Friday, 24 June 2016

Reasons not to despair yet

Well. My first reaction when I woke in the night and heard the news was a rather cowardly thought that I should take down the blog post I put up yesterday afternoon.  Certainly, as far as predictions are concerned, I ought to hand in my blogging licence.

I leave it up as a testament to my own - what? Stupidity? Naivety? Not sure. Either way, it stays.

And one reason I want it to stay up is that I have a feeling that, within it somewhere, there are the seeds of a more enlightened interpretation of the referendum result.

So let's leave aside the worries that Marine Le Pen has congratulated the British. And let's not blame Jean-Claude Juncker for his boneheaded "no more reform" on the eve of the poll (Brussels has a great deal to answer for, after all). We can leave all that for another day.

There are three reasons for stepping back from abject despair this morning.

1.  History. If you look at English history, there are moments - over and over again - when we break from mainstream continental institutions, perhaps most notably when Henry VIII broke with the Pope and went on to privatise the welfare system (dissolve the monasteries). When we sent Philip of Spain's advisors packing from London when Queen Mary died (his wife) in 1558.

When we broke with the French in 1940, largely because they rejected Churchill's call for a merger between our nations - the real, spiritual beginning of the EU - it was also greeted with relief back home.

We similarly rejected cultural unity in broadcasting in 1945, despite winning the wireless war, as I describe in my book V for Victory.

Paradoxically, we don't look back on those moments as national disasters, though they may have seemed so at the time.

2. The paradoxical nature of political change. This is what William Morris wrote in A Dream of John Ball about the grammar of change:

"I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name."

That is the way politics works. When you win, you turn out to lose and vice versa. If the business of Brexit turns out to be a disaster, even just in the next few days, then those who engineered it will pay the price - made to pay, even by those who voted for it and shouted "Traitor!" at their opponents in the street.

3. The signal for the big economic shift. This has been, says Giles Wilkes, the most concrete political reaction to the 2008 banking crisis (though financial speculators seem to be doing pretty well out of it). I think that is true.

I have been blogging for some time about the next big economic model shift, which arrive pretty regularly every 35-40 years. The last one was 1979, so I had been wondering what kind of shock was likely to precipitate the next one. Now we know.

Especially now that the Daily Mail has turned its rage onto the speculators. It seems insane that we should vote for self-determination from political interference but not from economic.

It may be painful, even frightening, but by the end of this process I believe we will have a new economic dispensation which accepts that the benefits of economic success can and must spread to those involved in it - not through the welfare system, but directly in the way economics works. Of course, we will have to wrestle for that, but that is my interpretation of what the vote means.


So there we are. Three takes on the emerging crisis which lead me to be less despairing. But let me explain why. 

Because the geography of Brexit is pretty clear, even just to the Lib Dems (the party's new heartlands voted to Remain and its old heartlands to Leave).

Because I have a gut sense that the future belongs to those who interpret this result in the most noble, positive and liberal way - to those who understand that it is not a vote to close us down or cut us off. People will listen to those who grasp this as a revelation of people's higher motivations. For a fairer nation.

I'm a Liberal as well as a liberal and I hope that Tim Farron will move on, see beyond the specific institutions involved and articulate the new liberal world.

See my book on the Southern Railways disaster too, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Thursday, 23 June 2016

Plutocrats versus racists

I am definitely pro-European. I am a Liberal, and I will vote for Remain when I get home. Bloggers are supposed to predict, and I predict - and have always predicted - that Remain will win by a clear margin.

I was buttressed in this idea by the unexpected cheering of Vince Cable by my neighbours when I interviewed him for the Steyning Festival. They responded to his invocation to vote for the interests of our grandchildren with startling acclamation.

But I fear this blog post should finally torpedo hopes of preferment among my fellow Liberals, because I must admit that - as the prospects of a Remain victory grows - I have been beset by Doubts.

These wobbles have been growing in recent days and I've found myself floating unnervingly. This is a new experience for me. They could pin a Lib Dem rosette on a pig and I would vote for it (and have done many times, come to think of it). Yet here I am swayed backwards and forwards by the last person I listen to on the Today programme.

The reason I will vote for Remain has always been the same. History suggests that, without some kind of shared framework, Europe rapidly unravels into war. I have two sons: I don't want them to have to fight. But I'm equally aware that the shared framework, whether it is the EU or the Roman Catholic Church, grates and frustrates the English.

There is also the small consideration that, if I find myself voting the same way as Nigel and Boris, I am probably wrong. This is hardly a positive affirmation.

My doubts have been about the unspoken, unaddressed flaw in the Remain side, exemplified by the public letter yesterday from some of the biggest companies in the country, including the chief executive of Barclays. I feel nervous about simply voting to endorse the status quo. I still do.

I am nervous about falling into step behind Barclays and the City, simply because it is easier to import cheap foreign labour than it is to solve the basic inequalities and cultural issues that prevent us using our own population effectively.

I am all for freedom of movement, after all. I'm not in favour of a rootless world where people have to move.

Because if behind the Leave side is the unpleasant whiff of racism, then behind the Remain side is the whiff of plutocracy.

That is not such an unfamiliar choice. In fact, it was the choice before the nation in 1939, as set out by William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) in his book Twilight Over England. As everyone knows, he chose racism (more on Joyce in my book about the wireless war V for Victory).

There was a hint of this also yesterday when Michael Gove rejected the idea that the financial markets should decide the future of the nation, with a little swipe at Goldman Sachs.

This is the great unarticulated case for Leave. It is worth considering why they have failed to use it clearly, and I think it is because frontline politicians like Gove have so little time to think, and are so insulated from the ferment of ideas, that they have not thought these arguments through as they could have done. So insulated too from the struggles of ordinary people.

They have put forward no proposals about a different way of organising trade, as they could have done. No proposals actually for taming the financial markets. No coherent case against plutocracy.

Because of that, they will lose. But racism can run a close race with plutocracy, and these are nervous moments. I only wish I could vote with some enthusiasm.

If Leave wins, then the fault will be in the intransigence of the EU leaders, who failed to heed Cameron's plea for help with the flexibility that Europe needs.

If Remain wins, and I believe they will, then we have to take on some of the concerns of those who voted to leave. When that number of people are worried about something, then our own future depends on some accommodation.

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Monday, 20 June 2016

The truth at last about the Southern Rail disaster

First, an explanation. Ten days ago, I posted a blog about the peculiar meltdown of the Southern Railways franchise. By the following week, it was being read at the rate of 3,000 people an hour.

I have to admit this rather scared me. I also wrote an open letter to the chief executive of Southern's operators, Govia Thameslink Railway. Between the two posts, there were just over 100,000 views.

This was a measure partly of how many people were desperate at the delays, and how little it was being covered in the wider media. I since took them down again, not because I disagreed with them but because they were not accurate enough.

Because, as a result of the attention, the messages had started to arrive. I had texts, emails and tweets, some long and detailed, some short and emotional, from passengers, drivers and platform staff. I had short messages full of swearwords. I had long messages from company chairmen, sitting on motionless trains outside Clapham Junction, explaining that – as far as they could see – Southern Railways was unravelling before their very eyes.

I had messages from Southern staff who had resigned that day, from desperate people in wheelchairs who were unable to get on and off. In short, I had a huge repository of information.

I have been attempting, in a very small way, to reinvent publishing by starting an ebook enterprise and publishing print-on-demand paperbacks (The Real Press) with the idea that we could be much more flexible and fast than the year long wait for books from big publishers. 

This seemed to me to be a challenge to me personally. So over the past seven days, I have researched, written and published a short book about the Southern Rail unravelling.

I hope, and believe, that it is the truth - and that's a difficult thing to understand. What I found was surprising and disturbing, and I believe it has important implications for other public services managed in the same way.

So Cancelled! is now published as an ebook at £1.99. It is also now out as a paperback. I'm giving 10p from every sale to the Railway Benefit Fund, as a small gesture towards the brave, resourceful and put-upon railwaypeople I have met in the last few, exhausting days.

It is extremely hard to uncover the truth when government ministers seem determined that it should be otherwise - especially when this is the aftermath of an industrial dispute (and those are about as easy to understand by outsiders as divorces). But I have tried and - it seems to me - that we with no democratic and no economic influence over the services we use (Southern don't keep the ticket money or pay out the delay refunds), have to find better ways of making a stand and making things happen.

I hope Cancelled! can be a first step towards doing so.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Getting to grips with the mystery of Southern Railways

I have to admit that I've been a little blown away. I've been blogging for some years now and, even when I was doing it every day, I never had a response anything like the last post I wrote about Southern Railways and privatisation.

It reached a peak last night of 3,000 people reading it in an hour - that's over 30,000 now since Friday. This is gratifying but also, if I'm honest, a little frightening.

What I've done is to write an open letter to the chief executive of Southern's operating company, GTR. You can read it on the blog of the New Weather Institute.

The second thing to say is that I've had the most extraordinary set of replies, including many from Southern staff. Here are parts of three of them and you will see what I mean when I talk about 'mystery':

This is from a crew member: “Trains are being cancelled at an alarming rate despite train crew (driver and guard) being in place and booked to work the trains. This is happening dozens of times per day! I know because it has happened to me: turn up ready and willing to work the train only to be told it has been cancelled due to no train crew.”

This one from a commuter: “The biggest evil of it all is that the so called ‘GTR’ is a ghost. We can neither see nor touch them. And this they know. The staff are being used as a blooded shield, intentionally bashed about time and time again.”

This from an employee:
“Not forgetting of course the platform staff, trying to maintain a service where trains suddenly get cancelled with hundreds of extra people dumped on a platform, no staff to move the train so it’s blocking a platform, and the lack of ‘on the spot’ managers who can make decisions and the lack of information from Control, who don’t seem to know what is going on either because they have to try and work out what to do – all the while staff trying to answer customer queries about how to get to where they’re going and being shouted at by customers who are being fed the ‘sickness’ lie.”

Among the many issues that still confuse me are these two:

1.  If there is a staff shortage, why are Southern not recruiting. See their vacancies page. Or is there some kind of assumption that things will just get better with no action from them?

2.  Why have I had now three messages from train crews which confirm that they have been arriving, as contracted, to take out trains only to be told that they have been cancelled, because there were no train crews.

I have gone some way towards answering these questions and written a short book to do so. It is now published on Amazon as an ebook (£1.99 of which 10p for every copy goes to the Railway Benefits Fund). There will shortly also be a paperback...

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Thursday, 9 June 2016

The real reason Southern Rail services have imploded

“The thing is, I don’t believe this stuff about staff shortages.”

That is what I said, and it doesn’t sound like a magic phrase, but it was as if I had said ‘open sesame’. I had gone to a different station to usual, and the conversation with the member of the station staff went like this.

I had asked why there were no trains on their running timetable to London. It was odd, even by the low standards of Southern Rail, to have them take the trains they couldn’t run off the timetable altogether. Usually, they just mark them as having been cancelled.

“Well,” she said. “It’s still the problem with staff shortages.”

It was then that I finally expressed my disbelief. It wasn’t until I said it that I realised how very little I did believe in the train company’s standard excuse. I mean, only few weeks ago, Southern Rail was claiming it was unprecedented sickness amongst the train crew. Now they appeared to be saying the train crew didn’t exist at all.

And in any case, why should any competent company experience a sudden, prolonged and catastrophic staff shortage, immediately after the short train strike in April, that prevents them from running a large chunk of the trains they are contracted to run?

“You’re right,” she said. “It isn’t true.”

“So what is the truth?” I said hopefully.

“I can’t tell you that because I would be sacked.”

I had to ask a number of other staff members to find out – and I had the chance to see a number of them yesterday because it was such a struggle getting to London (there are supposed to be two direct trains every hour).

The trouble is that their roster system relies on overtime. Without overtime, they can’t run the train service that people rely on. The result, as anyone unfortunate enough to live on the south coast at the moment, has been absolute chaos – a wholly unreliable service which at weekends becomes dangerously overcrowded. Sarah had to climb over a table to get off the train late on Sunday night because it was so full of passengers who had been let down time and time again by cancelled trains...

I have gone some way towards answering these questions and written a short book to do so. It is now published on Amazon as an ebook (£1.99 of which 10p for every copy goes to the Railway Benefits Fund). It is also now out as a paperback. It's a surprising read and you can have the added advantage of really annoying Southern Rail by reading it!

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Monday, 6 June 2016

The V campaign: when Britain spoke confidently to continental Europe

Today (6 June) marks the 75th anniversary of an important moment in the history of British relations with Europe - a moment when the UK spoke confidently, and without complex spin, to the people of the continent. And were listened to with trust.

Just after 11pm, on 6 June 1941, the BBC's European Service English language network broadcast the first programme in their V for Victory campaign. The speaker announced himself as Colonel Britton, and his identity was a closely guarded secret for the rest of the war. He was actually Douglas Ritchie, the BBC deputy European news editor, and the broadcasts were his idea.

For nearly a year, Colonel Britton broadcast into what was then, in effect, the silence of occupied Europe - there was at that stage no sign of a resistance movement - in the hope that encouraging small acts of resistance might one day encourage something more.

Week in, week out, he read out the letters he was receiving (the BBC still received letters from occupied Europe), encouraged people to chalk V signs everywhere, named the collaborators and gave out their addresses and encouraged those taken to the German arms factories to work slower.

And every week, his broadcast was announced with the beat of V in morse code on a drum - Ritchie's colleague John Rayner (of the Daily Express) noticed that this was also the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth, and that became drafted in to the propaganda war as well.

The V campaign was taken up by Churchill and de Gaulle, who both used the V gesture for the rest of their political careers. It strengthened the sense of self-esteem in occupied Europe. It even led Goebbels into running his own V campaign, claiming that the Nazis had invented it - a sure sign of success.

It also underpinned - amidst great controversy - the huge and largely forgotten success of the European Service, under its maverick director Noel Newsome. By the end of the war, Europeans were turning to radio from London - nominally from the BBC but actually independent of them since 1941 - every day in search of the truth.

As many as 15 million Germans listened in to London every day, by the end of the war, though doing so carried a death sentence.

Why was the V campaign controversial? Because it sidestepped the almighty turf war in Whitehall about who should control communications to Europe. Because many in the establishment were worried about encouraging subversion and sabotage over the airwaves, and were particularly nervous about encouraging workers in Nazi factories to go slower - in case it caught on among the militant railway workers in the UK.

The successful model of broadcasting across Europe in 30 languages nearly survived the war. Newsome had got the Americans and other European nations to back a plan that Radio Luxembourg would carry on the work of the European Service in this way. But the last act of the wartime coalition in 1945 was to torpedo the idea.

Was it because they didn't know what to say to continental Europe, or that they distrusted the moral leadership they had developed through broadcasting so successfully from London? Or was it that they just felt uncomfortable in Europe and were desperate to return to splendid UK isolation? Seven decades later, we appear to be at a similar crossroads.

Read more in my new book V for Victory, which provides the full story of one of the most successful radio campaigns ever waged (it only costs £1.99 on kindle!).

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Monday, 30 May 2016

Jutland, stories and the Hay Festival

I have always been fascinated by the sheer scale of the Battle of Jutland. I spent months researching the battle at the age of 13 when I should have been revising for common entrance exams (yes, I went to a private school) and I've never forgotten it. Especially today, on the centenary.

Even now I find myself thinking of the 5,000 or so people killed agonisingly in the destructive explosions on board the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Invincible and Queen Mary, trapped in air pockets as their ships disintegrated. And the thousands killed in the German High Seas Fleet too.

As the second one exploded just behind him, Sir David Beatty famously muttered "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today." What is less remembered is what he said next - "and with our system".

Beatty is fast becoming the baddie of the story, but he was right about the system being wrong (and the ships too, come to that). And it is the system that I was writing about recently in my short book Before Enigma.

It is easy for us to say - well, how different history would have been if we had cracked the German naval codes as we did in the Second World War, but the truth is that actually we had.

I tell the story in the book about how this opportunity to end the war was lost because the system for using that information was wrong - and it's a lesson for government and management even now.

You can explain a lot using stories.

Which is a way of saying that I am chairing an event at the Hay Festival on Tuesday at 8.30pm where we will be telling stories about rapid change in the past which might signify we might bring about rapid change now.

I'll also be bringing copies of my new book of local economic stories, Prosperity Parade. If you're anywhere nearby today, do come!

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