Bank the other, with more from Bermondsey of all places.  But there is precious little for most of us: speculative flats for sale in the Far East, inhuman office blocks fated to lie empty.

London's new towers are so brutal in their joky design that they almost overshadow the smaller concrete monstrosities, equally inhuman in their own way, of a generation ago.

I say fated to lie empty because of the news today that the owners of the Gherkin are now seeking protection from creditors in the German courts.

Those of us who have written about the Twelfth Century (see my book Blondel's Song) will know that the era of tower blocks in the Italian city states came to an end and they were all pulled down.  I am looking forward to something similar happening here.

Which brings me to London's mayor Boris Johnson.  When he stood for the post back in 2008, he campaigned on a policy of reining in the towers, which had been promoted by his predecessor.  He was convincing enough for me to vote for him on that basis in the second round, after the Lib Dem had been excluded.

Well, there is a lesson there.  Boris is busily giving permission to as many towers, which will loom over London giving a sense of inhumanity - sponsored by semi-slave states and in the international style so beloved of financiers and architects - as Ken did.  The whole campaign appears to have been about positioning a political campaign which had almost nothing to say, and as a result nothing much to do.

I will not be making that kind of mistake about Boris again - and I hope nobody else will either.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Total surveillance: a false sense of security

I have to confess that I have drifted away from traditional Liberal issues in the search for non-traditional ones, like the new Liberal economy that we Liberals never quite articulated.

But reading Alan Rusbridger's editorial in the Guardian has reminded me how little you can trust a state with too much power, and how important this is.  This is what he wrote:

"The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like 'when'..."

These issues are tremendously important, especially after the New York Times story this morning about new systems of facial recognition which adds another dimension to total surveillance.

First, we reacted with horror to the idea of 'total surveillance' as carried out in East Germany by the Stasi, in the days before IT made these things easier.  Just because you no longer need armies of internal security personnel, it does not make total surveillance any less dangerous.  Because when you give governments that kind of power, it will be abused.  It always is - and their right to abuse it is always interpreted as a security issue.

Second, with governments like ours, it will be a substitute for proper security.  This becomes an item of belief by ministers and officials who have come to think that appearances really are more important than reality. 

What other interpretation can you put on the official efforts to destroy the Guardian hard-drive copy of Edward Snowden's material, when they knew perfectly well that they had access to at least two other copies on the other side of the Atlantic?

But the third is most worrying.  Total surveillance does not work.  It is part of the same IT fantasy pedalled by the IT consultants.  Real security requires human intelligence and interpretation - it can't be done by a vast database listening to everything we say and recognising all our faces in the street.  Yet once the investment is made, that is what security officials come to believe.

After 9/11, it transpired that key CIA personnel with responsibility for al-Qaeda spoke no Arabic, and had been relying entirely on software and virtual intelligence systems.

That is why the obsession with what Rusbridger calls 'total surveillance' tends to get in the way of real security.  It helps terrorists but hinders everyone else.  It shouldn't do in theory, but in practice it does.  It forces security to look in the wrong places.  It shifts security resources in pointless directions.  It also deludes those responsible for such things by lulling them into a false sense of security...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Unheard, Unseen ebook free download today

I was brought up on submarine films.  The captains were always played by John Mills; sometimes they come to the surface, sometimes they don't.  Sometimes they are set in the Second World War, sometimes the Cold War.

In fact, John Mills cut his film-acting teeth in a 1935 naval film called Brown on Resolution, where the captain was played by Henry Stoker, who had actually commanded the Australian submarine AE2 when she slipped through the Dardanelles in 1915.  Perhaps he learned the style from Stoker himself.

All of which is a way of asking: why are there no submarine films about the First World War?  Why don't we celebrate those pioneering exploits, on both sides, where there were still no bunks (except for the officers) and often no lavatories, and no hearing equipment when you were submerged?

I have therefore written a celebration, at least of E14 - which provided a VC for both its commanding officers, and the wreck of which was discovered in the Dardanelles only last year.  It is now published as an ebook called Unheard, Unseen, which allowed me to tell the strange story of the first submariners, the huge strain, the alcoholism, the constipation and the damp and dirt.

The main hardship was not so much lack of sleep as lack of fresh water. It could have been E14 which provided one true story in 1916, when the commanding officer showed a lady around his submarine in Malta, and was asked how they could wash their shirts if they had so little water. The captain, whoever it was, explained that they turned the shirt inside out at the end of the week.

What about the next week, the lady asked? “Oh, by that time,” he said, “the old inside is sufficiently aired to resume duty."

The behind the scenes First World War story is largely untold, and the first book to concentrate on E14 (commanding officer: Lt Cdr Courtney Boyle) and I found it fascinating to research (thank you, RN Submarine Museum).

My reason for mentioning it here is that it will be available today and tomorrow as a free Kindle download from Amazon (though you can also download it onto PCs).  Go ahead, make my day (as they say).  Here is the link:

Monday, 19 August 2013

My one little niggle about Scottish independence

I am in Scotland, for the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I am speaking today (4pm if you can come!) and marvelling at the lengths the Scottish government are going to in order to get a yes vote to take Scotland independent next year.  Not just the umpteenth centenary of the Battle of Bannockburn, but a whole year's celebration of Scottish culture and a special Scottish food year.

I know this is terribly shocking of me, but I have no problem with Scottish independence.  Not because I am a nationalist (nationalism is the precise opposite of Liberalism) but because I am certainly not a unionist.

I have been convinced over the last two decades, writing about localism, that Europe would be more free, more diverse, more contented, more innovative and wealthier if it was an alliance of at least 50 mini-states,  More so than it is with the current trumpeting former colonisers.

I agree with Freddy Heineken (he called it Eurotopia), and Leopold Kohr (a man who once shared offices with Orwell, Hemingway and Malreux), that small nation states are more successful and more civilised than big ones.

That is where the European Union plays an absolutely crucial role, blurring the old nationalisms and providing an umbrella that can hold mini-states or collections of mini-states together.

They will be wealthier if they use, not just the euro, but also their own parallel mini-national currencies.  The great Canadian maverick Jane Jacobs convinced me in Cities and the Wealth of Nations that currencies suit city-states better than great sprawling continents, because they can revalue their money relative to neighbours, to suit their particular needs:

"Singapore and Hong Kong, which are oddities today, have their own currencies and so they possess this built-in advantage. They have no need of tariffs or export subsidies. Their currencies serve those functions when needed, but only as long as needed. Detroit, on the other hand, has no such advantage. When its export work first began to decline it got no feedback, so Detroit merely declined, uncorrected.”

The great issues of localism are different these days.  They are not about which functions suit which level of government best - they are about the correct balance between local executive action and supra-local unifying structures.

It isn't a question of whether we should break up RBS, or break up the UK, into constituent parts - it is how to network effectively to support the local parts.  That isn't about control or national destiny; it is about effectiveness.  It isn't about economies of scale any more, and if occasionally economies of scale make sense - well, they can network together like Visa to achieve them.

The German local banking system is networked together to share capital capital and other infrastructure.  Scotland, England and Wales would not go their separate ways - how could they?  They would network together some functions in a Council of the British Isles, so that they could be more independent.

The only thing that worries me about Scottish independence is when I look out of the window where I am staying in Edinburgh, and I am reminded of the staggering inhumanity of some Scottish architecture.  

This apartment block is comfortable and sophisticated inside; outside it looks like a prison.  So does the next street, so does the next.  There are parts of Glasgow which include some of the most inhuman architecture I have ever seen anywhere in the world.

These monsters have been build during the union with England, so I don't suppose independence would make anything worse.  But my Scottish genes demand I make some kind of complaint about the way the city government of Scotland has, largely thanks to Labour control, made a terrible hash of mass housing....

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Come to Edinburgh to talk about the middle classes

Every summer in August, London's literary types decamp in a big coach for a small square in Edinburgh New Town, for the Edinburgh Book Festival - and very good it is too. Good atmosphere, good company, blue skies, nice grass to sit on. Rather wonderful, in fact.

I mention this because, as this blog is posted, I am speeding up to Edinburgh to joint them and to elucidate my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?, which remains the subject of some controversy.

I am very much looking forward to discussing the ideas in it with anyone who comes, at my event at the Book Festival at 4pm on 19 August. I am doing the event jointly with Richard Brooks, who has written a book called The Great Tax Robbery. So if you want to argue with me (or him), please come along.

There will the the added unknown to look forward to: how much defending the middle classes will go down with a Scottish audience. I am sure there will be civilised disagreement, but there is a part of me which worries that I may end up like Nigel Farage on his last visit to that city.

Do please come along and find out. I look forward to seeing you there.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

I have seen the future, and unfortunately it's Legoland

This week, two families were banned for life from Legoland Windsor for brawling with iron bars while they were queuing for the pirate ride.  The news does rather put Legoland into perspective.

It is one of those staggeringly expensive examples of an economy in microcosm that is dominated by monopolies and monopolistic concessions. 

That is why it costs so much to get in, at least £140 for a family of four, booking far in advance.  It is why it costs £2.90 per scoop of ice cream when you are there.  It is why you have to pay £2 just to leave the car park, let alone get in.

It works on the same principle of similar resorts, Centerparcs for example, where you can buy whatever you like – at great expense – as long as it is from Tesco.  They are kinds of prisons of pleasure.  I'm not surprised it drives people to violence.

It is why the queues are so long for the rides as well, and – because the English don’t understand what semi-monopolies do, and English politicians turn a blind eye – they take it out on each other with iron bars when they have to queue in the heat.

Now, I have huge respect for Lego.  It was started in 1932 by the Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen , a dedicated pacifist.

The pacifist approach has now been 'finessed' by the new CEO from McKinsey, who turned round Lego’s fortunes with a series of film link-ups starting with Star Wars.  But the basic flexibility of the game remains: my children could survive on Lego without any other toys at all.

But in fact Legoland Windsor is only licensed by Lego, which sold all their parks in 2005.  It is actually run by Merlin Entertainments, a huge leisure behemoth based in Poole, which runs nearly 80 similarly expensive leisure ‘experiences’ on four continents – including most of their so-called rivals in the UK, Thorpe Park, Alton Towers, Madame Tussauds, Sealife centres, you name it.

My children have been pressurising me to go to Legoland.  I have even been collecting the One Adult Goes Free tokens from the sides of Kellogg’s packets, but was unable to find out from their website how you can use these to book cheaply in advance.

There is an information line but it is a premium rate 0871 number, of course.  There is another landline for customer service in the small print (01753 626182), but they don’t appear to answer their phone.

So I emailed the press office and, lo and behold, someone rang to give me the answer: you can’t book in advance using the Kellogg’s vouchers.

Still, the eye-watering expense of taking the family out for these is because Merlin Entertainments have too tight a hold on the entertainment resort market in this country.  Break them up, I say.  

If it was really made of Lego, I would break it up and make a new layout.

Friday, 16 August 2013

How to grasp the NHS nettle

I have huge respect for the NHS blogger Roy Lilley and follow his blogs avidly, almost the only one I read every time it is published.  He is extremely influential, by virtue of his enormous readership, and rightly so.  In recent weeks, he has been asking rhetorically how the NHS needs to change.

This is an important question.  There have been a string of high-level NHS reports saying non-specifically that the NHS has to change, and warning of imminent system breakdown, but there are precious few answers to the question: how?  Few of them dare do more than tweak.

Even so, the recent CQC report into the hospital at Whipp's Cross is embarrassingly familiar and it does crystallise the problem - inadequate staffing, food put out of reach of elderly patients, not enough care or consideration.  There is a problem out there, and although it isn't exactly clear why the NHS is facing a crisis now - its funding is ring-fenced after all - something is going on.

Partly the situation is politically confusing.  There are elements where the last government is clearly to blame (the failures of the CQC and the PFI debt crisis) and there are elements where clearly it is the fault of the coalition (benefit changes, or fears of benefit changes, which emerge as extra demand on primary care and A&E).  There is too much positioning, not enough prescription.

So I've been asking myself what I would do, and - since my family tells me that my blog is too filled with middle-aged complaints - I thought I would share the ten-point Boyle plan:

1.  Consolidate the ruinous PFI loans: they are the looming public sector debt crisis, five years after the private sector debt crisis, and they need to be dealt with the same way - taken off the books of the trusts and put into a special financial vehicle designed to re-negotiate them and remove them.  They may otherwise cost over £300bn, a huge drain on services.

2.  Abolish the centralised inspection system: Roy Lilley is absolutely right that the CQC must go and its duties be handed to local Clinical Commissioning Groups.  Monitor is still required: it needs to take charge of failing trusts.

3.  Share the work with patients: the time has come for major investment in people-powered health and co-production, which Nesta believes will save at least £4.4bn and maybe considerably more.  It is extraordinary that this is happening so little.

4.  Take rights in new drugs: the government invests in health research but gets none of the financial benefits, while the drugs bill  (now £11bn a year) spirals.  Pricing according to the financial benefits of drugs, the current strategy, is not adequate (more on this another day).

5.  Sack boards of failing trusts: there must be some sanction against the boards who allow their hospitals to end up inhumane places of care.

6.  Hand back out-of-hours care to GP practices: easier said than done, I know, but the present system is a disgrace and a blot on the reputation of GPs.

7.  Hand over patient records to patients: they should own their own data and give access to professionals that need it, rather than the present wasteful system of parallel agencies asking patients endlessly for permission to share (see PKB for example).

8.  Do most follow-up appointments electronically: there is huge spare capacity in the system just because consultants have a rigid system that requires face-to-face follow-up appointments every six months, whether people need one or not.

9.  Encourage hospitals to invest in primary care: they have the motivation to invest in prevention.

10.Investigate the perverse incentives: too many patients are being given the runaround because hospitals can charge more.  All gaming behaviour that wastes resources for the system as a whole must be defined as 'anti-competitive'.

By which I mean that we will have an NHS which is not leaching money to PFI contracts, which is delivered partly by other patients and which is a great deal more flexible.  I hope it will also fulfil Roy Lilley's claim this morning, that kindness is more important than technology, skills, drugs or investment.

And when you've done all that, I have a few more up my sleeve...

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The perils of scientific morality and counting too much

I have been brought up for most of my conscious life with a vague knowledge of C. P. Snow's controversial 1959 lecture 'The Two Cultures'.

It was this which inspired the staggering rejoinder from the literary critic F. R Leavis, who attacked Snow bitterly without actually reading what he said.  "To read it would be to condone it," he said.

Even so, I am probably more on Leavis' side than Snow's.  Snow assumed that somehow the arts and the sciences were equal and opposite, when they are not.  Important as science is, there is always a danger that morality, art, significance and the study of unmeasurable life, will collapse into science and become a miserable shadow of themselves.

That isn't to say that measurement plays no role in the liberal arts.  Or to say that Snow was wrong that everyone needs some understanding of science.  But to compare the two is a bit like comparing Shakespeare with a vacuum cleaner.  You still need vacuum cleaners, of course, but still...

Now, thanks to the Canadian science writer Steven Pinker, the old debate is coming back to life again.  His article in the American magazine New Republic defends science against the accusations of a reductionist 'scientism'.

The UK's most imaginative critic of scientism, Bryan Appleyard, has written a fascinating response - acknowledging that Pinker is at least right that critics are sometimes confusing the way some scientists behave with the ideals of the scientific method.

Quite right. Scientific propositions need to be falsifiable. They must remain tentative. Even so, Pinker manages to condemn "fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers" - and he may be right, but it would be premature and unscientific to not rule out other creative forces yet to be understood.

I've read Pinker's article through a couple of times and there still seem to be two major weaknesses.

First, Pinker says this about morality:

"In combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today."

You hear this from scientists often in the UK too, that scientific discoveries provide a 'de facto' morality.  It can't be so, or - if it is - our morality is not founded on safe foundations.

What if our scientific knowledge changes?  What if we find, as Robert Ardrey used to say, that we are actually descended from a race of killer apes?  Does that change our basic morality?  It is true that morality must be based on some scientific facts - but it will always go beyond it and rest, partly, on a human tradition which is beyond science (there are dangers there too, of course).

Second, Pinker talks about the insights of science for archaeology, psychology and literary criticism - all of which is true, but there is a danger here as well.  There are forces in our world now which would like to subsume the liberal arts into something much narrower, digitisable and measurable - which will limit the breadth of the human mind to make it seem comprehensible (see Appleyard's important book The Brain is Wider Than the Sky).

Although I'm sure Pinker would not fall for this himself, there are those out there in the grip of the strange obsession which gripped the eighteenth century Jedediah Buxton (see picture above).  On his first trip to the theatre to see a performance of Richard III, he was asked whether he'd enjoyed it, and all he could say was that there were 5,202 steps during the dances and 12,445 words spoken by the actors. Nothing about what the words said, about the winter of our discontent made glorious summer; nothing about the evil hunchback king.

The story is funny now as then, but it is also faintly disturbing. Buxton is in some ways a fearsome symbol of the modern age, in which we count everything but see the significance of nothing.

More about Buxton in my book The Tyranny of Numbers.  But why is the critique of this kind of scientism alive and well in the USA (see this for example) and yet relies on Bryan Appleyard and hardly anyone else over here?  Or am I wrong?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Coming soon: the fragmentation of conservatism

"Every boy and every gal, 
That's born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conserva-tive."

So said W. S. Gilbert, but even when he was writing (Iolanthe, 1882), something was going on to confuse matters.  The split in the Liberal Party over Ireland was made permanent by the rise of socialism - fear of socialism kept important strands of Liberalism muddled into the the conservatives well into the 20th century. They still are.

As a result, there are now two kinds of Conservatives (I am rather simplifying here, so please bear with me):
  • Those who believe that, if the rich and powerful are allowed to exercise their wealth and power, there will be advantages for everyone (the traditional conservative view, and by the way also Tony Blair's basic stance).
  • Those who are motivated by independence, and a revulsion for those who would mess around with them (which includes an old-fashioned Liberal support for 'free trade').
The problem is that, although the former are undoubtedly conservatives, the latter would have been recognisable as Liberals a century ago, and sometimes more recently too.  They do not actually sit together very easily.

Free trade as currently interpreted confuses matters.  The former support the right of the powerful to exercise their power.  The latter support the right of small business to disrupt the powerful.  These are not the same.

There are signs that this Auld Alliance is beginning to unravel, on both sides of the Atlantic.  A fascinating article in the Guardian yesterday (thank you, Jody!) describes the divisions emerging over solar power in the Tea Party movement, in the Australian right and in parts of Europe too.

On the one hand, the Tea Party is funded by entrenched oil interests which pour scorn on solar power, along with all renewables.  In some parts of the world, they are lobbying to tax it (in Spain, for example), just as - in Latin America - corporate interests have made collecting rainwater illegal, in case it reduces dependence on the water utilities.

On the other hand, there are those in all these places who are coming to see small-scale renewables as a guarantee of independence from state and corporate monopolies, and are reacting with fury to proposals to restrict or tax their right to adopt it.  

In Western Australia, the utilities are horrified  to find that demand for their energy is dropping fast.  In Georgia, rebel Tea Party members have forced the monopoly utility to open up to more solar power, to the rage of their national organisers.

This is important.  The fear of socialism is no longer enough to keep the Auld Conservative Alliance together.  Nor is it enough, it seems to me, to allow those institutions which straddle the divide - the NFU and CBI, in this country - to survive either without choosing sides.

Are they backing the right of the big corporates or the big farmers to exercise unfettered semi-monopoly power (conservatism), or are they backing the right of disruptive small-scale enterprise to provide people with a measure of independence (liberalism)?  Whose side are they on?

None of this would matter if this wasn't the key political faultline of the next decade - but it is.  It spells real problems for conservative parties - who are also struggling with divisions between social conservatives and social liberals inside their ranks.

The real division of the next decade is the one which Liberalism was designed to fight - it is small versus big, independence versus dependence, people-power versus unfettered corporate power.

And I know which side I'm on.  So before Liberal Democrats cast themselves completely adrift from the coalition, don't let's assume that they can't take a hefty chunk of the Conservative Party with them.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Satisfying needs is not enough - this is why

There was a time when most neighbourhoods, and the poorer ones especially, were often alive with choirs, reading clubs, friendly societies, pigeon breeder clubs and all the rest.  Not all of them, it is true, but many of them.

I remember reading Richard Booth's autobiography, describing how he built the first bookshops in Hay-on-Wye buying up the libraries from the working men's clubs.

But something else happened too.  These poorer communities managed to get purpose-built community centres, and attracted grants for permanent professional staff to manage them.

The old charities which used to be run by small groups of friends in churches or working men’s clubs either died out or were pushed aside by the new lottery funded generation. Now the community centres in the Welsh Valleys, for example, usually have full-time managers and staff. 

The peculiar thing is that they are often almost empty. What was once a network of voluntary projects and chapels gave way to a series of professional agencies, with paid staff, delivering services to passive consumers. Where did all that energy go?

In some ways, this is just an aspect of what the American sociologist Robert Putnam called ‘Bowling Alone’, a terrifying description of the erosion of neighbourhoods – watching the gentlemen of New London, Connecticut reduced to sitting alone in the local bowling alley, staring sadly upwards at the television.

Behind all this is the strange untold story of community development, especially when lottery funding is involved. When local agencies or charities discover a local need, they apply for grants to tackle it, most of which goes on their salaries. 

Then the mystery: as people discover the service, the need seems to grow. Agencies have to ration support. Then the grant runs out and everything has to be applied for again to keep people in jobs, but dressed up as something wholly new and innovative. 

The handful of local people who had been genuinely involved get dispirited, and the agency starts looking around for another need that could be packaged as a grant application.

One academic has called it ‘farming the poor’.  The civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn came up against this problem quite by accident when he was defending his National Legal Services Programme, the service that helped organisations to sue the government to enforce their rights. 

He had urged the programme over the years to ask the people they were helping to give something back, but they never quite got round to doing so. Then suddenly, in 1994, there was a Republican landslide, determined to reduce the federal budget deficit, and a young maverick called Newt Gingrich was in the House of Representatives, looking for ways of saving money. 

The Republicans had never much liked the Legal Services Programme anyway, so the scene was set for the inevitable congressional hearings before it was shut down. 

The programme was duly cut by a third and hamstrung in other ways. The hearings were held in Congress. But out of the three million people a year which the programme had helped for 33 years – that’s about 100 million households – not one client turned up at the hearings to defend it.

A year or so later, Cahn’s own law school was also under threat. This was the successor to Antioch, the District of Columbia School of Law, which was modelled on a teaching hospital. Students go out into the community and give legal help, but they don’t just give it. They ask for something back through one of the time banks in a Baptist church or in local housing complexes. 

It was a difficult campaign to win, given that Washington already had six law schools and a massive budget deficit. Even the Washington Post was calling for it to be closed. But hearings organised by the District of Columbia Council didn’t go the same way as the ones in Congress. 

Those who had been helped, and paid back, came out in droves to support the law school and it stayed open. Giving something back for the help they had received had made people defend the law school. Perhaps because it was more equal.  It wasn’t charity any more. Cahn describes this as the power of ‘reciprocity’.  More about this in my book The Human Element.

I tell this story because I got into trouble two days ago by criticising the Labour tradition of 'meeting needs'.  I did so, not because I don't believe governments should meet needs, but because - if meeting needs becomes their sole purpose - then there are peculiar side-effects.

1.  Politicians forget to ask why those needs arose in the first place, and never get round to taking action to prevent them.

2.  The needs become the currency of public sector transaction: the only way of accessing support is to maximise your needs - of course they tend to grow.

3.  The system turns its back on mutuality.  It demands that people are passive and grateful.  It disempowers.

"Charity wounds," said the great anthropologist Mary Douglas, and this is what she meant.  It doesn't mean that needs should not be met, but it does imply that meeting them should be about building relationships.  It means that people should ask each other for something back.  It needs to be transactional.

This is the problem with the Labour tradition.  It forgets that there is anything else beyond meeting needs.  It sums up human beings as bundles of needs.  It represents the apotheosis of need.  

It is time we bundled up the whole Labour tradition and tried to move beyond it.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The middle class revolt against fundamentalism?

The BBC has just finished its series about the rise of the global middle class, but every few weeks there is more evidence of the middle class revolt emerging – first the Middle East, then Turkey, then Brazil, and then...

It may be premature to interpret this as one phenomenon, though that has hardly stopped some commentators – and it isn’t going to stop me today either. 

What appears to be happening is that the global middle classes are emerging, only to discover how far the current economic system renders them powerless – and how far it threatens their continued existence.  They lose public park in Ankara, or a bus fare in Rio, but these are just symbols of an underlying powerlessness.

What makes this a middle class revolt is not that they are defending middle class privileges. 

It is that the global working classes no longer have the time, the space or the power to organise any kind of uprising.  They are measured and controlled by tyrannical employers when they work, and – when they don’t – they are pre-occupied with the business of survival.

The prolific critic Slavoj Zizek has drawnparallels between the democratic reformers in the Middle East and the economic reformers in Latin America, arguing that they are both making a stand against fundamentalism that denies the importance of their humanity, and that they recognise the parallels.

It may be religious fundamentalism which clings to a bizarre belief in the literal truth of every sentence of holy scripture.  Or it may be market fundamentalism, which clings to a bizarre belief in the objective reality of market values and the bottom line.  It is at heart the same thing.

I find this idea compelling.  It points to a similar crisis in economics and theology, and demands a humanistic response to both these kinds of spiritual impoverishment.  Neither of them see the world as it really is.  In theological terms, both put narrow simplifications above complex truth – which theologians used to call ‘idolatry’.

To make this comparison doesn’t mean rejecting genuine, complex religion, any more than it means rejecting markets.  It means rejecting inhumane simplifications, single bottom lines, one-dimensional measures...

Perhaps it also sheds some light on one of the things that has been confusing me.  Where is the spark of revolt against the market fundamentalism which is impoverishing the UK, where the middle classes are cowed, the working classes are powerless, and where political debate is so staggeringly narrow and constrained?

Because, watching the new pope, developing his pro-poor mission in Latin America, I have been wondering whether the spark of change is going to come from the Church.

I know this is anathema to the kind of positivist liberalism represented by Richard Dawkins and others.  But it may be that only the Church is independent enough to see the problem clearly – and to recognise fundamentalism when they see it.

Then, there was the Archbishop of Canterbury weighing in to the payday loan companies, in a Church Militant tone of voice which we have not heard for a century or so.

He may have stepped back from this rhetoric in the days that followed.  But it was so brave and clear, and tremendously hopeless, that I can’t get it out of my head.

Because we need that tone of voice, uncompromising, determined and human – threatening to drive the payday loan companies out of business.  Aggressive on the side of what is right.

There is something going on in this space and I welcome it, and I am looking forward to the next intervention.

Incidentally, I am speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival at 4pm on 19 August.  If you want to debate these issues, or argue with me about my book Broke:Who killed the middle classes?, please come along...!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Is there any reason for Labour's continued existence?

Perhaps it is even more significant that Labour backbencher George Mudie says he doesn't know what his party stands for, but Andy Burnham has caught the moment with his very public agonising - which amounts to much the same thing.

I have great respect for Andy Burnham. His summary of the fundamental problems of Westminster politics was spot on:

"I was schooled in this, kind of, 'how do we make a press release today that embarrasses the opposition?' That's the kind of politics that everyone was doing and the kind of culture developed where you're scrabbling over a bit of the centre ground with micro-policies that are designed to just create a little couple of days' headlines and create a feeling - but not change much else."

His solution is to merge health and social care under the auspices of the NHS. It is bold, and it plays to the Labour Party's old tradition - satisfying needs. He even sees the key problem of fragmentation in social care, which is has to be solved. He also recognises the importance of prevention, at least as far as good social care prevents people from turning up in primary care.

But there are three problems with this approach, brave as it is.

First, Burnham makes the same mistake as the coalition has made. He has not understood just how toxic the Blair-Brown legacy has been in public services, after a decade of target-driven centralisation, inflexibility and bone-headed IT investment along the lines laid down by McKinsey and others.

Health and social care do have to be merged, but they can't be merged using the existing system: it is built on the assembly line model and is not nearly effective enough at meeting people's real needs, not what the system thinks their needs are.

Second, Burnham includes no convincing analysis about why health and social care have been struggling, despite the ring-fencing of health services.  Austerity might have been convincing, were it not for the fact that both systems have been increasing their costs much faster than the rate of inflation for years.

Is it an older population, more expensive drugs, or an increasingly alienated, isolated population, who receive treatment from the system as long as they remain passive?  Any one of those requires some kind of analysis of how they can be tackled, or the costs of the new Greater NHS will rapidly overwhelm us - even after the austerity years.

It isn't enough to say that we just need to fund the current inflexible system better, with ever more central controls - in the Labour style - because people will not believe it, and they will be right not to.  It was disastrous before.  If they try and do it again, services will lose public trust.

But there is a third, more fundamental reason.  Mudie was right: the Labour Party has not actually stood for anything much beyond positioning for some generations now, and their last period in power was presided over by a leadership which found it impossible to disagree with whoever was wealthiest or most powerful in any argument.

The party has long since ditched socialism, and according to the LSE, New Labour achieved no change in income inequality at all.  In fact, they never tried.

The old Labour tradition (satisfying needs) is also problematic, given that - if satisfying needs is the heart of government, and the bureaucracy dedicated to that alone, then experience shows it tends to be deeply disempowering.

It is true, I am biassed against the Labour Party.  I became interested in politics during the dull and reactionary Callaghan years, so I joined the Liberals.  But Labour has still failed to develop an organising ideology.  It means that when they take power, anything can happen.

I simply can't see the point of its continued existence.

I'm aware that I have said some related things about my own party sometimes.  I'm also aware that my own party is in a coalition where their main power is simply to say 'no', on condition they don't do it very often.  But I have been impressed by the discipline of the Lib Dem parliamentarians (far more so than their coalition partners).

I am kind of crossing my fingers that this may imply, despite all the difficulties and strains involved, that they have developed some underlying ideological coherence themselves.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Has change actually been slowing down?

Would the hapless Euro-MP Godfrey Bloom have offended with the same remark about bongo-bongo land a generation ago - in, say, 1967?

I have a feeling he would have done.  Even the year before Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech, and the dockers marching in his support, most of us in the UK would have found it tasteless and boorish, if not offensive.

Though, it is a marginal call.  Am I alone in remembering the lines of the original signature tune to the BBC’s Start the Week, sung by Lance Percival, and the line the follows “come to Bradford in  the sun”? (I won't say what I think it was in case my memory is faulty).

The reason I have been wondering this is that I turned nine in 1967 and went for my birthday outing with a few friends to Chislehurst Caves (where are you now, Adam, James, Justin...?).  I haven't been back since, until yesterday when, for my son's ninth birthday outing, I went again.

I wish I could say it hadn't changed at all.  To be honest, I didn't remember a great deal (though it was extremely satisfying, after all this time, to wander around underground with an oil lamp).

What now feels like nostalgia was then more like uncategorisable impressions, so it is hard to make comparisons.  But I have been wondering whether really so much has altered since then.

What has definitely shifted is social attitudes, to sexuality and race – or at least how one refers to it in public – and definitely in the role of women.  IT has also changed, but I wonder really whether that is as big a transformation as we think it is, however wedded we are to the screen.  We have also gained the concept of 'offensive' but at the cost of becoming more offended, more puritanical and so much narrower in public debate - but I was hardly taking part in pubic debate in those days, so I may be  wrong.

I have a mobile phone, which I certainly never had in 1967, but I probably watch less television – my children certainly watch very much less than I did.

But apart from that, what has changed?  In London, we have been working similar hours, going to the same sports venues, and catching the same bus routes with the same numbers, for well over a century.  I have been travelling in jumbo jets for my entire life.  The mini (see assembly line picture above from 1967) has been in production in Oxford since I was three - and it still is.

Doctor Who’s Tardis seems to be much the same as well.

Compared to the staggering technological changes of the first two decades of the last century, when cars, submarines, aeroplanes and cinema took giant leaps, to emerge fully formed around 1967, when the original pioneers were often still alive.

More about this in my submarine ebook Unheard, Unseen.

All of which is my way of saying this: don't believe it when people tell you that change is accelerating.  In the UK, it has actually been slowing down.

And there is an old dinosaur like Godfrey Bloom mouthing off to prove it.