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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Thursday, 17 December 2020

They should have listened - they still could now...

This post first appeared on the New Weather blog...

“We created 400 clone towns nobody loves. We shouldn’t get upset – job losses aside – about changing them.”

So said Mark Robinson, co-founder of landlords Ellandi and chair of the government’s High Streets Task Force, on the BBC.

If we were more self-obsessed and rather less busy, we might reply, something like ‘we told you so’. Because one of the origins of New Weather, was in the highly prominent and successful Clone Towns campaign of 2003-8, where the organisation’s founders first met.

We even remember the moment that Andrew Simms came up with the ‘Clone Towns’ phrase to describe the bland, homogenising effects of chain stores on the places where we live. You know you are having an impact when people start using your language.

So if you believe the BBC report, the establishment has now swung behind one of our solutions for change – led perhaps by the government or local authorities buying up the empty properties.

Yet despite the success of the campaign, and all the verbal refuse thrown at us by regulators and retail experts alike, we underestimated how dead the squeezed middle of retailing had become, and how short the period of clones stores was going to be. From Top Shop to BHS, the clones have gone belly up, followed soon by the shopping centres we warned against back then.

There is a longing for the High Street, even for the unlovely shopping centres which have now fallen foul of the market. And that longing turns out not to be nostalgic or sentimental – but a longing for place and community. We meet, we saunter, we chat, we observe, we may buy – but mainly what we are doing is being sociable.

Places that went in the direction we urged back then have generally managed to weather the storm better, so far – those distinctive places that realised that high streets were opportunities for bustle, colour, market stalls, trainee entrepreneurs and untidiness, as envisaged by the American author and activist Jane Jacobs two generations ago in a pre-covid age in her landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities

That was the basis for the agglomeration economics so beloved but misunderstood by upholders of the status quo, like the Centre for Cities.

Places that did not listen are still cloned, but in a dull, boarded up kind of way. The truth is that the High Street has been captured by the venture capitalists and their impatience with long term profit or low profit. Chains that might have responded to love and care have been burdened with debt and then thrown to the wolves. Debenhams is a case in point. Café Rouge is another.

There is hope for the High Street. It will come after a serious and unprecedented reform of the whole rental economy, a root and branch improvement in local authority finances, so that they can have a business rate that is responsive to social and local economic good (your friendly local bakery or hairdresser) and doesn’t have to turn the screws to have the funds to look after children at risk. It will come, in short, when we recognise that some things are beyond price.

We also have to do something about pensions – many of the pensions of the right thinking are invested in the blood sucking commercial property market. We need to see how we have all become part of the issue that is undermining our only defence against monopoly power – our meagre pensions.

It is true that there are little points of hope in the High Street. The covid-induced recession we face will be survived by retailers with low overheads who know and understand their customers – the only ones capable of standing up against the powerful online oligopolies, like vacuum cleaners sucking up the available spending and removing it from circulation.

But these small retailers in high streets are going to struggle under the cosh of high rates – based on our UK obsession with property as the only safe haven for investment. It may be a time again, as Keynes put it, for the ‘euthanasia of the rentiers’.

Then the High Street will again become the living centre of the towns and cities we inhabit – open to social and commercial developments that respond to our needs and wishes. Places that are particular to who we are, and where others want to come. But we need to reimagine them as places for more than passive consumerism.

Empty spaces can provide spaces for the community, mutual aid groups that flowered during lockdown, they can provide bases for micro entrepeneurs, share sheds, tool libraries, book exchanges, local producers and culture, and for advice centres and hubs to help deliver the low carbon transition. 

With great ambition but little infrastructure to back it up, for example, the massive energy retro-fit challenge for our homes would be hugely helped by having one-stop shop local advice centres that also helped to bring providers together.

Using our imagination, introducing more diversity, responding to challenges and taking opportunities – these are the ways we can bring high streets back to life.

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Friday, 20 November 2020

Bye-bye, mein lieber Kier (and G4S, Serco and the others)


Outsourcing and privatisation died at 1518 on Wednesday 4 November 2020. Or thereabouts.

That was of course a misquotation of the great architectural critic Charles Jencks. It was also when the Guardian published the news that Randox, the company involved in a testing failure during the summer had just been handed another government contract worth £347m. Though it could perfectly well refer to the bankruptcy of Carillion on 15 January 2018.

It is strange when you think about it, but the more they have held on to life, the more that privatised utilities and outsourcers have become a byword for incompetence – rather as, once upon a time, it used to be with nationalised industries.

Ironically, this is both for similar reasons – both were far too big to be responsive.

In my new pamphlet for the New Weather thinktank, The End of Privatisation, I tell the strange story of privatisation, from its beginnings with Peter Drucker and Keith Joseph in the 1970s and the triumphant sell-off of British Telecom in 1984 – and the ideas at the heart of it: more entrepreneurial efficiency, less cost.

Nearly four decades have passed since then and those promises have turned to dust, and for similar reasons: most of the outsourcers are too big to operate effectively.

As Drucker wrote himself: “The most entrepreneurial, innovative people behave like the worst time-serving bureaucrat or power-hungry politician six months after they have taken over the management of a public service institution." And so it proved.

Even the outsourcers add another layer of costs during an unaffordable austerity years and their only expertise turns out to be provide the KPI and target data that ministers crave, and which only they believe.

They represent rule by tickbox – which, as we know – tends to spray costs elsewhere in the system by narrowing the definitions of success to what they can easily achieve.

That explains why this final hurrah of outsourcing to government friends during covid has put the final nail in the coffin of what was once a big idea.

So why does the body of privatised outsourcing still twitch? There is no practical or intellectual justification left for it. The only explanation is that this is all that ministers and officials in the Johnson administration – never the most thoughtful of people – know about. And possibly the only people they know remain the only remaining advocates of tickbox in the whole wide world.

So farewell then Serco, G4S and all the others, as E. J. Thribb used to say in the days when privatisation seemed like a pretty neat idea. It was a fine affair, but now it’s over – or it soon will be.

This first appeared on the New Weather blog

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Sunday, 1 November 2020

What do they know of science who only science know?

What do they know of the England who only England know,” wrote the much-derided poet Rudyard Kipling more than a century ago. After listening to the excellent debate on science and politics last night, which Radix organised, I wondered whether we should say the same of scientists.

Or indeed anyone whose narrow field of expertise gets in the way of understanding the world. Should we also for example say: What do they know of epidemiology who only epidemiology know? I don’t know.

Some of the debate goes back to C. P. Snow’s famous paper on the Two Cultures. The critic F. R. Leavis condemned it without reading it - “To read it would be to condone it,” he said. And I have some sympathy with that on the grounds that Leavis was objecting, I think, to the idea that arts and science were somehow equal, with the same complexity and moral validity. Which they are not.

Still, everyone – however little they may think about molecules – has something to learn from scientific method, as mediated through the two great 20th century philosophers of science, Popper and Kuhn. Mere knowledge of human or bureaucratic processes is not expertise, for example. Nor is it science.

What seems to me to be, in the long run, unfair to scientists and their reputations is the way that the media use them to fight what are essentially political battles.

Take the Great Barrington declaration, for example, which has barely been reported at all in the UK, where the three top epidemiologists in the world denied that lockdowns were the most effective way forward - on the grounds that they killed as many people as they saved. They were immediately condemned in the American press for "advocating mass murder”.

The day Radix published their declaration in the UK – on the grounds that somebody should – they were the subjects of a hatchet job in the Guardian, in the grounds that one of them had been interviewed on a dodgy US radio programme and that some of the people who had signed their declaration turned out to be (shock horror!) homeopaths.

Now let us leave aside the fraught issue of homeopathy. It seems to that when nobody reports the three top epidemiologists, and when a former law lord like Jonathan Sumption can say (thank you Charlotte!): “This is how freedom dies. When societies lose their liberty, it is not usually because some despot has crushed it under his boot. It is because people voluntarily surrendered their liberty out of fear of some external threat” – then we have a problem.

We have not yet had the lockdown riots that are beginning to emerge in continental Europe. But if most of those who dare step forward and doubt the establishment consensus are right-wing nutcases, then we will be at their mercy for some time to come.

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Friday, 2 October 2020

Robots in care homes? No thanks!


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

I am one of the few people in theUK to have written at any length about the need for authenticity. As such, it ought perhaps to be me who points out what a thoroughly bad idea it is to use robots in care homes to counteract loneliness.

That was the story on the front page of a recent Guardian, and it seems to me to suffer from the whole corrosive technocratic worldview which brought us exam grades by algorithm and government by tickbox.

It reminds me horribly of the ideas put about by Americans in the early 2000s about the non-existent difference between real and virtual. Why is it that Americans are so susceptible to this kind of nonsense?

“Once your house can talk to you, you may never feel alone again,” said The Futurist magazine.  I’m not so sure.  Nor was I convinced by Machines That Think author Pamela McCorduck about the geriatric minder robot that looks after people by saying “tell me again” to their stories – “and means it”.

Those interviewed in the Guardian article were at pains to point out that they were not suggesting that robots take over from human beings entirely. But that really isn't the point. The idea is that care home staff, run off their feet, might get a bit of a break by plugging their charges into one of these. As if there was any chance of going back to the human beings if that was ever to happen.

So, no doubt you are wondering why the older people in the experiment had 'improved mental health' as a result. That is simple for anyone who knows about the famous Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s and 30s.

It is because of all the attention paid to them by the researchers, not the ersatz attention paid to them by the machines.

It is an elementary mistake, and one that those schooled in the delusions of tickbox should be able to recognise.

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Friday, 25 September 2020

Once more, the rise of local money...


This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Charles Zylstra was the man who first introduced Stamp Scrip – the negative interest local currency – to the USA around 1932/3. He used to tell this story:

“A travelling salesman stopped at a hotel and handed the clerk a hundred dollar bill to be put in the safe, saying he would call for it in twenty-four hours. The clerk, whose name was A, owed $100 to B and clandestinely he used this bill for the liquidation of his debt, thinking that before the expiration of 24 hours he could collect $100 from his own debtor, whose name was Z. So this 100 dollar bill went to B, who, greatly surprised, used it to pay his own 100 dollar debt to one C, who (equally surprised) . . . and so on, and so on, all the way down to Z, who, with much pleasure, returned the bill to A, the clerk, who, in the morning, restored it to the salesman. And then did A, the clerk, stand petrified with horror to see the salesman light a cigar with it. ‘Counterfeit,’ said the salesman, ‘a fake gift from a crazy friend, Abner; but he didn't put it over, did he?’”

“Let us now look at the collective result,” wrote the economist Irving Fisher, whose book this story was in. “At the end of the year, the town has a new street, paid for with scrip which (through the stamps) was paid for by the citizens who used the scrip - and will use the street too.

“The scrip cost the citizens perhaps one third of 1 per cent on mostly new business, while the street cost the city (in the sense of the city treasury) nothing at all. But, of course, the city is the citizens; so that these various statements boil down to this: The citizens have bought a new street out of a self imposed tax on mostly new business, and it was a tax less heavy and more spread out than any other tax they ever paid.

“The chief objection to Stamp Scrip which I have thus far encountered is that it will not work because people will refuse it - it will not catch hold. But the man who said this, said later, ‘I guess I must be like the Englishman a hundred years ago, who said that the steam-locomotive couldn't work because smooth wheels could not catch on to smooth rails. While he was saying this in London, Stephenson was successfully running his locomotive in Scotland’.”

The fact that an economist of the calibre and reputation of Fisher could intervene with a book called Stamp Scrip was partly a measure of the depth of the Great Depression and partly related to the importance of the great alternative to Roosevelt’s new deal.

Stamp Scrip was an idea that began in Austria, and reached the USA at the moment when so many communities were running out of cash. So many places were issuing their own notes, which required you to buy a stamp representing one per cent of its value every month – if you failed to spend it on. This was negative interest money, after all.

Senator Bankhead, the uncle of Tallulah, managed to get a bill drafted in Congress which would have authorised $1 billion of stamp scrip to be issued the following year. The Bankhead-Pettengill bill was introduced in February 1933.

But when Roosevelt was unaugurated as president in March 1933, a month later, a quarter of US banks had shut their doors, and he believed that stamp scrip was undermining belief in the banks and were therefore part of the problem.

When I used to kcture on these two decades ago, having written Funny Money about their experimental successors, I used to emphasise the wooden currency of Tenino in Washington state as particularly unusual.

Every time, we have run short of money again, experimental DIY currencies come back, from Ithaca hours in 1992 to the Bristol pound in 2012. But we have experienced nothing on the same scale as stamp scrip.

But amazingly, Tenino’s wooden currency is back. It convinces me that – this time – as the money begins to dwindle around the world, we will know how to create the money we need to live.

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