Monday, 29 February 2016

What we should do about the Calais Jungle

"Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin' home every day,
Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line.
'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' out of that old dust bowl,
They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl, but here's what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
"You're number fourteen thousand for today."

Yes, for those who recognise it, this is the first verse of Woody Guthrie's song 'Do-Re-Mi'.  It is a faint memory of how the dust bowl refugees reached a police line on the California border.

I was reminded of it by the tear-gassing of refugees, men, women and children, at the Macedonia border today - and on the same day that half the refugee camp outside Calais is being demolished, again with no concern for the children living there. Again, there were riot police and there will be again tomorrow. There was teargas too. The residents are supposed to go to 'official shipping containers'.

Among the buildings being demolished is the church (see above).

We may have no control over Macedonia, though all this talk about leaving the EU certainly doesn't help. But we are directly concerned with the Calais camp and history will judge us for the way we behave.

This is all easy to say, of course, since it isn't clear what should be done. Though it is equally clear that something has to be - and the presence in the camp, not just of children, but unaccompanied children, and former British army translators from Afghanistan, are all of them reasons why we will be judged by what happens there.

Here is my suggestion. There are something around 8,000 refugees who have risked their lives to be there. They will not be going back. So let's take them in and then close the camp altogether.

That is a once-for-all solution that hardly solves the refugee crisis, but it does at least remove the absolute scandal of the refugee camp on our border.

Is there any political party with the nerve to propose it?

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Monday, 22 February 2016

Gove and Johnson's coup attempt

Watching the strange Saturday news coverage of the government dividing before our very eyes was a strange, phantasmagorical experience. The so-called reforms seem to amount to little. The whole affair is deeply theatrical. It is as if the whole dreadful performance is being enacted because the Conservative Party happens to be divided in its traditional way - between the nationalists and free traders.

In fact, the oddest part of all is being played by Gove and Johnson. Gove looks increasingly uncomfortable, and I find myself wondering - rather as the Daily Mail implies - whether what we are actually seeing is an attempt by this strange duo to seize power by peaceful means.

Not not necessarily peaceable ones. If this is a coup attempt, it is a risky one.  For us.

They know that, if their side wins, Cameron will go and they will inherit the world (or England, at least, for that may be the extent of their world).

But none of this should imply that the decision is at all straightforward. I'm a Liberal and an internationalist. I ought to be wholeheartedly for In. My fear is that the EU has doomed itself by adopting the single currency and that, to assume some kind of leadership in Europe, we need to extricate ourselves. But what kind of leadership in Europe do Gove and Johnson aspire to?

One reason I remain for In is the horrible revelation of who is on the other side. Except Gove: Gove is a thinker and you have to take him seriously.

Then, odder and odder, his lengthy statement shows so few signs of thought. Here is the key passage:

"Our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives. Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out. We can take out our anger on elected representatives in Westminster but whoever is in Government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT, cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country. I believe that needs to change. And I believe that both the lessons of our past and the shape of the future make the case for change compelling..."

This is half true. These trade deals do constrain us in the most ridiculous ways. But there are two major problems with this argument.

1. We haven't elected our representatives in London either. We have a bizarre electoral system in this country that veers from oligarchy to oligarchy on a diminishing minority of the vote. If the UK was democratic - if my vote counted - then I would inevitably be agreeing with Gove. But it isn't.  

2. I therefore don't trust our own oligarchy to negotiate trade deals on our behalf. If I did, fine - I'd vote to leave. But what evidence do we have that our current government really understands these issues? The seem quite happy to constrain us with TTIP, after all.

"We can get rid of the regulations which big business uses to crush competition and instead support new start-up businesses and creative talent," says Gove.

He's right, but where is the evidence that his colleagues understand this issue? Or will they just sign up to whatever the US Trade Department pencils in? Will we, in fact, end up just as constrained by these same deals - but without even the pretence of a democratic say?

In fact, the more the argument progresses - which, let's face it, is not very fast - the more this seems to be a larger re-run of the Scottish independence debate.

The Out campaign is proposing that we become our own nation again. But, unlike the SNP, they have painted no convincing picture of the post-EU nation. They have shown no interest in changing anything much except their own ability to exercise more control. They have no vision at all of a different kind of nation. No sketch of the extra influence ordinary people will wield by leaving. It is too late for them to articulate one now.

Given that, I suspect that Cameron will win and that Gove and Johnson will be cast into outer darkness where the devouring worm never dies and the fire is not quenched.

And perhaps that's where people who throw the dice, with such ambition and with odds such as these, tend to end up.

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Monday, 15 February 2016

The way to succeed is sometimes sideways

I was speaking at an energetic event last week at the RSA about people-shaped localism, an excellent title, which I wish I had thought of myself.

I found myself feeling a little at one remove from the general discussion, not because I somehow disapprove of consultation or public involvement in decisions, but because I have a sense that I have been hearing about wonderful but marginal experiments in consultation my entire adult life - without them actually becoming mainstream.

There is a reason for this and, sitting next to Matthew Taylor, director at the RSA, I was given a bit of a clue. 'Obliquity', he said.

It was a word coined by John Stuart Mill and it is an extremely, not to say increasingly, important concept in public policy. It is also a kind of antidote to utilitarian target culture, which we are now so steeped in that we no longer notice it.

It means that we can only achieve some key elements in public policy obliquely.  Not directly.

It's like friendship. If you go out directly to make friends, it doesn't work terribly well.  But if you go out to do something else, join a theatre group, a voluntary organisation, a political party, then the chances are that you will make friends much  more successfully but as a by-product.

Hence my scepticism about going out to involve people in the management of services. It isn't that it's not important. It's that you can't just show up and organise it directly. If you do, it will fizzle out quickly, leaving you with a handful of semi-professional 'community or patient representatives' who actually rather enjoy the business of sitting around a table. By definition, they are not actually very representative, and sometimes get a bit self-important.

On the other hand, if you put in place the kind of co-production infrastructure where people can play an active role in the delivery of services, their power increases, they are needed, they work together and tend to trust each other from a position of knowledge. And then - but only then - they might be prepared to get involved in the management of services.

They are not interested in enhancing their role as consumers of services. There is something empty about that. They are sometimes interested in enhancing their role as producers of services.

What is interesting about obliquity is that it applies to a range of other higher order policy objectives - from good parenting to eating healthy food. None of these seem to work if you focus on them directly. Or really, let's be honest, if you try and nudge people into the right behaviour, whatever it is considered to be.

What is interesting, and sightly disturbing, is that for the past generation ago we have believed that social policy had to be approached obliquely via economic  policy.  Give people enough money and the rest would follow.

This turned out to be the wrong oblique approach.  it provided only part of the basic requirement for effectiveness, which is I think a kind of reciprocity.

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Monday, 8 February 2016

The stupidisation of Southern Water (and many others)

I moved house to Sussex nearly 18 months ago. None of the public services I used found it easy to grasp this idea. Some proved incompetent; some proved downright malevolent (TalkTalk springs to mind). But all of them, in their different ways, have managed to sort out the glitches, except one.

Southern Water. And their failure seems to me to have important lessons for services generally.

The problem stems from the fact that my new house boasts both a number and a name. I enrolled with Southern Water (not that I have much choice) using the number; though I didn't realise it at the time, they used the name.

I realised they had been worried about this when I started getting letters asking me who I was and addressed to the named house. I phoned them back, rather generously I thought, a couple of times to explain the situation but the letters kept coming. A month or so ago, they sent round a real person to seek out why there seemed to be only one water meter for two properties. I explained the situation to him. He grasped it immediately. But no change.

I began to worry about it when I started getting letters warning me that the named house would have its water cut off.

This letter led to a long conversation with their call centre when I insisted I should have a second letter accepting that they now understood that it is only one house, and withdrawing the threat. They promised.

Unfortunately, the next letter I received said that they had closed my account at the numbered address (now an 'uncharged property', apparently) and opened a new account for me at the named address.

I rang them back and told them that this was a lie and that lies tended to have serious consequences. Not a bit of it, I was told. Everything was fine, everything I had paid had been transferred and there would be no further problems.

After a flash of inspiration, I asked that my new named address should be changed so that it also has a number. This has to be done 'offshore', I gather.

Only a week later, I started getting bills for 34p at the numbered address to close my account, and letters asking me if I have moved elsewhere in the Southern area.

I should be furious about this waste of my time. I should be railing at the stupidity of the brontosaurus that is trying to make sense of my actually rather simple address. Actually, I've been feeling rather sorry for Southern. They have an IT system, managed offshore, which has rendered them unable to deal with variety - the fatal cause of extra costs identified by John Seddon, the system thinker.

All that investment has rendered their system extra stupid.

Perhaps my address doesn't matter, but think of the same effect repeated time after time - not just across Southern Water but every public service using the same kind of inflexible IT system. Think of the extra costs that we pay for. Think of the escalating costs involved in trying to treat a very simple variety virtually, when a more human, less controlled system would be able to deal with it instantly.

It is actually scandalous that governments and corporate suppliers should have been so misled. Unfortunately, they are still being misled.

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

An unprecedented moment of fear in the UK

It was Saturday 6 April 1895. The weather was windy and drizzly as the passengers packed onto the quayside at Dover to catch the steam packet to Calais due on the evening tide.

Perhaps it was packed that night because of Easter the following week. Perhaps it wasn’t as packed as some of the witnesses claimed later, or the downright gossips who weren’t actually there. But it was still full. Those waiting on the quay wrapped up warm against the chilly Channel breeze and eyed each other nervously, afraid to meet anyone they knew, desperately wanting to remain anonymous.

Among those heading for France that night was an American, Henry Harland, the editor and co-founder of the notorious quarterly known as The Yellow Book, the journal of avant garde art and writing which had taken England by the scruff of the neck in the 1890s.

Harland had a good idea why the ferries were full, though he was still surprised. He was also aware of at least some of the implications for himself. Oscar Wilde was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ that evening, having lost his libel action the day before. The rumour (wrong as it turned out) was that Wilde had been arrested reading a copy of The Yellow Book.

The news of the warrant for his arrest was in the evening papers, and Harland could only guess the motivations of those who were now suddenly crowding across the English Channel, but it looked remarkably like fear.

There was an unnerving atmosphere of menace that evening. One item in the evening papers implied that the nation was perched on the edge of a scandal that would make the establishment teeter: “If the rumours which are abroad tonight are proved to be correct we shall have such an exposure as has been unheard of in this country for many years past.”

Did it mean the exposure would reach those who run the nation, or did it mean something even more terrifying – that the exposure would spread downwards through society?

As the passengers knew only too well, the combination of events which they had feared for a decade had now come to pass. It had been a few months short of ten years since the so-called ‘Labouchère amendment’ had been rushed through the House of Commons, criminalising homosexual activity of any kind between men (sodomy had always been illegal, back to the reign of Henry VIII, but that was all).

They did not want to be accused, as Oscar Wilde was accused, by a violent aristocrat of doubtful sanity, and would then have to respond in the courts or the press. They could not face the fatal knock on the front door from a smiling acquaintance who would turn out to be a dangerous blackmailer.

But now the unthinkable had happened. Wilde had been stupid enough to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, and had lost.

The public had driven each other into a crescendo of rage and it seemed only sensible to lie low in Paris for a while. Or Nice or Dieppe, or the place where the British tended to go in flight from the law – Madrid. Anywhere they could be beyond the reach of the British legal system.

And one of those who fled, as I discovered during the research that led to this book, was my own great-great-grandfather – escaping for the second time in a just over a decade, in a story that my own family had suppressed for three generations.

We know now that, in the event, the threatened conflagration did not take place, but in the remaining 72 years while Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Labouchère Amendment, stayed on the statute books, 75,000 were prosecuted under its terms, among them John Gielgud, Lord Montagu and Alan Turing.

Many thousands of lives were ruined – Turing committed suicide not long afterwards, having been forced to undergo hormone treatment that made him grow breasts.

Yet that moment of fear in Britain in 1895, unprecedented in modern times, has been largely forgotten. It is remembered as a sniggering remnant of gossip, about the number of English aristocrats or others in public life, living incognito in Dieppe, or glimpsed in the bars in Paris, and the awareness as a result that they had something to hide.

That morning, Queensberry had received a telegram from an anonymous supporter, which read: “Every man in the City is with you. Kill the bugger.”

Why did it happen? Partly because of growing public concern following the Labouchère amendment, sneaked though Parliament in 1885, but even that was more than the individual brainchild of a lone radical.

Why this shift from tolerance of the changing role of women and emerging new ideas to this threatening public rage? How did homosexuality emerge as a key issue in English public life?

The answer lies in the events that took place in Dublin a decade before, starting with the political aftermath of the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire and the newly-appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland.

The murders shocked the public on both sides of the Irish Sea, and to claw back the moral high ground, Irish Nationalist MPs launched a campaign to identify homosexuals in the Irish government, or part of the establishment in Dublin in some way – starting with the senior detective in charge of the Phoenix Park case, James Ellis French.

The campaign led to huge torchlight processions and mass demonstrations, with bands, in many towns and cities of Ireland.

Most of the defendants were acquitted – the main issue at stake was whether it was physically possible to commit sodomy in a hansom cab.

The scandals barely ruffled feathers in London, except among campaigners linked to the Irish nationalist cause, or political friends of their parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Among these, the maverick radical Henry Labouchère, was particularly frustrated that sodomy had been so difficult to prove.

So when the opportunity arose the following summer, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act – designed to raise the age of consent for women from 12 – crawled through Parliament, Labouchère seized his chance and proposed his amendment. It was passed practically on the nod, though its relevance to the bill was questionable.

It is a lesson of the huge dangers of politically inspired sex accusations, and Lord Bramall reminded us of that today.

But, as I said, I had a more personal reason for finding out the answers to some of these questions. My family lived in Dublin in the 1880s. The reason that they don’t any more, and that I was born in England not Ireland, was because of those same events there in that decade.

Until the last few years, when I began researching my book Scandal, I was unaware of those events.

All I knew was that my great-great-grandfather, the banker Richard Boyle, had left Dublin suddenly and under a cloud around 1884. His photograph has been torn out of the family photo album, with only his forehead remaining.

I had always been interested in what might have happened, but had assumed that the memories were now beyond recovery, just as the fate of my great-great-grandfather was lost in the mists of unfathomable time.

As it turned out, I was wrong. I was working on another incident in Irish history in the British Library, and discovered as I did so that a whole raft of Victorian Irish newspapers had been digitised and were now searchable online.

On an impulse, I put in the name ‘Richard Boyle’ and searched through the references in the Dublin papers. Then, suddenly, my heart began beating a little faster, because there it was – the first clue I found to a personal tragedy, and a national tragedy too: this was the spark that lit the fuse which led to the criminalisation of gay behaviour and the great moment of fear that followed the arrest of Oscar Wilde.

That first clue led to others, which led to others. I will never know the whole story. But what I did discover took me on a historical rollercoaster, and an emotional one, which catapulted me back to the strangely familiar world of the end of the nineteenth century – and a glimpse of that sudden fear in April 1895 that drove many of those affected so suddenly abroad.

I tracked him to a new career as a stained glass artist, among the glass industry in Camberwell, and – among other revelations – living with a man who was with him when he died, during the terrible London smog of Christmas week 1900.

Pinning down why he fled, twice in 11 years, and why Labouchère drafted and passed his notorious amendment, it is pretty clear that the whole moral panic began with a political witch-hunt which got out of hand.

The story suggests that there are serious dangers when political campaigns wrap themselves in populist intolerance in order to drag down an elite.

That is what happened in Dublin in 1883/4 and within four decades, the nationalist cause had been won; perhaps not because of the sexual accusations and cruelties. But those had unpredicted and unpredictable effects, not just in Ireland but across the British Isles.

Politicians have made sexual accusations against their political opponents since politics was invented. But these campaigns often leave a legacy of hate and fear which don’t dissipate easily.

You can read a ebook version of Scandal here or a print version here, or see the new website of The Real Press and shop there!

Monday, 1 February 2016

The insanity of high densities and the struggle to limit London

The leader of Richmond Council, a Conservative these days, has warned that London is set to become a mega-city on the scale of Rio or Karachi or Shanghai – with 13 million people by 2050.

I will be 92 in 2050 and unlikely to be popping up to London for the night life (though who knows). The question posed was whether there should be limits on London’s population growth to avoid this eventuality.

These are uncharted and uneasy waters to commentate in, let alone swim in. Is there hidden racism in his message? How should progressivcs react? It isn’t at all clear.

Yet, whatever his motives for raising the issue, this is a potential problem. More than a problem: if London was to gain in size half as much again, enough to fill two new boroughs, it would be disastrous for those who live there. The infrastructure (transport in the centre, schools in the suburbs) would be completely overwhelmed. It would be an overcrowded, unhealthy and uncongenial place, and that is the best one could say.

What’s more the most intense negative effects would be felt by the poorest, in the insanity of high densities, the pollution and noise and technocratic responses.

It is also clearly possible given the rapid rise of population since the 1980s, after a good seven decades when it was declining. It does have to be debated.

The difficulty is in the word ‘limits’ which betrays the current mindset of civil servants everywhere – that all you need to do is to set limits or targets and sit back and relax, job done. It says more about the fantasies of the current generation of policy-makers, that all they need to is to set down some numerical boundary.

The truth is that limits only have political cache, and they are only hostages to fortune if that is all they are. There has to be some humane and effective mechanism to limit the size of the city and to divert population, even perhaps to move population if people are willing.

This is not revolutionary. The Attlee government did precisely this to avoid what was then called ‘town cramming’, and they did it in two ways – bold and effective.

They set the green belt around London, not to be sacrosanct, but to be wide enough to prevent London growing any further. They also set out the first generation of new towns around London, built to high environmental standards and with their own work and economies.

We abandoned the new towns programme in 1976, thanks to Labour’s Peter Shore and his determination to focus resources on the inner cities, but we have been tiptoeing back there. Ebbsfleet has been designated a ‘garden city’ though it is probably more of a garden suburb (back to the old Edwardian debate).

There is scope for new settlements in the Thames estuary, but there is little scope to expand in the south east without reigniting the Auld Alliance of the 1950s – urban Labour authorities who wanted to keep their voters and shire Tories who didn’t want them decanted into their areas – which gave us the high rise flats disaster.

New settlements and garden cities in the north make more sense, but not if they end up like Corby or Skelmersdale, hotspots of high unemployment.

So what do we do? We think about what kind of devolution of economic power might make it possible to build thriving garden cities in the north – how in practice do we move shift business and government decision-making northwards? What kind of banking policies would shape a regional financial sector?

Second, we have to crack the local economic problem – how do we grow economies from scratch, a subject tackled in my co-written book People Powered Prosperity.

Finally, we have to tackle the opposition from London. The GLA, since the days of Ken Livingstone, has become a greedy, blood sucking creature, dedicated to the growth of London (motto: what I have I hold). Because if London is going to keep its own tax revenue, then it will also have to pay for the decentralisation of its population.

Actually, this may not be so bad for London. Experience of the last three new town programmes was that it was also immensely profitable.

A megalopolis is a monstrous energy-guzzling thing, inconsistent with human liberty or human dignity, caught between regimentation and disorder. We must avoid it at all costs, but the costs will pay for themselves many times over.

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