Saturday, 15 May 2021

The cynical miserablism of the left, and why it can't win yet


This post was first published on the Radix UK blog

My brother-in-law appears to be becoming some kind of bellwether of British electoral politics – he has voted at least four ways to my certain knowledge in recent years, since retiring as a headteacher. And – to my great surprise – this time he voted enthusiastically for Johnson.

Why? Because, as far as I can see, it would be one in the eye for the media for complaining endlessly about who paid for the famous Boris curtains.

This is of course one of many explanations flying around the press about why the Conservative government should have performed so well, after plunging us into covid, lockdowns, test and trace and so on.

I have three thoughts on this.

First, there remains a real question mark over the usefulness of the Labour Party in its current form, given that is remains constructed as a tool to support the industrial classes, when there are so few of them around. It still smacks of those mighty acronyms of my youth – TGWU and CEGB. We are all generating energy these days, just as we are al mix-and-matching our TV habits. The days when we all watched the same TV programmes have long gone (until 1980 perhaps, with the launch of the fourth TV channel).

Second, I have been wondering whether my brother-in-law is right that – at least by implication – the opposition politicians have found themselves entangled in the minds of voters with a preachy, intrusive and alien media. They feel, perhaps, that – when they get bored of Boris – they will kick him out themselves. When they are good and ready.

Finally, I believe G. K. Chesterton was onto something a century ago, when he talked about the “tone of bitterness [and] atmosphere of hopelessness” encouraged among socialists, explaining why he became a Liberal instead. That is even truer now than it was then.

It is hard to see how we a can arrange a government of the left that is able to put aside the judgemental, puritanical, knowing and pessimistic. The left parties that win, if they ever emerge to do so, will be positive about people and communities. The cynicism and miserablism of the left is deeply offputting, whatever their detailed policies might be.

And unfortunately, when the Lib Dems run out of their own ideas – as they appear to be doing – they get suffused and infected by the same disease. Since the first Liberal embraced the first Fabian idea – circa 1890 – they have developed the same kind of snobbery, not far below the surface.

Because that is what it is. Nor is the way out of this, as those around Starmer seem to think, about wrapping ourselves in the union jack. We have to believe in ourselves as Irish, Scots, Welsh and – yes – definitely English people too. And in our neighbours – not glancing nervously at them as possible racists or the descendants of racists – and remembering Gladstone’s definition of Liberalism, as “trust in the people, tempered by prudence” (as opposed to Toryism “distrust of the people, tempered by fear”).

And knowing that, if we can do that, we cam be great nation, and a moral one too.

This isn’t the pseudo greatness that comes from carrying a big stick – those days have gone too. It is soft power from the ubiquity of English language and culture.

We may anyway have to update the union flag too, assuming that our current government appears to be on the verge of losing Scotland.

I have always felt, rather as George Monbiot did last week, that the Lib Dems in Scotland have found themselves on the wrong side of this debate – until Nick Clegg declared the party were ‘unionists’ that was never what the Liberal Party was. Nor were they nationalists, of course. They were in favour in Ireland of home rule under a united umbrella.

If Johnson persists in his Napoleonic attitudes to Scotland, the comparison with Ireland in the 1920s will become increasingly worrying – on the verge of bitter civil war that would echo into our own day.

How do we stop this? There is only one way. Finally to sort those ridiculous constitutional compromises that have caused us so much difficulty – launching a proper parliament for England in Oxford or Manchester.

The settlement would allow, the four nations of the UK, to go their separate ways but to hold them together under the Council of the Isles, or similar, with the queen and the common currency, the foreign office and a defence umbrella. Still run out of a cut down Westminster (London might also be a sovereign nation too).

Perhaps in the fullness of time, we might even get the Irish republic to join as an associate. Scotland would be free to join the EU if it wanted to, and we would need to find a democratic and borderless way to govern the old UK.

To others on the left who suggest that England would then be doomed to have a Tory majority forever, I would direct them towards Matthew Parris in the Times last week (£), who suggests that there is a limit to how long we will all accept one-party rule.

I think he is right. If we can somehow generate an optimistic alternative.

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Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Towards a different kind of leader

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

There is no doubt that – rightly or wrongly – we are feeling let down by our leaders these days, whether it is for their vacillation or greed or, listening to Keir Starmer, maybe for their steadfast failure to talk about what’s most important.

Personally, I think the emails between Boris Johnson and James Dyson are neither here nor there. And the NHS blogger Roy Lilley feels the same way: see his latest blog post about accessible leadership to see why.

Neither, actually, is what was or wasn’t said in the heat of the moment in No. 10 – especially as we have not in fact had bodies “piled in the street”.

Allegations about who paid for Johnson’s refurbishment in Downing Street are much more important. So of course is David Cameron’s insanely close relationship with the banker Greensill.

Then there is the other kind of flawed leadership, displayed by Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells, pursuing 700 sub-postmasters through the courts because their hopeless IT system said they were stealing money, some as far as prison or bankruptcy. Some of them have finally been exonerated after more than two decades.

The system began to go a little haywire a good 12 years before she took up the post, yet she carried on with a kind of cruel intransigence.

Why are our leaders so infected either with greed or tickbox? Why do they regard their job as a combination of deference to those above them and contempt for those below? Is that a peculiarly British combination?

Contrast that for a moment with Sarah’s experience on Sunday, getting her jab at the Brighton Centre, which was packed with humane, calm and generous volunteers giving up their weekend to help out after a hard week at various coalfaces.

She came back from her needle encounter bubbling over with enthusiasm for the volunteers – and asking why David Cameron had been taking his banker friend to see the Saudi crown prince, who appears to have been behind the killing and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, when ordinary people were giving up their time to help out.

It is good question. It is almost as if our current crop of leaders render themselves useless for ordinary life after office, because power corrodes their humanity in some way.

So there is one element of radical centrist leadership. Somehow we have to roll back the myopic reliance by our leaders on single tickboxed indicators – whether that is money or what their the internal IT systems are telling them (my Tickbox book also explains how those who run the world, divorced from the frontline, are often the only ones who believe what their tickbox systems are telling them).

But there is a problem or the left here too, because the left also doesn’t believe that ordinary people can manage things brilliantly and humanely – and do so every day.

The predominant narrative on the left suggests that ordinary people are the source of sexism and racism – and must therefore be controlled by professionals and other tickbox systems – to make sure that only approved buzzwords are used.

That leaves the radical centre as the only section of politics where we can talk about the heroic ordinary, bringing up children every day, with great skill – before they get spied on at work or gaoled because the IT system of their employers claims they have got their fingers in the till.



Tuesday, 30 March 2021

The last of the bearded sandals

This post first appeared on the Radix blog.

When I first joined the Liberal Party (1979), and particularly when I started going to their assemblies (1982), the television cameras used to linger on those of us sporting beards or sandals.

There was one large fellow in both who used to sit at the front. I never discovered who he was.

It is hard to be precise about what sandals and beards used to mean in politics. I wrote about this in the Guardian after the first modern sandals went on display – and the peculiar way that genuine radicals seemed to flow towards this particular garb.

I mentioned that I occasionally wear socks as well and have never really been allowed to forget it.

Politically, beards and sandals became a symbol of the deep divide on the left, between Labour and Liberals, socialist and radical. For some reason, the look was never really foisted on the Greens – they tend to be portrayed more as kind of manic druids (“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government,” said a Green cartoon in Private Eye after their spectacular Euro-election result in 1989, showing them gathered around Stonehenge, blowing trumpets).

No, beards and sandals were a Liberal radical uniform. Yet their Lib Dem successors seem to have dodged them in favour of suits and dangly ear-rings. After the very sad death of Tony Greaves last week, I’m hard pressed to think of a single be-sandalled Lib Dem.

Greaves was an inspiration when I joined the party, from his position running the sandalled Association of Liberal Councillors in bearded Hebden Bridge. Or with his weekly column in Liberal News. By the time I became editor in 1992, it was Lib Dem News and he was only writing the back page column once a month – but he could still pinpoint a confusing issue and show, clearly and inspiringly, the Liberal angle.

He wrote a piece in 1997 for the Liberal History Group on ‘Why I am a Lib Dem’, rather like Keynes’ essay ‘Why I am a Liberal’. The upshot was that, actually, he wasn’t – he didn’t know what it meant – but that he was a Liberal. It is a view I have come round to myself as, in practice, the liberal and social democrat ideologies seem to me to be getting further apart.

Greaves was also the personified engine room of community politics, urging Liberals to think like newspaper editors to get elected. Not too much though – “would you vote for your local paper editor?” he said.

Community politics has not really survived. Politicians of all parties badly need to understand the newer concept of ‘co-production’ (my colleagues Edgar Cahn and Chris Gray have published a pamphlet on co-production and social isolation) – but more on that another day.

Tony embodied the beards and sandals approach – what academics describe as the ‘distributist wing’ of the Lib Dems.

This is an obscure way of explaining a now sadly obscure wing of the party. I also realise that, as one of the few people in the UK to write about this largely forgotten element of Liberal theology, I may now be the only expert left. But by coincidence, I just wrote about these issues in the blog of the Social Liberal Forum – and I came to a similar conclusion there:

There are now political academics who use the term ‘distributist’, shorn of its Catholic accretions, as a shorthand for the bearded sandals wing of the party. As one of that persuasion myself, I feel myself increasingly alone and misunderstood by either technocratic wing – neither right nor left seem to understand why I might be against big business but in favour of small, why I might be in favour of entrepreneurs but against corporates.

So I am sorry for the passing of the beards and sandals tradition from the Lib Dems – and even more sorry for the passing of Tony Greaves, the best of them.

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Thursday, 4 March 2021

'No algorithms' and the tickbox robots

This post first appeared on the Radix blog.

 I had my covid jab on Friday and it turned out to be the Pfizer version.  Which meant, apparently, that that we all had to sit in the surgery for 15 minutes in case we collapsed immediately afterwards.

I had no idea that this had happened to anybody. So let me take this opportunity to repeat that I don’t think it helps the pro-vaxx cause to treat anyone who discusses side-effects like some kind of Trump supporter.

There is no doubt that, for a few individuals, vaccinations can be a bit of a lottery. But I had already decided that I should take a risk, if necessary – on the grounds that I, at least, need to show a little courage if we are ever going to get our world back again.

As they say, every little helps…

But I learned from the experience, thanks to the older man who managed the car park, the ancient doctor who looked like a retired car mechanic who administered the jab, and the huge numbers of smiling local volunteers who accompanied me through the whole process.

This seems to me to be the key; local volunteers can make things happen effectively and efficiently. compare that to the algorithm-laden robots in the government-procured private sector test and trace.

That is the most important lesson for me from the last few weeks.

I mention algorithms advisedly because, last week we had what I believe is the most important official admission so far of their potential for inhuman mischief, by the education secretary Gavin Williamson.

In fact he promised this year's teacher-assessed GCSE and A level exams would involve “no algorithms whatsoever”.

I take this is the first recognition that I was correct last year in my book Tickbox about where automated systems might belong, and where they definitely don’t.

The decision must have balanced the number of appeals against a flawed algorithm against how many against a marginally less flawed human teachers. In fact, this is a big opportunity for teachers it seems to me – to demonstrate the superiority of human decision-making about other uncategorisable humans.

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Sunday, 21 February 2021

Farewell to a great generation


My mother died over last weekend. I say that partly to explain that, this time at least, my failure to meet deadlines has a reason. And partly to say something about the passing of an amazing generation.

In fact, as I understand it, the life expectancy of people born in 1931 took its biggest leap in history compared to those born in the previous year. My mum nearly made it to 90, so that very individual experience bears out the statistics.

Something about those born around the political crisis that led to a national government under Ramsay MacDonald seems to have meant that they were built pretty tough.

They were uncomplaining - rather than stiff-upper-lipped - weren’t they, the last generation to remember the Blitz and the doodlebugs? They survived rationing, deep winters in 1947 and 1963 without central heating, plus the new world of divorces, re-marriages, relationships-without-rules. Plus disastrous property slumps in 1975 and 1988.

And they did so with good humour and without complaint or moaning on as people tend to these days - just as they are currently doing with covid.

The following generation, the boomers, were those of us who came to take the extraordinary house price boom for granted - unfortunately so much so that most of our children won’t be able to afford to live near where they grew up.

Of course, I am partly remembering a very special person indeed, but there is a policy lesson here for anyone who - as I do - believe there was anything vital about the middle class life at its best.

It is this: our ruinously high house prices can never provide us with all we rely on them for - to fill the hole in our pensions, to pay for our social care and to set our children on the property ladder.

No, we have to ratchet our house prices back down before they ruin us all. And if that seems tough - my mum’s generation would have managed.

More about this in my book Broke.

This was the generation that took us into Europe, and brought us - in quick succession - all those previously foreign additions to UK life, from muesli, yoghurt, pasta to duvets (along with avocado pears, circa 1971-2).

During my wedding speech in 2003, I called her "one of the wooden walls of England", a reference to Nelson's warships. I don't think she liked the description much in retrospect, but I meant someone who buttresses people's lives - just as her generation has done throughout.

I'm sure nobody will complain about what I have written here, because I'm remembering someone special to me. But equally I'm aware that there will be some people who regard any positive mention of Englishness as somehow retrograde.

All I can say is that I'm not one of them...

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Thursday, 14 January 2021

Why it is nearly time for a national government

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

Keir Starmer may just be a small phenomenon. I suppose that second guessing the current UK government is not actually terribly onerous. Starmer just has to stay a couple of days ahead of the government, as it twists and turns through the covid crisis, so perhaps it isn’t very hard to appear perspicatious.


But it does mean a difficulty for Boris Johnson and his government. It looks almost as if it is Starmer who is taking all the decisions.

Every time, the government does another U-turn, whether it is about locking down or closing schools, there is the opposition leader demanding it days before. Always rather magnanimously. Irritatingly so, in fact.

There will come a point when this becomes intolerable to the Conservatives. After all, why should not Starmer share some of the odium for the decisions he is apparently making?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, they will tell themselves, if we are really in the dying days of the crisis because of the looming vaccine. But one of the lessons of covid is that there will be alarums and twists still to come.

The government is discussing the idea of tightening controls even more, after all.

In previous crises in 1915, 1931 and 1940, UK prime ministers have voluntarily shared power in these circumstances – whenever, in fact, they are forced to take such tough decisions about people’s lives that they need to share the blame.

So what I want to suggest – and I feel sure this is a scenario they have quietly discussed in corners of 10 Downing Street – is that, if anything gets unexpectedly worse again, the government should organise power-sharing and involving all parties.

The idea of locking us all in, enforced by the police, is so unBritish that governments simply can’t enforce changes like that by themselves. That means it maybe time for a national government.
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Tuesday, 12 January 2021

'I've a feeling '21 is going to be a good year...'

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog..

Not me, but the Who’s musical Tommy from 1969 – lyrics that are beyond the horizon of memory for most of us.

But equally, 2021 ought to be a pretty good year. Eventually. There should be a mini boom which perhaps may not be such a good experience for anyone buying a home…

Over Christmas, I have been thinking a little more about this elusive optimism. And it seems to me that we also have a couple of issues which may prevent this optimism coming to fruition.

The first of these is the widespread cynicism, that my colleague Joe Zammit-Lucia wrote about here before Christmas. Thinking back before Tommy, I’m not sure we have ever been quite as cynical as a society – especially on the Left (spent about five minutes looking at the comments below the line at the Guardian if you don’t believe me).

Did we feel so cynical about Willie Whitelaw or Ted Heath, though we might have disagreed with them passionately?

I don’t know and I would genuinely like to find out. Of course the cynics might say that there was nobody in office quite like Boris Johnson or Gavin Williamson.

That maybe so, but the all-pervading atmosphere of spin seems to have led directly to its cynical opposite.

It is true that we are entering a national lockdown, or its equivalent, for the third time, when the reasons we had to go into the first one have yet to tackled – the repeated failure of test and trace.

But we also have to remember what is really important now that we have, standing against us, the rise of a technocracy so total and unyielding, from China and elsewhere – and tickboxed at home too – that we have to fight it every moment if we want to win the emerging war for the right to our own souls.
So maybe need, at the start of 2021, to understand the plight of people like Loujain al-Hathloul (jailed in Saudi Arabia for campaigning on women’s issues) or Zhang Zhan (jailed in China for telling the truth about Wuhan last year) – and to realise that some of our online rage and sniping, that so dominates UK public discourse, might be missing the point.

In other words: we can make ‘21 a ‘good year’, but only if we shift our attention to what is most important – to realise why it is under threat and to act accordingly. Even if some of the symptoms of the tickbox disease are under our very noses.


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