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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