Thursday, 15 July 2021

Being English: Nelson, Wellington - and Gareth Southgate

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

Like about half the UK population, I watched the football on the telly and went through the same mixture of emotions as everyone else who was watching. So let us just remind ourselves what they were – disappointment and also pride.

What I particularly felt proud about – though it is unfashionable and probably horribly politically incorrect to say so – is being English. Thanks to the restrained calmness of Kane and Southgate.

Of course, that was before the news about the violence and the muggings. In Sussex, most of the taxi drivers simply abandoned the scenes of insanity and went home.

I used to have a theory about our national personality – based on the single antagonistic meeting between Nelson and Wellington, in the lobby of 10 Downing Street (I wrote more about this in my book How to be English).

My feeling was that Wellington invented a new kind of personality for the British – clipped, laconic and unemotional. His despatch about the Battle of Waterloo was so uncommitted that the American ambassador reported home that he must have lost. That was also the personality we were brought up with.

Nelson represented the older, English version – sentimental, over-indulgent, and determined. And yet calm too.

It seems to me that we have now reverted to the original, and that isn’t always very pretty.

But most of all, I have been proud of Gareth Southgate’s obvious leadership abilities. He is one of a handful of people who speak in public in an entirely unfamiliar tone – who seem to make it possible for us all to be better people.

Another one was Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner. Neither of them are infallible, but they take responsibility for their mistakes and they explain how brilliant people can be. In fact, Cressida Dick was – as I wrote at the time – single-handedly responsible for the change in mood during the 2017 general election by emphasising the individual courage of passers-by during the terrorist attack then, rather than banging on endlessly about revenge and vulnerability.

Now I fully recognise that we have a problem in the UK with football violence and online racism. But I wish politicians could find it in their hearts to talk up the English capacity for heroism and calm sometimes.

It seems to me that most political rhetoric coming out of Number 10 at the moment appeals to our worst sides, not our best – especially now, as we head towards the Great Experiment by Boris Johnson: opening up everything just when our infection rate is now higher than Pakistan’s. It is the quintessential definition of Toryism by Gladstone: distrust of the people, tempered by fear - possibly the other way around.

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Sunday, 27 June 2021

So that nuance and complexity shall not perish from the earth

This blog first appeared at www.radixuk.org 

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.

The trouble with the current ‘debate’ about slavery is that it tends towards the puritanical tickbox – historical figures are either linked to slavery or they weren’t. Simples.

The economic follow-up to slavery adds a new dimension that you don’t hear so often. Should we condemn the money-lenders in the same way or not? Might there not have been some responses to the problem as reprehensible as the great evil of slavery?

And by the same token, how about someone who was kinder to the slaves he had inherited – was he equally deserving of condemnation or not?

The same goes for British imperialists. Were they all people who should have their statues removed? How about John Hare, the last recruit into the Colonial Administrative Service in Northern Nigeria – whose book Last Man In, tells the fascinating story of a man who tried to do his best for people at an uncertain moment in history?

This is, in short, a tentative plea for nuance when we start condemning people for their involvement, either in history but also those who are involved in modern debate about these issues.

I hope I have some support in this opinion from the Nigerian novelist Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie – admittedly she was writing about gender not slavery (and I have promised colleagues never to blog on that subject). She can say things as a black woman that I can’t, so let me just quote her:

“We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow. I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and reread their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.”

Which is why all I suggest is that this is a debate that needs more nuance and complexity. Ask a question, says Adichie, and “you are told the answer is to repeat a mantra”.

It is true that young people have always lacked a little in the nuance department. They have always been iconoclastic.

So why is the corporate world adopting positions in cancel culture, as if they were youthful? That is what worries me. It isn’t so much the students that make me nervous – it’s the grown-ups. So when corporates start refusing to touch people who might offend others, on the basis of a tickbox either/or, then we all need to be a little scared.

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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http://bit.ly/RemainsoftheWay ...

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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