The strange revival of the allotments movement in the UK may mark the unexpected revival of a very old, but lost political tradition - the English tradition of Back to the Land, which stretches back via the Distributists to Ruskin, Morris and Cobbett and much else besides:
I met Ted Howard earlier in the week, but sadly missed his seminar last night. On the other hand, and thanks to him, I do now feel geared up to battle for a more local approach to reviving the economy - where it really matters.
The visit was organised by Clare Goff of New Start magazine who wrote en excellent profile of Howard and his Evergreen project in Cleveland, Ohio. This is Neil NcInroy's blog about last night's event.
Cleveland is the American city worst hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. There are two major economic players still active there. The university and the hospital. To put the hospital to better economic use, they have borrowed an idea from one of the great success stories of co-operative business, in Mondragon in Spain.
The Mondragon story dates back to just after the Second World War, when the local Catholic priest founded the first worker’s co-op to employ local people and meet local needs. Half a century on, there are now 256 linked co-operative businesses, employing nearly 100,000 people and with offshoots worldwide, and they have been doing even better during the global downturn. So much so that the US steelworkers union have signed a long-term agreement to do something similar in North America.
The Evergreen Project is doing this in Cleveland, but clustered around and dependent on the hospital, starting with a sustainable laundry business. The second project is a renewable energy company, starting with installations on the hospital roof.
So two elements here. The new co-operatives that employ local people and redirecting the spending power of the local hospital to launch them and underpin them.
This is about money, but money that already exists. Again it isn’t about how much you’ve got. It’s about how it flows.
Conventional thinking suggests that money will trickle down from the successful to eventually employ the unsuccessful - especially if they leave their communities in their bikes to find work. We know of course that trickle down doesn't work, and have known for decades. As for expecting people to move their families to find work, I don't believe a society which forces people to be that footloose is going to be stable or liberal.
We have to somehow find ways of re-growing local economies, using local resources, rather than waiting around for government or corporate largesse that will probably never come. I believe Evergreen has shown how to do it.
We have heard so much in the last few weeks of desperate pre-budget lobbying about how another runway at Heathrow would kickstart what they call 'growth' (an amorphous and undefined objective at the best of times).
Why have allotments become so trendy? Where did the idea come from that everyone could have a plot of land to grow their own food?
Allotments are part of the zeitgeist, so these are important questions. Yet most histories of the allotments movement are brief online lists of parliamentary acts, and they don’t tell the half of it.
So I wanted to bring the story alive, from Jesse Collings and ‘Three Acres and a Cow’ to Dig for Victory, and the campaign of direct action that led to the same thing in the First World War – and some very strange byways of twentieth century politics, the long lost radical tradition of Back to the Land, which came so near and yet so far from changing the nation completely.
The Back to the Land tradition stretches right back to Hesiod and Virgil, but it has a particular resonance in England, especially south east England where it became an underground cultural critique of industrialism.
The heart of the tradition is a scepticism about generally accepted truths – especially those truths embraced by those who rule us. From that idea derives all the rest – the antipathy towards money as a measure of progress, the scepticism towards conventional luxuries and rewards. A return to the simplicity of natural things as the basis for progress. A melancholic sense of a natural, balanced past that needs to be rebuilt, rather than a utopian joy at a radical future that is being invented afresh.
This was clearly not a Protestant tradition: it refused to demonise nature as the Protestants tended to do. Nor was it really a socialist tradition, except in the most basic sense: it is a non-utopian future based on small scale land ownership, co-operation and common land – and the freedom to grow food. Nor is it really Conservative: the tradition seeks to overturn those who run the world.
On the other hand, the Back to the Land tradition seems to have involved people declaring allegiance to nearly every possible political tradition: Radicals (William Cobbett), Tories (John Ruskin, or so he said), Socialists (William Morris), Liberals (Hilaire Belloc, to start with, and Jesse Collings), Greens (Fritz Schumacher), even Blackshirts (Henry Williamson).
These are mostly literary or artistic figures whose politics has been dismissed as maverick or peculiar because the establishment preferred to pretend that they represent no coherent political tradition.
Actually, they do, but those who prefer us to conform – to package us more efficiently – don’t like it at all. What fascinates me is whether the extraordinary revival of allotments means that the old radical tradition is creeping back.
The brilliant Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk suggested a few months ago that the banks were the ‘Dictators of the West’ – the parallels of the tyrants of the Arab world who are being turned out one by one.
That sounded like a clever soundbite at the time. But that was before I came across the new Citibank timeline published with their new app, which sets out the key dates in the bank’s 200 year history. Under 2008 – the year of their near bankruptcy and $45 billion bailout – they put “launches mobile phone banking service”.
There is not just a hint there of Dictators of the West, there is a strong memory of Soviet-style airbrushing of photographs and the manipulation of history.
Inspired by this, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review has written a better timeline of Citigroup that sets out the whole sorry history a little more clearly. It is worth a read.
It is also perhaps worth comparing with my own alternative history of Barclays, published in my joint book with Andrew Simms, Eminent Corporations.
None of this would come as a surprise to Fisk, who was making a sophisticated parallel between the Arab uprisings against fake democracy and our own failures to take on our own dictators.
“The Arabs have at least begun to shrug off this nonsense. But when the Wall Street protesters do the same, they become ‘anarchists’, the social "terrorists" of American streets who dare to demand that the Bernankes and Geithners should face the same kind of trial as Hosni Mubarak. We in the West – our governments – have created our dictators. But, unlike the Arabs, we can't touch them.”
The story about the Queen on the Today programme this morning confirmed something I have thought for some time. Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail described her crossing out the word 'very' from the phrase 'I am very pleased to be in Birmingham' in a speech she was due to give.
"I don't want to fake it," she said, or so they say.
I have wondered for some time whether the Queen's absolutely dreadful manner of delivering her speeches has contributed to her reputation for authenticity. Any attempt to project her voice, or enthuse or anything to engage people would look like selling herself. That is one reason, though it is only one reason, why we trust her.
One of the former presidential hopeful Howard Dean's advisors - I can't now remember which - used to say that, for politicians to sound authentic, they have to go off message sometimes. I think that is true. You might add that might give consistently and unashamedly boring speeches, with no unconsidered 'verys'.
Will this happen? Almost certainly not, but the importance of going off-message is hugely important and hardly understood at all by our political elites.
But there is one other reason why we tend to trust the Queen. It is because it is almost the last national institution that remains clear of corporate influence and sponsorship. No doubt the Institute of Economic Affairs would like to privatise the monarchy. I hope we will resist.
Of all the arguments that are being used to 'Kill the Bill', one in particular needs to be exposed as nonsense. I'd hate the Lib Dem conference to come to the wrong conclusion because of it.
No, I don't mean the stuff about frontline services already struggling. That may be so, but that is an argument about spending cuts, not about changing the law.
I mean the one about the number of statutory organisations rising from 163 to 521. Those who believe that the NHS should be a great, centralised monolith - and that this is somehow more efficient - might believe that this is a problem. It isn't. Quite the reverse: that is what happens when you decentralise power and provide genuine local democratic oversight.
So don't let anyone tell you that more local commissioning bodies is a bad thing in itself. When Labour reduced the number of PCTs, were they making it more efficient or democratic? Just wander into them any time in the last few years and you will find otherwise.
In fact, the size of public bodies is probably inversely proportionate to their efficiency and effectiveness.
We know, at least in Illinois, that the smallest local government units have the lowest annual spending per capita. We know that small schools (300-800 pupils at secondary level) have better results, better behaviour, less truancy and vandalism and better relationships than bigger schools. They show better achievement by pupils from ethnic minorities and from very poor families.
We know, thanks to a series of studies by the think-tank Reform and others, that the smallest police forces are the most effective in the UK, catching more criminals for their population than the big ones. We know that American hospitals cost more to run per patient the bigger they get, and it doesn’t make any difference if those hospitals are non-profits or profit-making.
We also know, because it was reported today, that Whitehall departments have spent £1.4 billion over the last seven years sharing back office services in an attempt to save £159 million, according to the National Audit Office.
So don't tell me that leaving the NHS with the New Labour status quo - with its expensive and inappropriate cometitive structures - is the right way to go. Not if it means bigger and more bureaucratic commissioning. Don't let's go along with the idea that services are better and more responsive when fewer people take decisions.
Rather against my better judgement, I wrote a blog on Lib Dem Voice asking why so many of my colleagues were in such a hurry to dump the NHS Bill. Responses seem to be divided on the issue so far, but the basic issue seems to me to be:
We would be insane to leave the NHS as it was bequeathed to us by Blair and Brown, and we have the opportunity - thanks to the Lib Dem Lords - to shift the balance towards solving the real problems of the NHS, not the ones that McKinsey would like is to tackle.
And no, just to answer one of the comments, I'm not against all competition - some services will always be better than others, and so it should be - but not only am I against the kind of inappropriate layer of competition bureaucracy that New Labour bolted onto a hideously target-driven structure, but so are our Lords. As a result, the NHS Bill looks set to be a good deal better than the status quo:
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