Monday 21 December 2015

Could Carswell actually be a Liberal?

First of all, who do you think wrote this?

"So long as there is a correlation between how people vote locally, the taxes they pay locally and the local services they get, leave it to them to decide. Give local government control over tax and spending decisions, and local democracy will shape itself. Localise the money - and let everything else follow the money. Once you have genuine local democracy, you won't need to have central government trying to define the shape and structure of it...Perhaps the real lesson in all this is that we should not leave it to the Whitehall establishment to make localism happen."

Ashdown? Farron? Stunell? Gladstone (no, I'm being silly). But it sounds, well, Liberal, doesn’t it – that radical critique of modern state institutions, and the extraordinary way in which the establishment clings to power over potholes and every other detail of local life.

The author might therefore be a surprise to the uninitiated. It is the single UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, currently wrestling with his conscience under the leadership of Jeremy Clarkson.

Oops, sorry, for some reason my subconscious mind has begun to interchange Farage and Clarkson. Why should this be? Is it that bone-headed jollity, that defensive, self-regarding humour, that English prop-up-the-bar bonhomie? I don't know.

You can see why Carswell is struggling. Farage is clever and articulate but he appeals to a particular ultra-conservative, peculiarly angry, type which is not by any means everyone. You can see the why Carswell is thinking when he criticises his own leadership. With Farage/Clarkson, UKIP is stuck. They might attract a reasonable following, but they will never sweep the nation.

I've been reading Carswell's blog and, although I only half agree with him on many issues, it seems to me - and this will no doubt horrify him - that he thinks like a Liberal.

He is beholden to no-one. He is an ardent localist. He believes that many of the institutions of state are broken and corrupt. He is a critic of the banks, but also of modern banking and the way they are needed to create the  money supply.

He is not just more sophisticated than Farage/Clarkson. He can see that the critique of institutions is absolutely central to the future of politics, public institutions which hold ordinary people in thrall and private institutions which do the same - and rake off money via PFI contracts at the same time.

So here is my suggestion. Come and talk to some genuine Liberals - among whom I arrogantly include myself - and see it it might be possible for you one day to find a more congenial home in the Lib Dems (I'm talking to Carswell here...)

Of course, there is an elephant in the room. Carswell's critique of institutions makes him a ferocious critic of the European Union. No sane Liberal could be otherwise, but that doesn't mean that it is necessarily right to cast ourselves adrift from the handful of international institutions capable of bringing nations together. We might have to agree to disagree.

But there are certainly Lib Dems who will be voting to leave next year. Not many, and not me - but don't let us be uncritical of the undemocratic reality of the monster at the same time, and also the failure of so many institutions to do what they say on the tin. In fact, it would help to strengthen our own critique - which does tend to get blunted by those who cling to the purpose of the institutions without seeing the reality face to face.

Do I have my tongue in my cheek by suggesting a Dialogue with Douglas? Not really. I think it could benefit us both.

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Friday 18 December 2015

How homosexuality was made a crime

Since the publication of the Boyle Review by the Cabinet Office early in January 2013, I’ve been blogging pretty intensively – inspired originally by the great Roy Lilley at I’ve enjoyed it enormously and felt I was playing a useful role – talking about public services from a human point of view, and economics from a Liberal point of view, in the days when Liberals preferred not to think of anything quite so grubby.

It has been pretty intense. I’ve settled down to posting about four times a week, week in week out, except for a period in the summer and at Christmas. I still have much to say but I’ve also been afraid that, in a number of ways, I am at least in danger of repeating myself.

I’m not going to stop but I have decided to calm down a little, at least for a while. At the same time, I am reserving my energy to transform The Real Blog into a new venture that tries to use the same mixture of history, politics and economics – with a human and maybe metaphysical twist – in a new way.

I’m therefore going to cut down my blog posts to weekly or bi-weekly and to concentrate for the next few months on launching The Real Press, an ebook publishing venture dedicated to the same ideas.

I’ve very much enjoyed the debate and the people I’ve met online as a result of this blog and I hope that interaction can continue. I’m already in the middle of publishing our first titles – they will be available as very low-cost ebooks and as print-on-demand titles, from various different platforms. This blog will provide some news of them, and I’m very excited about some of the people who have agreed to write for us. More on that in due course.

The first title will be formally launched early next year, but it is available on Amazon already – it will be available in other places shortly.

This is Scandal: How homosexuality became a crime, and it is a response to the growing role of gender and identity politics in the UK, realising that – despite the furore about Alan Turing and the abolition of most homosexuality laws in 1967 - nobody had really explained how the criminalisation had originally taken place, so suddenly and unexpectedly in the summer of 1885.

The answer is unexpected, and was particularly unexpected for me, as it turned out. The roots of the new law, the Labouchere amendment – pushed through the Commons at dead of night in just a few minutes – lay in Irish politics, an attempt by the nationalists to regain the moral high ground after the Phoenix Park murders. This led to the largely forgotten events, the first political sex kerfuffle, known as the Dublin Scandal of 1884.

What was unexpected for me was the role my own family played in those events, leading to the escape in disguise from Dublin of my banker great-great-grandfather in July 1884 ahead of the arrests. My family hasn’t lived in Dublin since.

I discovered how he came to live, estranged from his family and in what would now be called a gay relationship, in London’s Denmark Hill – and became a stained glass artist. But it was what happened later in 1895, when he was forced to disappear again during the Oscar Wilde trial, that was the real revelation for me: a unique moment of fear in the modern British story that has been erased from our collective history.

The book recreates that strange chapter in forgotten history. You can download it here, or buy a print version here. Other versions will follow after the book is officially launched in the New Year.

I will still be blogging in the usual way next year, but less exhaustingly (for me at least), so I will see you then. Thank you so much for reading during 2015 and have a very merry Christmas.

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Thursday 17 December 2015

Not Mr Cameron's poodle

Shortly after taking office in 1997, Tony Blair made a ridiculous gaffe in the House of Commons where he claimed that “sovereignty” remained with him.

Paddy Ashdown slapped him down, reminding him that sovereignty actually lay with the people – or with people, if you don’t believe in such concepts.

This important exchange is now largely forgotten, but the question that lies behind it is suddenly important. Why does what passes for a British constitution allow prime ministers to flirt with the idea that they are monarchs, temporary kings whose writ must be obeyed? Because there is nothing in our history or constitution suggesting that this is the case.

I mention this because, in political terms, I suppose we are now seeing what you might call a cloud no bigger than man’s hand.

The Conservative end of the coalition failed to honour their manifesto promise and reform the House of Lords to make it more democratic, more legitimate and more effective.

So now, when the Lords begins to assert itself as an effective second chamber, it has no democratic legitimacy and so David Cameron announces plans to emasculate it – in effect to abolish it as a meaningful contributor to British law-making beyond a mild tweaking function.

It is a reverse of the struggle between the Liberal government and the Conservative dominated Lords that took place a century ago. In those days, it was known by Asquith as ‘Mr Balfour’s Poodle’. Now that it is nobody’s poodle, the Conservatives are moving towards abolition.

Ironic really, given that it is the rise of the Liberal block in the Lords that now most upsets the government. They say it has no democratic legitimacy, as if somehow nobody had voted Lib Dem in the general election.

But what really confuses me is why we seem unable in this country to incorporate an effective and democratic second chamber, as most civilised nations have. Why the obsession with control? Why the obsession with enforcing decisions, rather than on making good decisions? We all know the appalling mistakes made by UK governments because there is no check on them.

In fact, British government suffers because it is structured like a kind of tyrannical state, using monarchical powers to force through decisions on behalf of whoever manages to win a majority of MPs – this is nothing to do with a majority of the votes.

In short, we have no proper separation of powers. No civilised balance dedicated to making the right decisions. A sort of childish petulance and fear that ministerial whim will not somehow be obeyed, which seems to engulf both Conservative and Labour in government – and which is one reason why the coalition experiment was actually extremely successful (except of course for the Lib Dems).

But now we have the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. I hope the Lords will vote down the legislation to remove their revising powers. Then we will have the second constitutional crisis in a century on the same issue.

Except that this one could so easily have been avoided if Blair and Cameron had done what, in different ways, they had promised to do,

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Tuesday 15 December 2015

Bigger scale children's services will fail bigger

Imagine you are in need of some human sympathy and your care is handed over to a computer, or at least to human beings under the rigid orders of a computer. How would you feel?

Because that seem to me to be the main side effect of handing over failing children's services regimes to other local authorities.

If the main story today has been the second British astronaut in space, the main story yesterday is still echoing round what passes for my mind. It is the removal of children from their mothers at birth and the failure of some children's services at local authority level.

And what happens when they fail? They are given to a more successful local authority, defined as a "high performing" one. For high-performing, read good KPIs - not necessarily the same thing at all.

There are a number of arguments in favour of this approach. It doesn't require external commissioners and it means, at least, handing over services to someone who knows what they are doing. But there are drawbacks too. and it seems to me that the argument about this is never really engaged - and yet it may be the real division within politics in the next generation. It is about scale.

Most assumptions behind the administration of public services are that we are still in the era of mass production and economies of scale, which means that services seem to be more efficiently delivered in large quantities and by big units.

But there is an emerging counter argument, from people like the system thinker John Seddon, which suggests that economies of scale are very rapidly overtaken by diseconomies of scale - and that these tend to remain invisible in someone else's budget, so the system ignores them.

I've spent this week at the round of nativity concerts at school and I'm reminded of how this works in the education system. Despite the occasional blip, our primary schools are the jewel in the crown of UK public services. They are effective, human-scale, widely co-produced by parents and extremely efficient.

The secondary schools are not always these things at all, and I've been puzzling out why, despite the rhetoric, they tend to be aloof, technocratic, somewhat intolerant and overly concerned about appearances. They stress children out in the interest of their education and they, in turn, stress each other. I'm particularly concerned about the failure of my son's school to provide enough tables at lunchtime. It may seem a little thing, but it matters.

Why this gap? Because they are too big. They need technocratic systems to control them. They need to be managed by rules and computers, rather than by a human-scale, humane, flexibility that most primary schools seem to manage. Educationalists obsess about 'maximising the teaching time' because actually the whole set up is not very conducive to learning in the first place. Learning requires relationships and the institutions are too big to manage that.

Now imagine the same shift happening in social services, and you can see why this is important. Big scale social services or children's services will be less effective, less humane, more inflexible and will deliver themselves feedback in the form of target figures and KPIs that will entirely obscure this reality.

Some years ago now, I sought out the research on scale on both sides of the Atlantic. We have known since 1964 that there are activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there in the bigger schools. There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. Children were more tolerant of each other in small schools. There was more diversity in the teaching in small schools.

It seems pretty clear also that the smallest police forces are the most effective, catching more criminals for their population than the big ones. That is another reason why American hospitals cost more to run per patient the bigger they get. These are the costs of scale in the public sector.

There is some evidence of the costs of size in the private sector too. When the business writer Robert Waterman says that the key to business success is “building relationships with customers, suppliers and employees that are exceptionally hard for competitors to duplicate,” you know things will have to shift. Because size gets in the way of that. 

There is evidence that the bigger companies get – and the more impersonal – then the less innovative they are able to be, which is why so many pharmaceutical companies are outsourcing their research to small research start-ups. In fact, this trend seems to have been going on for most of the twentieth century. Half a century ago, the General Electric finance company chairman T. K. Quinn put it like this:

“Not a single distinctively new electric home appliance has ever been created by one of the giant concerns – not the first washing machine, electric range, dryer, iron or ironer, electric lamp, refrigerator radio, toaster, fan, heating pad, razor, lawn mower, freezer, air conditioner, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher or grill. The record of the giants is one of moving in, buying out, and absorbing after the fact.”
We have known this for years, but the system still struggles with the idea. It is time the issue of scale was made centre stage, as it deserves to be.  More on scale in my book The Human Element.

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Thursday 10 December 2015

Stopping Le Pen and the far right

I notice there are epetitions going up trying to haul Tyson Fury over the coals for his politically incorrect statements. There are others going up demanding that we ban a complete buffoon from the country while he is standing for US president.

Meanwhile, under our very noses, a far more serious threat is emerging. The Front Nationale won nearly a third of the votes in the French local elections and topped the poll. There is a real prospect now that France will elect the far right as their government.

But, hey, maybe we should start an online petition against the very idea? I jest, of course. The left has particularly vulnerable to fiddling while Rome burns these days - just as Labour MPs spent hundreds of hours debating foxhunting in 2003 when they should have been holding Blair to account for the looming Iraq war.

It may of course be that France is particularly vulnerable to this kind of political takeover, but the Vichy regime was a response to the trauma of capitulation - and I'm not sure that Le Pen looks much like Petain (see picture).

But what I find most frustrating is the way the political class, in this country - and probably in France as well (not sure about that) - seem so unable to respond. Very few have been brave enough even to try to face down the far right, though Nick Clegg's debates with Farage were undoubtedly a courageous attempt.

This is a bit of a mystery. I'd like to suggest a reason.

It is because of the enormous gulf between the purpose of our public institutions and their actual effect on the ground.

The political class clings to our institutions - the welfare state, the European Union, the DWP, because they know what the purpose was behind them and they revere them for that. They believe that, if they are failing, they can be reformed and they stare eagerly at the data without realising that it is largely delusory.  Most target data is.

Those who are tempted by the far right see only the reality of these institutions, either because they deal with them and their pointless call centres and bullying nudge policies. Or because they are on the receiving end of what they see as their neglect (if there are negative sides to the influx of foreigners into the country, these are the people who feel it - in the neighbourhoods they knew as children).

Talk about this gulf to politicians in Westminster and most of them will stare at you blankly (or start an epetition against you).

But this isn't a hopeless prescription. It means that there is something we can do to head off the looming disaster of the far right taking control of a major European nation. We can undertake an urgent and systematic reform of our giant institutions, public and private, so that they are actually doing what they are designed to do - rather than generating outcome figures to make their political master think they are.

This is a major agenda to humanise institutions and make them effective. And to involve service users in the business of reforming and delivering services.

Only then could any national politician put their hand on their heart and say that we are, in any way, all in it together.

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Wednesday 9 December 2015

We need to put creative people in charge of adult education

I spent part of a morning this week at the archive of the Camberwell School of Art (thanks so much, Camberwell) where I was researching a forthcoming book (of which more another time).

I read through the first minute book starting in 1898, when the school launched, and it was a pretty impressive document.

The opening of the school was part of the great revolution in adult education that followed the Technical Education Act of 1889, which allowed local authorities to charge a penny on the rates and to use it for training purposes.

The South London Technical Art School started in Kennington in 1879 and Goldsmith’s College in 1891. In fact, it was when Camberwell’s Vestry (the council) took over the art school and moved it to Peckham Road that the basis for launching an art school in Camberwell was in place. The money was given as a memorial to the artist Lord Leighton.

Peering into the minutes was like going back in time, learning about the difficulties of keeping naked models warm and the dim incandescent gas lights they used while they waited for electricity. The arts and crafts pioneer W. R. Lethaby was at the meetings, the lettering pioneer Edward Johnston was lecturing.

It was an exciting time, and especially as the central purpose was to intervene in the local trades and provide the training they needed. They had trouble with the plastering course, for example, until they found a trained plasterer to teach it, and then had to constantly subdivide the course to keep the numbers manageable. The house-painting course was also popular.

What I took away from the visit, apart from my research, was just how much the explosion in adult education, the means of training the working population during a period of great technological and social change, was handed over to the arts to fulfil.  It was organised, and deliberately so, by creative people. That was the policy.

It was understood then, in a way that I don't think it is now, that creative people are necessary to the balance between technology and the arts. There is no point in training people to do coding if you don't teach them how to imagine solutions to problems, or how to make the interfaces look attractive enough to do their job effectively.

Unfortunately, we have handed over increasing swathes of our own technical education to people who think the future is about  plugging people into online courses.

This is not a way to make the UK competitive in the future. So how come the Victorians knew that and we have forgotten it?

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Can there be too much discipline in schools?

When I was a child living off the Finchley Road - north London, come on - we used to live next door to a very nice German man who had been educated in the Nazi school system.

The main thing I remember him telling us is how much they had to practice jumping up when the teacher came into the room so that the seats all banged back at once,  Over and over again.

It was one of those kind of vacuous disciplinary tests that tyrannical regimes seem to like. And I thought of it today listening to the Radio 4 feature on the new academy Ark Boulton in Birmingham, which has taken over one of the schools involved in the so-called Trojan Horse affair.

Because it was worrying and I've been trying to pinpoint why the extreme discipline should have bothered me for the rest of the day.

It isn't that an element of self-discipline is unwelcome in school. Quite the reverse. I think Ark's chair Paul Marshall is right when he says we have neglected children by expecting so little of them over the last few generations.

It's just that I'm not sure that extreme versions of keeping still and listening, while we pour learning into their unformed souls, is necessarily the right way to go about it.

The hour's detention they get when they forget their personal manuals, where the tutors write notes about them, reminded me all too much of the Toyota One Best Way model of industrialisation.  Not exactly the "British values" that the new school claims.

As for practicing going fast into class without speaking. Well, maybe once or twice. But at the end of the day, I'm sure the teachers of my next door neighbour in the 1930s might also have claimed that they were "maximising teaching time".

On the other hand, I can understand the rule about not having gatherings of more than six children in a playground. I'm just not sure abut their ban on tag games.

Two things worry me about this trend of ever stricter control over children in school, their wandering minds and their unruly bodies. Because this goes way beyond Birmingham. My children's last school banned speaking in the corridors as well.

First, it only seems to go one way. My son's school - outstanding and pretty strict - is not at all strict with itself.  They get cross when the children leave their books or homework at home, but they seem to let themselves off the hook for not having enough tables to eat lunch at.

Second, I'm not absolutely sure that the new wave of iron discipline is as educational as its promoters think it is. Can you really inspire children with a lifelong love of learning if you treat them like recalcitrant computers that really need to be plugged in and switched in? Can you get the best out of people when we are returning to a Victorian idea that childhood is something that requires curing? Or when the schools are so big that they require regimentation?

Most of all - can we create the next generation of creative citizens that we so badly need for economic survival?

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Monday 7 December 2015

Wow, demonstrations are vacuous these days

I walked back across Parliament Square on Wednesday evening, watching the very small anti-war demonstration and it is that experience - that political experience at least - which has stuck with me most since last weekend.

Bear in mind, when I say this, that I was - and still am - pretty sceptical about the whole idea of bombing, and especially when civilians will undoubtedly get caught in the crossfire and when there appears to be little in the way of a plan to achieve our objectives.

I say that as a way of putting in context the sense of despair I had listening to the demonstrators.  All they could think of chanting was "Don't bomb Syria, Don't bomb Syria".

The whole symbolism of demonstrations is so rooted in 1917, with its banners and slogans and clenched fists and rhythmic chanting, that it seems part of another age.  It certainly seems meaningless. And vacuous. And completely pointless, if not counter-productive (especially given that other anti-war campaigners seem devoted to death threats and their own kind of violence).

I mention all this because of Larry Elliott's column in the Guardian, which shows just how much the UK economy is going back to the disastrous patterns which led o the 2008 crash - record property debt and a looming housing crash, which will once again bring down the banks.

This is tragic because it demonstrates just how little the coalition's objective of re-balancing the economy has been allowed to wither - despite Vince Cable's achievements in rebuilding UK manufacturing.

I'm not a conventional economist - economists would say I wasn't one at all, and perhaps they are right.  But I can begin to see what seems likely to happen. A re-run of the banking crisis of seven years ago, followed this time by a major shift of economic direction.

But to make that shift, we will have to find some way of bringing that new approach into the mainstream, and neither the chanting left nor the dull and conventional right - even more wedded to gesture policies than the rest of us - seem likely to do that.

It is an urgent and obvious task for the Lib Dems. But will they wean them off gesture policies in time?

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Wednesday 2 December 2015

Time for class actions against failing education authorities

I was listening to the Ofsted chief yesterday evening castigating the standards of schools in Bradford, and it reminded me of the research I did on the origin of school league tables for my book Broke.

In fact, I am finding myself looking back at the achievement of Lib Dems in office with some pride, these days - not just for what they achieved in the coalition government (apprentices, renewables, pupil premiums) - but for what they achieved in local government in the previous two decades.

Because if Bradford's education is bad now, cast your mind back to what a disaster area schools used to be in cities in the bad old days of one-party Labour rule.

The first league tables in 1992 showed what a problem there was. The national average of five passes at GCSE stood at only 38 per cent. Labour Southwark Borough Council was bottom of the league, with just 15 per cent.

The most revealing comment of all came from the head teacher of a school in Leeds where only two pupils had managed to scrape together five GCSEs: ‘We have a dreadful problem with truancy and discipline. We have intrusions like motorbikes being ridden into school during the day while lessons are being taught.’

The very honesty seemed to demonstrate the scale of the problem, especially as he added that they were the best rugby league school on the country. So that’s alright then . . .

I believe the way league tables are designed has been pretty pernicious. I find it pretty hard to trust Ofsted and their reports, which sound as if they had been written by robots (and possibly were). I'm pretty convinced that the way schools still work here conspires to deny pupils the education they need. Yet Sir Michael Wilshaw is definitely right to demand better from the remaining pockets where so little is expected of pupils.

I don't want to give the impression that this was just a Labour problem. Part of the basic difficulty is the continuing dualism in the UK education system - which insists you must be either a scholar or a machine-minder, and which Vince Cable chipped away at with his apprenticeships.

For so long, Conservatives turned a blind eye to the problem of this endemic snobbery (they still do), while Labour allowed the failure to continue. By busting apart the cosy consensus in local government, it seems to me that the Lib Dems laid the foundations for improving education.

Then we had the Blair-Brown consensus instead, which certainly has dragged up standards, but which defines them so narrowly that it lays the foundations for the next hiatus - but that's another story.

When I think of the lives that were constrained because people went to school in the early 1990s in Bradford or Croydon or Southwark or any number of other places, it does make me furious. Such a staggering failure of the system. Because they didn't think children were important enough to help them succeed.

It is time a group of former pupils brought a class action against the education authorities that let them down a generation ago.

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Tuesday 1 December 2015

The best books are healing to read

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." Not me, but Marcel Proust, and quoted in a magnificent book I've just been reading.

I should say at the outset that Immortal Highway is by a friend of mine, Jon Magidsohn. But I believe I would have found it as moving as I did whoever had written it. It is beautifully crafted, an astonishing memoir of recovery from grief.

Most of the book is taken up in a road trip he took with his nine-month-old son after his wife Sue died of breast cancer.  The story is tragic enough - Sue was diagnosed just after becoming pregnant, and decided to forego the normal treatment that should have saved her life until Myles had been born.  By which time it was, as it turned out, too late.

I remember reading recently that The Diary of Anne Frank had been banned in a library in Arizona by the local board on the grounds that it was "a bit of a downer". There are so many reasons why Immortal Highway could have been a bit of a downer, maybe it even should have been.

But it wasn't. perhaps because of its complete honesty, perhaps because it allows you to take your own life unawares a little, and perhaps because he so effectively tracks the journey spent finding a way back to life himself - it is actually one of the most uplifting books I have read.

When you read a book that gives you Proust's new eyes, it seems to me that you should record or it. So that's what I'm doing here. Jon Magidsohn has written a profoundly healing book and I recommend it.

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Monday 30 November 2015

Six reasons why Syria 2015 is like Iraq 2003 - and getting more so.

Two arguments that are really not reasons for deciding on air strikes in Syria one way or the other:

  • "It will make us a target". The Livingstone argument would carry some weight if it was related in any way to the question of effectiveness.  If the bombing was an effective option, then not doing so because it might make us a terrorist target would be short-sighted and somewhat dishonourable. If it wasn't effective, the question of whether it would make us a target is secondary.
  • "If not now, when?" The Cameron argument is also not an argument for effectiveness. If bombing was going to be effective, then it is really irrelevant that there has just been a terrorist attack on Paris. If it wasn't going to be effective, the Paris attack is equally irrelevant."

You will gather from this that I'm pretty unimpressed with the argument over Syria. Cameron's dossier is purely a rhetorical flourish, so I remain - like David Davis - pretty sceptical about air strikes. Not in principle, but faced with Cameron's rhetoric, one is forced to the conclusion that there are no arguments for bombing at this time.

In fact, what is emerging is just how much the current debate feels like the run up to war in Iraq in 2003. Here are the disturbing parallels:

1.  Our allies want us to.  End of story. The main reason the establishment wants to bomb in Syria is that our allies would feel more comfortable if we were also committed. That was the reason for joining in the attack on Iraq too - but it isn't actually a good argument for military engagement.

2.  There is a dodgy dossier. Cameron's rhetorical flourish that was supposed to provide an answer to the Defence Select Committee is, once again, not an effective argument.

3.  There are no post-fighting plans. No plans for preventing some kind of vacuum, just as emerged so disastrously in Iraq.

4.  There is an ambiguous UN resolution. One that appears vaguely to justify military action.

5.  There are too many appeals to emotion. Yes, IS does represent a threat to us, and nobody can forget what happened in Paris, but those are not reasons why bombing are an effective response. That case has yet to be made.

6.  Both Labour and Conservative are hopelessly divided on the issue.

All this seems pretty straightforward, so why is there still an argument? Because the real unstated element here is that our political culture has set itself adrift from arguments about effectiveness.  It is the same in so many areas of policy - house prices is just one. Policy no longer uses 'effectiveness' as a currency. It isn't of interest.

Nobody believes that Osborne's raft of housing measures will make much difference, any more than they believe that Cameron's bombs will make much difference. But Cameron, like Blair, deals in gestures. Bombing Syria is a gesture that will make people feel that action is being taken.  The fact that it isn't effective appears to be irrelevant - it is justified because the threat is real, not by whether it will tackle the threat effectively.

Oddly enough, the Westminster world seems to take all this for granted. They know that military dossiers and autumn statements are dances to the music of gesture. They are designed to give the impression of effective action, without actually being effective - because nobody believes they have the power to be effective.

It is a symptom of the catastrophic loss of belief in the political system, not by the excluded, but by the included.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Pricing most people out of ordinary life

For all his undoubted cleverness, and ability to pull the unexpected out of his red box, George Osborne's autumn statement made frustrating listening.

More support for 'local growth' but at the same time, more money wasted on roads to make sure the new small businesses and the new enterprise zones are overwhelmed by unrestricted monopoly power in the big centres.

More stamp duty on buy-to-let and second homes, which will undoubtedly reduce prices, but more help for first time buyers which will undoubtedly increase them - and especially in London. ]

In fact, the sheer cussed blindness about house prices is franking astonishing.  Does the Treasury really believe all the rhetoric about why house prices rise? Do they not understand that, if you make houses easier to afford, you will simply push prices higher?

As for 'affordable home's - it is a fantasy to suggest that just providing  20 per cent off the price will make homes any more affordable. Nor will building more, for the reasons I set out recently.

But there are two major frustrations about this autumn statement. The first is the blizzard of pork barrel giveaways to specific places, and funds for potholes, which involves us in another Westminster fantasy: that all good things, all decisions  all wisdom comes from central government - and they are received by grateful and passive localities with a cheer and a wave.

This is the British disease and one of the reasons why change is so slow in this country. Why on earth is Whitehall constructing a fund to fill potholes, for goodness sake?

The other frustration is the growing suspicion that ordinary life is no longer possible, or affordable, without major government intervention.  The idea that people earning over £80,000 will require help with buying a home carries within it a hopeless dependency - not just a culture of doing things for their symbolic value, but a worrying look into the future of complete dependence for the majority of people.

This obsessive idea that prices represent some kind of underlying reality has priced ordinary people out of ordinary life. It isn't conservatism and it certainly isn't sustainable.

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Wednesday 25 November 2015

Towards a whole new public service, but an informal one

This may at first sight to be an obscure topic for a blog post. I might not choose the relationship between time banks and the Department for Work and Pensions as a topic if I really wanted to boost the readership of this blog. But it may turn out to be an issue that really goes to the heart of the future of  public services.

In some ways, of course, the DWP decision to direct claimants to their local time bank isn't anything new. Since 2000, the government has acknowledged that people can take part in time banking while they are on benefits.

But BIS commissioned an independent review last year on the sharing economy, and one of its recommendations was that DWP should encourage claimants to take part in mutual support through time banks.

It is an interesting area, and growing fast through Europe - see my report for the European Commission on the growth of time banking. There are also developments of time banking through Slivers of Time and through Spice.

In the end the statement was pretty non-committal. It wasn't exactly encouragement, but it was certainly a new openness to claimants breaking out of their iron bureaucratic cage and embracing mutual support.

But this is where it gets to be difficult.  I notice that the statement is only available on the Timebanking UK website, as if the government were dimly aware of the implications too.

What if more than ten people pop straight along from their nearest Job Centre to each of the nation's 300 or so pieces of time banking infrastructure? They might be able to cope, but that's about all.  Any more than that and they would be overwhelmed.

So you have to ask - is this a gimmick? And if it isn't a gimmick, and the DWP really believe that mutual support will help their claimants - and it certainly could - then how can they make it possible to spread the idea more widely?

And before you answer 'pay for it', just think about the implications. If the DWP pays for some of the nation's mutual support infrastructure - its co-production infrastructure or its preventative infrastructure - then they will own it. It will come under their minute control and will cease to have the informal flavour that makes it so successful.

In any case, most public services need some link to the new preventative infrastructure too, and it is not in the interests of the Department of Health, for example, for these networks to be under any kind of DWP control.

This is an obvious example of where the Cabinet Office ought to intervene - to bring all Whitehall's departments of state around the table to think about how, together, they might shape this new mutually supportive, preventative infrastructure.

Should it be created by insisting that every public service contractor pays into it? Or shows that they are taking steps to reduce demand during the lifetime of the contract? Or shows how they will involve service users as equal partners in the delivery of services?

I don't know, but I do know this. A new, semi-formal infrastructure that involves service users to use their experience and human skills to support each other, especially when people come out of professional oversight, is absolutely necessary. And absolutely inevitable.

It will include not just time banking but local area co-ordinators, health champions, friends of hospitals and many other related networks - and it will underpin the sustainability of professional effort.

But it won't just happen by itself. And it certainly won't happen when one government department goes it alone, because they don't understand the wider significance of what is going on.

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Tuesday 24 November 2015

Will the real Alan Turing please stand up?

I have finally got round to watching The Imitation Game, and the acting is ferocious. Benedict Cumberbatch is completely convincing as Alan Turing and the whole business was extremely moving.

I felt I had to watch it last night - having so far avoided doing so - because today I am taking part in the London History Festival and sharing a stage with Sinclair McKay to talk about Turing and Bletchley. I was afraid somebody would ask me about the film.

I've been writing about Turing and Enigma for nearly two years now and I didn't want the film to get in the way. But I needn't have worried. The film was so detached from what really happened that it might have been about other events, based loosely around the characters involved.

I always find dramatisations of naval history frustrating, because there usually includes lots of very familiar clips that I know perfectly well refer to another time or place, and certainly another ship. Why was the burning of the Graf Spee included in a clip on the later stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, for example?  Why did we get so many mock-ups of what appeared to be an American battleship?

But you have to expect this kind of thing,  What The Imitation Game does is to squeeze the story of cracking naval Enigma into a format where the cast can be extremely limited, and as if the entire war was won by one individual. This is also frustrating, but it gets the gist across.

Where the film goes wrong is over the portrayal of Turing himself. My impression is that he was considerably more gregarious, popular and self-assured than he was portrayed here. I feel vindicated in this partly by his nephew 's new book The Prof and partly because he was sent to represent the British cryptographers to the USA after they came into the war, and I can't believe he would ever have been entrusted with such a mission if he was unable to handle himself in social situations.

But, then, I'm assured by one of my neighbours, whose father-in-law was in the room at the time, that Turing actually ended his engagement with Joan over the phone.  So who knows.

Either way, we are talking about Turing tonight, so do come along.  It is at Kensington Central Library at 7pm (24 Nov). Hope to see you there.

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Monday 23 November 2015

Powerless against the screen pushers

I am having one of those moments of disaffection which is the real experience of English middle class life these days.

What do I spend more time doing than anything else, as a parent of pre-teenage children? I'll tell you. I am policing their screen time.  It takes huge energy and angst and negotiating skills. It prevents me from being much more productive. I resent it.

If it weren't for me on some days, when I'm looking after them by myself, they would spend the whole time being educated by Google and whoever happens to use their facilities.

They would be off laughing all night at the pre-teen humour of some of the Youtube stars - Yogscast spring to mind: people from Bristol who swear rather more than they would if they realised most of their viewers were eleven, and who think blowing things up is the apogee of humour.

They would be being abused online by their classmates, and - if we make the mistake of reporting the abuse to Youtube, one of those vacant corporations where nobody is at home - we will receive back the empty, helpless silence we have come to expect.

I suppose you could imagine a couple of answers to this.  First, perhaps I am wrong and they should plug into the virtual world as much as they like, on the grounds that it improves hand eye co-ordination or something or other.

Second, a little more seriously, I should set more elastic limits because they need computer skills if they are going to achieve the school system's highest ambitions for them - and become either a scholar or a machine minder (no other alternative seems to be encouraged).

Third, why should my children be different? How dare I cut them off from what is laughingly called kid's culture, as mediated by Murdoch and his equivalents.

You only have to write those out to see they have flaws. Don't they - or am I wrong? It is true that I was probably glued to screens more intently than they were at the same age, but with more control over what I am seeing.

But what really annoys me about this is that we kind of assume - as middle class types - that the government is at least vaguely on our side, shares our values, wants to support us to bring up our children in the best way that we can.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The government is firmly on the side of the screen pushers. The school system is dedicated to buying and pushing more Apple iPads - Apple itself acknowledges that their profits for iPads in 2013 were boosted by the UK school system.

Whitehall isn't interesting in my family life, They want my children to be entirely open to whatever rubbish sells more schlock.

I wrote in my book Broke last year that UK governments had long since turned their back on genuine middle class values.  I don't think I understood the half of it.

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Friday 20 November 2015

Thank you, crowdfunders - I will do you proud!

Before Enigma: The Room 40 codebreakers of the First World WarI haven’t crowdfunded a book before. It has its embarrassing elements, asking friends and family for money for example – something I try hard not to do in normal circumstances.

But I am now down to the last 48 hours of the project to crowdfund a short ebook about the Room 40 naval codebreakers in the First World War, and the fascinating lessons they provided for Turing in the Second. It is called Before Enigma. And I've found it quite exhilarating.

There is, in fact, still time to contribute, should you be so moved. And although we may not finally reach the publisher’s target, we are now approaching enough to kickstart the project.

So here are three final reasons why this particular book needs to be written:

  • It will provide a way of understanding Turing and the Enigma codebreakers a generation later, because those who managed him cut their teeth in Room 40.
  • It will tell the fascinating story of the war at sea – rather ignored by the BBC these days – through the eyes of the peculiar bunch of brilliant amateurs collected together by the Admiralty to crack codes from 1914 onwards.
  • It will allow me to tell the tale which fascinates me most – the emergence of the twentieth century phenomenon: the huge hierarchical corporation (in this case, the fleet) and how the mavericks learned the hard way how it might be provided with the information it needed to be effective. It is a lesson we keep forgetting, even in the twenty-first century.

So if you are among those who have helped fund this project, I am really ever so grateful. There is still time to contribute if you still want to, but not much time. Either way, I will do you proud...

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Thursday 19 November 2015

A Liberal economic breakthrough. It’s about time.

There may not be any obvious traction that the Lib Dems are bringing to themselves at the moment, no obvious attention from the media or speaking for the nation. But there are shoots emerging.

One of these was the speech on economics that Tim Farron made today at IPPR in London. The most important element of this story is the mere fact that Farron chose economics for his first keynote speech.

But it was also important the way he framed it – the idea of Liberals as the party of challenge, of enterprise and entrepreneurs, as the "party of Small Business, the party of wealth creators, the insurgents, the entrepreneurs".

“The Liberal spirit is the entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurs are natural Liberals,” he said. Quite so.

It is important because it is both positive and forward-looking, and rooted in traditional Liberalism – and, because the party has been timid about economics in recent decades, this is for me something of a breakthrough.

He also understood the implications of this stance for the banks. It is indeed extraordinary that the government is not breaking up the failed brontosaur RBS to turn it into an effective regional lending infrastructure – that the enterprise economy so badly needs.

By coincidence, the Welsh Lib Dems have launched an excellent paper on how to rebuild diverse high streets – and Wales has been more wedded to the failed out of town retailing regeneration ‘solution’ than almost anywhere else in the UK.

So this is rather a good day, as far as I’m concerned. It is a long-awaited glimpse of a different approach to economics, understanding for the first time in half a century that the main economic purpose of Liberals is to promote diversity and fight monopoly.

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Wednesday 18 November 2015

Time for a bit of economic archaeology

I have always been fascinated by those social movements that rise and fall, leave their mark permanently, and are then forgotten. I have had a soft spot for the 1920s movement Kibbo Kift as a result.

So imagine my surprise when I opened my Guardian last week and found a big feature about them, and their charismatic leader John Hargrave. I dropped everything and read through it immediately.

There are three reasons why I’m especially interested in this peculiar mixture of Scouting, Egyptology, outdoor ritual and back to the land.

First, because it was an early breakaway from the Boy Scouts (Hargrave had been a frustrated head of camping).

Second, because of their amazing sense of design. The logos look modern ever now, with just a hint of Art Deco about them.

Third, because Hargrave changed his mind – transforming Kibbo Kift overnight in 1929 into the militaristic Greenshirts, much more numerous than the Blackshirts, dedicated to changing the money system to prevent banks from creating money, in the way that they do now.

The article did not communicate all of this (this isn’t a criticism). But it is hard to quite recreate what Hargrave meant because, as D. H. Lawrence used to say, he spoke in a kind of sloganising gobbledegook.

It is also, in my book, not exactly ‘back to the land’, which is about growing things. Hargrave was more part of the conservation movement. He wasn’t interested in crops, just – in that rather Germanic, Romantic way – that it was important to be outside.

Being outside is important, but not as a relief from modern, urban life, it seems to me – but as a way of reforming it.

Why am I writing this? Because it seems to me extraordinary that we allow ourselves to forget these movements, because they carry within them important truths which have to be reinvented all over again by the next generation. Especially, it seems to me, in economics.

I hereby dedicate myself to the task of economic archaeology – the exhuming of forgotten innovations which our economics establishment was just too boneheaded to notice or discuss at the time.

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Tuesday 17 November 2015

Buggins turn to bomb?

David Cameron has promised to come up with a strategy for bombing in Syria. This is a peculiar idea in itself: a strategy for defeating IS makes sense - so does a strategy to bring peace to the Middle East - but a strategy to explain the importance of bombing sounds like putting the cart before the horse.

There may, after all, be an overwhelming argument for bombing in Syria, but there are three reasons (at least) why it makes sense to stay sceptical.  My test of the present effectiveness of the House of Commons as an institution is about how long it manages to stay sceptical, and to think clearly. We have never depended on the independence of our MPs as much as we do now.

Here are my three reasons to keep an open mind about Cameron's bombing plans:

1. He is actually planning to intervene on a different side.  Despite the rhetoric of going back to the Commons for a second time to ask for permission to bomb, the commentators seem willing to forget that - last time - the idea was actually to bomb on behalf of the other side. The plan then was to bomb Assad's government forces. Now the plan is to bomb their enemies. Who will it be next time? Has anyone ever actually thought through this conflict clearly?

2.  He says our allies are asking us to intervene. This might be an argument, but it isn't a sufficient one - it is the argument which convinced Tony Blair to intervene in Iraq on a disastrous project. In fact, I suspect this would remain Cameron's argument even if the bombing was counter-productive, was known to be counter-productive, and would never be anything else,

3. We need to act; this is action - it isn't a convincing argument. Yet that is the one that Cameron wielded today. It makes no sense by itself, and when a prime minister falls back on that kind of logic, you begin to wonder if any thinking is going on at all.

It may be that the conclusion is that we should intervene in Syria, but the fact that our allies are asking us to do so is not an argument. It is just evidence that Cameron has caught Tony Blair-Disease: an inability to distinguish between British interests and what our most powerful ally happens to want at any one time.

What would be a strategy to defeat IS and to build peace in the middle east? Is the UK government up to the task of thinking for itself? Is there a strategy that, rather than buggins turn to bomb, might stand some chance of making a difference? I think we should be told.

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Monday 16 November 2015

Liberalism and war

People don’t seem to listen much to Noel Coward these days, but he remains a great favourite of mine and I happened to be listening over the weekend to his wartime song ‘Could you please oblige us with a bren gun’.

I’m not sure when the song was written, but it refers to the Home Guard and their woeful, not to say farcical, lack of equipment.

I suddenly heard the song from the modern point of view, and the obsession with the corporate need to be ‘on-message’, and how often it has the opposite effect.

It struck me that there might be a clue here about how a Liberal society fights a war – with humour, openness, truth. But even so, I don’t suppose there is another nation on earth which would dare allow a song, at that moment, about how badly prepared we were for invasion.

I’ve been asking myself these questions after hearing President Hollande describing the Paris attacks as an “act of war”.

We know that Liberalism is a political creed that thrives in peacetime, but can struggle in war. The First World War disposed of Parliamentary Liberalism almost permanently, dividing it ideologically. It was hard for Edwardian Liberals to contemplate conscription. Nor could Liberals embrace the implications of the Western Front.

But is it really true that Liberalism can only tell us about peaceful societies? Has it got nothing to say now, for example, beyond a hopeful plea to ‘hold together’?

If it means the sort of vacuous relativism of postmodernism, that sometimes passes for Liberalism, then it probably doesn’t. It certainly can’t summon up the ruthlessness that societies need to demonstrate if they are going to defend – I hate to use the meaningless word ‘values’ – what they believe,

But Noel Coward’s song was a clue for me about what makes this Liberal defence possible. Tolerance of human frailty has to be protected, so does humour - not humour for the sake of humour – but the kind of humour that allows us to survive as a nation.

But the other, fiercer Liberalism is represented by the great Liberal philosopher Karl Popper. Liberal societies, as he defines them, are those which make it possible to challenge from below, to question elites, to ask difficult questions. They can learn from mistakes faster, and in the end that makes them effective.

You only have to only to read Anthony Beever’s book Stalingrad to see what happens when two dictators slug it out with millions of men at their personal whim, fighting inefficiently and brutally and inhumanely in the snow.

Put like that, the Second World War was won because one side was Liberal enough to learn from their mistakes. The same I believe will in the end determine victory over IS.

But there is one other lesson from Liberalism implied by Popper. I that if (heaven forfend) one of the Paris terrorists happens to be sheltering in the cellar of my office, then I know – or I think I know – that the government will not sacrifice my life to kill him.

I also know that, if I lived in some parts of Pakistan, those rules are somehow considered not to apply to me. They won’t be happy to sacrifice my life, but they may still do it.

Because it is a long way away? Because human life counts less there? Because they prefer not to think about how counterproductive this sacrifice might be?

But then, we live in a Liberal society where we learn faster because people are allowed to ask difficult questions. That is, paradoxically why we will win, so I'm asking this one. Because, the other Liberal lesson for effective war is that it matters very much - and for practical reasons - how you fight it.

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Thursday 12 November 2015

You can't understand Enigma without understanding what went before

Imagine the scene. It is wartime, and the stakes are high in the Atlantic and the North Sea. At the British fleet anchorage in the Orkneys, known to history as Scapa Flow, the signal lamps flash messages across the dank mist, unaware that they possess the most extraordinary weapon, utterly secret and also unprecedented in modern naval warfare.

Unlike the wartime sailors of other previous generations, they can listen in to the hour-by-hour thoughts and orders of the other side and act accordingly. Not in the ships, perhaps, battling against the salt spray in the moment of battle, but via their own signals to the Admiralty.

They can do so because of the invention of wireless telegraphy, but also because of the efforts of a handful of disparate amateurs who have forged themselves into the most successful team of cryptographers the world had ever known.

It sounds like Bletchley Park in its heyday, during the war of national survival, as Alan Turing, Peter Twinn and their colleagues, wrestled with the complexities of the Nazi’s naval Enigma code – but it isn’t. It is what came before Bletchley, Turing or Enigma, and what made them all possible.

It was the peculiar assortment of people operating together to crack the German naval codes during the First World War, and known collectively as Room 40.

The scale was smaller, of course. Bletchley Park eventually employed tens of thousands. The techniques were less sophisticated – they used logic and literary comparisons rather than mathematics and early computing. But even so, the people who launched Bletchley Park and shaped it, and who managed Turing and Twinn in the first two years of the Second World War, had learned their trade in Room 40 of the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall, and absorbed their lessons about how codes could be cracked and then used from a man who was, in his own way, a genius of Turing proportions: Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall.

In that respect Room 40 was the forerunner of Bletchley Park. It involved a series of near-fatal mistakes about how you should use decrypted information – about the best use of information in complex organisations – which were not made again as a result when the same team formed again on a wartime footing in 1939.

They were not made partly because Blinker Hall gave detailed advice to Captain John Godfrey, who occupied his chair as Director of Naval Intelligence in 1939. They were also not made because so many people who were key to Room 40 were there to kickstart a similar operation, in much more difficult circumstances, at Bletchley Park.

I want to set the record straight by writing a short ebook called Before Enigma. So I am crowdfunding the book through the website Byline, and would be enormously grateful for any help – either by donating directly or maybe by copying this article to anyone you know who might be interested.

Thank you so much. We now have two weeks to go, so any help you can give would be very gratefully received!

AND! My ebook Jerusalem: England's National Anthem  is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Wednesday 11 November 2015

Women and the great housing price inflation spiral

I was listening to Women's Hour on the way back from the local dump yesterday morning and overheard an interesting item on Sweden - which could have been made exactly the same about the UK. Why - given that feminism is broadly triumphant in the way it has produced life chances for women - are women so stressed?

It is a good question. The women's movement was supposed to be about liberation, and in so many ways it has been. And of course men don't always share the tasks that women were traditionally expected to do. That may explain the imbalance, but it doesn't really explain the stress.

After all, with both partners economically active, there ought to be more money, more resources, more time - more everything. So why isn't there?

I think the answer is implied in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis. It is basic economics, but somehow our leaders appear to be innocent of it.

What happens is that the cost of housing rises to take account of the extra income. In fact, you could say that the mass appearance of middle-class women on the jobs market is one of the factors pushing up house prices over the last three decades. They earned money, which meant that bigger loans were available, so the house prices rose to meet them.

That is how it works. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods, and what we have seen since the deregulation of the mortgage markets is ever more reasons to lend more, so that the house prices rise to take account of it, and so the cycle goes on – in retrospect a terrifying rack for the middle classes. Just as it is a terrifying rack for everyone else.

Terrifying especially if women didn’t want to work, because that freedom is now beyond them. Once lenders had began to calculate the upper limit in multiples of joint salaries, there was another escalation of house prices.

It is part of the far bigger vicious circle that is caused by people desperately stretching to afford the home they want, and which is outpacing their income as they watch – a spiral that keeps on spinning: smaller houses, bigger loans, more salaries, higher prices, smaller houses and so on.

So the loan terms get longer, the multiples get bigger, the houses get smaller, all to eke out a little more affordability - only to have the prices rise to meet the new boundary of affordability.

And really all this stuff about there being too few homes is a drop in the ocean in comparison. That is why women are stressed. It is also, incidentally, why men are stressed. Because they are caught on the housing price inflation spiral and it squeezes them dry.

AND! My ebook Jerusalem: England's National Anthem  is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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