Saturday, 22 April 2017

Three condundrums the Lib Dems need to solve to breakthrough

I was as staggered as anyone else that Theresa May has called a general election in June, especially given her assurances that she would do no such thing, though I can see the logic.

On the one hand, it does provide Tim Farron with what he has been asking for – an immediate second referendum on the style of Brexit (and again she said she would do no such thing). On the other hand, the result may be a forgone conclusion – not because a great majority of the nation backs the government, but because of the slow and inexorable decline of the Labour Party.

There is a suggestion that we now have three conservative-looking parties ranged against each other. One is embracing a different future but lacks the skills, ideas or open minds to manage it. The other wants to revert back to the world in 1945. The third wants to revert back to the world in 1980.

Or does it? That is the question this blog post poses. Because on the face of it, this election provides a unique opportunity for the Lib Dems to shove Labour aside, because they have apparently no opinion on the main issue of the moment.

As a lifelong Liberal, I am obviously excited at the prospect, but three barriers loom in the way, and they are intellectual ones. To reach their potential and become the official opposition – which the Lib Dems could conceivably do – they will have to solve three conundrums that will otherwise frustrate them.

1. How to bring the Liberal Brexiteers back into the fold.
The unaddressed challenge for the Lib Dems is that their former strongholds, especially in the South West, came out strongly for Brexit last year. That implies a powerful constituency of Liberal Brexiteers, who were not beguiled by the promises of the leave campaign but still have a visceral dislike of supranational bureaucracies. This seems to me to be both reasonable and Liberal. Somehow the party needs to be able to speak understandingly and inspiringly to the Liberal Brexiteers as well as the Liberal Remainers. That is a difficult balancing act and it requires them to look closer at the motivations of those tempted by Liberalism – not for a flirtation in one election but as a meaningful lifetime commitment (this is my interpretation of the so-called 'core vote strategy').

2. Speaking for the consumers of services, not the professionals.
Until they unexpectedly became responsible for some of them in 2010, the Lib Dems had little to say about public services. One of their difficulties go back to the merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988. They have many roots in common and the Liberals always included a strong Fabian wing (they used to call them Whigs). The difficulty is that it confuses the party’s message on public services: social democrats tend to back professional judgement and processes. Liberals prefer informality and individual variation – perhaps especially when it comes to education. Somehow the party has to shun public services run for the benefit of the staff (Corbyn) and public services run for the benefit of the operators (Southern Rail springs to mind), and to articulate an approach that represents the users and the ignored and put-upon consumers of public services.

3. Speaking for and to the nation as a whole without compromising their message.


One party is looking for the enemy within, the so-called ‘saboteurs’. The opposition is so divided that their enemy really is within. The nation is seriously divided too. The Lib Dems will need to hold to their clear position on internationalism but still somehow speak for the nation as a whole. This is particularly so when it comes to economics - the nation knows that the old assumptions of economics are now over. We have dysfunctional and over-centralised banks, and tackling that is as good a place to start as any.

If they can do that, and the other two, then I predict an extraordinary result.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Taking children out of school and the death of Fabianism

I just posted this on the Radix website, but it applies here too...

No, Fabianism isn’t dead yet – but the flurry of debate about parents taking their children out of school does seem to mark a moment in the story of the great decline. When judges in the Supreme Court develop their own brand of Fabianism, and give parents no discretion at all, you know the end can’t be far away.

I am defining the branch of Leftist thinking here, developed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb – with a little help from George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells – as a gradual approach to social change, leaving the economic structures intact and mediated by a new cadre of professionals and technocrats who would ‘know best’.

It might be possible also to see the new dispensation, including Trump, Brexit and Le Pen, as reactions against Fabian technocracy. In fact, Le Pen pere even said so at one stage, describing his Front Nationale as the only anti-technocratic party in Europe.

This is an approach that would regard the ‘spirit of ’45’ as partly to blame for its own demise. This is controversial territory.

You can see the divide on the left in their attitudes to the schools judgement: backing the local authorities which want to fine parents for any absences from the classroom. On the one side, you have the Fabian line – that children must attend school and there must be protection for them against the whims of feckless parents (broadly the social democrat approach). On the other side, there is also an attitude that parents probably know best what is good for their children and require a little flexibility (broadly the liberal approach).

In a nutshell, you have Gladstone’s famous distinction between trust in the people tempered by prudence and distrust in the people tempered by fear. I know which side I’m on, personally, but let’s leave that on one side.

Behind all this lies a conflicting attitude to education, not it’s importance but its style. Fabians will tend to back the professional educationalists who say that every moment in the classroom is precious. Liberals will tend to regard education more broadly, arguing that every moment out of the classroom is also precious.

None of this, by itself, suggests that Fabianism is in decline. What it suggests is that the inflexibility built into the system – because professionals have deemed something to be correct – is not an attitude that can survive if we want to beat the ideas of Trump and Putin. It is no coincidence that the two great Edwardian doctrines, Fabianism and Taylorism (the ‘one best way’) back inflexibility. It smacks of the age of the assembly line and economies of scale. The period we appear to be moving into is sceptical about economies of scale, aware that we have been blind for too long to the diseconomies of scale. The new age backs flexibility because it is more human, and – in the end – less expensive.

It is also sceptical that classrooms are always and every day the right place to be – and that we should maximise children’s time in them. The emerging age is also horribly aware that they are too often extraordinarily dull.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The right to break out of standard classifications

The film Mad to be Normal goes on release next week, and this is rather an important moment - at least for me. Partly because I have been fascinated by the revolutionary psychiatrist R D Laing my whole adult life - I even went to a poetry reading by him when I was a student (he sat slumped on the floor for most of the reading).

But partly also because I have a short book out which tells the strange and courageous story of his radicalisation, as a military psychiatrist and tries to set him in the context of a period of tumultuous debate, the 1960s and 70s.

The book is on special offer this week - including 99p for the ebook versions and £4.25 for the paperback. I would love to hear from anyone what they think of it.

Laing is a somewhat forgotten figure. You might almost believe that the psychiatric establishment won (as it did - they managed to get him to resign from the Medical Register before he died in 1989). When I mentioned his theories to a group of NHS staff I was teaching recently, they laughed.

But something is stirring. Partly, of course, it is David Tennant's portrayal of him in the film. But partly also because he stands for two critical elements which are as important now as they have always been.

First, human understanding in the professions - and he stood for this at a time when psychiatrists could, without consultation, cart people off to have electric currents passed through their brains, or part of their brains removed, and often did. If they had been sectioned.

Laing is one of the reasons we don't live in that world any more, at least quite so much.

The other reason can be summed up by this paragraph he wrote towards the end of his life about the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook:

“What DSM III seems to be is a comprehensive compendium of thoughts, feelings, experiences, unusual experiences, impulses, actions, conduct, which are deemed undesirable, and should be put a stop to, in our culture. It is so all-inclusive that most items of what all the world over at all times and places were deemed to be ordinary manifestations of ordinary human minds, speech and conduct, are ruled out. We, as we used to take ourselves to be, are to be cultured out, to be replaced by a homogenised creature I can hardly recognise as a human being.”

In this respect, Laing’s radical spirit continues to this day. He knew what would happen if we standardised people, and tried to encapsulate their individuality with numbers to make them easier to process. He stood then - and stands now - for the right to break out of standard classifications, however sophisticated.

It is a guarantee of our freedom and individuality.

Do read the book if you can - you can buy it at the special price until the end of the week on the publisher's website or on Amazon. Or catch up with the film here,

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Towards a realignment of the Brexit debate

What do you believe, at the heart of everything? Ask most people about that and they wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m not sure I can tell you myself. It shifts with the weather; it modifies itself according partly to who I most disagree with.

On the other hand, people want to know what political parties think. Whatever they might say about wanting reasonable politicians, it isn’t at all clear that they want political parties that are a little bit of this and a little bit of that…

This is the dilemma of the ‘core vote strategy’ that is under such debate inside the Lib Dems. On the one hand, it is the antidote to mushy short-term campaigning, which leads to rootless ‘revivals’ and rapid disillusion. On the other, well, that’s what this column is about.

On the face of it, the case for a core vote strategy is unanswerable. On the other, you have to ask more fundamental questions about what is absolutely core about Liberalism. Otherwise you might enshrine short-term policy solutions – the Iraq war or Brexit – as part of the core, forgetting that there may be Liberals who see things differently.

It is a strange thing but opinion on Brexit remains pretty fluid. I know a number of people who are moving from Leave to Remain. Personally, I feel myself – rather unwillingly, kicking and screaming – going the other way.

Not because I am somehow vacillating about the core values of Liberalism, but because I doubt whether clinging to past structures is the best way of getting there. There comes a point where we Liberals need to pitch our tents around new and better institutions, which actually do the job.

I realise that my kind of Liberalism is not now well-represented in the party as it once was. I’m not a social liberal. I’m certainly not an economic liberal. I in am what the academics describe as the 'Distributist' wing, a reference to the work of thinkers like Belloc and Chesterton – first inside the party and then outside it, and coming back to the fore under Jo Grimond in the 1950s.

I'm not even sure there are enough of us to fill a whole wing any more - perhaps a couple of out-buildings.

Yet these seem to me to be core Liberal values – devolution of power, economic structures that maximise independence, anti-trust action and other measures against giantism, small-scale property ownership. It isn’t that the modern Lib Dems have turned against them, but they have downgraded them to cling to institutions which may not be nearly effective enough because they are too big (and I don't mean the EU). They have veered towards a kind of institutional conservatism that I find a little difficult.

Why have they partly forgotten their Distributist wing? Partly because of the merger with social democrats in 1988 (who don’t really possess a Distributist wing). Partly because of fears about populism, and partly perhaps because of a tendency to see politics still in terms of right and left.

The loss of this Distributist edge (see the latest Journal of Liberal History for a good summary) has three serious consequences.

1. No economics: Distributism was primarily an economic creed, deriving partly from Joseph Chamberlain in his radical days. Without it, we get stuck in the economics of the 1970s (social liberalism) or of the 1870s (economic liberalism), caught between Fabianism and libertarianism.

2. Fading liberalism: For me, the Distributists represented the development of the old Liberal tradition untouched by Fabianism, which came with a great deal of unhelpful baggage. When the Distributists left the party in 1912, they took with them a potential radical alternative to Corbynism.

3. Muddled core vote strategies: Without that strand, it becomes impossible to see how Liberal voters decided to go with Brexit in so many places – Burnley, West Wales, most of the West Country. And unless that is obvious, those voters may be lost to intolerant populists forever.

There were Liberals, after all, who felt that their commitment to small-scale government, to self-determination and devolution, edged them in the direction of Brexit. If the party is ever going to win back people like that permanently, they need to develop a message that somehow embraces them too.

If a core vote strategy actually alienates a critical part of the Liberal coalition, then Liberalism shoots itself in the foot.

The answer may be to develop a core vote strategy, not based on a bundle of policies but on a bundle of attitudes, psychological types or moods. And if we do that, the need for self-determination, self-employment, self-actualisation is going to be pretty important.

As for the Brexit debate that continues, it is pretty clear that we need international structures - that's the only way we can reform international bodies like Facebook (it is pretty clear to me, even as a Liberal, that - after a terrorist attack - the police need to be able to intercept the messages of terrorists).

We badly need to move on, and it seems to me the Lib Dems are finding themselves doing so - but achingly slowly. The real question is whether we can imagine a debate where the genuine reformers (from Liberals to Douglas Carswell) align on one side against the nationalists and conservatives.

I can't see that yet, but it is where we need to be. Because this is not a game. The nationalists are at the gates of civilization. It isn’t just about engineering the next Liberal Revival, it is about remaking Europe.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Get ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 13 March 2017

Win a copy of new R.D. Laing book!

Win a signed copy a of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click the link at the end of this blog to enter our GOODREADS BOOK GIVEAWAY. Or use a click-to-tweet below to tweet and enter our weekly EBOOK GIVEAWAY.

Something about our culture is riveted by the 1960s and 70s, and it was certainly a peculiar time – I’m old enough to remember it. But the ultimate period film is coming out in April, where the actor David Tennant plays the ultimate 1970s icon, the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing.

The film, Mad to be Normal, takes us back to the tale of Kingsley Hall in the late 1960s – and you can also read about that, and what led up to it in my book Ronald Laing; The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist .

But for me the key year was 1973.

It was a strange year, 1973. There was an energy crisis which destroyed the certainties of the postwar generation. Oil shot up in price. There was war in the Middle East. There were private armies in the UK, widespread industrial action and people like David Bowie singing about “five years – that’s all we’ve got”.

There was bombing, rioting and, by the end of the year, a three-day week enforced by law which forbade companies to work any more than that. And, amidst the chaos and the fundamental questions and criticisms, the world of psychiatry was rocked by a study published that year in Science by the Stanford University professor, David Rosenhan.

Rosenhan had tested the assumptions of conventional psychiatric medicine to destruction by seeing how they stood up to the real world. He recruited a team of his students, including himself, who were all instructed to go to their doctor complaining of hearing voices in their head. It was the only symptom they would mention – they would otherwise have no problems or issues, mental or physical. The voices would say rather anodyne things like “thud”. The pretend patients would have no previous mental issues either.

Without exception, Rosenhan’s students all found themselves admitted to mental hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once they were in hospital, their instructions were all the same. They were to behave completely normally and they found their experience of incarceration was also remarkably similar. Not one of the fake patients was recognised as sane by the hospital staff and, over a period of between seven and 53 days, they were all discharged as “schizophrenics whose symptoms had temporarily abated”.

Rosenhan was able to see the clinical notes written about his team when they were in hospital, and was fascinated to find that nothing they could do would be interpreted as sane. One of his students kept a diary about his time in hospital, and had been seen doing so by one of the hospital staff, who had written that “he indulges in writing behaviour”. It was a telling, worrying phrase.

Win a copy of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click to tweet. Just click the Goodreads link at the end of this blog to enter.

What he could not have hoped for when he was designing his experiment was what happened next. The research team had involved twelve mental hospitals, and they were not happy when the news came out with the publication of Rosenhan’s study.

But another one – what had not been involved – boasted in the public forore that followed that it would never happen there. Rosenhan seized the initiative and threatened to send some fake patients there too. The hospital then judged 41 of 193 recent patients as sane, and – only when he discovered this – Rosenhan revealed that he had actually not sent them any.

The Rosenhan experiment went to the heart of an issue in psychiatry in those days, a generation ago, when all professions were suddenly under scrutiny for the arrogant ways they used their professional privileges and powers. After all, psychiatrists could uniquely lock up people they decided were not sane, and do so indefinitely, without a second opinion, and carry out a series of irreversible and unproven treatments on them without their consent.

But what did it mean? Rosenhan seemed to imply that psychiatry was in the grip of a series of self-supporting assumptions about the sanity or otherwise of the population, which had no obvious relationship to the real world.

But the most important implication was set out clearly by Rosenhan: that psychiatrists were unable to tell the sane from the insane, with serious implications for these concepts. It seemed to imply, if nothing else, that there was something seriously wrong with the whole mental health profession.

Rosenhan had been inspired to try his experiment during a lecture by Laing about how insecure conventional psychiatric definitions were. He had wondered if he could design an experiment to test the proposition. It turned out that he could.

Win a copy of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click to tweet Just click the Goodreads link at the end of this blog to enter.

Ronald Laing was an enigma, then at the height of his fame, and people immediately saw that Rosenhan’s findings were important evidence that Laing was right. He was at the heart of a passionate debate, and a bitter argument, about sanity and what it meant – and how to claw it back – which seemed to go to the very heart of everything. Especially when the world seemed pretty insane, was perched on the edge of nuclear oblivion, and seemed unable to heal the rifts between rich and poor, black and white, old and young and East and West.

Since his groundbreaking book A Divided Self was published in a popular Penguin edition in 1965, Laing had been on a stratospheric journey that took him from a career as a major critic of the psychiatric establishment, and a spokesperson for those who had been misused by it, to something else entirely – a religious guru, the author of a million radical T-shirt slogans, a leading poet, a social critic and a theological maverick.

It is nearly half a century since Rosenhan’s research which marked the high point of Laing’s fame. Treatments are often a good deal more effective and more permanent than those offered in Laing’s day. Mental hospital inmates are no longer treated with the sheer cruelty, that Laing exposed to the light of day. But those in great mental distress are often forced to beg for help from overstretched mental health trusts, or to live isolated lives being cared for ‘in the community’, which tends to mean not being cared for at all.

Those in the grip of mental ill-health – which may be anything up to a quarter of us at some time in our lives – are categorised against the same kind of numerical classifications that Laing condemned, and weaned onto drugs that can still undermine their ability to recover.

Now David Tennant is playing Laing in the story of his alternative therapeutic community, Mad to be Normal (released in April). My new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist sets that story in context – telling the strange tale of Laing’s revolt inside Scottish mental hospitals, and also his wider story in the context of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture.

If you want a good read around the story of Laing, I would humbly recommend it.

You can buy the Kindle edition here or click the link below to enter the Goodreads Giveaway to win a signed paperback copy. Or simply click to tweet and follow us on Twitter to be entered into a weekly draw to win an ebook version.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Ten ways of the Absent Corporation

Let’s call it Catch-23. It is when you load your old version of Word onto a new computer and you are told that Microsoft cannot verify the code online, and that it has to be done by phone (see numbers below).

Then you find that telephone verification is no longer available for this version. You are caught in a very familiar double bind.

It is familiar also from dealing with many of the new generation of internet behemoths. The service is fine until something goes wrong, then – silence.

Try contacting Youtube because your children are being harassed by online bullies, or one of Amazon's suppliers when your goods don’t arrive – and you can find, as I have on both occasions recently, that nobody replies.

The truth is, as Lindsay Mackie and I explain in our new pamphlet The Absent Corporation: Why big companies don’t want to see you, this is a very modern phenomenon – the great silence at the heart of these newly empty organisations.

I’m tempted to say, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘let me count the ways’, but in this case I will just count to ten…

1. The customer service lines which have been outsourced (even Waitrose) to specialist online providers.

2. The alarm buttons and online feedback clickthroughs which are manned and never get a reply (we all know which they are).

3. The CRM software that has no space for your particular issue (most of them).

4. The deluded company HR departments that think than customer service can be replaced by a five-point scale for every ‘interaction’.

5. The rise of human-free trains and self-checkout – increasing at five per cent every year.

6. The tide of computerised selling, which is now used by 80 per cent of American companies.

7. The transformation of service staff into security guards – to police how we use self-checkout machines or get on trains.

8. The regeneration companies with no real existence apart from a name plate in an offshore finance centre like Jersey or Dingle.

9. The dark and silent flats on the investment estates in London, owned by absent investment companies in Shanghai and Singapore.

10. The increasing use of virtual teachers and doctors, mainly to service poor people, and the strange amnesia about the transformative effect of relationships with professionals.

None of this suggests that there are never benefits for human-free interaction, but it is another thing to say that software can tackle every conceivable problem – or that there should never be anyone there to help when something goes wrong.

This is a symptom of financialisation and a kind of tyrannical Taylorism, but most of all it is about the rising imbalance of power between these vast public and private semi-monopolies and the increasingly powerless people they serve.

See my Guardian article on the Absent Corporation. You can also buy the pamphlet here, or as a kindle edition here or as a pdf here.

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

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Monday, 27 February 2017

Can you ever use slavery as an analogy?

Being beaten up on twitter concentrates the mind wonderfully and, although I wasn't badly beaten, I have been thinking about what I clearly did wrong.

I knowingly, wilfully and with aforethought, compared my two journeys to London and back with Southern Rail to a slave ship.

This was pretty crass. There were no chains, no whips, no cholera and no fear of death. Of course it wasn't anything like a slave ship and I never thought I was doing more than drawing an analogy. But I am not supposed to do such things, so why did I do it?

The answer is that I wanted to get across the idea that the people on the train were not just squeezed in next to each other, but also had no choice in the matter. They had absolute choice of course - they could choose not to go to work or to see their families that evening - but in practice there was an element of compulsion. More than an element.

Now I genuinely don't know who was right here. I understand, of course, that to compare a horrendous thing with a less horrendous thing can certainly sound idiotic, because nothing in a sense can compare to the horror of the slave trade - and it isn't just the slave trade that is in this category of incomparables in this corner of political correctness. There is the added issue that I am white and can therefore not fully appreciate the horror. I know all that.

And yet and yet, there are issues about slavery and the economics that leads to it that I very much want to talk about. It seems insane that I can't use an analogy that allows me to communicate why I am worried abotu certain trends in the centralisation and monopolisation of corporate power.

I have in fact been in this argument before. Last year, I tried to get a commission for a book called The Slavery Economy, which explained the politics of the anti-slavery movement and how it fed through into a Victorian obsession with the evils of monopoly power. And because we have closed our eyes to this phenomenon in our own age, we seem blind to the threat that monopoly power now poses to us.

In other words, because it is now difficult to talk about slavery in any other context, to use it as an analogy in any way, have we actually failed to understand the very potent economic roots of slavery?

But the people who decide these things got cross with me about the book. Was I shackled by Amazon, even though it is rapidly dominating the gobal retail market, virtually tax free? Was I forced into the hold by Google because they dominate so much activity? Of course not. But there is an element of growing compulsion about it - and it does tend towards a kind of slavery - it is just that I wasn't allowed to say so.

Let me explain. It is one of the great ironies of history that, east and west, the liberation of the agricultural slaves and serfs – the people who carried out most of the work in the fields of Russia and eastern Europe and the plantations of the southern US states – happened almost simultaneously.

The slaves were freed by the Emancipation Declaration of Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, though it required another two years to win the Civil War and finish the job. But the Russian serfs were freed from bondage to the land at almost the very same time. The declaration was in March 1861, to cheers outside the royal palace in St Petersburg, but it also took two years and came to fruition in February 1863, just five weeks after Lincoln promulgated his Emancipation Proclamation.

Both liberations were great victories for the anti-slavery campaigners, more than half a century since the first successes of the campaign against the slave trade. But they were also great disappointments for agrarian radicals. Because, in both cases, the slaves and the serfs were catapulted from bondage into poverty.

In the USA, slavery was replaced by peonage and debt bondage. In Russia, the land was valued at three and a half times its market value, and this the impoverished serfs had to pay their former owners over a period of 49 years. For many serfs, even the details of the terms were not agreed for decades. Just as the former slaves had been in the USA, many of the serfs were thrown on the mercies of the money lenders.

In short, it wasn’t enough to release the slaves – you had to release them from debt and monopoly and the economic tyranny that replaced it.

By then, the basic tenets of free trade had been set out – by David Ricardo and by the political campaigner Richard Cobden. Cobden died in 1865, so he hardly lived to see the aftermath of liberation. But he knew all too well that there were such things as economic manacles. If you just set slaves free, you could bind them just as firmly by forcing them into debt and controlling where they could buy what they needed – just as the Corn Laws forced the English poor to buy bread at inflated prices.

So the original idea of free trade is not a simple license to do whatever you want, if you were rich and powerful enough. It was thoroughly aware of Adam Smith’s original warning that collusion between entrenched businesses can end in “a conspiracy against the public”. It was designed as a means of liberation – so that the small could challenge the big, the poor could challenge the rich with the power of the new approach, the alternative provider, the imaginative, liberating shift.

But over the past two centuries, the doctrine of free trade become its own opposite – permission for the rich to ride roughshod over the poor, an apologia for monopoly and an extractive discipline that prevents the all-important challenge from below. Somehow, the global economy has turned in on itself – instead of promoting economic liberation, as Adam Smith envisaged, it has become a tool of what, if it is allowed to develop, becomes a tool of servility - and maybe even slavery.

That is how Columbus enslaved the Tainos, how the British dominated India, how the Romans held their empire together. Are we not allowed to use the S word at all?

Here is the dilemma faced by the newly released slaves and serfs in the 1860s. They had nothing. To earn wages they had to pay rent on their tools, they needed the right to work on their former plantations. They had to pay ruinous rent on their new homes and they were offered loans to be able to do so, which they could never pay off. They had no choice where they bought their food. But it wasn’t ‘slavery’ because they signed the contract on the dotted line. Or was it?

In 1912, Hilaire Belloc launched his own brand of Liberalism with his book The Servile State, arguing that both capitalism and socialism tends towards slavery. It was an insight that launched the Distributist movement in the 1920s. It doesn't seem to be a language that we are now allowed to use.

And when you lose the language, you lose the ability to understand an idea or to navigate around a threat. When nothing can be compared with anything else, we undermine our own ability to understand the dangers that lie before us.

Now, I'm sure some people will profoundly disagree with this, but - since I have been able to set out my thinking in such a way that I hope people can understand that I am not, in any way, denying the horrors of the slave trade - perhaps it might be possible to have a polite dialogue about it. Fingers crossed...

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

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Monday, 6 February 2017

Which is worse? Confused trains or confused truth?

Sir Humphrey appears to be alive and well and living at the Department of Transport. I find it really pretty astonishing that nobody there seems to feel that Southern or Govia Thameslink passengers are owed some kind of explanation for having their lives turned upside down over the past eight months.

Apparently not.

The poor put-upon rail minister Paul Maynard tells us that the Chris Gibb report was too technical to be made public - this is the report by the man given a budget of £20m and told to report back on why Southern was really failing.

I have heard rumours that we are to be allowed to see a copy, but that isn't what Parliament was told.

As if this isn't bad enough, GTR and Aslef were told to settle as soon as the #passengerstrike popped up as a possibility. Now they have - and blow me if they are not keeping that agreement secret too.

Who do these people think they are? I don't think I've felt quite so cross since the service first unravelled in May last year. But no, the passengers are being treated as if they were children. It's one thing to be economical with the trains, but quite another to be quite so economical with the truth.

There have been three other significant developments since I last wrote about the rail crisis. First, the National Audit Office investigation of Southern Rail.

Second, the leaked story that the Department are at least giving themselves the option of stripping GTR of their contract.

Third, the Association of British Commuters have now brought their legal action for judicial review - which, given the disdain with which service users are treated - is potentially enormously significant.

The problem with contracted out public services, as it turned out, was that - in the case of any kind of difficulty between service providers and service users, the government turns out to be implacably on the side of the providers. It certainly wasn't what privatisation was intended to mean.

It may be, now that we have to find a more effective way of making services accountable when the government sees no legitimate role for service users, raising the money for a barrister may be the
most powerful way forward.

A couple of odd questions I want to ask...

First, why are the government delaying the announcement that they are stripping GTR of the Southern franchise? Is it because they were planning to appoint Chris Gibb himself as chief executive, and don't know how to do so without releasing his report to the public? Or do the criticisms said to be in his report now rule him out?

Or is it because, now that the judicial review by passengers is a reality, they are afraid that - if they take action now, so late - it will look like pleading guilty?

Second, why these stories about people applying to be train drivers and being told there are no vacancies, despite the very public GTR job adverts? Is it because GTR is afraid that they will make the commitment to a new generation of trainee drivers (at last), only to lose the contract? Are the all-powerful accountants from Go Ahead plc being a bit difficult about it? Or is it just the usual incompetence we have come to expect?

But oh how the establishment would love this to have been their favourite sport of Industrial Dispute. How clear everyone's roles would then have been. But it went much further than that - the whole sorry tale of incompetence, dissembling and the wrong financial savings casts doubt on the way all out public services are now managed. Basically they very worst of private operation combined with the very worst of state control.

This is how the new Transport Select Committee report concludes:

"Despite the Department’s consistent claims of a commitment to transparency, our experience would suggest that transparency in franchising monitoring appears to be very poor. It has taken significant effort from this Committee to obtain basic information around GTR’s performance benchmarks and timetabling which are not available publicly. Further, in allowing GTR to change their performance benchmarks and timetable, which effectively enabled them to avoid breach of contract, the Department has not actively intervened in a manner proportionate to the problems on the TSGN franchise." 

We now look to the courts to sort it out, but there is a broader problem here - the bizarre way that GTR and the Department attempted to deal with the unions with a mixture of parade ground discipline and bluster.

I was reminded of a famous book called On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which diagnoses these failings along the lines of the same British disease which led to the Somme and the fall of Singapore - basically the conviction by the military establishment that "these johnnies just need to be taught a lesson".

Unfortunately, the lesson never seems to get learned. On either side. Like the Bourbons, they forget nothing and remember nothing...

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

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 30 January 2017

People who build walls get forgotten or derided by history

When I was a reporter in Oxford, I discovered a file of photos - in the Oxford & County Newspapers amazing press library - of the old Cutteslowe Wall. It was built in 1934 to divide a private estate from the public one. It was two metres high and had spikes along the top.

It was a living symbol of snobbery and how the rich derided the poor, and how the powerful feared the powerless.

It became a focus for idealistic protest and was pulled down twice by the city council, for the last time in 1959. When I was there in the 1980s, the bus route still failed to recognise that the wall wasn't there any more.

I thought about it over the weekend, as the world woke up to the fact that the new American president really does want to mark his border with Mexico with a wall, and realised that - with the possible exception of Hadrian - the builders of walls are derided or forgotten by history. What gets remembered is the moment they are removed.

Trump is a symbol of the decline of the West, but - if he builds the wall - it will come to symbolise his presidency in a very specific way.

I've been wondering these last few months what tactics we should pursue against walls, whether they are Brexit walls or those built by Trump. The tactics must depend on how we found ourselves in this situation.

Here is my take on it. First, it was the fault of the free market right, for the hands-off cult. What started as an important recognition of the power of market forces became, instead, an insidious loss of belief in any kind of action at all.

Their Panglossian view of the world leeched them of a belief in government. We elected them and they became powerless custodians of the nation.

That was the father of Trump. The mother came from the left, on the back foot for the past half century, and with their very own brand of powerlessness. Instead of ideas for the future, they gave us conspiracy theories, symbolic gestures, politically correct linguistics. It was in its way another catastrophic loss of belief in their own potential - endlessly trying to emphasise the present (Blair) or remake the past (Corbyn).

Instead of opposition, they gave us 'protest', which simply acted out their own powerlessness to do anything but supplicate.

It follows that the path we liberal-minded people should follow, it seems to me, is to recognise that we need a better vision - which means no more defending the past, no more defending defunct institutions. It means looking beyond the European Union - so that we are not defending the empty symbolism of tolerance, but we promote what is most important and we reinvent these institutions most likely to make tolerance and progress real.

This is not a plea for compromise, though it may look like that. Though it is a plea for strategic withdrawal on some issues - it seems insane to me that, in a nation of pushing 70 million people, we can't recruit and train our own to populate the NHS.

It is a plea for thinking afresh, so that we can challenge Trump and Farage, and the other brutes, on the future and win. And it seems to me that we most urgently need to rethink free trade so that it becomes a genuine tool of challenging enterprise and not a hidden force for plutocracy.

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

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A DIY guide to the No-Trains?-No-Show! passenger strike




"We are the people of England,
that never have spoken yet..."
G. K. Chesterton, 'The Secret People'

"It looks as though The Revolution has started in Sussex and @davidboyle1958 is leading it," said a tweet on Thursday after my description of the first #passengerstrike event at Brighton. The tweet was by my friend Jonathan Calder, who is an extraordinary humourist - and the ironies are obvious.

It isn't so much that I'm not a very revolutionary person - though I'm not - but the idea of The Revolution, or any revolution actually, happening in deeply English Sussex seems unexpected enough to raise a smile.

I can vouch for it. As I walked down the packed train on its way to the confrontation with Southern Rail, I asked everyone if they would join me at the barriers and refuse to show their ticket - and have some cake at the same time.

A surprising number of them said they would, even if just for a little while, and so many of them behaved in the same way that I've come to believe it is what the English do when they are at the end of their tether. They didn't look me in the face when I asked them, having read my explanatory letter. They just gave a little nod, barely perceptible.

I know what that little nod means. It means they are not given to anger, and are embarrassed about showing it - but they recognise, as I do, that something must now be done. It was a nod of determination, which ministers ignore at their peril. And there they were next to me a little while later, as good as their word, for the party by the gates.

The article I wrote about it does seem to have had an impact. It was published mid-afternoon on Thursday and I was still getting tweets and retweets at the rate of about one a minute well into that night. That doesn't count all the 3,500 people who shared the article separately.

It struck a chord and so many people have got in touch to say they want to do something similar and asking for the letter. This blog isn't encouragement to do so - but, if they do, I do have some advice and an updated version of the letter I used.

There was some hilarity when I suggested that the No-Trains?-No-Show! event borrowed something from Gandhi, but Gandhi understood that this kind of action was - by striking at the symbols of their power (their ability to check the tickets they have failed so miserably to fulfil) - a way of reasserting our own dignity.

For Gandhi, it was making salt; for us it is tickets. When, together, we refuse to show our tickets, we force Southern either to appear ridiculous by opening the gates or to show aggression to the passengers they pretend to support. Either way, we win.

It is, I hope, a model for how to campaign against the arbitrary power of monopolies more generally. And please note, this is not a protest. In a traditional protest - with slogans and demands - you simply become supplicants; you act out your own powerlessness. By refusing to make ourselves easy to process, we are reasserting our power.

Traditional protest, with all its defunct symbolism of the Russian revolution, has served us badly recently. We need something else if we are not going to be completely pushed around - as we are being by all sides in the Southern Rail mess.

By doing it politely and without shouting, and with party hats and cake, we are doing it in a way that we reserved English can take part in.

That's the theory. A few bits of advice:

1. Don't do it alone: it takes some courage to get up and give letters to people on a crowded train.

2. Do it when people are most likely to be able to help - probably not in the mornings on their way to work.

3. Be charming and understanding, not just to people who are too busy to stop, but to the poor ticket collectors caught in the middle. Tell the manager to open the gates.

4. Don't fall into the usual trap: you're not holding a protest; you're waiting to get through the gates and will disperse as soon as they are opened for you. But you're not going to show your ticket to Southern or use their machines until they can run a railway again.

5. Stay resolutely non-aligned as far as the sides of the industrial dispute go. The whole purpose is to carve out a voice for the passengers again.

6. Dress: very conventional. It unnerves the politicians.

7. Have fun. Smile. Wear silly hats.

In the meantime, here is an updated version of the letter I used:

Dear Passenger

Please join me for a 'No Trains? No Show!' event at the barrier - with cake!
Like you, I’m a regular user of GTR services (Southern, Thameslink etc) and – like you, also, I expect – I have now reached the end of my tether.

I’m a [INSERT PROFESSION/HOME TOWN ETC]. I live in West Sussex and have XX children. I need trains just like anyone else. But I’m not any more prepared to submit my ticket (which I’ve bought) to the company for inspection, when they have manifestly failed to provide me with an adequate or reliable service, now for eight months.

I’ve been wondering what Gandhi would do in these circumstances. I have come to the conclusion that he would join with others and refuse to show his ticket at the barrier at [INSERT STATION].

So I’m inviting you to join me at the barrier tonight, where we will refuse to show our tickets. We’ll do so politely, demanding to see the manager to open the gates for us – on the grounds that they are not keeping to their side of the contract. We will also have cake to celebrate our revival of the Blitz spirit in the face of such official indifference.

If the gates are open already, we will claim victory and try again another day. If they stay shut, we will have proved the company's aggressive attitude to their passengers and made a stand. Either way, we win!


If you’re too busy or you just want to get home, we quite understand. Please give us a thumbs-up 👍. But if you can even spare a few minutes, it would be an enormous help. In the meantime, I’ll come through the train in a moment and see what you think, and collect this copy (I want to use it again!). If you join us, I’d be ever so grateful: this will be a very civilised and good-humoured event. It will only work if it is fun!

Thank you so much for your time.

[SIGNED BY WHOEVER IS INVOLVED]


It may be sensible to reprint a copy of the Guardian article on the back of this letter, so that our smiling faces can reassure them that this will be a thoroughly restrained, English and therefore effective event.

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

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Join me for a small bit of civil disobedience - with cake...

I'm certainly not a conspiracy theorist. Quite the reverse in fact. But the bizarre way that the poor put-upon passengers are being pressured into taking sides in the rail dispute - for the management or for the unions, as if that was the only issue - might just make me one.

Perhaps most worrying of all has been the way that the two women, arts journalists, who run the Association of British Commuters are being vilified in the media. 

The strange thing is that I have huge admiration for Andrew Gilligan, and I hope he's realised that he got it wrong this time. He's taken the side of passengers before and I'm sure he will again.

We are in short being forced to take sides in the traditional oh-so-British management-versus-labour battle – when the slow collapse of Southern Rail is mainly to do with incompetent franchising from the Department of Transport and absentee landlord behaviour from the Treasury and owners Go Ahead (as well, of course, on the usual useless industrial relations that seems so inevitable in the UK).

How do we keep up the voice of passengers in this great squeeze? The answer is to learn from Gandhi. Which is why I’m going to demonstrate a little light civil disobedience on Wednesday at 5.45pm at the barrier at Brighton Station (assuming they don’t cancel my train).

In short, as a regular user of GTR services (Southern, Thameslink etc), I have now reached the end of my tether. I’m not any more prepared to submit my ticket (which I will buy) to the company for inspection, when they have manifestly failed to provide me with an adequate or reliable service, now for eight months.

So do join me. I hope it will be fun. We will politely, demand to see the manager to open the gates for us – on the grounds that they are not keeping to their side of the contract. We will also have cake to celebrate our revival of the Blitz spirit in the face of such official indifference.

If the gates are open already, we will claim victory and try again another day. I’ve been blogging about this crisis – and the industrial dispute which is also going on – since June now. And I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a matter of self-respect. If we can be pushed around like this on this relatively small matter – taking our money, increasing fares, giving us an increasingly useless service – then what else will they do to us? 

It is time to draw a line in the sand for reasonable people. Please come along on Wednesday and help me draw it! And please use the hashtag #passengerstrike 

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

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How Gandhi could win this for rail passengers: a proposition

A few days after Christmas, I climbed with my family up to the old motte and bailey castle that
crowns Truleigh Hill on the South Downs. On the one side you can see the English Channel; to the north, there is Sussex laid out before you.

But what was that black scar in the sky going from south to north, I asked myself? Then I realised. It was the M23, the motorway route from Brighton to London. A great, oily streak across the clear air.

I had a slightly sanctimonious email just before Christmas, asking me why I have spent so much time blogging about unimportant issues like Southern Rail when there are people actually dying in Syria. This is of course quite true, and it did bother me - but the black cloud across Sussex made me think again.

It is true that Southern Rail are not actually bombing anyone. It isn't systematically murdering families. But the crisis is causing the breakdown of the systems we use to make getting from place to place bearable and as little polluting as possible. Because Southern has a dysfunctional contract, and because their owners Go Ahead do nothing to fulfil their duties beyond it, the air we breathe becomes as intolerable as the journeys we make.

But there is another reason I am concerned about it - though not to the exclusion of everything else, as I hope to show later in the year - and you only have to see the results of the Association of British Commuters passenger survey to get a hint of it.

I find it both extraordinary and disturbing that we put up with what we do. We pay through the nose to travel with Southern, and more than that before 9.30am, though they have not been capable of getting us there reliably now since April. They may bundle us on and off trains. They may abandon us in the middle of the night at a station miles from home. They may let us miss meetings, school pickups, flights, interviews and dates - and our families - with complete impunity. Yet we still obediently pay up and hand over our tickets.

Maybe that doesn't matter in itself. It isn't Syria, after all - but if they can do that to us, what else might they do?

We all have our lists, but mine would include closing the post office services vital for our local economies and promised us when they closed the bank branches. Or undermining our attempts to be more financially independent by taxing solar panel (both of these now seem to be happening). Or a range of other ways in which ministers peddle untruths or take us for granted or simply wash their hands of us, during the tortuous Brexit negotiations to come.

And all because they find they can mess us around on the trains and we stay obediently pliable.

So I've been asking myself what I think is a pretty important question. What would Gandhi do?

And you only have to articulate this for the answer to be obvious. Gandhi would refuse to show his ticket. He wouldn't bother to have a fight with a guard about it. He would get together with 200 or so others and refuse to show tickets - not at any of the small stations where the gates are usually left open these days - but at Brighton.

He would buy a ticket - this is civil disobedience not illegality - but he would refuse to show it, along with everyone else, at the gates at Brighton Station at 6pm and clog the arteries until they open the gates and let him through. He would film the event, knowing the embarrassment it would cause in either eventuality - either opening or keeping the gates closed would cause political pressure to mount.

By doing this he would shift the narrative away from the one the government wants - that this is just about industrial action - and put the attention right back where it belongs: on the plight of the passengers these last eight months or so, on the incompetence of the train company, the failures of its owners and the duplicity of the Department of Transport, where it belongs. It would give us passengers back some dignity again.

I had felt it was unfair to put the guards under this kind of pressure - they are courageous people who have stuck by the passengers during the worst chaos in the summer. But the industrial action has made me think again about this. Let's see which side the unions are actually on, when we ask them to open the gates.

Yes, I understand that the people manning the gates at Brighton are not members either of Aslef or the RMT, though some of them will be. They are mainly agency staff and security guards. But the managers will soon be on the scene if enough passengers are explaining that they can't show their tickets because the operator has failed to fulfil the contract between them - and if enough can spend a few hours putting pressure on outside the gates by persuading others to do the same.

I would be up for that. It seems unlikely that Southern will lose their nerve like the British in India and start arresting us - we should be so lucky - but the longer they hold out, the more uncomfortable it is for them and the more this tactic will work. It works whether they open the gates or keep them closed.

I'd like to start the ball rolling by getting together with anyone who wants to talk about this at the end of Platform 4 on Wed 11 Jan. I will be on the Thameslink that arrives at 1743 in Brighton (the last train of the day). It is a full strike day so there may be nobody around - in which case I will go off and have a drink and try again another day.

But the beauty of this tactic is that anybody can lead it. They can hand out letters in the Brighton-bound train explaining that they will be refusing to show tickets at the barriers and asking others to join them for an hour or so. If they do so, just a few guidelines:

DO be polite and peaceful: that's how we win.

DON'T browbeat the security staff - ask for the manager and demand to be let through. There's no point in getting through by accident.

DO film the conversations and post them on social media.

DON'T browbeat other commuters. Lots of people will be busy and that's fair enough.

DON'T take sides - as far as this action is concerned, the government, management, owners and unions are all in it together, even if they are bound by common bonds of frustration and hate.

DO be careful. We will not be breaking any laws, except for the railway byelaw which says we have to show our tickets on demand. It makes sense therefore not to do this alone.

DO bring a thermos. It's got to be fun!

I suggest that the hashtag #passengerstrike. I also hope the process can drag a little self-esteem back from the jaws of Southern Rail. Goodness knows, we need it.

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

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe