Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Monopolies and the dog that didn't bark

This blog post is copied from the Radix blog...

The news yesterday that the doom-laden trade dispute, between the giant American planemaker Boeing and its small Canadian rival Bombardier, may have been resolved only seemed to compound the basic underlying problem.

If the dispute really has been patched up, then it has been by doing a deal with Boeing's European rival giant Airbus to construct the Bombardier planes ordered in the US in a factory in the USA.

Of course, we should welcome anything that resolves this kind of trade spat, but – really – there is something craven about the solution, just as there is about the original problem. Apparently, both modern protectionism and modern free trade are understood in practice as about protecting the giants against their challengers.

I have written elsewhere (in the book I wrote with Joe Zammit-Lucia and published by Radix) about how the free trade idea became so corrupted. It appears to have something to do with a long-running dispute inside the Chicago School of Economics in the 1950s. Milton Friedman emerged as the victor and he said that monopoly was rarely if ever an issue.

This nonsense has led to the current impasse, where free trade has come to mean the very opposite of the original idea - it isn't about supporting challenge from below, it is an apologia for monopoly, a featherbedding of the giants.

While I understand how this reversal came about, I'm not sure why the forces of Liberalism worldwide should have abandoned their most important economic doctrine.

But I do know that concern about monopoly power is rising, not here perhaps, but in the USA - where two pieces of economic research have been published which lift the lid on the economic consequences of monopoly power. After all, the US Department of Justice didn't open any cases against monopolies at all in 2014, and opened just three in 2015. That compares to 22 cases in 1994.

You can read more about the latest research in the Bloomberg report here. Particularly, economists Jan de Loecker and Jan Eeckhout have found that prices re now 67 per cent above costs when they used to be just 18 per cent, and other evidence that consolidation is driving up prices. German Gutierrez and Thomas Philippon have also found that business investment as a share of GDP has been falling - probably because of the increasing market power of companies. Why would anyone lend you money to compete with Amazon, after all?

The situation was summed up in a recent headline in Christian Science Monitor explaining that Catalonia can opt out of Spain (perhaps), but never out of Google. American thinktankers like Barry Lynn and Stacy Mitchell are beginning to make hay with the monopolies issue, but in the UK - well, silence.

In fact, if you were wondering why the political centre ground has become so lost on this side of the Atlantic, their ability to be the dog that didn't bark about monopoly power might be all you need to know.

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Homage to Catalonia - and what it means

This article is crossposted from the Radix blog...

Sometimes all you can rely on, to understand some sense of the direction events are taking us in, is a sense of history. As such, it seems pretty clear to me that the way the national authorities behaved over the Catalonia referendum guarantees that Catalonia will eventually secede from Spain.

Perhaps not now, perhaps not for decades, but eventually. What is more, it may also provide enough of a political impetus to other nations-within-nations , like Scotland, to go their own way. When firefighters have to stand between the crowds and the police to protect people, then something will inevitably change.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. Centrist politics has tended to be unionist. Liberals have certainly looked askance on every kind of nationalism, except possibly Irish. But something is changing, and I suspect that - among the mix - is a different attitude to economies of scale.

If your whole political system leaned heavily on the justification of economies of scale, then it made sense to subsume the parts in a greater whole. But if you recognise how rapidly economies of scale are overtaken by diseconomies of scale - as most people do now outside government - then the argument for unionism and the old-fashioned concept of nation states begin to unravel, along with all the other prevailing ideas that came along with the age of the assembly line.

I have written before about Freddie Heineken's vision of a Europe of nation states with around eight million people in them, and certainly there are successful nations and city states a good deal smaller than that.

People are frustrated with the sheer ineffectiveness of central governments, so divorced as they are from the real levers of power - which exist at very local and city level, where they exist at all (Sir Keith Joseph used to complain that he had spent his entire career trying to get his hands on these levers, only to find they weren't connected to anything). It maybe that this frustration, combined with the disillusion with the idea of economies of scale, will usher in nationhood - not just for Catalonia, but the Scots, and others. There is a similar referendum in northern Italy shortly.

What is more, if we are radical centrists, there are reasons for suggesting that this maybe a more peaceful, more effective way of governing than the current posturing of nation states and national parliaments. The days of Liberal unionism may be running out. It was after all another expression of the very nationalism it rejected.

But there is one pre-condition for success for this kind of transformation. We must retain the old national umbrellas. Without a continuing role for 'Britain', we risk unleashing the most dangerous kind of intolerant nostalgia. More immediately, we would lose the possibility of rebalancing the separate economies around the old nation, shifting resources from the rich areas in surplus to the poor areas.

If we don't do this, we risk creating a Europe of competing nation states - like G K Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill - with the big poor ones that are left behind battling with the smug small, wealthy ones. It was the lack of this very mechanism across the eureozone which has led, predictably, to the rise of the far right. The European Union could also provide it, but will they? And can they, inside the UK?

That makes revolutionary separatism, of the kind encouraged by the actions of the Spanish government in Catalonia, not just unhelpful, but downright dangerous.

We are nearly due a major shift of the political and economic mainstream - we have one regularly in the UK every 40 years - and it is worth arguing that Brexit and Trump are not the shift. They are more like John the Baptist, bearing witness to the shift. I am wondering whether the real shift, a response to the sheer uselessness and corruption of central governments, may be this radical localism.

I think it will happen, partly thanks to the police in Barcelona. But it needs to be done safely, or will will lead to the kind of bloodshed we saw in Yugoslavia. It has to be done deliberately by enlightened statespeople, slowly, bravely, constitutionally and under the continuing umbrella of the old national identities and their vital economic functions.

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Friday, 29 September 2017

Uber, Amazon and Columbus and the parallels between them

This is a cross post from the Radix blog...

It is almost ten years since the publication of one of my best books (I have to say this myself!). It was called Toward the Setting Sun and it told the interlinked stories of the three men who gave their names to the so-called ‘discovery’ of the New World, Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci.

In the process of writing it, I became convinced that Columbus and Cabot had not just known each other, but had originally been co-conspirators in their great breakthrough – which was really about intellectual property. It was the near-identical contracts, signed by them with the Castillian and English monarchs, which set out how they could protect and profit from their discoveries.

As we know now, of course, they failed to find a new route to the Indies after all. But even so, the percentage they negotiated of all the gold, silver and cod from the places they put on the map would have made them the richest men in history.

The Columbus family’s claims against the contract led to a court case lasting two centuries.

This is also a very modern story because of the ambitions of a handful of mega-rich tech pioneers, behind Google, Amazon and others, who want to cream off a slice of every transaction if they can.

The next couple of decades may well be the story of how humanity prevents them.

There is a head of steam building in the UK behind a challenge, especially to Facebook and Twitter, to take responsibility for what their platform is used for. I have some sympathy with this. If Facebook becomes a conduit for hate or terrorism instructions, then they are not innocent. They have responsibilities. If not them, then who?

The difficulty is that Brexit Britain may not have the influence alone to enforce any kind of settlement. We will see.

So when London’s mayor Sadiq Khan bans Uber from operating in the city, it is not just about Uber – it is a shot across the bows of tech innovators who believe they should have a privileged position over other enterprises, just as Amazon avoids local taxes in the USA.

This is not an anti-technology position to take. I believe in self-employment and disruptive technologies. And if Khan intends to keep Uber out, then he needs to find ways of encouraging other, more co-operative challengers to the over-priced black cabs (it was partly Ken Livingstone’s fault that only bankers can now afford black taxis in London).

But the point is the same. Uber were allowing drivers and others to be exploited. If we are going to have disruptive technology, then for goodness sake let’s find ways of making sure it is owned by those doing the disrupting.

Because truly disruptive technology would not send us right back to the age of robber barons who end up owning us all.

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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Bran the Blessed and Labour's new vulnerability

This post is a version of one published on the Radix blog.

There is a strange piece of British mythology in Geoffrey of Monmouth which I keep being reminded of. The head of Bran the Blessed (as distinct from Brian Blessed) was buried on Tower Hill in London and had a strange power to protect the nation - as long as it stayed put. King Arthur dug it up because he wanted the kudos for protecting the nation himself alone. The result: the Saxon invasion.

I thought of this as I listened with fascination yesterday morning to a slightly blustery interview on the Today programme with Labour's health spokesperson Jon Ashworth about PFI contracts and the future of the NHS in the coming winter.

He is right of course that PFI contracts were often not fit for purpose, locking a changing NHS into bricks, mortar and concrete and into inflexible contracts too. The BBC made a great deal of the gap between what he said on PFIs and what the shadow chancellor John McDonnell said, but there is no doubt that the Labour approach - knocking down the old totems - strikes a chord with many people.

To an electorate so used to the sheer impossiblism of conventional politics, this is an important shift.

But there was a weakness which brought on rather more bluster than before and it may not have been obvious. It struck me as important because it has wider implications.

The link between the NHS and social care is so broken, so urgent and so important, he was asked, why are you not calling for an all-party consensus? Why are you not promising to consult widely about it? Why - I am editorialising here - does it have to be worked out in the labyrinthine recesses of Labour's modern equivalent of smoke-filled rooms?

I have no idea if the rumours about threats to BBC correspondents are real or not, but there is a new isolationism abroad in the Labour Party. There is just a hint of intolerance which was obvious as much as anything else from Ashworth's discomfort about the question.

He said he would be happy if either Jeremy Hunt or Norman Lamb, his opposite numbers in other parties, were to contact him - but then that was not what he was asked. Why will Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party not reach out for a sustainable cross-party consensus, which they could certainly achieve?

This leads on to other questions. Why will Labour not capitalise on their popularity and make things happen now, together with MPs of other parties? Or does it make them more electable if everything remains bad until the general election?

That's why I thought of Bran the Blessed's head. I hope Labour will keep Bran's sacred head securely buried, but I don't unfortunately think they will. That makes them vulnerable from outside from the Lib Dems. It also makes them nervous.

I hope Labour realises that they would be stronger and bigger if they encouraged the kind of cross-party activity that - in a hung Parliament - can make a real difference on a range of issues. Either way, there are bigger stakes to play for now than the next UK general election.

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Thursday, 21 September 2017

How to revive the Liberal Revival - work out who the Liberals are

This is crossposted from the Radix blog.

I set out five different ways in the Guardian on Monday that we might kick start politics from a broad radical centre in the UK – by which I mean almost anything except the conventional, conservative Left and Right.

I made what might have been the mistake of starting with Vince Cable’s assertion that he might be prime minister, explaining that politics is in such flux and we might any of us.

Unfortunately, the editors started their headline with the words ‘Sorry, Vince’, which made it look a little like a slapdown. All I can say again is ‘sorry, Vince’.

The article preceded by a few hours the packed and successful Radix fringe meeting, where I spoke alongside Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson. It followed two fascinating Radix meals with the Italian professor Corrado Poli – founder of Radix Italy – about what UK politics might learn from the success of the Five Star movement there, now the main opposition.

In retrospect, one thing struck me more than anything else, and it was the way Five Star bases their appeal – not on the kind of fatuous, meaningless polling so beloved of political parties here – but on two things. First, on in-depth research about social change and the way people’s economic needs are changing. Second, on the kind of personalities who were likely to be open to their message.

This second one isn’t a new idea. It was used to good effect by the Leave campaign in the referendum. But, as far as I know, the Lib Dems have failed to think along these lines at all. I don’t know about the other UK parties.

Let’s just think about the Lib Dems for a moment. From the dawn of the Liberal Revival in 1958, it seems to me that the party became the political expression of the counterculture – from community action to the emergence of the voluntary sector, self-help and self-employment (in the early 1990s, the top ten constituencies for self-employment were all Lib Dem strongholds. This was not a coincidence).

Both the counterculture and the Liberal Revival are both now defunct terms and it may be too late to bring the two together again. But it was fascinating to see that the two attitudes the Five Star targeted in their early days was people who wanted to defend nature and people interested in complementary health.

Both were strong counterculture themes in the UK too. Both imply people who – rightly or wrongly – are prepared to think for themselves, to take action individually and collectively, rather than to passively accept everything they are told by professionals.

I don’t know if the same applies in the UK. I do know that, if the radical centre is to revive, they need to identify what kind of people are likely to respond to a radical Liberal or distinctive new message.

That means that they will also have to define their purpose a good deal better than they have done over the past generation. No more all things to all people. No more clever-clever positioning. But a much clearer idea and a much clearer sense of the kind of people who will be enthusiastic about it.

Twentieth century politics, before the Liberal Revival, was characterised by a powerful dualism – welfare versus business, unions versus management – which still traps the minds of our more conservative politicians of right and left. Twenty-first century politics is characterised by the triumph of counterculture values and … well, isn’t it time we found out?

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

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

Cross-posted from the Radix blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The nature of post-crash culture

This is a crossposting from the New Weather blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Friday, 11 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The secret message of the new Dunkirk film

This is cross-posted from the Radix blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The most important question in economics now


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

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

This post first appeared on the Radix website...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 17 July 2017

The most important question for Southern Rail right now

I have been reading the brave and revolutionary book about public relations by Robert Phillips, called Trust me, PR is Dead. Considering that the author is now an ex-PR man himself, the title is a bit like the old circular contradiction All Cretans are liars, as a Cretan once told me - which so fascinated Alan Turing.

There is a fascinating passage where he was asked by one of the rail companies for advice to deal with their unpopularity.  But, as Phillips explains, all was exactly as it seemed.

"It turned out that its poor standing was well-deserved - the marketing director boasted proudly about how they shortened train lengths at peak times and lengthened them off-peak. This way they met the averages demanded of them by the regulator but paid less in fees. So what if the customers were packed like sardines? They had to get to work, so would put up and shut up - because they had to."

Phillips describes this as a disillusioning moment. As a PR consultant, he was "meant to conspire with this fraudulent idiocy". He didn't, suggesting instead that the company managers do a ceremonial bow (Japanese style, see picture) for a new National Apology Day (he didn't get the contract).

I have been thinking about this in relation to Southern Rail, and the pretence by them and the government that the short trains which cause such asphyxiation have something to do with industrial action.

They could be about trains not being in the right place, but that would apply only in chaos - and we have an emergency timetable.

Now, I have no evidence that the story in Trust Me, PR is Dead applies also to Southern. Since proposing the question in an article for the Guardian last week - and developing it in a blog on the Radix site, suggesting that people care much more about the manipulation than they do about the asphyxiation - I have downloaded screeds of in-house material about how Network rail calculates its charges.

I'm not stupid, but the whole thing is so packed with jargon and complexity that I will never penetrate its obscurity. All I can do is hope that other people will take up the question in Parliament.

On the face of it, it may be that Govia Thameslink's shadowy owners Go-Ahead are insisting that some of their losses should be clawed back from the battered passengers in this way. It could - in certain narrow economic cults - even be considered their duty to do so.

Either way, we must be told.

Meanwhile, I believe Robert Phillips is onto something with his National Apology Day proposal. It would help clear the air. This is how he puts it:

"Companies know when they have done wrong. Companies know when they have substituted the convenience of tick-box compliance for the imperative of values-led behaviour. And they know when they really should apologise - not that they do. No one needs to 'have god' to understand this. But everyone needs to have a core humanity and a very real sense of purpose and values - of what is right and what is wrong - in business, as in life."

So Charles Horton (Govia Thameslink CEO), Andrew Allner (Go-Ahead chairman) and Chris Grayling (Secretary of State) - please think about this one. Does the cap fit?

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More background on Southern in my book Cancelled!  about the whole saga.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Was Margaret Thatcher real?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Broke to look back at recent history to see why things were going so badly for the middle classes.

This was not, as some commentators suggested, because I had some kind of disdain for the working classes or because I thought life had been uniquely tough on the middle classes - I think nothing of the kind - but writing the book led me down some strange byways.

For example why house prices had risen so much since 1979, and how the decision was made to launch that process by abolishing the so-called 'Corset' which regulated how much money went into the mortgage market.

Reading the cabinet papers convinced me that Margaret Thatcher was a mere cipher in her own revolution, unaware what the revolutionaries - Howe and Lawson - were planning or why.

Her own rhetoric convinced her later. But at first, she had no idea beyond a vague support for homeowners. The so-called Thatcherite Revolution was misnamed. It also failed in a range of other ways to live up to its own rhetoric.

In one way in particular, as I argued in a blog on the Radix website, it failed to live up to its own convictions: it failed to provide real independence to anyone apart from the very wealthy - though the cascade of mortgage money made it seem otherwise.

This is what I wrote. What do you think?

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Monday, 3 July 2017

Towards a more civilised kind of Brexit

Ignore what you have been hearing in the last few days about Theresa May engineering a Brexit walk-out, a hard Brexit is now politically impossible - because it would mean a border with the Irish Republic, and that is anathema to the DUP.

In fact, paradoxically, the strange general election result makes it a good deal easier to negotiate a Very British Brexit, which - by coincidence - is the title of a report which sets out how by my colleagues at Radix.

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Thursday, 29 June 2017

The court victory against Grayling and the cult of official obfuscation

It is just over a year since the Southern Rail service unravelled completely, after heading more steadily in that direction for some time. And I'm pleased to say that the Association of British Commuters have scored something of a coup in their court action against the Department of Transport.

It isn't exactly an outright victory. The judge ordered Chris Grayling to come up with a report on the state of the franchise within a fortnight, or to face a full-scale judicial review.

It is an important step forward, though not yet a solution. But then one element of their failure to solve the underlying problem is ministers inability to set out honestly what it is. It is so much easier just to blame the unions.

This failure is infuriating in itself. Almost - strange this - more enraging than the failure of the Southern franchise.

This is why I've been thinking about official untruths.

It seems to be a symptom of the endtime of the bundle of economic and political ideas that have dominated for the past four decades, but those in government are forced to lie that much more.

It isn’t necessarily their fault individually. It is just what happens when the bundle of ideas which are supposed to drive the engine of government run dry.

They need to do so to maintain an increasingly stressful fa├žade that everything is fine – that the economy is fuelled by more than debt, that austerity continues to boost the economy, or that a hard Brexit is a pretty neat idea.

It is increasingly difficult to accept in public these small details, which threaten to unravel the big lies they tell each other in government just to get by.


So I thought it might make sense to collect some of the official untruths together. These are in my top ten. What are yours?

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Monday, 26 June 2017

How far was the Gibb Report 'sexed down'?

The story so far, as it turns out. The Department of Transport chose Govia Thameslink to run services to Surrey and Sussex not despite their plans to maintain driver levels at 20 per cent below the level they need to run a reliable service – but because of them.

The result, confirmed in the long-awaited Gibb Report – kept secret by the government for the last six months – has been an increasingly unreliable service.

What Gibb did not say was that, when the service collapsed last summer, the strain on the remaining staff emerged as high levels of sickness which made matters worse.

Nor did the report say that ministers have consistently failed to tell the truth about why the franchise was failing and have been able to blame an industrial dispute – which certainly made matters worse but was as much a symptom of Department of Transport policy, as it was a cause of the disruption.

When people’s lives are being turned upside down, they bitterly resent those who fail to tell them the unvarnished truth, and who maintain the old line. Passengers could see, day by day, what was wrong – but were not trusted with the details. It was for me a fascinating example of how Whitehall gets things horribly wrong, which is why so many seats served by GTR trains wobbled in their support for the Conservatives in the election.

This week sees the start of a new overtime ban by drivers, which – since GTR relies on overtime to run the system effectively – is likely to plunge us back into the horrors of last summer. It also sees the Association of British Commuters in court against the Department of Transport.

But I have now read through the Gibb Report. It is very detailed and fascinating, though not the dynamite that was hoped for. On the other hand, the DoT would not have been the DoT if they had not tried to finesse it a little. Read my conclusions on the Radix website.

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

How hottest June 1976 changed us forever

The one thing I took in from the television news last night was that yesterday was the hottest June day since 1976.

And suddenly it took me back. That was the month I did my A Levels.

In fact, beyond the haze of early adulthood and triumphant release from exams, I remember very little about the summer, which I spent reading a prodigious number of books and drinking rather too much. My grandparent’s pond dried up completely. The government even appointed a drought minister.

But what I do remember is that, in the endless sunshine, the restaurants of London’s West End put their chairs and tables out in the street for the first time. It looked so continental, as if it was the first fruits of the pro-Europe vote in the previous year’s referendum.

They never went away. It was a shock and suddenly the English character – certainly the London character – seemed to have changed completely. Suddenly we were cosmopolitan and outdoors people.

Long may we continue to be.

Incidentally, I also have a post published this morning on Tim Farron’s theology, and how our ignorance of theology is now dangerous on the Radix blog (yes, there is a link: one of my A Levels was Religious Knowledge). I also had a Guardian article yesterday about Vince Cable. Do read!


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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Why ever did we stop worrying about high rise?

A version of this post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Back in the 1829, a strange rumour spread through the London poor that those in workhouses were being fed on the bodies of the dead.

They called it ‘nattomy soup’.

It was a measure of how much the poor felt themselves to be surplus to economic requirements, how much they felt the new utilitarian administrative classes were actively working for their demise.

I was reminded of this when I heard some of the emerging anger of the residents of Grenfell Tower. Nobody melted anyone down deliberately, but there does appear to have been an emerging disdain for the poor from every level of government.

When I began work as a journalist in 1981, the issue of high rise flats were still a hot political issue. The Ronan Point disaster in 1968 had cast a long shadow and anything which smacked of high rise, new or old, was news. Ronan Point and its companion towers were blown up by Newham Council in the 1986s, even before they had been paid for. The waste of high rise flats has been staggering.

I was only ten when Ronan Point collapsed. The immediate cause was a gas explosion. But I remember tracking down the report into the collapse, when I was writing about inner cities twenty years afterwards, and found that the joints in what was a giant system built tower had been packed by the contractors with fluff, newspaper and cigarette ends.

We should probably not jump to any conclusions about the Grenfell Tower fire this week, because we don’t know why it began. But Ronan Point proved the basic problem: the high rise flats were often built by technocrats for the poor. And the technocratic system, though it is based on figures and rigorous numbers, is as careless about poor people’s housing as old-fashioned profiteers. Put the two together, and you can expect problems.

As policy-makers recognised after Ronan Point, but appear now to have forgotten, high rise towers are not good for communities or families. As Simon Jenkins puts it in the Evening Standard after the fire, they are “gated anti-communities”. There are no next-door neighbours in the original sense. Nowhere to play.

So why did they ever get built? Partly because of the politician’s housing numbers game in the early 1960s, when Harold Wilson briefly adopted a 500,000 starts a year target (you might notice that the numbers game was going at full throttle during the general election).

But partly also because of a tacit alliance between shire Tories and inner city socialists, who colluded with each other to make sure the poor stayed put in the inner cities.

That alliance has long since broken down – it was about keeping majorities intact – partly because Labour lost their inner city majorities anyway. But it has been replaced by an intellectual alliance between the technocrats, the architectural establishment and the green lobby.

All of them have been promoting the old idea of high-density, high-rise living for getting on for two decades now. The problem is, because most families don’t want it, that the resulting towers become ghettos for the poor.

The parallel approach is to allow the most wasteful, destructive and dehumanising towers to be built as offices – in days when offices are losing their usefulness. This was the policy pursued by Ken and Boris as London mayors (though Boris promised to reverse it when he was first elected).

Behind this is an argument about densities and even Simon Jenkins baulks at changing his mind on this. Because there is an alternative to high densities, which is to make our cities greener and more humane – to promote concrete depression and mental ill-health a little less than they currently do.

That means fewer people, more gardens, more devolution of power so that the entire population no longer needs to squeeze into the south east. It means a new generation of garden cities designed to provide liveable space for families – with a patch of green and emphatically not twenty storeys up…

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