Monday, 27 January 2020

Tickbox and the mystery of the disappearing books

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

Why are there so many blank walls in public libraries these days? Is it because librarians have, despite decades of inculcation, conceived a dislike to the printed form? It seems unlikely.

I first discovered the phenomenon visiting the award-winning Thornton Heath Library in Croydon. The design in concrete and glass certainly looked impressive - but what happened to all the books?

There are people who might have said that was what a library was for - some of us still read after all (especially after the decline in ebook sales) but libraries are still slinging out the legacy of human knowledge, preferring us to dependent on knowledge via Google.

It is unfortunately also the trend for school libraries, blank walls, empty shelves, more iPads, especially those which follow trends most slavishly…

But the we had the good fortune to visit one of the biggest schools in West Sussex, where the school library has built up, among other things, an enviable local history book collection.

We asked the librarian how she had managed to swim against such a tide, and she said it was a matter of keeping your nerve when the library system instructs you to dispose of any books that haven’t been borrowed for six months.

It is precisely this kind of system that face so many people working in the public and private sectors - the mixture of online tickboxes, KPIs, targets and centralised controls that their managers rely on to monitor performance.

This is the ubiquitous system I have called Tickbox in my new book of the same name, and which explains - or so I argue - why we feel so badly let down by governments, services and companies alike.

Most of us know precisely what is wrong with Tickbox - that most of these measures or targets either miss the point or get finessed by managers. Those who can’t see it tend to be the elite forces who run the world - and who believe what they are told by the frontline. And who dream of automated systems that can manage organisations without what they fear are messy human interventions or decisions.

The result is that officials tick boxes to allow them to move on but where nothing has changed (as tey seem to have done at Grenfell Tower), or we get tickbox targets which focus on the wrong things because what we really want - love, care, education - isn’t measurable.

Or we find ourselves in a ridiculous complaints loop where is is impossible to talk to a real person who would understand our problem in seconds (try myHermes if you really want this kind of entertainment).

Or we get irritated by being asked on a five-point Likert scale how we would rate our latest minor interaction with the bank - where the rep ‘suggests’ that you might make it a 5.

Now the example of the school librarian is instructive because she just refused to throw the books away. And because it is all virtual, nobody seems to have complained.

Though, actually, we never asked her about that.

It is an excellent example of how we take back control of the world - though Tickbox has encouraged an administrative culture where nobody takes decisions. We just say no.

There are few enough examples of this in practice, certainly in the public sector. The Local Trust has been charged by the Big Lottery with giving away a million pounds each to 150 impoverished or isolated neighbourhoods, with the single proviso that local people come up with an agreed plan to spend it. That is the opposite of tickbox (tockbox perhaps).

More controversially, the Dutch healthcare system have developed its own method of ‘scrap sessions’, where staff get together to identify targets or tickbox bureaucracy that needs to go. We need something similar in the UK.

But we first need to name the problem - which is why I wrote the book. Tickbox is the machine those who run the world have created to manage things in their absence: we need to call it out and then switch it off.

You can buy the Tickbox book from Hive or Amazon.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Optimism, naivety and the counterculture - towards a way forward for a radical centre

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

Long-standing lib Dems, battered by a disappointing general election result – the third in a row – then had to cope with a Guardian column by former Times editor Simon Jenkins, urging the party to wind itself up.

Let’s leave aside some of Jenkins’ arguments about tactical voting – which don’t really stand up – and tackle the central claim that there is no potential role for the Lib Dems to fulfil, even if they do not at the moment.

Because, we have to face it that – if that was true – then all of us who are trying to develop the radical centre ought to pack up and go home. That would leave the field free to two ancient and backward-looking perspectives – perhaps also ideologies – with their negative way of looking at the world.

For me, there are three areas we need to investigate to find ways forward and to show why Jenkins was wrong.

First, and most important, is the vast gap for any kind of political vision that represents the view of families and communities across the UK. Of course, there are families and people who are cruel or exploitative to each other, and worse. But there is no point in building political correctness, let alone an ideology, on the cruelties.

Racism, hate and sexism are neither of them best fought by assuming they are everywhere. Love between people is absolutely ubiquitous, and communities are more usually accepting, supportive and creative places – and, if you think otherwise, then that is liable to re-shape them.

Unfortunately, the culture war that appears to be engulfing us sees hate everywhere, and more and more the angrier both sides get, believing that under every bed and in every closet there is exploitative, dysfunctional rage – or somebody spreading it in the opposite direction.

Yet there is a potential ideology that spreads power downwards, trusting people because people care for each other – not because cruelty is impossible, but because we can confront it better if it isn’t hidden in plain sight by all the rest.

This will be regarded by both sides of the culture war as na├»ve. Which is what I was told when I claimed during my only appearance on a radio phone-in programme – a programme called ‘Honey, I’m home’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia during the G7 summit there in 1995 – when the very few callers who weren’t wrong numbers accused me of exactly that for my point of view that economics could rescue the world if it re-thought itself.

I said then, as I believe now, that all I was saying was that everything wasn’t completely hopeless. If we are to build a way out that can’t be dismissed as politically correct, based on the obvious love between people you see nearly everywhere, that is the attitude we will have to confront.

Second, neither of the two ideologies to which Simon Jenkins wants to hand a monopoly on political debate has much interest in the devolution of power – probably our most urgent missing element in reform (as Jenkins recognised himself in his pamphlet Big Bang Localism). Because without it, the government of the UK is set to become even more sclerotic than before.

The centralisation of power is the main reason we have been so badly governed over the past generation. Not because our politicians are so poor, but because the system they ate operating is failing, The Lib Dems have pushed the cause of devolution since the invention of Liberalism, but they seemed to have partially forgotten this – I would suggest – during the past election.

There always was a tension between the devolution of power and support for the EU. It maybe that the tension is unnecessary, but there does appear to be a kind of erosion between the two of them.

Third, the same applies to economics. If the radical centre will not defend the free market from the monopolies that make such a mockery of it – and increasingly so – then nobody will. The Conservatives believe that the free market is the some kind of Darwinian force, justifying pretty much any abuse, and Labour has little or no interest in free markets.

So who, if we are just left with them, will defend the liberal idea of free markets that allow the weak to challenge the strong and wealthy?

For these reasons and others, the radical centre is not just an obscure and dwindling sub-ideology, but the way out.

The culture war we are now experiencing appears to be the death knell for the emotions so successfully spun by John Lennon in his song ‘Imagine’.

But ‘Imagine’ was simply one expression of the counterculture that emerged out of the 1950s and 60s and provided the fuel for so much people-centred, humane reform – for which the Liberal Party so reluctantly and unconsciously provided a political pathway.

We don’t really understand these roots because, as far as I know, there has been no proper history of the ideas behind the counterculture, or community development, and other elements. In fact, if anyone out there feels the same way and would like to fund me to write one, please do get in touch!

But I believe that somewhere amidst the optimistic roots of the counterculture – optimistic about people and their nature – lies a way forward. Whether the Lib Dems are able to grasp this and to reform accordingly remains to be seen.

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Sunday, 8 December 2019

That narwhal horn might have slowed the Johnson juggernaut

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

Heavens above, political campaigners can be obstuse and dull: I was never so aware of it as I am now. Of course, what now seems obvious to me – that people are motivated by something different to the rhetoric they are presented with – may be wrong. It is possible that I am the obtuse one after all. Yet, think back to last time around and you will perhaps see what I mean.

After the 2017 election, I found myself writing about the shift – at least in my own psyche – brought about by the change in rhetoric following the previous London Bridge terrorist incident, which took place at a similar stage in the election to this one.

It was a shift in the language from fear to pride made by the then new Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick. I wrote about it here. She allowed us a little pride in ourselves – the fact that people had attacked the terrorists by throwing beer glasses at them and at great risk to themselves, and I felt a shift in the public mood:

“It wasn’t that she whitewashed the perpetrators – quite the reverse – it was that she declined to waste airtime on them. Instead she paid tribute to the courage of the bystanders. We all stood a little taller as a result.”

I wondered then, and wonder now, whether people vote a little less cynically when they feel good about themselves as a nation or community. The think a little more generously.

There was no statement that I heard from the commissioner this time, but perhaps it is now unnecessary: the statements by the Mayor and Prime Minister about “hunting down” and “standing firm” were too cliched to stick in the memory.

The problem last time for Jeremy Corbyn is that the spirit of individual heroism was not reflected in Labour’s rhetoric, as it rarely is on the socialist left. Nor was it reflected in Lib Dem rhetoric, which it could have been – there was something individualistic about it, linked with self-help and self-determination that could easily come from anywhere on the radical centre.

That is why I have been wondering whether Boris Johnson’s somewhat cynical camaign is threatened by the narwhal horn with which a member of the public floored the terrroist.

Yet there is a clear problem about why the other parties are unlikely to grab this opportunity. The whole language of general elections is about what alternative governments can do for people. It assumes a widespread and somewhat hopeless passivity. There is no obvious election language to draw down in praise of the idea of people doing things for themselves.

There are other reasons why this is important – not least of which is that, actually (as I argue in a forthcoming pamphlet with Steffan Aquarone) our political culture feels increasing discomfort about the idea of actually doing anything. So I fear that, by the time you read this, the moment will have passed.

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Monday, 25 November 2019

Stick that in your manifesto!

This post first appeared on the Radix UK website...
“There is no Country in Europe, which produces, and exports so great a Quantity of Beef, Butter, Tallow, Hydes and Wool, as Ireland does, and yet our common People are very poorly cloath’d, go bare-legged half the Year, and rarely taste of that Flesh-Meat with which we so much abound. We pinch our selves in every Article of Life, and export more than we can well spare, with no other Effect or Advantage, than to enable our Gentlemen and Ladies to live more luxuriously abroad.”
I found these words, about the economic effects on Ireland of absentee landlords in a book I’m currently reading, Simon Loftus’ excellent The Invention of Memory. That passage seems to be profoundly true, though it was written by an anonymous Irish pamphleteer in 1730 – the same year, incidentally, when the much more famous pamphlet by Jonathan Swift suggested (satirically, we assume) that his fellow countrymen should solve their poverty problems by breeding babies to eat.
So why do we keep forgetting it? Locally and nationally, money is like blood – it has to circulate. There is no relevant bottom line. And when it gets siphoned off, whether it is to Tesco in Hertfordshire, or Amazon in Luxembourg, then of course people are poorer than they should be. We all have our absentee landlords.
Yet, you won’t find anything about this vital issue in any of the party manifestoes.
We are not all voting Lib Dem at Radix (though I probably am). But I was relieved to see how much we had influenced the Lib Dem manifesto – in their commitment to schools (see our book The Death of Liberal Democracy?) and their backing for small, local banks to underpin the economy (see my blog last time).
We even seem to have provided Jo Swinson with her 1970s/1870s joke, for which I take responsibility.
But once you get past the divisions on Brexit and the rhetorical figures, there is a peculiarly disturbing set of parallels between themes in the main four manifesto – they include housebuilding, the NHS of course, innovation and green technology. They all want more police and nurses; they all want a greener prosperity,
The impression they give is that, despite the sound and fury of dispute – mainly over means – there is a great deal of agreement. This is, in fact, the mushy and un-radical centre. It is what we all tend to think these days, right down to the Tory commitment to filling potholes.
There are clearly exceptions to this (like the Lib Dem push for local banks). But it is worth reminding the politicians that what is likely to stymie their plans for house-building is a major, looming labour shortage. And that last time the UK pushed homes up to 300,000 a year, it led to slums in the sky, high rise flats, system building, too high densities, Ronan Point, structures stuffed with cigarette ends, and all the rest.
It isn’t about the numbers. So why do politicians have to pretend that it is? It is about why and how – how, for example, will you build the homes and run the NHS in a period of nearly full employment? What is your interpretation of the problems we face and your analysis of what should be done? We hear almost nothing to satisfy a radical centrist.
The Green manifesto does at least set out an analysis, with two big proposals (a Green New Deal and a universal basic income). The Lib Dems have their commitment to devolution, Labour has his opposition to privatisation and Tories have their commitment to Brexit. And yet…
I long for more of a radical organising idea. For example, here are three ways of looking at our current national malaise:
  • The sclerosis caused by an obsessive and exhausting centralisation, administratively and financially.
  • The monopolistic power of IT companies, and others like them, which is sucking out energy and money from our local economies.
  • The ‘tickbox’ system that attempts to manage all decisions centrally, and undermines their effectiveness and efficiency (see my forthcoming book Tickbox).
You will find almost no mention of these at all in the party manifestos.
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Thursday, 31 October 2019

Loch Nowhere and how to save the British union

My apologies to anyone who realises, as I do, that I haven't been posting enough recently. I try to put most of my contributions here, but I'm very aware that I don't always. If there is really anyone out there impatient to hear what I think, I'm usually blogging at Radix early most weeks...

In the meantime, I have been worrying about the future of the UK after Brexit, given the enormous strains that will be put on the union.

I'm not a unionist. I don't think Nick Clegg was right when he declared the Lib Dems a unionist party. In fact, the party divided on the issue in the 1880s and the unionist bits went off and merged with the Conservatives.

But then, I also not a nationalist, and the process of division is likely to be frightening and possibly violent. I'm even aware that in parts of Wales - where people are reacting badly to being part of an English nationalist venture under Boris Johnson - they are investigating some kind of link with Ireland.

Now, I believe in these link-ups, if we can arrange them. In fact, it seems to me that the only way to save any aspect of the union is to act now to give Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland their independence in a controlled, peaceful and ambiguous way - within a national umbrella which might include the Queen, the pound and the Ministry of Defence.

It needs to be done quite soon and so that Scotland can stay in the EU if it wants to.

Two developments stand in the way of breaking the nation down further. One, we need the ambiguity that the government's virtual border system. Two, we need a better understanding of how local economies can provide what people need - so that small nations and regions can begin to go it alone.

It so happens that I have written a modern folk tale in the new collection by the New Weather Institute, Knock Three Times (which, full disclosure, my company published), and it looks at these issues, through the eyes of a man who - like Rip Van Winkle - wakes up a century in the future.

It is called 'Loch Nowhere'. In fact, I recommend the other 27 stories too, each one of them shedding light on modern crisis using older narrative styles. You can read the introduction here...

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Friday, 20 September 2019

The great division - and how to escape it...

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

There are, said the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the author of Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner – “two classes of men”.

He didn’t mean, as W. S. Gilbert suggested, “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservat-ive”. Nor did he mean Cavalier or Roundhead, nor Protestant or Catholic – though I will come to them later. He meant Aristotelians or Platonists.

“Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist,” he said. “I don't think it possible that anyone born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian.”

Just to be shockingly simplistic, he meant something like the tradition of chopping logic versus the tradition of true belief. And there maybe we can begin to see how this might relate to our great dilemma: Remainer versus Leaver.

There was a small but fascinating Twitter debate last week about the implications of a peculiar fact – that a much higher proportion of Anglican church-goers (once described as the SDP at prayer) backed Leave compared to the general population (66% in fact).

The debate appeared to conclude that there was no significance in this anomaly – but I’m not so sure. My problem is that I am, at heart a Platonist, while most Remainers are clearly veering towards Aristotelians.

We urgently need to understand this bitter rift between us in the UK, and it may be that the political forces of Leave and Remain actually represent something much bigger – a clash between two rival establishments and two rival philosophies of life.

To do this we also have to see each side how they see themselves – fighting the forces of intolerance and xenophobia (Remain) or defending our right to self-determination (Leave). We also have to distinguish between rival versions of the establishment.

Clearly the traditional establishment is now divided between the prime minister and the old left of the Conservative party, hammered out on the playing fields of Eton, which – as Noel Coward put into their mouths – have “made us frightfully brave” (though perhaps not so frightfully intelligent, it does have to be said).

But there is a sense also in which Remain is represented by a rival establishment – the technocratic nomenklatura from the Blair-Brown years, the free market realists, those who have done rather well out of the property market and would prefer not to lose it all.

Two establishments, and – as the centre ground between them gives way – we find ourselves increasingly forced to choose between two raucous, obsessive and deafly intolerant extremes.

On one side we have the roundheads, the Remainers, the parliamentarians, who regard the other side as xenophobes, little Englanders who are riding roughshod over the economic consensus built up over the past four decades – but who also fear the world of alternative facts, the failure to understand modern concerns about race, gender and sexuality.

As Aristotelians, they regard the other side as hopeless atavistic throwbacks, in thrall to superstition and prejudice, who reject the whole edifice of evidence, scientific method and professional expertise.

Paradoxically, they are also the Catholic side, defending a united Europe and against Henry VIII’s protestant upstarts, determined to sell off the social service infrastructure to their friends at court.

On the Platonists on the other side, we have the cavaliers, holding out for royal authority against an anti-democratic parliament (even, according to Carswell, “treasonous”), who regard themselves as liberators of people against tyrannical bureaucrats, politically correct thought police – stifling the voices of ordinary people in debate with a ferocious atmosphere of suffering, cynically stuck in the old technocracy of targets and tickboxes, solidified into the old mantras of market economics, global trade and agnosticism.

Paradoxically, they are also the Protestants, breaking free of a Europe still in thrall to the pope (Brussels equals Rome from an English historical point of view).

Understanding these things may make the clash easier to understand. I am not sure it makes it any easier to heal.

I am not claiming that either side is right about their fears about the other. But there are some of us still who don’t really want either side to win out – though Boris Johnson’s misjudgements have made it hard to see how the old English love of compromise can win out either.

But electorally, neither has articulated this broader agenda, because they have been too busy fighting the details of the Brexit struggle. But it is possible to imagine either being able to build  a majority by moving  a little way towards the other side – perhaps by seriously embracing the issue of climate change (a good deal more important and urgent than Brexit).

What holds them back from doing so is largely ignorance of the way the other side really is. This is therefore a reminder that the radical centre means having a clearer view "of the whole road", to quote the author of Radical Middle Mark Satin.

So let's hear it for the Re-leavers and the Le-mainers and anyone thinking outside the usual familiar tramlines, Because the solution, if there is one, lies in Robbie Burns’ injunction to ask “some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us!”

For my own party, it seems to me, there is an extra problem of translation. Because Liberals tend towards Platonists and social democrats towards Aristotelians. In another post, I might explain what I think the implications of that are.

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Friday, 16 August 2019

How to avoid a home-grown UK Milosovic

This post was first published on the New Weather website...

Earlier this month, Indian government ended the devolved powers arrangement they had with Indian-administered Kashmir. As I write, I have no Bidea what the consequences will be. But I do know this is what nationalist governments do.

There is a rash of books coming on the market about the phenomenon of populism, and its dangers, but it actually isn’t a very good description of Trump, Orban or Brexit. The Populist Party in the 1880s and 90s began as a kind of anti-globalisation movement in the modern mould. I would describe them instead as nationalists.

There is no reason why you can’t have sympathetic populists. The opposite of populist need not be unpopulists, after all.

So, what is the opposite of nationalist? I would suggest that you look no further than the Roman Catholic concept of subsidiarity – that people should be governed as locally as possible. The European Union has made subsidiarity one of its founding principles, and it isn’t the fault of subsidiarity if the EU fails to act accordingly.

Radical nationalist change, whether it is the action of the Indian government in Kashmir or of Scottish nationalists forcing through independence, can be very dangerous. Losing the Scots from the UK would be dangerous too. Those who oppose independence may well threaten to take up arms to prevent it, as Carson did in Ulster in 1913 (“Ulster will fight,” he said, “and Ulster will be right”).

You can imagine all too easily which British politicians would play the role of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic to prevent the UK breakup – even though Brexit may make it inevitable.

My own party, it seems to me, has become muddled about this. Nick Clegg was wrong when he said the Lib Dems were unionists. In fact, the Liberal Unionists broke away as long ago as the 1880s on the issue of Irish home rule.

I believe in subsidiarity. So I have a proposition.

That before the inevitable victory of the SNP one day – even if it isn’t soon – let us break up the UK in such a way that we can remain ambiguous which is the nation and which the supranational umbrella.

That will mean going some way beyond home rule, so that Northern Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales become nations in their own right, able to look after their own affairs – to join the EU if they want – but owing allegiance also to a continuing UK, with a joint royal head of state, joint foreign affairs and defence and joint management of the pound.

Otherwise our four nations will join the other 200 plus nations taking their places at the UN. The idea is that this will be a permanent settlement to the constitution, but it should allow a gradual merger between the UK and the Council of the Isles, the supranational body over set up under the AnglIo-Irish agreement, if Ireland ever wants to join in.

The role of the Royal family would also be crucial in making the shift safe from nationalistic rage. It would also flexibility and self-determination to the nations of the UK, and – because the units would be more manageable – we could also expect more effective, less imperial government. It would help us all take back control.

Most of all, it would prevent the trauma one day – now pretty much inevitable – of Scotland crashing out without a deal from the UK.