Monday 25 January 2016

The five political sins of middle England

It is six months now since my book How to Be English was published, and I have seen it around on bookshop tables more than my books are usually seen. This is, of course, a thoroughly good thing.

But it has also made me wonder a little about the opposite. The book is full of those memes - a hundred of them - that might allow you to knit another English person from scratch. It hardly needs saying that I love and revere Englishness.

I say that even though I now live in the middle of Middle England, and every time I venture out in my car, someone hoots at me - often they wind down their window and shout. This may be because I'm an appalling driver, but I don't think so - or at least, I'm not prepared to accept it quite yet. I was never hooted at in London, and that wasn't through any lack of aggression on the part of London's drivers.

No, I think people drive differently here. They drive as car-proud people drive, with the rather pompous slogan which comes upon them behind the wheel: What I Have I Hold.

Because despite the great benefits and virtues of Englishness, there are drawbacks - and they are political ones. These are my five:

1. They don't like to make a fuss. My parents live in a small village in Hampshire - I won't say which. A local defence manufacturer allowed their chemicals to leach into the ground water which meant anyone not on mains water was forced to drink bottled water for nearly a year, while the water company dragged its lethargic limbs into action to put them on the mains. In any other country, there would have been a state of emergency - like the one in similar circumstances in Michigan - or at least some legal action. But in Middle England, no, nobody wanted to make trouble.

2. They are obsessively apolitical. I went canvassing in a by-election - also in Hampshire come to think of it - and found, in one relatively wealthy housing estate, that everybody was in and nobody, without exception, was voting. Not because they were apathetic, but because they thoroughly disapproved of the way the establishment parties posture. Not apathy, in fact, but rage - but not rage likely to make much difference.

3. They are boneheadedly unspiritual. This may be patronising to say so, and there are certainly many exceptions. But even in these enlightened ages, the Church of England remains too much dedicated to the spirituality of rising property prices. With a vague sense that the main thrust of Jesus' teachings had something to do with homosexuality (he never actually mentioned it).

4. They believe far too much in the objective reality of market values. Let's stick with the church. On two occasions in my adult life, the Church Commissioners - about as hard nosed and unspiritual a bunch of people as you are ever likely to meet - managed to lose a third of the Church's accumulated wealth because of their obsession with property. They then compounded the problem by selling up at the bottom of the market. I don't know what happened to them, but let's assume they managed to find their way into the honours lists.

5. They blind themselves to criticism. The American historian Barbara Tuchman famously criticised the British military for their bizarre tolerance of failure in the India campaign in 1942. Once you reach a certain level in the establishment, you can lose battles, mess up the customer service at HMRC, invade the wrong country at the wrong time, and you will still be a gallant, revered member, deserving of gongs.

This is what she said:

"No nation has ever produced a military history of such verbal nobility as the British. Retreat or advance, win or lose, blunder or bravery, murderous folly or unyielding resolution, all emerge clothed in dignity and touched with glory. Every engagement is gallant, every battle a decisive action, every campaign produces generalship hailed as the most brilliant of the war. Other nations attempt but never quite achieve the same self-esteem. It was not by might but by the power of her self-image that Britain in her century dominated the world."

So how, given these extraordinary weaknesses, do the English manage to make change happen? That remains a mystery. All I can say is that they do and, when the time comes, it all seems to happen very quickly. And it will again, and remarkably soon.

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Monday 18 January 2016

Why don't they believe in competition any more?

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write an article about the future of food by the Environment Agency, since I had written a series of these fictional glimpses before. For some reason, that I now forget, I chose a future based on a kind of Lion-Witch-Wardrobe kind of world, where there was only one company that sold us everything. I called it TescoVirgin plc.

This turned out to be too controversial for my employers. It was naive of me to think otherwise, but I had enjoyed writing it.

I think of that article, which has been published in my short ebook The Age to Come, every few weeks now as the future I envisaged, that aspect of it anyway, seems to creep closer and closer.

My experience moving house 18 months ago, when I was unable to switch any of my services – not phone, nor electricity nor gas and certainly not internet – without infuriating problems, convinced me that the market had become seriously overconsolidated.

I thought of it again this morning listening to the head of Ofgen on the Today programme, saying much the same thing, but calling in aid the failure to cut energy prices not the appalling customer service.

I was wondering why this is and realise that it is often the most doctrinaire market fundamentalists who get appointed to these regulatory positions. And market fundamentalists think that prices are the only measure of anything.

In fact, it must be partly the fault of regulators that so many public services have built their customer service systems around a model that copes brilliantly with absolute normality, but for some peculiar reason can’t cope with small anomalies – like moving house.

What is most peculiar about the whole issue is that these are often privatised utilities, privatised because competition seemed to provide a better deal for customers – as it does – yet now consolidated so much that competition seems impossible.

The best example of this isn’t the electricity market, which is dominated by a handful of deaf, exhausting brontosauri without human emotion. It is the mobile phone market, especially now that the merger between EE and BT has cleared its regulatory hurdles.

That gives BT about a third of the mobile market, when the Office of Fair Trading believes that market distortion begins to creep in when a company builds up a share of over 8 per cent

Now we have the next merger before regulators in Europe, with 3 wanting to merge with O2.

The real question is why the market fundamentalists don’t believe in competition? Or perhaps more accurately, why they don’t think – despite a few centuries of evidence – that monopolies and oligopolies don’t fleece and patronise their customers.

The answer, as I’ve argued before, lies with Milton Friedman who taught that monopolies are not a serious problem. Because the Liberal voice has been muted in government circles, and – when it hasn’t been muted – it has forgotten the central pillar of Liberal economic thought: that monopoly is a kind of slavery. And a profit-making monopoly is an all-powerful beast, dedicated to its own survival.

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Tuesday 12 January 2016

Mental education versus physical education

I have been reading the great unread classic autobiography of Victorian and Edwardian life, Frank Harris' My Life and Loves. It is vast and sprawling, part pornography, part political memoir, part self-help manual.  

I found myself reading it when I was researching my new book Scandal, about the strange story of why homosexuality was criminalised in 1885, and Harris knew many of the people involved.  It is bizarre and hard to put down (and not really because of the pornography, I assure you).

The trouble is that Harris is widely believed to have been a liar, and his first biographer chose the sub-title 'The biography of a scoundrel'. It doesn't help that he had extraordinary powers of recall, which means - for example - that most of the copious poetry he quotes in his autobiography are clearly taken from memory and therefore not completely accurate.

This is a pity because Harris really did know everybody in the 1880s and 1890s in London and beyond and what he remembers is worth remembering. The pornography meant that unexpurgated editions were banned until 1962.

By the fourth volume you begin to feel his concentration is flagging, only to have what is an absolutely gripping account of his investigation into the abortive Jameson Raid in 1895, which led to the Boer War and arguably the rift with Germany.

But I have learned something from Harris and it followed from his own conviction that he was too short to be a great athlete. He decided he had to develop in himself the physical and mental control he needed to succeed.  These are detailed at great length. Extraordinary self-confidence clearly helped.

But it made me realise how little our own generation spends on developing their minds, compared to the vast time and money they spend developing their bodies. Harris tried both, but the time he spent learning European languages and mastering French and German literature, and deepening his Shakespeare scholarship, puts my own generation to shame.

Or perhaps it just puts me to shame...

By coincidence yesterday, there was an item on BBC Radio 4 about education and the mismatch between the effort put into physical education compared to what you might call mental education, or at least mental health.

This is the emerging debate in education policy these days, and it is hampered because it isn't clear what works - certainly David Cameron's Blairite backing for parenting classes are not the holy grail we are looking for. The question is, if people don't want to develop their own potential, whether anything really ought to be done about it.

The answer seems to be yes, but punishing them with parenting classes seems paradoxcially like treating them too like children.

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Monday 11 January 2016

Could Labour and Conservative unravel simultaneously?

I must admit I'm feeling confused about UK politics right now. We have a slow-motion unravelling of the Labour Party going on, as the old guard defend their right to insult their leadership - rather a peculiar idea, though for a Lib Dem of course it is absolutely de rigueur. Yet at the same time, on the other side of the Westminster divide, a similar process seems to be under way, even if it isn't quite so bitter.

The decision by David Cameron to allow his ministers to speak against government policy during the Euro-referendum is really remarkably like what is happening in the Labour Party. For the time being, the break up of the Conservative Party seems more controlled, but I suspect that - given that Ins and Outs are pretty equally matched - these divisions will become increasingly bitter.

So what conclusion should we draw from this extraordinary parallel?

First, I reckon that the reasons for the bitterness is also remarkably similar. The Labour rebels believe their new leadership is destroying the party. The Tory mainstream believes the same about their rebels: if they were to succeed in wrenching the nation out of the European Union, they believe it would undermine the economy.  Those are life-and-death struggles, or the political equivalent.

Second, the unravelling of one side may make it safe for the other side to unravel at the same time.  It might be possible that both government and opposition parties may in fact divide simultaneously.

Third, this might provide an opportunity for the Lib Dems, but only on two conditions. They have to demonstrate their own revived electorability - perhaps in Rochdale (strange to have a Sunday without new revelations about Rochdale's MP). Also they need to set out a genuine alternative, and believable, plan for national prosperity.

This is something that Tim Farron has been moving towards. The trouble is that nobody is listening right now. That may not be entirely a disadvantage - the time has come, not to hibernate, but to think and involve as broad a number of people in thinking as possible.

In fact, this is what I would do.  Form a major inquiry, chaired by a prominent international economist, to set out the future radical direction for a global economy that works: one that provides for a civilised life for everyone that doesn't require increasingly frenetic and global speculation.

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Monday 4 January 2016

Three political predictions for 2016

The job description of a blogger is that they predict - especially political bloggers. And especially for their
first post of the year.

I had rather a good record in 2014, including calling the close result of the Scottish referendum, and felt rather proud of that. So it was with a heavy heart that I looked back to my first post of last year to see that I had confidently predicted that the Lib Dems would win 39 seats.

In short, the trick is not to extrapolate trends. The knack has to be to see beyond the trends.  My only successful prediction of a year ago was that the Ukip challenge wouldn't survive the general election, and that was in the face of the apparent trends of the time. So I didn't fail completely.

The 39 seat guess seems peculiar - especially as I have now forgotten how I worked it out - but it is a measure of how unexpected the general election results would turn out to be. They still hurt, and I was just a bystander.

So I hardly dare predict anything this year, only I can't prevent myself predicting that the EU referendum will look a bit like the Scottish one - rising panic on both sides and a result that is too close to resolve the issue.

That's prediction 1. Prediction 2 is the strange rebirth of the green movement - and built on the fears people have about fracking and nuclear energy, not for themselves, but for their children's health. If I was an elected Lib Dem, which heaven knows I'm unlikely to be this year, I would be quietly positioning my party to meet this challenge.

Prediction 3. Well, there have to be three.  I'd like too predict that my new venture, The Real Press, will be a swinging success, but actually I have no idea (though see my first book Scandal, available now, and about how homosexuality came to be made illegal so unexpectedly in the summer of 1885).

Perhaps it is that Corbyn will still be leader of whatever is left of the Labour Party in a year's time. One of the most peculiar feature of UK politics is actually how very little changes. All sides continue with staggering predictability.

Which is why I thoroughly commend Miranda Green's article in the Guardian on Saturday, where she singles out unpredictability as the single most important factor that the parties of the Left need to generate if they are going to make any progress.

She is absolutely right. And in the unlikely event that they manage to generate it, it will at least make the job of us political bloggers a little more difficult at New Year.

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