Tuesday 23 December 2014

Columbus and the Westminster abuse case

Bartolomedelascasas.jpgI wrote a book some years ago about the friendship and rivalry between Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci (Toward the Setting Sun).  One of the things that became clear to me as I researched it is just how much the excitement of discovery – then and later – was bound up with the prospect of sex with powerless people.

Later, when I wrote Voyages of Discovery, it came home to me even stronger.  But for some reason, the scholars have tended to ignore this.  It is as if it wasn’t an important part of the experience of imperialism, yet it was.

That was how Columbus’ first expedition could bring virulent syphilis back to Europe.  It was why a later charter for Cabot’s successors by Henry VII of England carried a warning against forced sex.  

It was also the nakedness of the natives that first excited major European audiences to Vespucci’s writings, real or fake. Sex and discovery was bound up in everyone’s mind then.  See Donne’s poem about going to bed with his mistress if you’re not sure ("O my America, my new found land...").

Finally, it was the real meaning of the description by Columbus’ friend Michele de Cuneo of his encounter with a native woman in his cabin:

“Having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived a desire to take pleasure.  I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun.” 

The Algonquin people who met Verrazano’s expedition in 1524 made sure than no women went on board his ships.  They knew the score by then.

I have been sceptical about the furore over historical child abuse until recently.  But the stories about Westminster in the 1980s (still just stories) keep reminding me of Columbus and Michele de Cuneo, and all the others.

Nobody who reads about the period can be in any doubt that sex with powerless people tended towards violence and lazy murder.  Anyone who doubts that needs to read the reportage of Bartolom√© de las Casas at the time.

There was something of the imperialist frame of mind, the complete impunity of the conqueror, about Westminster in the 1980s.  Was there enough of a whiff of imperialism to suspect the worst?

And there is peculiar element to the story: even now, five centuries after the discovery of the New World, few people seem to write about the phenomenon of sex with powerless people in the history of discovery.  Violence, yes – sex, no.  Nor, it seems, have they known how to categorise it or talk about it in our own time.

I am suspicious of witch-hunts, of the pursuit of abusers into their powerless dotage.  I am nervous of the political consequences of discovering that our politicians were harbouring child murderers only a few decades ago.  But there was a sickness abroad in the 1980s, which has in turn led to an economic weakness which I’ve written about in my book Broke.  If that imperial mindset led to child murder, it would be the scandal of the age.

It would change everything, and should do – and we simply have to know.

Monday 22 December 2014

When did we stop being a seafaring nation?

Falklands 1914 - INVINCIBLE and INFLEXIBLE in action
It is rather a strange thing that, as we celebrate the centenary of the Christmas Truce – maybe even read my ebook on the subject – we are forgetting one critical element of the First World War.

Are we not supposed to be remembering the war at sea? Why not?

The last few months have seen the centenary of two of the most decisive sea battles of the First World War, and they have gone by with barely a mention – the overwhelming German victory at Coronel in October, followed by the overwhelming British victory over the same squadron in December at the Battle of the Falkland Isles.

The only institution which seems to have remembered either is the British Film Institute, which released the 1927 film made about the two battles.

It is odd that we have had almost permanent series of memorials on the western front. The Queen must have had to rent rooms in France. But about the war at sea – nothing.

Coronel was one of the biggest British naval disasters in history. The Falkland Isles marked the only time that British battlecruisers were used for the purpose they were designed to: to overwhelm cruisers.

Why? Is it because we worry about marking major defeats? Admiral Si Christopher Craddock had no need to steam into disaster, but somehow felt it was required of him to make the gesture of sacrifice once he was in the situation.

Is it because the mention of the Falklands always makes the official mind nervous?

Is it because we no longer regard ourselves as a seafaring nation? Or that we are embarrassed that the naval tradition which stretches back to the days of King Alfred – with some hiccups along the way – has so much unravelled?

If it is the latter, then that may mark a far-reaching shift that matters politically. It also matters culturally.

When I was growing up, hardly a month would go by without the picture of a warship on the front of the newspapers. These days, the place of the senior service has gone to the army.

When did the shift take place? Because there does seem to have been a parallel shift in political attitudes at the same time – from naval informality, the right to disobey orders and the Nelson Touch to the iron, regimented centralisation of the Thatcher-Blair period.

The question of whether we are a naval nation or a military one has important implications for the way government works. Naval nation’s are permissive and localising; military ones are controlling and authoritarian. I know which I want us to be.

I suggest as a small antidote that we start remembering the battles of Coronel and the Falklands, and the great forgotten commanders, Craddock, Sturdee and Von Spee.

And maybe also remember to commemorate the Battle of Dogger Bank in March.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Hogan-Howe approach would be disastrous

The long shadow of the BlairBrown approach to public services seems to still reach across the years.  The Metropolitan Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has spelled out what should happen to the police to save money.  And, reading through the list, I was wafted back to the infuriating days of 2007 or so - when I was so cross at the state of public services that I set out to write a book.

It eventually emerged as The Human Element, three years later (or was it four?)

Now one of the great omissions of the coalition, in my humble view, is that they failed to draw a line under the public service reforms of the past.

Yes, they promised to reduce targets - and they did a bit.  They very sensibly abolished the tyrannical Audit Commission, which was standing in the way of innovation like a serious case of constipation.  But that was it.  They never articulated what the problem was, and precisely the mistakes Gordon Brown had been making - and often carried on making them as a result.

It is easier to see those fake solutions a little more clearly now for what they are.  If the commissioner gets his way, and merges police forces into mega-forces, organises more combined back office services, contracts out key non-uniformed functions and relies more on IT, they will not just find their way disturbingly back to 2008 or so - but costs will rise considerably and effectiveness will go down.

How do I know?  Well, the last study I saw of merged police forces showed that smaller police forces catch more criminals than bigger ones.

There was also the famous explanation by economics Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom of why crime went up in Chicago when the police went off the beat and began to rely on communications equipment.  It was because the public no longer felt they were needed to fight crime - when, actually, they make all the difference and it is quite impossible without them.

I accept, of course, that one of Hogan-Howe's purposes is to avoid cutting community policing, and he's right about that.

But the rest of the Hogan-Howe approach, rather like the Gordon Brown approach, reduces the public to mild irritants who ought to get a grip so that they can be processed more easily.  It doesn't work - and for very good reasons, outlined better than I can by the systems thinker John Seddon - it is extremely expensive.

Why have we still not learned these lessons?  Well, partly because - despite the original rhetoric - the coalition never learned them.  Partly because Whitehall finds this kind of counter-intuitive evidence very hard to hear.  And partly because, despite all the sound and fury, our services still exist in a world, not just shaped by Brown, but has ended up as extreme Brown.

We have to articulate a better, more effective way, before we all drown in bills.  May I humbly submit The Human Element as my contribution to the debate we are not yet having about the economies and diseconomies of scale.

Monday 15 December 2014

The myth of the myth of the Christmas Truce

I don't think I realised how much the 1914 Christmas truce has become mythologised until I saw this year's Sainsbury's Christmas advert.

It's a heart-warming affair, not terribly accurate - everyone dashes out too quickly (which  they didn't), the impetus seems to come from the British (which I don't think it mainly did), they have a real football (which they hardly ever did), and the trenches are too sophisticated - this was the very beginning of trench warfare.

But still, it is right that we are talking about it - because, as I wrote in the Guardian on Saturday, we need to take the truce seriously as history, rather than as an isolated moment of magic (though it certainly did feel magical to those at the time).

The article I wrote gathered more than 300 comments underneath over the first few hours after publication - though it was also in the main paper - which, in true Guardian tradition, were often not that friendly.  Many of them were friendly, on the other hand, and really engaged with the issues I raised, pointing out my own little inaccuracies (which I don't necessarily agree with).

A couple of the messages said they believed the whole truce was a myth, in the sense that it never actually happened.

This is not so.  There are hundreds of first-hand accounts and more come to light every year.

Others said that the idea that there was a football match in No Man's Land was a myth.  Strangely, this seems to have been the prevailing story in the media in the last few days.  There seems to be a whiff of positivism abroad, and - unless we can find confirmation from both sides about each football game - they therefore didn't happen.

It is true that 'match' is an exaggeration.  These were hastily contrived kickabouts, usually without proper balls.  It is true also that, for some reason, the score is usually remembered as 3-2.

The Lancashire Fusiliers near Le Touquet ended with a score of 3-2 to the other side. That was also the score of the match between the RAMC and the Saxons. A later game on New Year’s Day, organised by a major in the Medical Corps, which ended with the Saxon soldiers playing God Save the King , also ended 3-2 to the Germans. So did the Seaforth Highlanders game against the Saxons outside Ploegsteert Wood.

Not all had that score, and it is true that the repeated 3-2 implies an element of mythologising.  But there are so many accounts in letters home, which still exist, or which were sent to and published by local newspapers, which mention football, that you can't dismiss the games that easily.

Football was a repeated theme because so many of the Germans the British met spoke English because they had been living in England before the war.

One account explained that the German soldier he spoke to had lived in Alexander Road in Hornsey, and had really wanted to see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham the following afternoon.

So don't let's dismiss the football too sanctimoniously.  It happened, and surprisingly often - which is why the celebrations continue at the weekend.

But if you really want to know what happened during the Christmas Truce, and what it led to, download my ebook Peace on Earth (it costs £1.99).

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Thursday 11 December 2014

Christopher Jefferies and the mob

During a New Year's Eve party at the beginning of 2011, a peculiarly irritating fellow guest offered his ill-informed opinion to the others: "Well, I think it was obviously the landlord who did it."

He was talking about the murder of Jo Yeates, and the landlord was then in custody, largely it seems on the grounds that he was a little unusual.  I was horrified by the remark because it seemed to me to be, very quietly, an echo of the mob.  More than a downer on new year's eve.

It is a strange thing when your English teacher, of some decades ago, becomes a household name and gets mini-series about himself.  I haven't seen Christopher Jefferies since I was at university, but the first part of the series last night - which I watched rather guiltily - brought him back in a dramatic and emotional way.

The actor who took the part, Jason Watkins, was not imitating Jefferies, and was actually very different from how I remember him, but he got something of his manner and his humour - and his seriousness.

A say guiltily because, like so many others who had been stretched and inspired by his English teaching, I wrestled with my practical conscience.  It was clearly a gross injustice that he was in custody.  Those who spoke to the press - and I seemed to have known nearly all of them - had their words twisted to suit the agenda, almost whatever their intention.  With one notable exception, they made things worse.  I kept quiet, wondering rather pointlessly what someone like me could do.

But the series, which ends tonight, was moving and subtle and I was very glad I had watched it, though there is an added horror in the way Jo Yeates herself died somehow in the background.  There is a chilling moment as Jefferies was brought into the police station as someone in the background says: "Yeay, they got the landlord!".  I took the following from the first half:

First, I know something from my own experience long ago of finding yourself innocently in a police cell, and the series did communicate some of the extreme alienation this brings.

Second, I personally owe a huge amount to Christopher Jefferies and his colleagues, who taught me about literature three decades ago - and exist in that sense in my inner life - and have taught me enough about how to live that it has lasted me ever since.  As I wrote at the time, those values seemed to have been directly attacked by the press.

Third, the drama show just how much the police were responding to the mob, and the sense that this was a man rather out of the ordinary.  By so doing they wasted resources and wasted time.

The two events of 2011, the arrest of Christopher Jefferies and the riots later in the summer, have begun to intertwine in my head.  It was about what happens when the mob take over.  The police managed eventually to get the looters under control later that year, but I'm not sure they weren't on the wrong side in the Jefferies affair.

When we start arresting people on the grounds that they are different, life becomes not just uncertain - but institutions like the police start working extremely ineffectively.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Primaries better than secondaries because they are smaller

If I was asked, which of course I never am, I would have said that the UK's state primary schools are the jewel in the crown of our public services.

They are a Rolls Royce example of what services could be, if they were flexible enough, and were as prepared to tailor their services around the needs of individuals in the same way.  They are civilised, humane, imaginative, and they are overwhelmingly effective.

I feel I've seen a lot of them in the last few months and they are also extremely different.  They are ambitious about the right things.  There some Gradgrindian hints one occasionally runs across, but generally speaking they shine with creativity.

I was thinking about that as a result of the latest Ofsted report which compares the primary schools with the less successful secondary schools.  Why the difference?

Well, it is a tough making the shift from primary to secondary.  There is ample evidence in research which shows what a traumatic moment it can be, and it often knocks children back academically.  It is kind of obvious that part of that trauma is the shift from small and personal to big and impersonal.

It may be that this mismatch in standards is partly to do that larger organisations are simply more difficult to manage than smaller ones.  They are difficult to run with the same level of human flexibility.  Perhaps it is the peculiarly British disease of giant institutions which lies behind the problem.  Too many secondary schools are too big.

Of course, this sounds a bit glib. You can imagine companies, factories, schools, hospitals or doctor’s surgeries that are just too small, and rely too much on one individual. We all know communities that are too small, inward-looking or actually in-bred. I certainly do. 

But the basic proposition is implied by most research into small schools over the past generation, which has challenged the idea that schools are better when they are bigger. Despite this, for the past generation or so, most policy-makers have believed that big schools are better. 

 They seem to have started thinking this in the USA after the successful Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft. They persuaded themselves that somehow only huge schools could produce enough scientists to compete with the USSR. It is one of the peculiar ways that Soviet thinking filtered into the West.

Since then, the process has been driven partly by the idea that more subjects can be offered in big schools - though it is not difficult to think of alternative ways to do the same thing.  And partly by pure ambition for larger salaries by the senior staff - the public sector equivalent of the remuneration committees.

The first challenge to school giantism came from Roger Barker, who set up a statistical research centre in a small town in Kansas after the Second World War and researched the local schools to within an inch of their lives. It was his 1964 book Big School, Small School, with his colleague Paul Gump, which revealed that – despite what you might expect – there were more activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there were in the bigger schools. 

There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. He also found children were more tolerant of each other in small schools.

I've had reason to doubt more recently the cult of small schools.  There are problems when they are too small too.  But, if Sir Michael Wilshaw wants to find a major reason for the gulf between primary and secondary education, he might usefully look at the cult of giantism.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

The origins of the Thorpe affair

Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party when I was first politically aware. I found myself drawn to the party through their string of by-election victories during my O Level years, though I didn’t actually join until David Steel was leader.

I remember him fondly, not because I really remember anything he said, but because he landed by helicopter in my school playing fields in 1974 and made me aware that I was a Liberal – and because he kindly hosted a fund-raising party for local candidates (of which I was one) in his home before the 2001 election.

I always admired him.

I remember his trial in amazing detail, collecting the press cuttings, which I still have somewhere or other. I remember Mr Justice Cantley’s outrageous summing up – dismissing one of the co-defendants as “the kind of man who has a cocktail bar in his living room”. George Carman won for Thorpe, but the forensic stuff that emerged during the trial fatally undermined him.

I went to school in the early 1970s in Swiss Cottage and the whole place seemed to reek of that same razzmatazz Liberalism. Lunch at Lord Beaumont’s mansion. Here was Derek Nimmo. There was Clement Freud. It was as if all that 1960s radicalism had settled down to a sediment of Liberalism.

The difficulty was that Thorpe’s Liberalism was too much razzmatazz to remember the content. Looking back, it was a fatal period when the party came to believe that – if they just hired a hovercraft here and there, or won a celebrity endorsement – the world would beat a path to their door. At least long enough to vote correctly.

It doesn't work like that.  Parties survive long-term by thinking as much as by campaigning.

There was more thinking in the Ashdown years. Much less again in the Kennedy years and, despite being shackled to Whitehall, there does seem to me more of an intellectual striving during the Clegg years. For obvious reasons, it just hasn’t included the leadership.

But there are continuing mysteries about Thorpe and those years of 1970s conspiracy. And it is surprising that none of the commentary in the media after his death last week has revived it.

It seems unlikely, with the benefit of hindsight, that Cyril Smith was being framed by the South African secret service, as so many people seemed to think back then. It isn’t clear yet what history will say about some of the allegations of conspiracy.

But it seems to have been forgotten that the Thorpe affair began to be dug out by two Sunday Times reporters who had been asked by Harold Wilson, in conditions of the strictest secrecy, to find out if he was being targeted by the UK intelligence services.  That conundrum has never been resolved, and Wilson resigned the following year.

The real story behind Wilson’s fears has still not emerged, though there have been strange hints over the years. Whatever the truth is, the origins of the Thorpe affair lie partly in that peculiar twilight world of conspiracy, private armies and rumours of extremist coups which so infected the mid-1970s.

It is probably time somebody told the whole story properly.

Monday 8 December 2014

The corrosive nature of contract culture

I am beginning to feel that the unresolved, unresolveable struggle between privatisers and nationalisers has so stymied debate in the UK - almost as much as the race debate bogs everything down in the USA.  Nothing seems to change.  Nobody changes their mind.  The old battles continue with the advocates on both sides slugging it out with the same old phrases - like the Bourbons, they forget nothing and they remember nothing.

So I do kind of welcome unusual interventions, especially about the future of public services, from wherever they come from.  My friend Jonty Oliffe-Cooper, and his colleagues at Reform, have produced one of these - in the shape of their new report Markets For Good.

The authors say the problem isn't using markets in public services - the problem is not using them enough.  He identifies absolutely correctly two of the major blocks to urgent reform, the piecemeal unconnected nature of public services across the sectors, and the way that the exhausting business of contracting private and voluntary sector suppliers bogs everything down further.

They are absolutely spot on about this and I hope the report gets read.  There are aspects of their solution which are eminently practical - basic licencing rather than contracting, and opening up all services to all providers across the different departmental and geographical boundaries.

Those are bold and exciting ideas.  But there is a difficulty, which is the long reach of contract culture.

In fact, I've come to the conclusion, not that privatised services are somehow inherently worse - though the extra expense will soon be making them very much rarer - but that contract culture narrows what they can achieve down to ever-narrower numerical outputs.  These are then gamed voraciously by the big players, which as a result spread extra costs around the system.

The problem isn't public versus private, it is small versus big, and contracted versus flexible.

Jonty and his colleagues say this can be tackled by payment-by-results.  But the real problem is that payment-by-results agreements have precisely the same effect as the much-hated contracts: they narrow outputs down, minimise effort from the service providers and spread costs elsewhere in the system.

Yes, I know that PBR can be made more difficult to game.  But the result is an acceleration of the kind of complexity that made the old contracts so exhausting, and to load bureaucracy in such weight that - once again - the small mutual suppliers can't compete.  Even if they could afford the up front costs.

The report authors are right that we need to open up the whole system to achieve broader results.  But PBR will never achieve that, because it is always narrowing results down to deliverable, reportable, numerical outcomes.

My own feeling is that the way forward is being pioneered by the Department of Health, thanks largely to Norman Lamb, and involving the integration of increasing swathes of the public sector at local level - governed if necessary by wider contracts - which can still involve smaller players to help them with specific issues.

They will also need a preventive layer of infrastructure, which is as informal as possible, and which can support people before they need formal services, or when they are coming out of direct professional care.

This kind of thing will need to be planned in via local government, but traditional contract culture - and traditional targets - will kill it.

The underlying problem is much more far-reaching, as I set out in my book The Tyranny of Numbers - though not quite in these terms.  How come, when we have reached the kind of technological sophistication that we have, has humanity increasingly constrained their own judgement with approximations?

Because that is the corrosive power of contract culture - specified, gameable, inaccurate approximations of reality.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Shovelling money into great black holes

I've been mulling over the big items in the Autumn Statement and have come to the conclusion that the establishment have very little sense of how economics actually works.

I suppose they are muddled by the politicial rhetoric that house prices rise because there aren't enough homes - which of course they do, somewhat.  But it isn't the main reason, and it isn't clear to me why Whitehall doesn't understand this.

If you thought the main problem was too few homes - and there are too few homes - then perhaps you might imagine that lowering stamp duty would tackle the problem.  But even then, I can't see how.

The reason house prices rise is that there is an infinite amount of money flooding into the system, initially via London - from unequal salaries and foreign investors taking the place of limitless mortgages.  The prices rise to meet what is just achievable for enough of those who can buy.

So lowering stamp duty will give a breathing space for a few months before the prices rise to fill the gap.  Any other wheeze to make prices seem temporarily lower will have the same effect - whether it is subsidising mortgage deposits or 40-year mortgage terms.  The prices will rise to fill the gap.  They always do when there is so much money in search of property, as I explain in my book Broke.

The same goes for the £15 billion largely wasted on trunk road building.  It will bring a temporary relief, but then the suppressed demand will simply flood in and fill the gap again.

In both cases, we will be back where we started, but taxpayers will be £15bn (roads) and £800m (stamp duty) poorer.

Yes, I know I'm cross that my stamp duty was paid in full only three months ago.  But it's more than that.

I understand the drama that is being played out pre-election.  But even so, why do we have to keep shovelling money into these huge craters, while allowing the basic problem to continue from generation to generation?  Why don't we try and solve the problems in a sustainable way?  Why don't senior politicians understand suppressed demand?

And speaking of sustainability, the Autumn Statement just happens to coincide with the revelation that - once again - we are living through the warmest year on record.  Does nobody look any further than a few months ahead?  Or do they really want their political obituary to damn them with the faint praise that they made house prices - the rack on which we eke out our indentured servitude - seem to dip for a few months?

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Wednesday 3 December 2014

Going north by rail? Virgin-Stagecoach now compulsory

Last week, the East Coast rail franchise was awarded to a consortium that is part owned by Virgin Trains, which will dominate the branding.  I've been mulling it over.

I've always enjoyed travelling on the East Coast Mainline, and that isn't just because it has been run in the interim by a state-owned franchise.  I liked it when it was privately run by GNER.  I liked it because it was more civilised than other railway lines, more relaxed, more reliable and the staff were flexible, understanding and helpful.

But there was another reason I liked it.  It wasn't Virgin Trains.

Now I've no idea of Virgin Trains are still as unreliable on the West Coast as they used to be, but I don't enjoy the cramped seating, the incessant announcements and the smell of urine because of the design of the lavatories.  I don't like the way their staff are forbidden from being flexible.

Let's leave aside the issue of privatisation.  I have no problem with operators making a profit in principle, as long as they deserve it.  The issue here is one of monopoly.  If I want to go north now, I have to travel by Virgin.  There was a choice; soon there won't be.

Behind this is an ideological wrangle inside the coalition.  For Conservatives, competition means handing over services to private operators.  To Lib Dems, competition has to mean a choice by consumers - or it would mean that if they articulated it, which for other reasons they have never quite got around to doing.

Now, you could blame the Conservatives for this blatant return to monopoly, but they are at least consistent.  They don't believe monopoly is an issue and they are actually not that interested in choice beyond privatisation.

No, I blame Liberals over the past generation for allowing their central economic idea to atrophy.  Without the Liberal voice, we have become dominated by monopolies - and are that much more dominated as a result of this decision.  It will mean higher prices and worse service - because that is what monopolies do.

You could say that Virgin will own only ten per cent of the franchise, and Stagecoach owns the rest.  Actually, of course, Virgin only owns 51 per cent of Virgin Trains, which has the West Coast Main Line franchise (Stagecoach owns the other half).  That isn't the point.  The point is, how do consumers choose a way to the north by rail that doesn't involve Virgin and Stagecoach?  They can't.

The Transport Secretary said this award "rekindles the spirit of competition".  Maybe it does in the Conservative sense.  It doesn't in any Liberal sense.

On the same page of my newspaper reporting the story last week was another report, the early stages of an attempt by MEPs to break up the granddaddy of all monopolies - Google.  Led, in this case, by a Spanish Liberal.

Now why are we not discussing these issues?  Or are UK Liberals only interested in tackling potential state tyrannies and not potential private sector ones?

Tuesday 2 December 2014

The remaining mystery of the Christmas Truce

It is strange to think that, on the centenary of the famous 1914 Christmas Truce - in only a few weeks time - that there will be nobody left alive who remembers one of the oddest and most spontaneous events of the twentieth century.

I've always been fascinated by the truce.  My favourite novelist Henry Williamson was there and it changed his life - disastrously so, in some ways, given that he came to believe that the soldier he had met from the other side had been Hitler.

There are a few difficulties involved in writing about it now, exactly a century on - as I have been doing.

The first is to find your way back into the state of mind at the time, to understand what it meant then - before the knowledge of poison gas, the Somme, the war poets, and so many of the horrors.

The second is to draw some conclusions about it.  It was dreamlike for those who took part, and - on the English and German sides at least - not in any way a pacifist demonstration.  But I'm not sure we would have looked so kindly on a Christmas Truce if it had happened after an invasion of this country in 1940.

The third is to identify the continuing mystery.

That is pretty clear to me now.  For the French and Germans, the truce was unmentionable until recent years, so this is in some ways new to them.  For us, there are literally hundreds of eye-witness accounts and more come to light all the time.

No, the peculiar element for me is the complete lack of records remaining from the senior officers.  The commander-in-chief Sir John French wrote in his autobiography later:

“When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a great deal of trouble..."

The mystery, for me, is that almost no record remains of that 'great deal of trouble'.  But it is a clue to the real meaning of the truce, and what actually happened.  I explain what I mean in my new ebook Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914, which was published yesterday (it costs £1.99 and can be downloaded onto PCs too!).

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Monday 1 December 2014

The strange re-emergence of vinyl records, and so on

I don't like to brag (well, I don't get the opportunity very often).  But I read the report in the Guardian last week with some satisfaction, explaining that the annual sale of vinyl records had reached a 18-year high - up to a million.

It is now 11 years since my book Authenticity came out.  I was fascinated by the re-emergence of so many of those elements of modern life which were supposed to have been consigned to the dustbin of technology - radio, bricks, bicycles, trams, natural fibres, bread-making (most real food was supposed to be too inconvenient; remember the Smash advert robots?).

This element I borrowed partly from the French medievalist Jean Gimpel in his book The End of the Future, which predicted this first.  I like to think I made the argument a bit more forward-looking.  This is what I wrote back then:

"At the same time, we have also seen the emergence of an articulate but growing minority of the population who are rejecting the idea that the unstoppable march of progress meant a fake, second-rate world and are demanding something authentic – real human contact, real experience, real connection. They don’t just want authenticity – this is no puritanical return: they want to enjoy getting drunk occasionally, they want fast food when it’s convenient, and they certainly want to use the internet. But they don’t want that to be their only choice. They want something authentic to go back to."

Well, they seem to be going back to it.  But I was fascinated to see this quotation in the Guardian's report, from Stephen Godfroy from record chain Rough Trade:

“While the digital download is instantaneous and portable, the vinyl has a sensory quality. I think we are moving into a post-digital age where people do value something that is real – there is a value in its ownership, it is not just a piece of binary code on a mobile phone.”

This remains controversial.  Most commentators would accept that it is true, but they fall out about what it might mean.  But people certainly value what is real.  You can see it in virtually every area of life - it even explains the particularly fraught relationship between voters and the big political parties.  I think they may value authenticity increasingly...

Unfortunately, copies of Authenticity now seem to be virtually unobtainable.  But I've updated my argument in my ebook The Age to Come.

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Thursday 27 November 2014

Why are people so cross these days?

I thought of calling this blog ‘The ceaseless quest to find out why people hate politicans’. I haven’t done so, mainly because the answer isn’t terribly hard to find.

Even so, it is strange that a string of former Labour cabinet ministers still write articles suggesting compulsory voting or voting by phone, as if voting was the problem. I’ve just read another one by Charles Clarke.

I’ve suggested some reasons before. This is another one, and it occurred to me this morning, early in the damp mist in Sussex as I texted the bus company to find out the arrival time of my next bus.

You can do this in London too, and it costs about 25p and tells you what buses are arriving at your stop and when. In Sussex, you get what purports to be that, but – on closer examination – just turns out to be the bus timetable.

It wouldn’t have been my choice to spent 25p to look at the timetable, since it is also glued to the bus stop. Do I get cross? A little.

It made me realise how important this gap has become between the fundamental purpose of a public service and its actual purpose in practice.

And how enraging it can be.

The text service for the Sussex bus company is a small example. It purports to have a purpose of giving transparent information to customers. Its actual purpose is to show that they are using technology – and maybe to raise money to pay for it. The audience purports to be the customers when it his actually the county council paymasters.

This example doesn’t matter much, but take Atos, the company charged (until the end of its contract) with assessing fitness for work. Its public purpose was to police the boundary between fit and unfit claimants. Its actual purpose – built into the system provided for them by DWP – was to shave money off the welfare bill.

I am not saying that saving money on welfare is an ignoble cause. The issue here is that the gap between appearance and reality is first disturbing, and then – when you meet it in every public service – it is absolutely infuriating. It is alienating.

I interviewed a GP today for a BBC programme and was fascinated, again, by the number of prominent warnings – together with pictures of the police and blue lights – warning patients not to abuse staff.

Of course, they must not abuse staff. But the fact that these notices are as ubiquitous as they are is a symptom of that gap between the public purpose of a health centre (to cure you) and its real purpose (to control you and your behaviour).

Ask yourself what the real purpose is of your bank when it deals with you (sell you financial products) and the real purpose of many, if not most, government call centres (to get you off the phone in two minutes).

Add that up to a gap in every institution we used, public and private – and voluntary sector too, whose real purpose is often to collect target figures for the Big Lottery, then it amounts to a reason to be cross. Very cross.

My take on this, which is partly the way of the modern world and partly the by-product of the Blair-Brown control system, is that it has hollowed out our institutions.

Never mind the loss of authority and trust, which the BBC is always banging on about. People have never trusted their MPs very far, unless they happen to know them – and sometimes that doesn’t help – but when they see this unarticulated gap, day after day, between the public and real purpose of ever official they deal with, it is a reason for deep distrust.

The effect was clear in Rochester and Strood.  Perhaps I should have called this post: 'The corrosive gap between public and real purpose'.  I will next time...

Wednesday 26 November 2014

The constipation of the NHS

There is an awful lot of old nonsense written about the Health and Social Care Act.

It is said that it was a mistake to put decision-making in the hands of GPs. Well, it did at least provide the foundations for shifting power away from the hospitals – though, of course, GPs are not really in control (they are providers and the CCGs are purchasers, so they can’t co-ordinate properly, as they need to).

It is said that it has opened up the NHS to privatisation. On the contrary, most of the marketisation measures were removed by the Lib Dems, and most of what we have now are the basic outsourcing structures set out by the Blair-Brown governments (yes, there is an issue around the scale of what is happening now).

But what on earth possessed the Department of Health to split regulation between three competing bodies – NHS England, the CQC and Monitor – and to leave the boundaries between the three of them obscure enough to get in the way of innovation?

I encountered all three of them in a brief official capacity, and found them all obsessed with each other’s remits, nervous about each other and very, very careful.

It does explain something of the bitterness behind the NHS blogger Roy Lilley’s attack yesterday morning on the way the NHS is led – a dearth of leadership on the ground, and a pointless stream of negativity from the regulators to anyone who thinks differently or experiments or takes risks with the targets.

It is as if the coalition took the disastrously concrete and wasteful design of public services from the Brown years, and then set up three super-quangos to entrench those mistakes further.

When I met CQC in 2012, they were still using fax machines – enough to make any of us nervous.

Now, you can criticise Roy for trying to let NHS providers off the hook. The CQC, which is – as he says – far too big for its own effectiveness, is the illegitimate child of the Mid-Staffs scandal. But this paragraph is absolutely right about NHS leadership:

“As the boss, you have no control over the business model, compulsory frameworks that might be completely inappropriate for where you work, fixed prices, targets and tariffs that create perversity, arbitrary regulatory rules, and required to do plenty more with plenty less.”

There is the NHS in a nutshell. What can you do about it? Well, I think you have to accept that the NHS can’t be run as a vast great centralised edifice any more.

The danger is that anyone who says this tends to get accused of wanting to sell it off – but it badly needs to be decentralised to local units, and to accept that these might look very different.

You also urgently need to decentralise inspection. There is no way that mega-CQC can do more than a paint by numbers approach, and they need to be stripped down to concentrate on training local authorities to inspect instead.

I’m not sure that Monitor has a role at all, though clearly somebody has to watch over the business practices of the foundation trusts and to speak for patients and their right to be treated flexibly.

Somehow this devolution has to be done without a major new re-organisation, which is politically unacceptable. Nor can you use rhetoric like ‘setting the NHS free’, because again it sounds like weasel words for privatisation.

But you do have to rescue the NHS from its undergrowth of constipation. In short, we need a major dose of laxative.

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Tuesday 25 November 2014

Politics and the art of the impossible

I felt rather sorry for Emily Thornberry, whose innocuous tweet caused such a stir.  I wasn't sure if it was actually the sensitivities of the Labour Party she really upset.  Their conscience has been plaguing them for the complete abandonment of the working classes in recent decades.

No wonder Ed Miliband was so cross.

On the other hand, it is clearly right - given the Ukip surge - that the political elite should be examining their consciences.

I have a feeling the sense of alienation from conventional politics, which - as a Liberal, I rather share - lies in the strange loss of ambition that seems to have gone hand in hand with globalisation.

Instead of setting out a vision which can be achieved, frontline politicians have to spend their time defending a series of compromises which the establishment has made on our behalf, often for very good reasons but not conclusively so.  And maybe because they have to: globalisation has been a paradoxically constraining force.

They have to defend the status quo in energy for fear that investment in the infrastructure the nation needs won't be forthcoming.

They have to defend rising property prices for fear that buy-to-let landlords will withdraw from the market and they will have to deal with the resulting homelessness.

They have to defend the bureaucracy around global trade because it underpins the single market, and all the other trade agreements which have constrained our political freedom of movement.

And so on and so on.  It is the politics of binding compromise, with a whiff of the politics of fear.  It is the result of the political class losing control of the levers.

They may be the right compromises, and the establishment knows they are inevitable - so they never get discussed.  It is hardly surprising that a political movement emerges, simplistic enough to fail to understand them - and to contemplate tearing them all up and starting again.

There is a reasonable longing for politicians to be politicians again, to dream dreams and say 'why not?'  To act on the national stage, to make things happen.  The art of the possible has become the art of the impossible.

But when that happens, there are circumstances when the least attractive alternatives suddenly appear to some people compelling.  After all, if the opposite of populism is just to close ranks and defend the usual compromises which have dominated our lives since the 1970s, then populism has its attractions, even for me.

Especially when those compromises involve defending institutions because of what they were designed to do, when every one knows - perhaps everyone but those in Westminster - that they don't actually work as intended.

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Monday 24 November 2014

A recipe for old-fashioned economics

The trouble with standing for election is that it gives you the potentially disturbing opportunity to see yourself as others see you.  You fail to get elected, and suddenly you are puzzling out obsessively what it is about you that sort of failed to enthuse people.

All of which is a way of saying that I'm out of sorts at the moment, having failed to get elected to the Lib Dem federal policy committee for the second time in two years.  But, hey, my electorate have spoken...


Of course there are compensations.  I won't have to crawl up to London and back again at dead of night.  I won't have to sit through interminable debates about the Health and Social Care Act, or constitutional reform as understood around 1956.  But I'm sorry, nonetheless.

I imagine that not nearly enough people want a member of the policy committee who is really pretty loyal to the current leadership.  I'm not on anyone's lists - both the Orange Book people and the Social Liberal Forum furrow their brows when I speak.  Perhaps I should be pleased to have won as many votes as I did (thank you, everyone!).

But one thing does worry me.  I stood on a promise to take the party's economic policy by the scruff of its neck and to make it work for people.  I might not have succeeded in this, but I was determined to try - because it worries me that even self-described radical Liberals seem to have almost no interest in economics at all.

The result is that Lib Dems tend to get rolled over when it comes to economics.  This is not a critique of austerity, but it is a criticism of our failure to think creatively about what else might be possible.

And when you don't think radically about economics - when you can't see the point, I'll tell you what happens.  You become deeply conservative on the subject.

So, an obscure debate took place in the Commons last Thursday, about the way money is created.  It was the first time Parliament has debated this very important issue for well over a century, and there was a great deal to be said about the underlying causes of the 2008 crash.

You don't have to agree the entirely line by Positive Money, the campaign group around these issues, or to have agreed with everyone who spoke - and many of them disagreed with each other - to find these issues pretty important for the future design of our money system.  Both Adair Turner and Martin Wolf have been talking about this issue in the last few months.

I'm not even sure what I think myself - but it is a healthy departure to have MPs discussing the possibility of varying how much publicly-created, interest-free money there is in circulation (a good deal less now than when I was born).

But here's the point.  The debate was sponsored by MPs from four parties but no Lib Dems.  As many as 30 MPs took part, including a very distinguished former cabinet minister, and - you guessed it - no Lib Dems.

I think we urgently need to take what Keynes said to heart (as a good Liberal):

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

That's what happens when you stop thinking about it.  The defunct economist in all of us, the default common sense of a few generations back, comes to the fore.

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Thursday 20 November 2014

Why privatisation is over (nearly)

I have a BFI copy of the classic Post Office film Night Mail, with the Britten-Auden collaboration that emerged as night mails crossing the border-bringing-the-cheque-and-the-postal-order. It now looks like a hymn to public service commitment.

One of the other features in the DVD was a sequel, in colour, dated from 1963, called Thirty Million Letters. It is a touching, emotional and absolutely brilliant evocation of what a postal universal service obligation used to mean. There are postmen walking through blizzards, delivering post from a pony and trap, by plane and in constant supportive contact with the public.

The universal service obligation, which the newly privatised Royal Mail is so keen to dispose of, was portrayed there as a thing of beauty – a commitment of pride, a national treasure, a precious stone set in a silver sea...

I can see that the chief executive of the Royal Mail is in a difficult position. Now the Royal Mail is a private company, its continued universal obligation holds it back.

The pressure is on from innovative new competition, from click and collect to Amazon drones. It is difficult out there. It is also difficult for Business Secretary Vince Cable – criticised that he undervalued the shares, and now criticised just weeks later that he overvalued them.

But the abolition of the universal service obligation, a feature of the Royal Mail since Victorian times – which now seems inevitable – is such a scandalous volte face by the Royal Mail that I have been wondering if it marks the end of privatisation as an instrument of policy.

The appalling things is that, as predicted, a universal service obligation shifts from something which we took for granted with quiet pride in the 1960s into something which is too expensive.

Privatisation was born in 1984 as a means of improving service, encouraging innovation and providing a form of popular capitalism – and also of course of raising national revenue (selling the family silver, as Harold Macmillan put it).

After three decades, it has become something else. Here are three reasons why it is reaching the end:

1. Instead of setting free public services by giving them entrepreneurial energy, the process seems to have had the reverse effect – it transforms them into the worst kind of intractable bureaucratic megaliths, apparently without care or thought.  As bad as before, but more expensive.

2, Customer facing UK business is itself going through a period of serious dysfunctionality, based on dysfunctional CRM business practices, set in concrete by dysfunctional IT systems. The prospects of handing over any more services to that kind of customer services does not bode well.

3. Nobody any more believe that privatisation will lead to a better service. Quite the reverse.  That was not the case in the 1980, and the great privatisations back then – British Gas, BT – have retained their functionality, but it certainly is now. State owned East Coast railway lines provide by far the best service.

4. The need to save money means that there is simply no opportunity for profits that privatisation might once have offered, especially in health – which is why so many contracted out NHS services are being abandoned.

None if this suggests that privatisation will stop dead. There are also good reasons for contracting out some services inside the state system – and always will be - but, despite the scare stories, privatisations seem to me to have reached the end of the line.  The revelation of just how much universal services and competition are incompatible will only hasten their demise.

The remaining two justiications are that privatisation helps raise money – which is not enough of a reason for doing so in itself if the management is going to be worse or more expensive – and that they can then raise investment money off the government's balance sheet. This is still an important driver. But there is a political limit: if privatised services are acknowledged to be worse,  less reliable, less effective and less universal, then the tide will turn,

I think it just turned.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Iinnovation versus manipulation in the NHS

Targets came from Jeremy Bentham, in a labyrinthine journey via Robert Macnamara and Key Performance Indicators. They purport to provide transparency and accountability, and – in some ways, in the absence of anything else – they do.

The difficulty is that they never quite measure what they claim. They are indicators of the thing – success – and not the thing itself. And in that gap, so many difficulties follow.

I write all this because of a blistering attack by the influential NHS blogger Roy Lilley this morning about the effects of too close attention to targets is having on an NHS which feels itself embattled – and the tricks the managers are laying to avoid confrontation with the regulators, like delaying all operations to insert patients from the waiting list, or declaring a local emergency so that the targets don’t apply.

Many of us involved in Lib Dem policy in 2010 believed that the coalition would dump the Blair-Brown idea of targets altogether, and they did to some extent. But enough of the old edifice remains to twist the purpose of services and create waste.

Why didn’t they go further? I think because nobody had thought through enough – as they still have not in enough detail – how to provide accountability without some kind of target-driven inspection system.

But we have come some way. What we have left is the bones of the old Blairite, utilitarian design that dreamed that public services were giant humming machines, run outside politics by men in white coats, huddled over the dials.

That system remains because Whitehall has not yet realised how far the target numbers are from reality – cf. Goodhart’s Law – and how delusory their progress figures are. Or what to do about it. That is all now deferred for the next Parliament.

I thought before, and still think, that it was a wasted opportunity, but you can’t move until there is some consensus about what you do instead – and that remains elusive, though John Seddon’s work points in a pretty clear direction.

In the meantime, the NHS is still overseen in this bizarre system of management-by-numbers, which stands in relation to leadership as painting-by-numbers stands to art (see my book The Tyranny of Numbers).

You can see how targets might keep hospitals to the task in hand when budgets are increasing. But when they are shrinking, and demand is rising – partly because of the way contracts have tended to narrow services and spread costs – then targets just become ridiculous.

And in the midst of a crisis, like wartime for example, checking on the success of hospitals by peering at the target figures just becomes like satire.

The real question is this: who in the top eschelons of the NHS is watching over trusts and hospitals and supporting their leadership when they are providing innovative solutions despite targets? And who is holding them to account when they are meeting targets by putting all their energy and ingenuity into tricking the system?

Monday 17 November 2014

Why free traders might oppose TTIP

David Cameron chose to emphasis TTIP in his speech in Australia, explaining that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – its proper title – will give a ‘rocket boost’ to the global economy.

I find this argument strange. There is very little evidence for it. The study it was based on has been discredited (at least according to WDM), and – in any case – you have to be suspicious of this kind of cost benefit analysis, which only adds the benefits and does no subtraction for the disbenefits.

Similar one-way analyses have been used to justify an end to supermarket restrictions on Sundays and the expansion of Heathrow. It is a kind of fantasyland.

There are three accusations that are being thrown at TTIP at the moment. The first is that it endangers the NHS. I believe this isn’t the case since the European Union has legislation that puts public services beyond the reach of TTIP.

But actually nobody seems to know and I find it extraordinary that, because these issues are not on the mainstream agenda for Labour or Conservative – the BBC fails to pin down the chapter and verse, or even to cover the issues much. Nor do any of the parties volunteer it.

The second accusation is that the special measures will allow corporations to sue sovereign nations for undermining their investments.

This seems to be quite true and bizarrely, presumably because it involves American corporations rather than, say, Romanian ones, UKIP stays silent on the issue.

The third accusation is not really articulated properly and is about the limits of the free market. This is the critique of the research which Cameron uses for his claims about the benefits of TTIP. Again, completely unexamined by the BBC.

There are difficulties here. It is true that open markets will tend to raise all boats, but there are already wide-ranging trade agreements between the EU and the USA and it is not clear how much this one will add.

It is also true that the meaning of free trade has become blunted and coarsened since its great days as the centrepiece of Liberal economics.

What began as a critique of monopoly, and an underpinning of the right of the small to challenge the weak, has become the opposite. Free trade, as understood by mainstream policy-makers, seems to me to have become the absolute reverse: a justification for monopoly and a buttress for the strong and rich to control the weak. This is not its original meaning or its correct one.

It seems to me highly likely, given this, that TTIP is a buttressing of the big over the small – I can’t see how my local healthcare co-op is going to be taking over any American hospitals. It is a means by which the big can ride roughshod over the small – it is a recipe therefore for poorer service and the suppressing of innovation.

Since small businesses create jobs in a way that big businesses are constrained from doing, this would make TTIP a net job destroyer and therefore corrosive of prosperity.

This column is my assertion of the right as a free trader to oppose TTIP. In the absence of clear evidence, it is a technocrat’s charter and, as such, brings the backlash against technocracy – really our biggest threat at the moment – that much closer.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Why are we so fascinated by Alan Turing?

The new Benedict Cumberbatch film comes out tomorrow in the UK.  It is called The Imitation Game and it concerns the code-breaking career of Alan Turing, the British candidate for the inventor of computing.  It is also the UK candidate for the next Oscars ceremony.

What I have been wondering is why Turing has become such a compelling figure in our recent past - and, at the age of 102 if he had lived, he might even have still been alive.

When I first began writing about him, when I was writing my book Authenticity, Turing was a half-forgotten, fringe figure.  Now he is a symbolic martyr who helped create the modern world.  In between, something happened.

There are three possible ways of thinking of this. There was his prosecution for homosexuality and subsequent suicide (and it almost certainly was suicide, as I explain in my book Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma). With the issue of sexual tolerance right at the top of everyone's radars these days, this makes him something of a martyr - enough to be given an official pardon last year.

As I explained in the book, the suicide was most probably not directly to do with the prosecution, and more likely to be linked to hounding by the security services, but actually we can't know.

The other way of thinking about his importance as a figure is that he was such a pioneer of virtuality, and as such a co-creator of the IT revolution. He conceptualised computers and then brought them into existence to crack the Nazi codes.

Finally, Turing was a contradictory personality who strongly believed that machines could think and feel - the founder, in that respect, of the Turing Test. He was in this respect another pioneer of tolerance - he believed, not so much that his computers should be given rights, but that they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

It is never entirely comfortable when a complex human being becomes a symbol of things beyond themselves. Turing has become a symbol for the modern world, as a prophet of IT and scientific rationality, a martyr for gay rights, and also of genius cramped by convention and intolerance.

He would have found none of these entirely comfortable. He is portrayed sometimes as a social misfit, somewhere on the autistic spectrum – in fact he was a witty and entertaining friend. He enjoyed Snow White and had a particular fascination for fairy tales. He was, in fact, a far more rounded figure than he is given credit for being, as the new film portrays him.

As for the symbolism of the apple, it is a bizarre twist of the modern world that Turing’s fatal apple (poisoned with cyanide) is sometimes given the credit for being the original for the logo which now graces Apple computers – as if the apple of the tree of knowledge was somehow inadequate to the task.

In fact, the Apple logo’s designer Rob Janoff denies that he had even Adam and Eve in mind when he penned his first draft. He put the bite in, not as a tribute to Turing, but to emphasise scale and to show this was not a picture of a cherry.

What seems to underpin our fascination with him is that he was a pioneer of the modern world, and perhaps of tolerance to people who approach the world more like a computer would - as perhaps he did.

The Turing Test never claimed to be able to verify anything metaphysical, but that is where the debate is going.

 It is a debate about authenticity, which asserts or denies that there are attributes which are uniquely human, not so much conventional intelligence, but love, care and generosity. Turing believed that intuition was computable. Even if a computer passes his test, we won’t know if he was right or not.

Turing was wrong about his predictions: he expected his test to have been passed by now. But we are now in thrall to computers in ways that might have surprised him: in practice, the closer to human intelligence the robot who phones us up can be, the more unnerving the experience – and, for the time being, the more frustrating, because of the inability of IT to deal with human complexity in the ways that Turing predicted.

If the corporate world wants to replace teachers and doctors with screens and software, because it is cheaper, it is not always obvious which side Turing – a great humanist – would have been on.

I like to think he would have been on the side of humanity again, but who knows.  Find out more in my ebook Alan Turing: Understanding the Enigma.

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Wednesday 12 November 2014

Projecting our loss of innocence

When Arthur Miller was writing The Crucible, he mentioned to a friend as he left dinner for the evening that he was working on a play about the Salem witch trials.

She was astonished that he could see any parallel between witch trials and the McCarthyite hearings against un-American activities, going on at the time. Yet now we call both ‘witch hunts’ without batting an eye. It is sometimes more obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

These kind of frenzies emerge often with good reason, but involve a great deal of projection. I have a feeling the un-American witch hunters were projecting their own sense of betrayal – and nearly everybody in public life seems to carry one of those – onto the nation.

I wonder in a similar way whether the ferocious elements of the furore about child abuse is caused, to some extent, by people projecting their own loss of innocence onto children.

This is not to suggest that the child abuse campaign isn’t important, but it might explain the fringe elements like banning single adult males – or those who appear single – from public parks, as they have done in Telford and Weston-super-Mare.

So I’m grateful to Jonathan Calder for being the first to draw my attention to this. It is a frightening trend, not just because of its assumptions, but also because it undermines family life in its own way (if you need a child with you to prove your own innocence) and therefore makes abuse more likely, not less.

I realised more than a decade ago that the issue had the potential for tyranny of this kind, when someone I knew well told me that it didn’t matter if a few innocent people were gaoled in order to catch the paedophiles. Since another friend of mine was one of those innocent people facing gaol at the time, this was not comforting.

Important causes may always have the potential to draw out this kind of insanity. But we have to be careful, because this is also how causes undermine themselves - whenever something is considered so important taht a mere accusation is evidence of guilt.

There is a strong current in the child abuse ‘industry’, if I could call it that , which regards abuse as mainstream in family life, and justifies the treatment of children accordingly – seized in the middle of the night by police during the satanic abuse panic.

There is another strand which assumes that children will usually be better off in local authority care than at risk of abuse at home – though, historically, that is more often a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Both of these get in the way of keeping children safe, because they risk changing the boundary lines of the issue. A world where single people are regarded as pariahs, or anyone who happens to have left their children or grandchildren at home, is a much more dangerous one for children.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

How to waste a staggering £15bn

Martin Mogridge was a transport economist.  He was originally a physicist who wore long hair and leather trousers, and a cultivated air of exoticism. His interests included science fiction and Victorian eroticism, and just before his untimely death in 1999 at the age of only 59, he began studying Hebrew.

Over the previous three decades, while the major cities of the world enthusiastically demolished their slums and built massive urban highways, transport experts had been puzzling over the phenomenon of how new roads – even widened roads – seemed to increase traffic.

Economists had noticed that, if there is more road space, then people find it worthwhile to pay to use their cars, if they had one. Then public transport attracts fewer paying passengers and the fares go up or services reduce, and even more people go by car. 

Even in the 1930s, they had noticed that new roads released what they called ‘suppressed demand’. Worse, then the traffic goes faster and the buses find it more difficult to negotiate traffic streams or cross big highways. It all combined together to create what was called the Downs-Thomson Paradox, described like this:

“If the decision to use public or private transport is left to the free choice of the individual commuter, an equilibrium will be reached in which the overall attractiveness of the two systems is about equal, because if one is faster, cheaper and more agreeable than the other there will be a shift of passengers to it, rendering it more crowded while the other becomes less so, until a position is reached where no-one on either system thinks there is any advantage in changing to the other... Hence we derive one of the golden rules of urban transport: the quality of peak-hour travel by car tends to equal that of public transport.”

That was a vital clue: the speed of road transport and public transport are linked, and the journey times door to door for both are often very similar. Mogridge realised that, in London, everything depended on the speed of the underground system, which is why the traffic in London has stayed at a pretty average speed since 1900. 

If you build more roads, people go back to their cars because it is then quicker than going by underground – until the point when the speed is so slow that underground travel is faster. Then they leave their cars behind and go by tube.

The solution to speeding up the traffic is therefore to speed up the main public transport infrastructure. What’s more, said Mogridge, this works even if you take space away from cars to make room for public transport. It was the thinking that led to plans like Crossrail – the new high speed underground line across London – as well as on Zurich’s successful strategy to reduce car use based on better pedestrian access and investment in trams. 

By the end of his life, Mogridge reckoned that traffic speed could be doubled just by reducing space for cars, though it remains difficult for public officials – at least in the UK – to act on this new law of traffic management.  Read more in my book The New Economics.

What applies to London also applies to he trunk road system.  What is really staggering is that David Cameron has announced road-building plans which fly in the face of this knowledge.  In fact, £15bn worth, about which he claims:

“This will be nothing less than a roads revolution – one which will lead to quicker journey times, more jobs, and businesses boosted right across the country."

If Mogridge was right, and I think he was, the very last thing this will do is boost journey times.  It is a staggering waste of money and it seems at the very least unproven that it will boost business, except of course the business of road-building.  Road-building tends to move jobs from the poor areas to the rich areas, and rarely the other way.

Every one of those extra lanes, built at such enormous expense, will attract the road traffic to fill them again and I feel despairing of the establishment's ability to learn anything very much - and their amazing ability to keep plugging away with their money at the futile and hopeless.

It makes you yearn for austerity.  It's a pity it has got such a bad name.  At least it meant a little forethought before slinging money around at all the old shibboleths.

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Monday 10 November 2014

The great system thinking battle that is to come

PictureIt is peculiar the way most of the organisations we deal with now want to prolong the agony by asking us to rate the ‘experience’ of dealing with them.

This does betray, I suppose, a kind of interest in what we think, but there is also something profoundly irritating about it – especially if it involves formal ratings. It is very rare to get this from organisations which actually provide good customer service – questions, yes (like the NHS Friends and Family Test), but ratings, never.

A friend of mine was telling me last week about a particularly irritating encounter at Santander, where they then tried to sell an insurance package in the branch and then asked them how they would rate the encounter on a scale of one to five.

If that wasn’t irritating enough, the bank counter staff then said: “It would help us if you could make it a 5.”

This led eventually to a long conversation with the manager where it transpired that they didn’t understand why everyone gave them a 4. Had they ever thought about what a 5 in customer service might look like? Apparently not, apart from their ability to perform by the rule book.

And somehow, that experience sums up the full debilitating power of the targets regime rolled out with such enthusiasm across public services during the Blair and Brown years. Because it hoovers up the available energy, imagination and flair of the organisation to make the figures look good. It transforms the customers into merely the means by which a good rating can be won.

I remember a fly-on-the-wall documentary about airport security recently where the staff focused all their attention, not on spotting potential terrorists, but on spotting the fake terrorists sent to test their attentiveness by their managers – a slightly different skill.

Imagine that same shift of resources across every public service and every service organisation, and the waste and perversity that results will be absolutely vast.  Unfortunately, it is vast.

Now it just so happens that the scourge of targets in public services, the system thinker John Seddon, has a new book out this week where he turns his attention to what governments should do instead of targets.

Seddon has the most coherent critique and probably the most practical alternative. He is so enjoyably rude to his opponents, the conversations with whom he repeats throughout his new book, The Whitehall Effect, that his old newsletters were required reading in local government.

In places like Camden, they have begun to roll out Seddon style systems thinking, and with great effect. But the debate has hardly been joined – because Whitehall is well-insulated against such a fundamental critique.

He describes his first encounter with local government in the book, when Swale District Council called him in because the back office system they had been told by the DWP to put in place for housing benefits seemed to be increasing the backlog – as we now know they do.

Seddon seems to have nailed the basic problem: imperial systems, like those built by public services during the Blair/Brown years – and especially inappropriate IT systems – can’t absorb the kind of human variety they tend to get. This enormously boosts costs.

Now, Seddon’s book has been long-awaited by people like me, who agree with most of what he says, because we were hoping for an answer to the great accountability conundrum – which is this.

Without some kind of numerical measures, how are politicians going to hold services to account? And if they don’t use numerical targets, will these not just be imposed on them by the media?

Seddon’s answer is this; politicians should set the intentions of services and let managers find the best way to achieve them. This is what he says:

“Making leaders responsible for choices about measures and methods returns validity to inspection. Instead of inspecting for errors as laid down in checklists, inspectors will pose just one question: What are the methods and measures being used t achieve the purpose of the service?, and then check their validity.”

This is exactly right. But in practice, it seems to me to be only the beginning of a practical answer, because numerical systems of control are now so powerful and centralisation, driven by IT, is so intense..

I’m not saying that the solution is wrong. Quite the reverse: I think Seddon is urgently right. And The Whitehall Effect is an important book. But this remains an argument in progress and I’m not sure we have a definitive answer yet.

I’m hoping this book will force the big service managers to engage with the argument in a way they have failed to do so far – and admit that the waters around them have grown. The times they are a-changing.

But we need their involvement if we are not going to escape from one numerical cul-de-sac, only to find we have had another one imposed upon us.

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