Saturday, 4 July 2020

Hate versus rage and the problem of history

This post - or a version of it - was first published on the Radix UK blog...

In the week that the banks failed – that strange week in October 2008, where everything seemed to be unravelling – I ventured into the City Business Library, in its familiar, slightly unkempt building off London Wall.

I used to spend quite some time there, when I was writing about the history of money. I remembered it – perhaps wrongly – as a font of hidden knowledge. By 2008, it certainly wasn’t that.

Where were those decades of back issues of obscure American business magazines? Where were those strange 1960s books of business predictions? I asked at the desk and was informed that it was the library’s policy to dispose of most material after three years, and all of it after five years.

It was rather a strange discovery. Wall Street and the City of London had allowed the banking system to collapse because their risk software had little or no memory beyond ten years – barely longer than the business cycle.

Most of those taking day to day decisions about risk in the City were in their twenties and had little memory of the great rises and falls of the market. Their lack of history had hampered their ability to see events for what they really were. Which is why Andrew Simms and I wrote Eminent Corporations, to try and inject a little light history into the corporate world.

I don’t suppose the City Business Library’s decision to bin anything dog-eared contributed to this historical vacuum – it was symptom not cause. Nor was the Blair-Brown government’s strange blindness to history (heritage was one of the only areas of government funding to go down under New Labour), but neither of these can have helped.

Yet the excision of history from business commentary and corporate life – and its replacement by marketing mush – was definitely one of the major causes of the 2008 crash. But I hadn't expected that the political left would also reject history, as they have been doing recently in their war against statues, using Black Lives Matter as their excuse.

I feel myself on the side of the BLM campaigners. But I am disturbed by the assumption that all history - and specifically English history - can be reduced to a one-dimensional parade of cruelties. Including individuals like Nelson, Gladstone and Peel who - though imperfect - have been treated as heroes, and for good reasons, for generations.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to have been caught up in the puritan enthusiasm for removing memorials.

Two things worry me about this particularly. First, because history is what holds us together and makes us who we are: people cling to their pride in it - not because the English were perfect (quite the reverse), but because that whole contradictory complexity is there to help us understand ourselves.

Without a history, people have no rudder. That anyway, according to Hannah Arendt - is one of the roots of fascism.

Second, while you can understand the fury of black people about their past and present in the Americas, I find I am repulsed by the generalised rage released by the so-called 'culture wars'.

It is rage which appears to me to be wholly negative - it is just against things, and simply pro one of those generalised strings of initials. It is the mirror image of Donald Trump's equally projected hate, part of his desperate attempt to win a second term as president (though not of course its moral equivalent).

Where is liberalism in all this one-dimensional tickbox politics? All over the place it seems to me. There is no way the left can win votes while they dismiss our whole history. Or when politically correct language stays what it is now - a way for the articulate middle classes to prevent the working classes from speaking out; they dare not use the wrong language, which constantly changes.

The radical centre seems to me to reject either hate or rage, aware that human life is mainly joyful and loving, though not of course exclusively so. Where it isn't, the solutions are likely to be economic not cultural. We believe in people and their extraordinary abilities. We can't dismiss them as Trump does (as the poor) or as the British establishment does (as the Mob), or as the left does - as potential child molesters, wife-beaters and racists.

This is more urgent an issue than it might seem. Because the culture wars look increasingly like a creation of Trump's. Every southern statue that gets lynched, every new expression of enraged cultural cleansing, and Trump believes he is closer to home.

The danger is that he may be right.

A very good friend has remonstrated with me about this post, and personally I found the opportunity to talk to someone on the other side of the argument about it - without either of us falling back on the usual insults - a massive relief.


He argues that someone could have thrown the epithet 'politically correct' at any new idea - from anti-slavery to CND. He may be right, but then there is something vacuously modern about the idea that all you need to do is to change the language. That would have been pretty incoherent to everyone until about 1972.

Ad there the rgument rests - he is persuading me that PC language is primarily a kind of politeness. I am trying to get him to recognise the underlying snobbery at its heart. 

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Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Goodhart's Law and the multiple covid cock-ups

This post was first published on the Radix UK site...

The speech which gave rise to the law that now bears Professor Charles Goodhart's name was actually called ‘Problems of Monetary Management’. It was a comparatively dry piece of econometrics at a conference called by the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1975, the participants mainly being eminent monetary economists.

In his discussion of the new-fangled doctrine of monetary targeting, Goodhart suggested that ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.’

It seems extraordinary that his self-styled ‘throwaway remark’ on monetary targets should now be in the social theory textbooks as ‘Goodhart’s Law’, and yet it is. But more than that, it has developed into one of those priceless pieces of theory that might be the antidote to the phenomenon I have dubbed 'tickbox'.

The monetary issue seemed a simple one to solve. Everyone seemed to agree that it was. They would focus on measures of monetary growth, and when the money supply began to grow too much, interest rates would rise and gently ease it back down again. The trouble was that it didn’t work.

As he was going through the figures that came across his desk from most countries every month, Goodhart began to notice something peculiar. It didn’t matter which country it was, or which target they chose – the act of establishing a target seemed to change it. Whatever monetary target was chosen, because of its relationship to incomes or inflation, would lose that relationship pretty quickly. It was certainly not what was supposed to happen.

These were the bones of Goodhart’s Law. It was clear that the very act of making one figure a target and paying attention to it changed the behaviour of bankers. They would put in extra effort, or interpret their work in slightly different ways, to please their superiors and to meet the target. It was this quirk of monetary theory that Goodhart pointed out in Sydney in 1975.

If you use a piece of data as a target or as a box that must be ticked, then the data will become inaccurate. That's Goodhart's Law.

Take for example the idea set out in cartoon form by the American cartoonist Zack Weinersmith, which imagines that – through some hideous policy brainwave – all children have to stop studying poetry or the arts and start practising clock-mending, and the number of hours spent mending clocks becomes the target for success among schools. It all seems logical, given that so many top engineers are known to have been keen on taking clocks apart when they were children. But the policy has the reverse effect, as one might expect. ‘Science is dead, engineering is static, humanities are unknown,’ says the penultimate picture. ‘All is clock.’

The final comic picture shows the policy-makers congratulating each other, because ‘according to our clock-based metric, everything is great!’

This little story has not actually come to pass – yet – but it does demonstrate the issue that Goodhart’s Law poses to organisations, especially large or centralised ones. Not only does the target skew everything, so that the original relationship – in this case, the link between great engineers and clock-mending – is no more, but the target then blinds the distant policy-makers to the truth because they have over-simplified the world and perhaps even lost a way to describe what is now missing.

Inspired by the system thinker John Seddon, whose new book Beyond Command and Control was published recently - more on that soon - I have begun to realise just how much of an effect Goodhart's Law has.

It happens subtley as the definitions are tweaked and the top managers delude themselves. It is also becoming clear that the government's copious mistakes with covid may have been largely the result of their ignorance of Goodhart's Law. The latest thoughtful FT piece by Andrew Hill suggests something along these lines.


Perhaps most deressingly, it transpires that ministers fell back on scientists at SAGE who, according to the BBC programme More or Less, were arguing among themselves how fast the virus was doubling the infection rate. So, Goodhart's law being what it is, they chose the most optimistic conclusions - that the UK were four weeks behind Italy when it now seems clear that we were only one week behind.

That is why we failed in the UK to lockdown sooner. Other nations did the semsible thing - Greece and the Indian state of Kerala , without the benefit of advice from the top epidemiologists in the world - and simply shut their borders, and save thousands of lives as a result.


I never criticised the use of data in itself in my book Tickbox, but it looks worryingly as if the people who surround themselves with data and try to use it to take political decisions are likely to be a great deal more deluded than those who don't. If so, we should blame the effects of Goodhart's Law.

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Friday, 12 June 2020

Why are the ruling classes so scared of the mob? It's about Latin.

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

There is quite enough about mobs and mob rule at the moment without me needing to join in. The starting point of this post is the effect this has on governments, and UK governments in particular.

I have written before about the bizarre way in which UK governments, certainly back to the Gordon Riots of 1780, have lived with this underlying fear of the mob - an affliction known as enochophobia.

That manifests itself mainly in the bizarre snobbery which the establishment treats anyone outside itself, whether it is people from country towns in, say, County Durham, or the BAME communities of Bristol. This is what Gladstone meant when he characterised Toryism as "distrust in the people tempered by fear".

I have been thinking about this phenomenon for some time, and particularly its roots in classical education, which regards the Roman world as civilised and the poor old natives of this island as barbarians. I'm not so sure that this was not actually the other way around.

I was first alerted to this idea by Graham Robb’s brilliant book The Ancient Paths, one of a growing number of historians and writers to start rethinking our pre-Roman past. But it was George Jowett’s strange and peculiar book The Drama of the Lost Disciples which got me thinking about Caractacus for the first time.

Jowett died in 1969 after a distinguished career as a boxer, publisher and planner in Canada. But the research behind the book, in the Vatican archives, is an equally important legacy. His argument was that, according to the archives, it wasn’t just Joseph of Arimathea who came to Britain in 38AD, as legend suggests – it was the Virgin Mary and many of the surviving disciples of Jesus who took refuge in Glastonbury that year, joined later by St Peter and St Paul.

Jowett’s plea was that, given that the medieval church recognised this claim by giving British bishops precedence at the great councils of the Church – we ought to take this more seriously. Or at least as seriously as the flawed and compromised memories of Roman writers with axes to grind.

If this was right, Jowett suggested, then it may provide a different interpretation to the Roman invasion five years later. It may also be that Caractacus, as the archives suggest, was not a backward pagan type, but Christian king battling the pagan Romans and desperately trying to hold back their tide of brutality.

So I have written Caractacus’ autobiography as if Jowett was right. As such, I am attempting to strike a small blow against a those generations of positivist scholars who identified with the Romans more than with their forebears defending our homeland – who regarded the invaders as ‘we’, and continue to try to subdue the real spirit of these islands ever since. Caractacus managed to stand alone for nearly nine years against the biggest and most sophisticated army in the known world, after all.

And while we are about it - if anyone out there happens to know where I can find out why it is that English history traditionally starts in 1066 - with the arrival of the ruling class - and why we number our kings from then, despiet there being Edwards on either side of the divide? I would genuinely love to know...

In the meantime, the first part of my Caractacus trilogy (Nor Shall My Sword Sleep) is now published and I am busily writing the second. So comments and suggestions are most welcome...

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Monday, 25 May 2020

The 5G witchhunt and the dangers of tickbox science

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

When my Tickbox book came out, the only vaguely negative review I received on Amazon was from someone who decided that, because I wanted to move the argument forward a little, that I was somehow ‘anti-science’.

I have to say that I’ve been itching to write about tickbox science ever since. Though I fear I may confirm my critic in his prejudices by doing so.

I should say at the outset that, although I have no scientific training, I do have a degree in philosophy and I have always been fascinated by the various interpretations of scientific method.

I understand how science moves forward by demolishing its own arguments, paradigm and theory by paradigm and theory. It therefore makes no sense at all – as the doyens of evidence-based policy suggest – that science is somehow fixed and final. I take tickbox science to mean precisely this:  – that every idea or theory or brainwave needs to be measured against the sum total of published evidence.

This is absurd, especially as published evidence requires that somebody must have taken the decision to fund the original research, and - with the advocates of tickbox science wandering the internet, seeking who they would devour - that can be a dangerous business.

As you may have realised by now, I am tiptoeing worryingly into the 5G controversy.

I am not defending everyone who says that 5G has somehow caused the covid-19 outbreak. It is hard to discern how this could possibly be the case. But I am aware of research which suggests that 5G – because it is pulsed – might compromise people’s immune systems.

Most of those scientists who are nervous about 5G tend to be experts in the medical implications of electro-magnetic fields. It reminds me of the 1970s, when the establishment went after experts in low-level radiation, after evidence that it might be more damaging than high-level radiation over long periods.

This 5G claim is hardly proven, but – after the witchhunt against everyone who steps out of the narrow lines of tickbox science – I can’t see anyone daring to apply for grant funding to prove it one way or the other.

There is the real danger of tickbox science, or tickbox anything, in fact – it closes minds. It makes ideas impossible to express. And that is the very opposite of scientific.

Do I have a bias here? Well, yes I do. I have chronic eczema and I know that 5G is said to affect, not just insects, but human skin. Nor so I see why my skin should suffer just so that my neighbours an get faster downloads of ‘Call of Duty’ or other murderous online abominations.

I admit it. So go on, ban me from Twitter, why don’t you? There are already a range of things you are not allowed to say about 5G on Twitter or Facebook. And there is a Tory MP trying to make it against the law.

So how, without ridicule, should we stop people burning down 5G installations as they appear on our streets?

There really is only one way: we have to restore some trust in official spokespeople (starting perhaps when a prime minister next goes into hospital).

The problem is that, as the most stupid vandal knows, there are some technological developments that are so profitable that nobody is going to dare to say they are unsafe.

That is why it took 50 years from the 1962 Smoking and Health report to ban second-hand smoke. It took a similar time for governments to act on asbestos, though the evidence had been understood since the 1920s.

In those circumtances, there is a complication because nobody dares to do the research, and scientists who apply for the money to do so put their careers on the line.

I remember meeting researchers who dared to suggest that mad cow disease might be dangerous to human beings and they were threatened by the security services. There are big stakes.

But in those days, it was just the establishment versus the truth. There was none of what we have now: a group of self-appointed puritans committed to tickbox science, who want to seek and ridicule anyone who thinks differently. The lineal successors of those who tormented Galileo and Copernicus.
That is about as far from the genuine spirit of science as it is possible to get.

Now, when you get handed your licence to write these blogs (figuratively speaking), they do impress on you the need for policy solutions. How do we restore some trust in the certainties and uncertainties of science? How do we stop both sides from undermining the whole thing?


I would suggest a lay committee, comprising scientists, wonks, philosophers and members of the public, appointed independently of the government to advise on risks. Note the word 'advise', because as Philip Collins put it in The Times last week (£), there is a great deal too much "bogus certainty in the air" - and in the end, these are political decisions.

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Friday, 10 April 2020

Introducing my play, The Party Leader


















I have written four plays before - they range from a full-length play about the Three Day Week in 1973/4 to an invocation to devolution so that my home town of Steyning declares itself independent of the UK - this one performed in the cricket club during the Steyning Festival two summers ago.

I find it hard to write without an element of humour, as my tongue wanders into my cheek. So when the Radix thinktank asked me to write the play The Party Leader, it was obvous it would have a few laughs.

We had recently become the first thinktank to publish a novel, now called Dead Idol by Nick Tyrone. So we felt it made sense - if we were going to use all the different cultural options to make a case for a politics of the radical centre - to commission a radio play.

There was one other moment of ignition: when I was told, in the days when most people of sense appeared to be in the process of launching new centre parties (some more radical than than others), then perhaps they should get the party platform agreed first - and then find a leader, preferably one untainted by the existing political system.

We briedly discussed round the world yachtspeople and actors and actresses and then left the subject - but it stayed with me. What happens, I wondered, if you elected someone so untainted with party politics that you hadn't actually asked them first - and the bones of our play began to become clear in my mind.

In a perfect world, untainted by covid-9, I imagine that we would launch our first radio play sometime in the autumn. But our world may by then be pretty unrecognisable, so it probably made sense to release it now.

Immediately before the lockdown, a group of us - from Steyning again - got together in the home of Malcolm Duke (to whom thanks so much) and recorded it. So thank you also hugely to Deborah Sparkes, and Sue and Geoff Goble, who acted in it - with Malcolm playing a theatrical agent. Then in the last few weeks, Zyg Coombes has pulled it all together brilliantly.


So I present to you: the very first thinktank radio play. It is only 40 minutes long and quite fun, so I thoroughly recommend it... You can hear it here (click on the picture in the post).

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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Ask not what your NHS can do for you - ask what you can do for your NHS



This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...














The late, great Tony Gibson, the pioneer of UK community development, who I knew a little, used to talk about the origins of his vision in Stepney in 1940 – abandoned by the government during the Blitz, their town hall bombed out, when local people managed to organise basic services for themselves to help cope with almost infinite need.

His autobiography Streetwide Worldwide describes how, at the age of 21, in charge of a ten-strong Pacifist Service Unit there – with one steel helmet between them – he managed to find a tie and his father’s briefcase to walk past the queues at the People’s Palace theatre in Commercial Road in to talk to the town clerk .

The overwhelmed council officials had gone there when their office and filing systems had been bombed. Tony found the town clerk desperate to talk to someone and armed him with some of the resources he needed.

This is how I described it in my recent Counterweight pamphlet for the Local Trust:

“One of those who were there, who broke into the locked and shuttered council offices in Stepney borough, and who witnessed the way that the neighbourhood regrouped and organised makeshift police and social services for themselves out of the chaos, was a young Quaker ambulance driver called Tony Gibson. It was his memory of this, and the right people have – when they feel abandoned by those who administer them – to take matters into their own hands, which led to the launch of the ground-breaking unit at Nottingham University, Education for Neighbourhood Change, his influential 1978 Pelican book People Power, and other projects which led to community development, community technical aid, and all the rest…”

I still feel a sense of inspiration from that. Not that I am claiming that people have been abandoned to their fates during the current crisis. But governments have to remember that not only do people have the right to intervene as volunteers, but that – if the need is obvious – they will do.

They also need to know that this community response is absolutely critical to tackling any kind of disaster – as it was when floods overwhelmed the east of England, during a storm in January 1953, which also claimed the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria and over 300 lives.

In fact, the demise of the old voluntary sector since then – often informal and church-based – has in some ways been echoed in recent years by the austerity-driven demise of its successor, formal and lottery-funded.

What we have seen in the last few weeks is not just the recreation of a neighbourhood support structure – including the Lib Dems which have put their local government campaign at the disposal of local communities, chaired by former NCVO director Stuart Etherington – but the building of a new infrastructure which will be there with a bit of luck ready for the next crisis too.

It is also a reminder of the political roots of the radical centre. If the business owners tend to be represented by conservatives, and their workforces by socialists, then the radical centre aspires to represent this other, neglected and forgotten group – the self-employed, sole operators of small businesses and the volunteers.

In fact, it may have been that the Lib Dems never grasped this and went off on a quite different search for a ‘core vote’ that sealed their fate.

But let’s leave that on one side for a moment. By the end of this virus, with a bit of luck, we should have a cadre of volunteers that are integrated into the warp and weft of services, yet out of reach of their hopeless, dysfunctional tickbox systems.

We might then be a little closer to the classic statement of the radical centre that John Kennedy never quite said: “Ask not what your NHS can do for you; ask what you can do for the NHS.”

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

But still not enough to support the self-employed...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. It is a time of excitement and of fear, of enthusiasm and exhaustion, generosity and selfishness. It is a moment for breaking rules; it is an epoch of clinging to tickbox processes.

If I was Charles Dickens, I would probably go on. The key point is that it is an age of paradoxes, and especially when you start to think about the longterm results of this virus shutdown.

In 1939, when we last declared war in this kind of all-embracing way, you might go into shops or any organisation and be told - if you dared to complain about anything - "Don't you know there's a war on?"

I haven't yet been told "Don't you know there's a virus on". But as I try to negotiate my way through Santander's tickbox facility, trying to negotiate myself a mortgage holiday - where the phone directs you to the website and the website directs you back to the phone - I half expect that classic response of the second rate and hidebound.

This is what I mean, and amidst all the bravery and new thinking too. Here are some other long-term trends we might expect:
  1. The return of the boffin. Experts have had a bad press recently, but now there they are flanking the prime minister at his press announcements. It is economists that still require forgiveness.
  2. More local heroes and heroines. And yet the people we will be most grateful to by the end won't be experts at all - they will be engineers hacking ventilators and our neighbours setting up outreach systems or local bookshops heroically staying open, at least by delivering books by bike.
  3. The roaring twenties. Well, that's what happened last time economies were unleashed again.
  4. The return of inflation. And yet - despite the threat of deflation - it seems unlikely that the government will be able to balance the work going on in the economy with the circulation of cash.
  5. A spike in divorces. We have all heard the phrase: "If I'm going to be stuck here with you for the next three months, then you're going to have to..." Christmas leads to divorces and this is like an endless Christmas.
  6. The return of the baby boom. And yet, when people are reunited, we also know what happens. And it will be widely understood, except by the government officials who plan ahead for school places. So expect trouble around 2026.
Perhaps the most interesting question is around which of these economic changes are likely to be permanent - especially given how close to the edge so many companies have become.

I'm not sure anyone will miss the airlines and airports (except the British, of course, who fly more than any nation on earth). The future of food looks set to be local with short supply lines after all. But if the economy was in such a dire situation before, then it may be that some government support for salaries will have to be semi-permanent.

At the moment, these arrangements suffer from two major problems - they are are much too complex to get the money out quickly. Santander isn't the only organisation to keep their tickbox systems in place - and directing the self-employed towards a dodgy and overwhelmed universal benefit system seems doomed. Then there are huge problems with quantitative easing, which we know means even more inequality. It is as if Rishi Sunak didn't mean it when he said that would set aside ideology - except, apparently, the ludicrous pretence that governments don't create money.

It pains me to say it, but Trump was probably right that the way to preserve the economy is to provide what the Japanese call helicopter money for everyone, to fend for themselves and pay basic bills over the next few months. I would suggest that the Bank of England creates about £1,000 per adult per month.

The main question is whether this will put further pressure on the pound. This seems unlikely if the Americans are doing it too. There may be inflationary pressures as a result - given how little work is actually happening in the economy - but those may also counteract the deflationary pressures that are also going on.

If it goes just to self-employed people and sole traders who employ themselves (I have to declare an interest here), it would mean an injection of £10-£20 billion a month, probably directly via the tax system. Speed counts - nobody has time for tickbox any more.

It may be that they need to increase income tax temporarily by 1p in the pound to take it out of the economy again.

Alternatively, we have to innovate along similar lines, using a parallel digital currency along the lines of the recent scotpound proposals by the New Economics Foundation.


They great advanatge for these is that they are simpler to administer and very much faster to get into people's hands that the tickbox ways the government is proposing.

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