Wednesday 31 May 2017

What Parkinson's Law tells us about the general election

A version of this blog first appeared on the Radix website.

The exhausting general election campaign confirms what was in effect Parkinson’s Third Law.

His more famous first law is known by almost everybody – that the things that need doing expand to fill the time available. This is actually one of the great truths of life, but his third law is vital too. It is that the time spent discussing things is in inverse proportion to its importance.

C. Northcote Parkinson himself was a historian and he illustrated the law by reference to a committee meeting with three items on the agenda – new coffee cups, a new bike shed and a new nuclear power station. The power station went through on the nod because nobody dared reveal their ignorance, but everyone had suggestions about how to save money on new cups.

The same is of course true, though in slightly different ways, about the election campaign. Minor irrelevances loom large but the prospect of dropping out of European trade relationships and future economic policy barely gets a mention – certainly not from the Prime Minister.

This is not just depressing, it is deeply undemocratic. In various ways I've been doing our limited bit to get the important things discussed. Like last year’s Radix paper on quantitative easing and its major role in driving inequality.

We ended the paper by breaking the unspoken rule in UK policy discussions – we talked about the Great Unmentionable: where money comes from and whether there might be better ways of arranging things.

This was a subject that had finally been broached by the Bank of England, who explained how most money is produced by private banks in the form of loans – something that most commentators knew but preferred not to say.

Well, the Great Unmentionable has finally been mentioned again, this time in a report by the Bundesbank, which confirms the same thing. It also gives a sideswipe at the main radical alternative proposal, Irving Fisher’s so-called 100% Money solution, the previous idea favoured by the Chicago School before it fell under the influence of Milton Friedman in the 1950s.

Now it is beyond our remit, and our knowledge, to say which is right. What is important is that, finally – and in the midst of the most frivolous and infuriating election campaign in the UK – these vitally important issues are being openly debated. It’s just that they are not being debated here…

See my new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Wednesday 24 May 2017

The rise of authenticity and what it means

Some years ago, fourteen to be precise, I wrote a book called Authenticity. The subtitle was ‘Brands, fakes, spin and the lust for real life’, which had a kind of ring to it. I’ve since written more in a collection of essays called The Age to Come.

I was predicting the rise of a consumer revolution – real beer, real experience, real shops – which involved bending the meaning of ‘real’ a little. Things and services could never be wholly ‘real’ because such things are about travelling hopefully rather than arriving. But with those provisos, I believe I was right.

So it is fascinating to come face to face again with the phenomenon in the example of the authentic textiles, curtains, wallpapers and so on, by New Weather pattern-maker and member Sarah Burns, and her label Dora Fabrics. In the interests of full authentic disclosure, I should also reveal that I’m married to her.

Sarah has re-discovered some of the lost art of wild dyeing, using plants and techniques from the South Downs where she lives to dye cloth by hand.The results are there to see in the Guy Goodfellow showroom at 15 Langton Street, just off London’s Kings Road.

There is another chance to see Dora Fabrics at the moment at the Virginia White Collection pop-up shop in 17 Rugby Street, London WC1, off Lambs Conduit Street, where you ca see her Sompting pattern in fabric and on the walls too, inspired by some of the medieval carvings you find in the South Down churches.

For those of us who have not followed this particular debate about authenticity, there is a something of a stand-0ff between those who believe that authenticity is impossible by definition, and that any appeal to it must therefore be fraudulent – and those, like me, who regard it as a growing phenomenon and reaction against the all-pervading pushing of the virtual and the fake.

In that respect, Sarah’s designs have depth and so do her fabrics. In an age where nearly everything looks and feels exactly the same, built to a shiny, glitzy formula, this is the real deal.

But it is worth thinking about what makes it real? Is it the natural element, using plants gathered by hand? Is it the sheer inconvenience of it – the less than universal availability, given that plants have seasons? Is it the fact that you don’t have to throw the cloth away when it is faded (you just dip it in the dye again)?

My own feeling is that it is all those things but, most of all perhaps, it is the human contact – the fact that someone has collected the plants and made the dye and coloured the cloth. That it was done by someone specific, and done somewhere specific, with a name that you can pinpoint on a map. The human element, for me, is the new definition of authenticity. It can’t be perfectly authentic – nothing can and you might buy it online – but i is the direction of travel and not the end destination that is important.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Tiny ray of hope from Manchester

I was surprised to find, this morning, that the news still has the power to reduce me to tears. The vision of parents struggling through Manchester in search of missing children after the bomb there is particularly gruelling for other parents like me. It hardly needs saying that one's heart goes out to them, because it has become an over-used cliche - but it does.

It may be that the immediate legacy of the bomb is to cement Theresa May's general election victory. I don't know. It may be that the next best thing to having someone strong and stable in adversity is to have someone who claims to be. I don't know that either.

Yet I have a feeling that the long-term impact on the nation may also be some pride in itself. The taxi drivers who converged on Manchester without being asked. The photograph of the empty water cups on the police car roof. They are all testament to the kind of nation we are, and the way human beings are too - this is a patriotic point, not a nationalist one.

It reminds me of Ken Worpole's recent description of the East Anglian reaction to the disastrous floods of January 1953 which sank the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria, when every local organisation came out to help in a tide of volunteer effort.

This was partly the result of the war, which had finished only eight years before, that all these small organisations were still active and effective. Ten members of the South Benfleet Yacht Club alone saved over 60 people from Canvey Island.

Back then (2013) I wrote rather depressingly: "The difference now is not that these small organisations have disappeared, or that they are somehow less effective – quite the reverse – but their existence is somehow taken for granted by the authorities."

This may be so, but the reaction of ordinary people in Manchester last night shows that this doesn't matter. It may be premature to say that anything else matters compares to the brute fact of the blast, but I draw some comfort from the reaction and I believe we will do so when the immediate pain has settled a little.

Big changes can happen as a result of small shifts in perception like this. The earthquakes in Christchurch and Kyoto kickstarted a whole new kind of voluntary sector in those cities. Earthquakes and fires a century ago in Jacksonville in Florida gave it the kind of voluntary ethos that makes it such an inclusive city today.

These considerations may not outweigh the horror, but they are not unimportant. When William Blake talked about "Joy and woe are woven fine". I believe this is what he meant,

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Friday 19 May 2017

It's the economy, stupid. Isn't it?

The idea that the UK is a nation perched on a knife-edge division between Brexiters and Remainers has begun to unravel over the last few days – and probably a good thing too.

Let me cite three pieces of evidence, at least two of them deriving at least partly from the new thinktank Radix.

The first is the Financial Times report on what they called the ‘Re-leavers’, the people who voted to remain but now want to accept the result and get on with it. The report suggested they were about 23 per cent of the electorate. Or a big chunk out of the 48 per cent.

The second is the blog on Radix by Professor Corrado Poli on the distinction between the racist Leavers from the old right and the reformers who might go either way, and which also divides the Remain camp potentially into two.

The third, I have to admit in all modesty, is by me. It is my Guardian article about the division, this time within traditional Lib Dem voters, between the Remainers and the Liberal Brexiters – those who voted to leave last year, especially in former Lib Dem western strongholds, because they are sceptical about the power of supranational bureaucracies (any large bureaucracies actually).

You can read this here. There are, as I write, 400 comments so far ‘below the line’ slagging me off about it.

The main implication of this fragmentation is the way it confuses a previously clear Lib Dem election strategy. This will matter only if the party hollows out its radical message to make their campaign a re-run of a flawed, technocratic, cerebral and somewhat punitive referendum campaign last year.

My advice is to think a bit about the kind of themes the Liberal Brexiters want to hear about – the failures of the banks to nurture our struggling local economies. The Lib Dem manifesto commits them to forcing the big banks to pay to set up a network of local banks capable of doing the job with small business that they manifestly no longer want.

In short, the fragmentation of the Lib Dem target market only matters if they forget that elections are fought, won and lost on economics. It should not have to be said – but it’s the economy, stupid.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday 1 May 2017

It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it - how Twitter caused Brexit

In 1780, a mob led by the half-crazed aristocrat Lord George Gordon stormed through London, shouting anti-Catholic slogans, demolishing buildings, setting free prisoners and - if Dickens can be believed in Barnaby Rudge - drinking molten lead from the roof of Newgate Gaol.

The Gordon Riots cemented the British establishment's horror of populism as the central plank of good government, and especially somehow anti-Catholic populism, which - as I have argued before - includes the sentiments behind Brexit.

The Nazi experience convinced the Left too that all emotion should be excised from politics, for fear of - well, to start with, for fear of the Mob.

The trouble is that this rendered the forces of good government all but powerless in the face of the skilled manipulation of emotion.

I don't mean Donald Trump, who is only using the clothes of populism to disguise an old-fashioned plutocrat. But Trump is also an example: his use of emotion was so crude that the only people it could possibly flummox was technocrats shorn of all feeling.

Unfortunately, that was all we had to defend the UK's involvement with continental Europe. The rest is history.

But it is a history that has yet to be written, and a fascinating report by the Radix thinktank this morning makes an important start. They used these assumptions about emotion and commissioned research from the University of Milan - analysing ten million tweets from the Brexit referendum and the Brexit debate since.

In fact, you could have predicted the result, they found, just by looking at the coherence and emotional content of the tweets - just as you could with the rise of Trump. The report All Atwitter about Brexit found that:

  • Besides having a greater intensity of use, the pro-Brexit camp has compelling leaders who use emotive messaging around a cohesive narrative that galvanizes supporters 
  • The anti-Brexit camp remains diffuse. There is no single leadership focus and a lack of a consistent, cohesive narrative that is capable of appealing to the emotional rather than the rational.
  • There is significant volatility among users around their Brexit sentiment. A large number of users still consistently shift between pro- and anti-Brexit positions 
  • Over the last few weeks, anti-Brexit sentiment has shown a sharp rising trend while the pro-Brexit community has shown slow decline 
  • The pro-Brexit camp has won the air war to date. But, as the general campaign starts, those parties and candidates that choose to make Brexit the defining issue in this election still have everything to play for.
That is extremely interesting. It means that, if you use Twitter as the way you analyse the way sentiment is shifting, it looks as though the energy is with those who want to stay entangled with continental Europe.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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