Thursday, 30 July 2015

The day they captured an Enigma machine

It was the morning of 9 May 1941 south of Iceland. The commander of U110, Fritz-Julius Lemp had fired four torpedoes into the convoy in quick succession.

There had been an audible explosion in the distance echoing through the icy sea, but there was also an immediate problem. The fourth torpedo had failed to leave the tube. Sea water had been pumped into the tube ready to fire, but it had failed to shoot out again with a burst of compressed air as it should have done. Consequently the submarine was now too heavy at the bows and Lemp began to lose control.

There was a short struggle to rebalance the trim and, when Lemp was finally satisfied and his crew breathed a sigh of relief, there was the warning throb of a warship coming straight towards them.

Lemp ordered U110 to dive and they could hear the terrifying and literally deafening roar of depth charges exploding all around them.

Silence at last. The crew looked for reassurance from Lemp, who was leaning theatrically against a periscope. “It’s OK,” he said. “We’re all going to be fine. You don’t think I’m going to let them catch me and shoot me, do you?”

It was a reference to the Athenia sinking eighteen months before, a Cunard liner sunk without warning on the first day of the war, and it was the kind of robust humour that was called for at this nervous moment.

Then the reports began coming into the control room. They weren’t good. The rudders were damaged. The batteries were giving off poisonous chlorine fumes, which they did in contact with water. The wheel that was used to blow the ballast tanks had come off. The depth meters had failed.

The engineer Hans-Joachim Eichelborn struggled quickly to fit new pressure gauges to the main cooling water pipes for the diesel engines, so he knew they were not actually sinking, but there was the noise of pressurised air escaping from somewhere. If they ever wanted to get to the surface, they would have to blow the tanks soon. The deciding factor was discovering that one of the propeller shafts had bent. It was clear they had no choice. They had to surface.

“We must wait and see what happens,” said Lemp quietly. “I want you all now to think of home, or something beautiful.”

It was a terrifying moment. The crew waited for the pressures on the hull to increase until it crushed them and the sea water rushed in as they sank to the depths of the Atlantic. Instead, there was a surprise. Suddenly, the boat was rocking. They must be on the surface after all. “Last stop!” shouted Lemp, like a bus conductor. “Everybody out!”

From the bridge of the destroyer Bulldog, they could see U110 on the surface dead ahead and the convoy commander Joe Baker-Cresswell ordered his engine room to increase speed to ram. As they got closer it was clear that the crew were on the deck and he put Bulldog’s engines into reverse to come alongside. Then there was a moment of indecision: were the crew actually clustering around the gun? Bulldog opened fire again with a machine gun until Baker-Cresswell confirmed that the crew were actually jumping into the water.

The scene on deck of U110 was almost as terrifying as it had been under water. Two warships were making fast towards them – the destroyers Bulldog and Broadway – and they were shooting. Shells and bullets were flying overhead. The journalist on board, Helmut Ecke, wrote later that he saw a man’s head blown to pieces next to him. He leapt into the water forgetting that his lifejacket had not yet been inflated. 

 Then came the crucial moment. The radio operator, Högel, climbed up the conning tower and asked Lemp if he should destroy the codebooks and Enigma machine. “The U-boat is sinking!” shouted Lemp. He went back inside to get the codebooks, but remembered his own notebooks and poetry for his girlfriend and got them instead.

Lemp and his first lieutenant, Dietrich Loewe, made sure than the vents had been opened and jumped into the sea themselves, the last to leave. It was only when they were halfway between U110 and Bulldog that it became clear that something was not right. The submarine was not actually sinking after all, at least not nearly so fast. Lemp shouted that they should go back, but a wave swept Loewe away and instead he made for Bulldog.

What happened to Lemp has never been clear. The British side suggests that he was never seen again. The German side suggests that he was shot before he could reboard his submarine. There are no eye-witness accounts either way. 

On board Bulldog, the same thought was also dawning on Baker-Cresswell – the U-boat next to him was not actually sinking. “By God!” he said on Bulldog’s bridge. “We'll do a Magdeburg!" Magdeburg had been a German cruiser, captured by the Russians in 1914 with codebooks intact. It was an enticing prospect.

Could they reach the submarine before it sank and take possession of the Enigma machine along with the codebooks with it? Could they change the balance of the Battle of the Atlantic? 

Find out in my new ebook Operation Primrose: U110, the Bismarck and the Enigma Code, a companion e-volume to my book about Alan Turing – attempting to set the Enigma breakthrough into some kind of context (and it only costs £1.99!)

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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Cameron's big Lords misunderstanding

I am now 57 and feel too old to act like an Incredible Hulk, politically of course.  When that old despair and rage returns about the way my own government is behaving, my main feeling is exhaustion.  It saps the strength.

If I've occasionally seemed too much of a compromiser, here is my excuse. I feel I need to understand why decisions are taken, why officials don't understand, how we might in practice move things forward.

I'm not saying that everyone should share this, just that for me, personally, now, I'm no longer prepared just to campaign fruitlessly against things. I want to be part of making things happen.  That's why I wrote the book People Powered Prosperity: it was an honest attempt to break a logjam.

The last time I just felt furious was about the Blair-Brown approach to public services, and their determination to force me to carry an ID card. That was back in 2009.

It wasn't that I agreed with everything the coalition did - far from it (and the decision to build a new nuclear power station was pretty infuriating, but seems likely to cost so much that it won't ever happen). But I understood why the decisions had been taken in the way they had.  So for five years, I've been blissfully rage free.

So I've found the last week exhausting.  First there was the battery of wrong-headed decisions to end the progress made by the coalition on low carbon technologies - selling the Green Investment Bank, ending support for solar, closing down the low carbon homes initiative, wasting the resources of all the companies which had invested in it.

Then there was the perverse decision to overturn the ban on neonicotinoids in pesticides, which appear to be behind the death of bees. The Labour Party has less important matters on its mind, but I hope some parliamentarian will demand to see the suppressed minutes of the government's advisors - I hope a campaign group can challenge the decision in the courts. I know Parliament is in recess - that is why they made the announcement now - but this one should be winnable with sufficient opposition energy.

But I must say what really sent me into a fulminating spin of rage this afternoon was hearing David Cameron's answer about House of Lords reform, taken from his speech yesterday in Singapore. He was explaining that he intended to increase the number of Conservative peers:

“I'm not proposing to get there in one go. It is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons."

We know that Conservatives failed to keep their end of the coalition agreement to bring in some kind of democratic element to the Lords. In the absence of that, then the Lords certainly does need to be politically balanced.  But if the objective is to make it reflect the dysfunctional and undemocratic electoral system in the Commons, that simply compounds one injustice on another.

I accept, of course, that Lib Dems may now be quite well represented. But is Cameron intending to open the doors to Ukip or Green peers to reflect the number of people who voted for them?

The only justification for a second revising house is that it isn't a clone of the Commons. In those circumstances, what's the point?

As I raged to myself about this during the afternoon, I realised that this is not just a Conservative error, it is a utilitarian error often made by Labour too - to mistake the counting system for reality.

We have a bizarre democratic scoring system for electing governments. Perhaps it might be possible to accept the result, under certain circumstances, because it is at least a traditional method of election. But to fall into the trap of believing the perverse result of the election actually reflected the way people think is the same kind of boneheaded utilitarianism that New Labour used for its target system.

I remember hearing about a room under Labour at the Department for Education, set out like a dashboard, filled with information from targets and league tables pouring in from all over the nation - and encouraging a technocratic fantasy that the figures represented reality.

I happened to know one teaching assistant at the time in a school that was shooting up the leagues.  Her teacher had spent the whole term hiding in the stationary cupboard.

Which is a way of saying the following. We are not machines. Human objectives are complex and multi-faceted.  There are shades of black and white. The growth figures are not the economy. The target figures are not the hospitals. And the general election voting figures are not the only democratic blueprint.

When you think they are, it isn't just democracy that is undermined. The language is impoverished and we find ourselves in a narrowed universe, unable to see truths that were obvious to previous generations.

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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The three problems with Corbynomics

My time for Labour MP Graham Stringer's conspiracy theory about the Labour leadership rather expired when he said there were Lib Dems joining his party to prevent Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader. In my experience, most Lib Dems I know find Corbyn's campaign rather a refreshing change.

I realise that contradicts the world view of many of the stodgy Labour Party types who are some miles from understanding their Liberal opponents. But so it is. Corbyn is offering an alternative, and it is about time somebody did.

But is it a forward-looking alternative or a backward-looking one? Well, spurred on by James Graham, I read his economics document and listened to his interview with Andrew Marr - and I think I agree with James.  The problem with Corbyn's economics is:

"His solution to everything is state centralisation."

It is fascinating and exciting that someone has managed to break the Labour blancmange but there are difficulties with an economic policy that claims to be about 'rebalancing' but is actually deeply conservative. So here are my three problems with Corbynomics:

1. Where are the mutuals? There is very little about transformative new structures of enterprise like mutuals, especially those which can be genuinely innovative running public services.

2. Where is the local lending?  The idea of a national infrastructure bank, spending money created by the Bank of England, is a sound one - but it doesn't solve the problem about how that money filters down to the entrepreneurs at local level because that requires access to local risk information. It makes precisely the same mistake as the coalition, assuming that - if they provided money to the big banks and told them to lend it to SMEs - they would be able to do so. In fact, as it proved, the banks had long since abandoned their own local structures and were consequently unable to lend the money effectively.

3.  Who is the community? Corbyn claimed in one sentence that "the state, the government, the community" were all one and the same. This is precisely the mistake that state socialists have made throughout - they can't see the distinction between the Man in Whitehall, the ministers who instruct them, and you and me. Here is the basis of a new kind of tyranny: The People have spoken, and we must do their bidding.

A nervous shiver ran down my spine when I heard that he wanted to re-nationalise energy production.  Because, of all the institutions that have disappeared over recent decades, I go down my my knees to thank providence that we don't any more have to contend with the old Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB).

I remember the futurist Francis Kinsman describing an encounter with one of their managers after a talk he gave on the rise of the ‘inner-directed’ approach to life – those people who put independence, health and self-improvement above keeping up with the Joneses.

While much of the discussion had been about the benefits to business of independence of mind, the CEGB manager took him aside afterwards to ask how they could recognise inner-directed people on the payroll.

It transpired that his interest was not to promote them, or get ideas from them, but so that they could weed them out.

Let’s face it, only centralised bureaucracies on a truly Soviet scale – buttressed by centralised assumptions – could have succeeded in producing the staggering waste, delay, expense and secrecy of the British nuclear industry over the past half century.

This is not to suggest that the current oligopoly is much of an improvement, but don't let's leap out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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Monday, 27 July 2015

The Conservatives turn against business

The bizarre news stories yesterday morning about entryism into the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn as leader convinces me of at least three things.

First, the Labour Party doesn't trust its own members. Second, the disappearance of their ideological foundations and purpose - some decades ago now - could mean that Labour might go in almost any direction.  Third, we are in one of those peculiar periods when party positions are seriously in flux.

We have Ukip and the Greens - sleeping at the moment - but poised to divide Labour support between them once they come back to life. We have Labour about to divide into two, or possibly three. But the potential shift that nobody really seems to be talking about is the strange way that the Conservative Party is turning against its traditional allies in business.

Joe Zammit-Lucia and I talked about this as a practical possibility before the election in our pamphlet A Radical Politics for Business here.  

We argued that the old relationship between business and conservatism has now broken. Business wants openness to ideas. They want open borders. They want long-term thinking, not the insane short-termism of the political world. They increasingly want education that promotes practical vocations, rather than suppressing them. They want schooling that looks beyond basic skills – important as they are – and which trains people to be entrepreneurial and creative, not just trains them to mind machinery.

None of those attitudes are offered by the current Conservative Party and, although some vestiges of the coalition attitudes remain in the current government, the evidence seems to be that they are prepared to undermine business to make an ideological point.

Why otherwise would you torpedo the progress of a new industry that is hugely important, not just for our own future, but for UK exports? The support for solar and wind was for a specific objective and for a limited period. Yet it has gone.

It can't really be about cutting energy bills because the other measure designed to cut people's energy bills - the low carbon homes initiative - has also been scrapped, to the horror of the volume housebuilders which have been gearing up for it.  

Nor has Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is set to seriously increase bills for the foreseeable future, yet been cancelled - though it seems likely that it will be.

The damage to solar energy is limited. The cuts are regarded as necessary because solar is now so popular that it has exceeded the money set aside by the coalition.  It may well be that, for other reasons, solar will carry on growing - but what an opportunity to lead the world missed.

I'm not sure also that the perverse decision - which I hope will be challenged in the courts - to lift the ban on bee-killing chemical neonicotinoids falls into the same category. It is a direct threat to the emerging local food and organics sector.

What appears to be happening is that the government has taken against a number of new industries, rather as the Labour Party used to do in the 1970s, and is quite happy to torpedo those investors and undermine confidence in them if they can.

It will take some time for this to be clear one way or another. It will take even longer for it to be widely recognised, though the euro referendum will provide an opportunity to bring this shift to the forefront of people's minds. But the implications for politics are important - because it may be that business will once again be represented most successfully by a left of centre political force, dedicated to small enterprise, entrepreneurs and setting business free to challenge monopolies.

That sounds unlikely, but that was the case throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and it could be again. The question is whether Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron will be the one who can rise to the occasion.

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Thursday, 23 July 2015

See you tonight to talk about Englishness

There was such an interesting article in Saturday's Guardian - alright, I admit it, it was written by me - listing five key aspects of English culture which are not English in origin.

But what really struck me were the responses. Within a few hours, there were more than 700 furious comments at the bottom of it from readers, variously accusing me and each other of various aspects of xenophobia or treason.

Of course, below the line in the Guardian is a frightening place, where monsters lurk. If you took all the comments about your articles written there too seriously you would quickly go insane. But it made me realise what a controversial subject this is.

One early comment put it like this, and clearly having known enough about me to guess my political affiliation:

"You can never win with liberals. If you take pride in your own culture, you are derided as being 'insular'. If that culture has enriched itself through aculturalisation, then they tell you it doesnt belong to you. In the next breath, they are lauding other cultures and defending some particular facet or other of it. In short they are reverse bigots and petty minded xenophiles. And then they wonder why their political representatives are rejected..."

That is clearly the first time I have ever been called a 'petty-minded xenophile', obviously from the UKIP satchel of minor insults.

I have been wondering why this should be so controversial. I couldn't have written How to be English unless I loved my own culture, but I suppose I am up against misunderstandings from two sides:

1. The right-wing obsession with purity, as if Englishness was either one thing or another, and as if every tradition must be unsullied by corruption from outside these islands.

2. The left-wing obsession with deconstruction, as if nothing - absolutely nothing - can be taken seriously because it is all an agglomeration.

I'm on the absolutely opposite side. English culture is wonderful because you can see its history in every twist and turn. It is gnarled and deep and confusing, and attracts the flotsam and jetsom from around the world and makes them its own. Nothing about that is critical. Quite the reverse.

One of those who left their comment who did understand this quoted Billy Bragg's song along similar lines, called 'English half English':

My mother was half English and I'm half English too
I'm a great big bundle of culture, tied up in the red white and blue
I'm a fine example of your Essex man
And I'm well familiar with the Hindustan
'Cause my neighbors are half English and I'm half English too

My breakfast was half English and so am I, you know
I had a plate of Marmite soldiers, washed down with a cappuccino
And I have a veggie curry about once a week
The next day I fry it up as bubble and squeak
'Cause my appetites, half English and I'm half English too

Well, I'm also half English... But if you would like to talk about these issues some more, especially the lighter side of them, I'm talking tonight on 23 July, at the Steyning Bookshop.... See you there!

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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Services could conceivably be cheaper - but not the Osborne way

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that I am a great admirer of the systems thinker John Seddon.

He remains a controversial, even embattled figure, but I'm sorry he is no longer writing his furious e-newsletter about public services. I suppose, if you have not been well, it makes sense to calm down a little. But it always raised the blood pressure to read it; goodness knows what it must have been like to write it.

Seddon's great insight is the existence, in any system, of what he called 'failure demand' - the avoidable pressure that comes from its failures to be effective, or failures elsewhere in the system.  See his latest book about the profound implications this has for services.

The key to saving money is therefore to find out where the failure demand is coming from and to put it right.

But here is the snag. Saving money is paradoxical in the Seddon world. It's a bit like friendship - you can't do it directly.  If you can get rid of failure demand, by studying the system as a whole, and find ways of tackling it, then you can save quite large sums. If you start by trying to save money - putting IT systems in place, merging services across geographical boundaries - then the failure demand tends to rise.

What tends to happen is that the minority of cases that are not amenable to digital solutions then start banging about trying to find someone to help them, and every time they get failed they create more costs.

That is the fate of most money-saving attempts in public services, but it is also a source of hope. It means that costs could be brought down, if Whitehall understood the way services worked as a whole.

All of which is a way of saying that George Osborne's attempts to cut 25 per cent off public spending in some departments might be possible - but. if he goes about it in the way he seems to be, it will cost more money in the long-run.

It can't be done by asking Whitehall to propose 40 per cent cuts, which is a recipe for sclerosis and a boneheaded failure to see the system as a whole. Under the current set-up, it will mean that most of the cuts fall in practice on social care - which is uncivilised and will cause knock-on costs in the NHS.

This is what he needs to do instead:

1.  Scrap the vastly expensive white elephant projects (Hinckley Point springs to mind).

2.  Launch simultaneous studies into failure demand in the major services, including the NHS - if you can really improve services by reducing costs, as he says, why exclude the NHS?

3.  Give the services the time to innovate in a major way, and discourage lazy percentage cuts.

4.  Launch an initiative to turbo-charge the involvement of frontline staff in making services more effective, as Al Gore did as US vice-president. More of this later...

The truth is that, to really reduce costs, the government will have to row back from the disastrous public service policies of the Blair-Brown years, which concreted in costs in ways that Seddon has outlined.  They still haven't done that. The only way to cut costs is to develop flexible, integrated systems which can tackle people's problems or requirements once and, as far as possible, once only.

The way to lower costs is therefore not narrow efficiency, it is higher effectiveness. That requires thinking and innovation. It requires the involvement of people receiving public services in their delivery, and it requires a major devolution of power to the front line.

What isn't going to work, paradoxically, is an attempt to look at the balance sheet and shave bits off. Osborne needs to go beyond bleeding the patient.

More on some of these in my book The Human Element.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Farron is stronger with his faith than without it

There is a kind of boneheaded Englishness, usually but not always Conservative, that believes someone's faith makes them a potential enemy within - that they somehow can't help being committed to other nations or ethics or moralities. That they are therefore not quite 'one of us', at least not to be trusted with political office.

It tends to go along with another English peculiarity, a strange and basically ignorant belief that the teachings of the Christian faith are mainly about homosexuality.

Actually, the condemnation of homosexuality is so central to Christianity that Jesus doesn't mention it once in any of the gospels.

Through the centuries, the English have returned over and over again to these themes. For some time it was felt that Roman Catholics must have their basic allegiance elsewhere - to the king of Spain, the Pope or some combination of the two.

Then, in the twentieth century, similar things were said about Jews: they must - or so it was said - owe their basic allegiance to the state of Israel.

These days, you usually hear this kind of nonsense spouted by crusty English establishment types about Muslims. Or by Guardian-reading 'evidence-based' types about people who describe themselves as Christians - again, the whole implication is that there must be some tyrannical hidden agenda, some secret allegiance elsewhere.

Tim Farron, the new Lib Dem leader, had to face this line of questioning over and over again from the media during his first weekend in office, and did so with his dignity intact. And I, for one, respect him enormously for it.

It is true that there are strands of illiberal socialism and conservatism which see no distinction between morality and policy. Who only have to disapprove of something to want to legislate against it (or, in the case of Tony Blair, to bomb it).  Liberals, it seems to me, are able to distinguish relatively easily between morality and public policy.  Not just their own conscience, but there is a difference between objective morality and policy too.  If we start trying to legislate against everything we believe is wrong, we will live in a tyranny.

When Bill Clinton famously closed down the abortion issue in 1992 in the US presidential election, he said he wanted it to be "legal, safe and rare", but did he get cross-questioned about why he wasn't urging more abortions? No, but I fear he would have done in the UK, where religious faith remains a source of suspicion - just as it did back in the days of the Tudors.

Why is this an English obsession? It is true that I may think this because my book How to be English is published this week and I find myself obsessed with the topic. But actually, I think there is a connection - there is a streak of puritanism which runs deep in these islands.

I don't mean puritanism as purely religious. English puritanism remains a kind of extreme protestantism, but it has moved its position since those days.  Once they used to smash stained glass windows or cut down maypoles and close theatres. These days, they rage at against anyone who believes anything beyond what can be verified by five senses - worse, it is their five senses that has to do the verification. This is puritanism reborn as a kind of narrow positivism.

Yes, my understanding of Dawkins is that he is an extreme protestant, so disapproving of spirituality that he has become an atheist. It is the logical conclusion of puritanism, in my humble opinion. It is the latest manifestation of the traditional English fear of priestcraft and mumbo-jumbo.

The kind of narrow empiricism it is based on is another seventeenth century idea, and it is getting a little frayed.  But I expect it will live on here long after it has bitten the dust everywhere else.

I am personally glad that the Lib Dems are led by someone who has some spiritual belief, some sense that this isn't all there is.  And since 77 per cent in the UK describe themselves as ‘religious’, it makes sense for aspiring political leaders to share some idea of what they mean.

Certainly, if there is a future for the left in the UK, we are not going to find it by withdrawing into a small cult of puritans, disapproving of everyone's spiritual beliefs and congratulating ourselves for being so 'evidence-based'.

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