Sunday 29 June 2008

We must be a crusade or nothing

Of all the post-Henley posts, I find myself most in agreement with Bernard Salmon - people will not vote Lib Dem (certainly sustainably) unless they know what we are for. That may not have been obvious before, but it is increasingly important now. Neil Stockley and I have been banging on about the importance of 'narrative' for some years now, with some effect but not much. I think it's time to express it in a different way, and like this...

The truth is that, at this precise moment of Lib Dem history, it increasingly matters that we are being squeezed intellectually. We certainly need a narrative that draws our values together in the form of story, but we need something more. We need an ambitious and far-reaching critique - either of the way our economy has been organised or of why our public services are grinding to a halt. Or both.

We need to express this in a way that can attract a wide cross-section of opinion-formers, and in such a way that it amounts to a crusade, and so rooted in Lib Dem values that our rivals can't adopt it for a decade. Nothing else will do. We are some way from this now, though Nick Clegg has touched on themes - just as Bernard did - that can provide the raw materials, about rebuilding human-scale institutions and busting New Labour's business monopolies.

This is hard. It means we have to articulate a critique of the status quo that is so new and far-reaching that it is bound to break out of the narrow news agenda of the BBC. It may make us seem irrelevant to the mainstream debate in the short-term. We will need an opinion-formers strategy to force our way back into the debate.

But we have to do it, because there is an even harder bit. If we can do this, we will hold our own against Cameron and benefit from the coming break-up of the Labour Party. But if we can't, and we fall back on the current combination of inserting minor policy suggestions into the media and then campaigning on empty, we have to grit our teeth in the face of the slow collapse of our support. That will pass slowly to a rival third force which, flawed as it is, is organised around a crusade. In other words, we risk watching cities going the way of Norwich and Brighton where Lib Dems were pushed aside by Greens.

To prove the point, I can predict the next handful of places to go the same way, but won't because it is a hostage to fortune. But I can do so privately, if I meet anyone in the real world...

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Columbus and Cabot: pioneers of intellectual property

Poor old Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci, slipping by the week out of respectable history – Columbus as a brutal maniac, Cabot as a failure and Vespucci as a liar. Why don’t we give them their due?

Because actually, they didn’t get to America first. The place was already populated, and the Vikings, the Chinese and probably the Bristol fishermen had long since made a similar crossing. Nor did they understood where they had arrived, though there is new evidence that Cabot may have done so.

No, what guaranteed them a place in history when those before are all but forgotten is that they worked out a method whereby they could cross the Atlantic and profit by it. Explorers before them had either sailed on behalf of a monarch (and received a knighthood and grateful thanks) or had done so secretly (and had kept their discoveries secret for fear that the whole world would make the profits instead). In other words, Columbus and Cabot weren't so much the Atlantic pioneers, but they were pioneers in the pursuit of intellectual property.

And because they never have their stories told together, as they originally were – and because academics avoid the likely explanations in favor of what they can absolutely prove. The truth is that all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Cabot and Columbus worked together, then plunged into debt, fell out and watched each other carefully and suspiciously for the rest of their lives (they were born at the same time, in the same place, frequented the same docks in Lisbon and Bristol, fell into debt at exactly the same time and pedaled identical plans around the crowned heads of Europe). That’s a very different story – of a race between business rivals, rather than epic scientific discovery.

Or that’s what I’ve tried to say in my new book Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America.

Monday 2 June 2008

Targets: just say no

The four police forces which have rejected Whitehall targets are just the beginning. There is a revolution about to begin in the way our public services are run – and some more questions.

Once they have discovered that targets are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – you just say no and they disappear – then there is a question about exactly who quangos and public services are accountable to, and how.

With that proviso, the most exciting aspect of this change is that the police forces have grasped that the way to deal with distorting targets is not to reform them, loosen them or water them down. It is to recruit the kind of staff who can take initiative and responsibility, build local relationships, and then manage them face to face.

See the full version of this rant on Comment is Free: