Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Do the Red Wall MPs hold the key to the centre ground?

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

I have to say that I feel sorry for Allegra Stratton. I completely agreed with Matthew Parris about her predicament – that was no laugh of hilarity against sick people, or anything remotely like it. It was a laugh of nervous embarrassment. As Boris Johnson must also have recognised.

So when he hung her out to dry, by implying otherwise, I felt pretty ashamed to have him as prime minister.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when everyone I met in southern England seemed so united in their rage at any prime minister. The conservative ladies around here can’t stand him, and my builders want the Queen to step in…

Yet, really – as Joe Zammit-Lucia suggested during the crucial week – Boris’ parties are really neither here nor there compared with issues around the latest covid Christmas.

It may be that when we find that the government has gone back to its old, incompetent ways, trying to tickbox their way to delivering the booster jab centrally at the same as encouraging panic – so that nobody can get one.

Personally, I find the whole business of queuing online out-tickboxes even tickbox (it involves the classic Tickbox situation whereby those at the centre are reassured by the numbers, and only those at the sharp end understand the chaos).

That is when people get seriously angry.

The question is whether the radical centre can profit by it in some way. I would suggest that there is an emerging political force that we could learn from, and perhaps vice versa: the Red Wall Conservative MPs.

These are people, as we keep being told, who are semi-detached from mainstream Conservatism. They are also less complacent and angrier than many of their fellow Tories.

Their only hope of being re-elected seems to me to lie in some kind of separate identity from the government.

I’m not suggesting some mass resignation. I am suggesting that, like the Liberal Unionists more than a century ago – or like the Co-operative Party inside Labour – they might begin to develop their own semi-autonomous leadership in the Commons. And with it, that sense among their constituents of who they are: standing for competence and devolution.

When they do that, I believe they might be the key factor in the major devolution of power that is so urgently needed in the UK. They might even be the means by which the Trusting the People report – published at the Conservative Party conference in October – might see the light of day as law. But they have to act together.

I hope that, if they did that, then we at Radix - alongside the New Social Covenant Unit - could help them think through where they stand as a party within a party…

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

The metaphysics of covid-19

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

This may seem a peculiar post to write on a thinktank blog, yet writing it is a result of my sense that beliefs are at least as important as Mckinsey-style measurement. They certainly are in the world outside the hothouse we know as the Westminster ‘bubble’.

Why, after all, is a good quarter to a third of the adult population of continental Europe so keen to avoid vaccination? Because of the fundamental beliefs they hold about covid that frame their responses.

The real issue about the disaster that has hit the world is not so much about statistics anyway - but about what we believe about it. Not so much about precisely who caused it, but about its true significance.

And here we find ourselves in a largely evidence-free zone. What I can say is that the real issue around covid is what it is for – and therefore why it has arrived.

There will certainly be positivists out there who think these kind of questions have no meaning because they are unverifiable. They are certainly unverifiable now, but they derive their meaning from being able to verify them one day – either individually after we die or sometime before that.

The real leap I take here is to introduce the Jungian idea of a collective unconscious into a policy discussion. Though I am aware that,by introducing a past and a future, I'm already straying some way from Jung's original idea.

it possible, in other words, for our own human futures and our combined human pasts have been wrestling with ways to draw humanity into a safer space?

Are there ways in which humanity can survive the combination of crises before us?

I don’t know, but our future selves do know and I believe covid was a way to bring us to that safer space.

Remember that covid-19 has been a virus that targeted the old and infirm. It has not targeted children, nor young, fit and healthy people like the flu epidemic of a century ago. And believe me – I lost my wonderful mum to covid – so I understand that these are not losses that are miraculously pain-free.

I was involved last year in writing some background materials for three short films, made via the New Weather thinktank about the enormous benefits of covid – as well as the obvious difficulties it has brought in its wake.

Maybe it was a kind of minimum viable package capable of nudging humanity in the right direction - of survival. You can see the almost miraculous lessons learned within days of the first lockdown and since, in the UK, that local people working together can achieve a great deal more than centralised or corporate diktat.

It showed us that we can look after homeless people if we want to. It encouraged people to get back on a bike.

The issue is whether we can learn the lessons, about flying in particular. The most obvious is the lesson about sharing vaccines. It seems obvious to me that we will have more panics like the one we are now having about the omicron variant, and while we queue in the cold drizzle – as I did last week – to get my third dose, there are so many other people around the world who need a first one.

Until we can think in a little more human ways, we may be doomed just to repeat this over and over again.

So, what is it that you believe about covid?

Monday, 15 November 2021

Are we approaching the next wave of community innovation?


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

I have been very interested to see the slow return of a broader consciousness of history, after it has driven out by a combination of modernism and economism. I would like to think that my own, very tentative timeline for a history of community development since 1940, published over the summer by the Local Trust, has helped a little.

Either way, last week, I found myself at a fascinating online conference in the Spaces of Hope: People's Plans programme – and was wondering, gently to myself, about why so much of what has happened before, and how much has been achieved – by the Eldonians in Liverpool, the Glasgow housing co-ops or in Coin Street on London’s South Bank – has been so quickly forgotten.

Whose fault was it that recent governments have shown so little interest in community-driven, bottom-up regeneration?

Traditionally, most of us have blamed the political right, and it was true that the Thatcher government was not very interested in sharing power with impoverished communities.

But I have a feeling that the conventional Left needs now take an  equal part of the blame – given that they are all so nervous about appearing populist or Trumpist, that we are not supposed, any more, to doubt what the ‘experts’ say – or state officials – when most community development has to start precisely with that kind of scepticism.

Somehow we need to remember that people and communities have some reason for scepticism about conventional regeneration – that somehow all we need to do is to persuade cities to specialise and the build motorways and IT superhighways, and – hey presto!

Unfortunately, most cities specialise in precisely the same sectors, none of which – however hopefully we may train the locals – are likely to employ most of those who need it.

It could therefore be the political Right which takes the necessary leap of imagination. That is what I wondered when Michael Gove, of all people, launched a report at his party conference called Trusting the People, published by the New Local thinktank and the New Social Covenant Unit and written partly by Danny Kruger, Gove’s new parliamentary aide, and other Red Wall MPs.

It is interesting because it talks about the next stage of Conservatism which is to “to put power and trust into the hands of the British people”.

Gove has been assumed to be backing these principles for his own version of planning reform. Needless to say, the Tory ‘free market’ thinktanks – Adam Smith, IEA and Cato – are not too happy about it.

Here is the argument, it seems to me. Almost nobody wants to go back to the pre-1970 age of building upwards by targets, launched by Harold Macmillan as housing minister, which led directly to a new generation of slums and to the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968.

But equally, it seems to me that the Thatcherite approach by Howe and Lawson to let the market decide clearly hasn’t worked either. It has raised land and property prices to disastrous levels. 

For some reason the entire political establishment believes this is because we have ignored ‘price signals’ which imply a shortage of homes. But nobody has persuaded me how one can ever supply enough housing to satisfy the demand, for example, for Far Eastern investors who want to buy into the London property market.

It isn’t too few houses driving up property prices – it has been the over-supply of mortgage finance seeking too few houses. It is classic inflation, in fact. Subsidising mortgages can only make this worse.

The government, to give them their due, does appear to be beginning to grasp some of this. So what do you do instead? The pamphlet doesn’t say, though it does mention briefly that neighbourhood planning should be “universal and the ultimate arbiter of local development”.

This is how it ends, calling for Conservatives to “come together to clear the political pathway to enable power to flow through to the people”.

Community-powered Conservatism is the only credible approach which promises to improve our quality of life, strengthen our economy and unite our nation. This is a Conservative project for the next decade and builds upon our greatest asset, the people of the United Kingdom.”

I have only one and a half problems with this rhetoric, which otherwise I would be out there cheering on. The half problem is that, personally, I don’t like appeals to ‘The People’. That smacks a little too much of Alec Douglas-Hume taking us for granted (“The British people are prepared if necessary to be blown to atomic dust”).

Trusting people seems to me to be a civilised, practical way forwards; trusting The People smacks a little of centralised Stalinism.

The other worry I have is remembering some of the Big Society rhetoric from a decade ago. The language was all there, but I remember meeting those most associated with the idea shortly after the new coalition took office in 2010 and finding my brain completely addled by how shallow it all was.

So, my question is this. If Gove really lets communities decide on planning applications, and they decide ‘wrong’ according to the government – how will he resist the huge pressure on him to bring in safeguards to prevent it? So is the Conservative Party is really ready to let go of central power?

I feel sure they will be eventually – because, in a democracy, people get what they want. But local people will need some protection to get involved in local planning, and then – how do you stop the usual rot setting in?

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

We need a new kind of national plan

This post first appeared on the RadixUK blog.

Things fall apart,” wrote Yeats in 1919, during the flu epidemic, “the centre cannot hold…”

The best certainly lack all conviction, while the worst/Are also full of passionate intensity. It is a scary time,

The problem for any government, not just one determined that we should still be living in around 1986, is that it has to be obvious to most of us that most of their quick fixes fix nothing. Continental lorry drivers don’t want to work here – who could possibly have guessed it, and when we have been so welcoming before…!

The next few weeks – I predict – will see a deepening of the staffing crisis in the care sector. There may be some more bankruptcies among the smaller gas providers too – these are all symptoms of having a covid crisis on top of an energy and staffing crisis.

In recent weeks, I have made a number of strategic suggestions about how to tackle the fundamental issues without making matters worse – from developing a paleo economics plan for devolving economic power to major anti-trust action to break up the monopolistic companies that purport to serve us.

But what we really need is some kind of national plan, which can unite us and show us what we might do to help drag ourselves back from poverty, and to help save the planet at the same time.

I don’t mean the kind of centralised targets in Stalin’s five-year plans, I mean something like Max Nicholson’s ‘National Plan for Britain’ of 1931 (and thanks to Ruth Potts for writing about this on the 80th anniversary; it is now past the 90th).

Nicholson was one of the founders of the green movement – he died in 2003 aged 98 and was one of those who launched the WWF with Peter Scott and the Duke of Edinburgh. But as a young man, as assistant editor of the Week-end Review, he drafted a special issue including ‘A National Plan’.

This was February 1931. Within months, the UK government had collapsed under the weight of post-war austerity, a National government had been formed, led initially by the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, the navy mutinied at Invergordon (September) and, by the end of the year, work on the liner Queen Mary was stopped on the Clyde.

It was a tough time, and the conventional activities by Labour and Conservative politicians alike failed to work. Roosevelt was still a year away in the USA, Oswald Mosley resigned from Labour two weeks after the Plan was published and formed the New Party in the UK.

The National Plan was important partly because of what it led to – the first thinktank, Political and Economic Planning (PEP), now the PSI. It was formed at a series of meetings at the Ivy restaurant in London – with people like Israel Sieff from Marks & Spencer, Nicholson himself and the Huxley brothers Julian and Aldous.

In retrospect, I am not sure whether we would approach a national plan in the same way. It was far too technocratic. In fact, Aldous Huxley never showed up again, and spent his time writing Brave New World in reaction to it. I tell the strange story of the start of PEP as part of my history of M&S in my book with Andrew Simms, Eminent Corporations.

We need to find a way that we can return responsibility to local people and get all the sectors on board – to show how to build an economy that can save the planet and save our lives at the same time, and how the moving parts might fit together.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

WTF is going on??

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

“Nobody in politics seems to know what the real problems are, let alone how to fix them. The government lurches from one ‘fix’ to another, and seems to think that the public finances can be repaired by taxing employees and employers alone, with no additional taxation on wealth. Mr Starmer seems to think that following what Tony Blair did makes sense.Tim Morgan, Surplus Energy Economics

What on earth is happening? Not only are we reeling from Brexit and the aftermath of a pandemic, but something else appears to be going on too. So we have panic buying of fuel and shortages of medicines and probably food as well.

Both sides of the Brexit ‘debate’ appear to be blaming each other for this, which hardly helps matters. But since similar shortages are also happening across the USA, we have to assume that this is actually about other influences too – extreme monopolies creating shortages in order to raise prices.

To put that in UK terms, we might call it ‘economic centralisation’. This is what happens when governments have allowed the UK market to be dominated by only two companies making carbon dioxide for the food industry – both of them foreign owned.

Put like that, small CAMRA beer makers and small publishers (like the Real Press) – or, to mention Sarah’s company – small dye studios like Sarah Burns Patterns, may be part of an eventual resurgence.

But not yet. The truth is that, just as Tim Morgan has suggested for some time, the number of fixes we have imposed on our struggling, debt-ridden economy in the past two decades, are finally now catching up with us.

This kind of crisis tends to happen every four decades. But when it has happened before – in the late 70s or the late 30s or the turn if the century between the 1890s and 1900s – we knew that what should happen next. This time, we have managed to suppress economic debate, so we seem to have new idea.

Reading the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, you can see the cracks in English conservatism emerging – between those hopeless remerging climate change sceptics complaining about the price of energy, and the letters complaining about why on earth we are still building homes without solar panels.

I know which side I am on – on the radical side that looks much further back for their solutions. It seems to me that most of our current difficulties stem from the Thatcher-Reagan period in the 1980s – and the really stupid idea that monopolies somehow don’t matter.

But I know that Tim Morgan’s analysis goes deeper, suggesting that we have reached a period when it now takes more energy to generate energy – leading to his predictions of serious economic problems and resulting peculiar political results too.

What we desperately need is leaders who understand the sheer complexity of the new world. We unfortunately have a prime minister who believes it has something to do with games people play at Eton.

We have run out of tricks and fixes. We need the kind of clear-out of the political classes that happened after Dunkirk in 1940: it is time, in fact, for the politics and economics of national survival.

But nobody is even setting out their stall about what that might mean in practise yet. Some voices who might do that: Michael Gove, Lisa Nandy, Daisy Cooper – let’s hear from the next generation…

Monday, 13 September 2021

We need to experiment with paleo economies

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

In case anyone is at all interested, I have begun a peculiarly fearsome diet called the Wahls Paleo Plus - which involves eating very little except for meat, fish and vegetables, also minimising carbohydrates like potatoes. 

I’m doing it because I am convinced it will bring back some of my missing voice, which has been slowly dwindling since I was working at the heart of government in 2012, and is now largely AWOL.

The point about this blog, though, is to unpack some of the ideas behind paleo. For one thing, I don’t know how to pronounce it - which is odd given that it is short for ‘paleolithic’, a term coined by my great great grandfather, Sir John Lubbock, in his 1865 bestseller Prehistoric Times.

Given that, there's no suggestion that we need to go back to paleolithic times, or even neolithic ones. Just that if we can organise a simpler diet based on what human beings ate in a more natural state, then health begins to sort itself out. This is what one healthy eating website says:

“The Wahls diet is a type of paleo diet. The key difference? The Wahls diet tells followers exactly how much of a certain food to eat, namely vegetables and protein. The protocol specifies that followers eat six to nine cups of non-starchy vegetables a day and four ounces of protein (fish, specifically twice a week). Plus, it has a specific focus on veggies, which Dr. Wahl posits gives the mitochondria the power it needs to convert food to energy, healing the body in the process.”

Dr Wahl herself seems to have rowed back the symptoms of MS using this diet, which of course puts her on the opposite side as the technocratic medical establishment.

Now, I have been wondering whether escaping tickbox technocracy might involve thinking about what a paleo economy would look like.

Like a paleo diet, this might not mean going back to a pre-monetary barter or gift economy as set out by Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics.

Sahlins, who died in April, said that hunter-gatherer societies are able to achieve affluence by desiring little and meeting those needs/desires with what is available to them. This he calls the "Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate." 

It may be that, to reach this better kind of zen, we need to go back to a period before the 1870s in England, when most communities had access to their own food and processing, plus locally-owned newspapers, breweries, slaughter houses and banks - and I now believe that these four are crucial to making local economies work.

Of course, by the1870s, it was too late for so many of our heaving cities. It might be sensible to go back to the kind of economies people lived in during the twelfth century, when there was very little poverty, at least in England.

I have written about medieval economics before. The real question here, as it is with paleo diets in fact, is how we get from here to there. I certainly don’t want to encourage the kind of puritanism that might lead us collectively towards both.

It is also worth remembering that neither will be permanent, but both involve a great reset. What unnerves me is how much our existing legal frameworks frustrate either task. In economics, they currently encourage scale, monopoly and dehumanising size.

About the diet: watch this space... ...

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Could we learn about the future shape of the UK from King Caractacus?

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

About ten years ago, I was talking to someone from The-Pub-Is-The-Hub – Prince Charles’ outfit for advising community pubs. They told me how the best economic unit for a community pub to survive economically wasn’t 10,000 people in the catchment area or even 2,000. It was 500.

That was a revelation to me, and the beginning of a fascinating search for other examples when smaller units survive better economically than bigger ones.

Maybe some hint of that was also why Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has been presenting a BBC radio series about the lost kingdoms of England, like Anglia, Mercia and Wessex and so on.

I have been wondering myself about the significance of such ancient history. After all, why has the BBC commissioned Hislop now?

Perhaps because there is a deep sense that our units are now too big to be effective – and because the idea of small nations across Europe, introduced in our own age by Freddie Heineken, is beginning to work away at our imaginations.

That is in fact one of the reasons why I wrote my series of novels about Caractacus (the third part, Roman Briton, is now out) – though these are earlier nations: Celtic ones and rather smaller than those Saxon behemoths.

In fact, there were three reasons why I began researching Caractacus – partly because I read about his lost autobiography which might have explained how he held back the Roman invaders for nine years (this was a misunderstanding on my part: it was probably never written).

It was partly because the idea appealed to me of Caractacus being a Christian king facing down the pagan Romans (who just happened to have arrived a little after Joseph of Arimathea came to our shores between 3-5 years earlier).

But partly also because I wanted to re-imagine Britain as a group of semi-independent nations under a high king.

Because we only have Roman sources, we normally think of the Iceni, Brigantes or the Silures as barbaric tribes.

They may have been that of course, but they may also have been something a good deal more civilised – nations like Icenia (under King Prasutagus and Queen Boudicca, covering Norfolk and Suffolk), or Brigantia (under Queen Cartimandua, covering Yorkshire), or Siluria (under King Arviragus and covering south Wales and Somerset. And held together by loyalty – or lack of it – to a high king.

Rehearsing a list like this is even more of a reminder how much classical scholars cloud our view of our own history. These are all Romanised names – we know that Caractacus was originally Caradoc, but recovering the rest demands an informed but imaginative approach to linguistics.

The days of high kings may now be gone, but Brexit does at least give us an opportunity to think about the structure of our nation, the right scale to be most effective and where our natural boundaries actually lie.

Maybe, if we can sort out the old logical issues about UK devolution – which used to be called the West Lothian question – then the idea that, in the almost legendary history of our home, we used to live in small semi-independent nations. So we could again: not just Scotland or England but maybe home rule for London or Sussex or Dumnonia.

Either way, it can be fun thinking about a far more localised structure for Britain that might actually be a futuristic vision of nations that might provide a template for other parts of the world.