Thursday, 6 August 2020

How to untickbox the NHS

It is a strange divide in society. Some people furrowed their brows when I told them I was publishing a book called Tickbox, and really seemed to struggle to understand what I was on about – while some people grasped it immediately. Among those who got it, I couldn’t help noticing that many of them worked in the NHS.
It maybe that the NHS is not the most boneheaded user of tickboxes but – as a huge over-centralised operation, managing people looking after people’s very individual needs, somehow the gap between appearance and reality (which is for me the heart of tickbox) – the NHS has seemed to involve more tickbox-inspired sclerosis than most.
Yet, what did they do when the NHS was absolutely the front line? They rolled it back, the whole amalgam of online tickboxes, KPIs, targets and centralised controls that NHS managers rely on to monitor performance.

“Decisions that used to take months or even years because of endless, pointless form-filling and meetings are now made in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.” This is the new NHS under COVID-19 according to Dr Max Pemberton. One doctor we know was told by managers that sudden freedom was because NHS staff are “adults” and can be trusted to make the right decisions on the spot.

And of course that was right. They were adults yet they still are as the whole tickbox thing wafts back across the NHS. That is why we started our Radix petition to stop it in its tracks.

And what their managers want is often to make the best impact on the company hierarchy. Which in the NHS means saving money – or appearing to. Then the argument shifts, almost imperceptibly, away from ‘Is this the best thing for this patient?’ – to ‘Are we meeting our KPIs?’

It provides a fake, simplified and mechanistic view of what is undoubtedly a complex system – but complex in a different way. Anyone who thinks differently looks as if they are missing the point, but it is actually the system that misses the point.

My Tickbox book argued that this is part of what might be described as the simplification – not to say vulgarisation – of the official mind. And it is already having serious consequences. We have already witnessed during the current crisis how inaccurate the figures will be for Covid-19 deaths or tests or people affected – and how officials intervene in the definitions (for example on safe protective equipment) the whole time.

I am also hoping the NHS increasingly understands that tickboxing may simply achieve the opposite of what was intended. It can be a real hindrance, not the great time saver it purports to be. Mere tickboxing enables a lack of accountability.

All the systemic failures enabled by tickbox – from Mid Staffs Hospital onwards – have to be measured against the extreme pressure on services brought about by the austerity policies of successive governments, which is why NHS managers are trying to tickbox compassion into the mix, fearful perhaps that the real thing is unaffordable.

That is what happens in large centralised organisations when tickbox takes control.

Part of the costs fall directly on NHS staff. “The Berkeley University psychologist Christina Maslach defined ‘burn-out’ as a combination of three feelings: ‘emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (a cynical, instrumental attitude toward others), and a sense of personal ineffectiveness’, wrote Atul Gawande, the doctor and author of The Checklist Manifesto. These were his conclusions:

“Many fear that the advance of technology will replace us all with robots. Yet in fields like healthcare, the more imminent prospect is that it will make us all behave like robots. And the people we serve need something more than either robots or robot-like people can provide. They need human enterprises that can adapt to change.”

I am quite hopeful here because of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s campaign against bureaucracy. He can see ow much it gets in the way. There are some self-help ideas we might encourage as a stopgap in the NHS. We could, for example, learn from the Dutch health service and their schrapsessies.

That is the name the new movement in the healthcare sector in the Netherlands has given to the ‘scrap sessions’ they hold at work to identify regulations, targets, tickbox rules it would be possible to get rid of completely. The idea emerged in 2018 from the Dutch thinktank (Ont) Regel de Zorg, but the movement now has a head of steam behind it, and the backing of ministers.

It is high time we spread it more enthusiastically over here. Hence our petition to demand the government to permanently remove their tickbox regulations on the NHS, partly to thank staff, partly to recognise their adulthood and partly to save money – which should be reinvested in the frontline.

We hope in the end that covid-19 could mark the moment we stop infantalising NHS staff, and also the moment we lift the threat of tickbox over all public service staff.

Because, decentralising the management of the NHS is the key to its survival and the most urgent element here is to stop the centre from their disastrous habit of micromanagement. So please sign the petition and pass it on if you feel as strongly as we do about this.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

'Good Germans' and the danger of othering

This post was first published on the New Weather blog...

Rupprecht Gerngross is not a household name, even among historians of World War II, though he led what may have been the only successful internal coup against Hitler's regime.

In the final weeks of the war, he led his small band of military translators to take control of Munich, the revered birthplace of Nazism. By doing so, he seems to have prevented the destruction of the city, and saved thousands of lives, including many thousands of Dachau prisoners who were to be killed by their Nazi captors.

He was an unlikely hero, a London-educated solicitor, brought up in China. But it was important to him that Germans should build the new Europe themselves by doing their part to liberate their own city.

Why isn't he well-known? Because after the war ended, few people believed or remembered what had happened there - and the story remains controversial in some circles. The BBC man sent to interview him was sacked shortly afterwards and his story was spiked by The Times on the advice of the Foreign Office that it would not be 'helpful' to circulate stories about 'good Germans'.

The amazing story is finally published in a new book, compellingly researched and thrillingly written by my friend Lesley Yarranton (Saving Munich 1945 - fuller transparency: my name is also on the cover urging people to read it!).

But it has made me think about how simple it is to 'other' your political opponents, and how unfair. How easy it would be if every wartime German had been a Nazi, if every demonstrator was a revolutionary (as Trump suggests) or every Briton born before 1830 had been an irresponsible slave-owner. But life is never quite as simple as that - nor is it possible to see the world accurately through those kind of paint-by-numbers, cliche eyeglasses.

We seem to be moving into a new world, which is a good deal more sensitive to people's needs and feelings. That has to be a good thing, as long as we remember that very few people will fit neatly into the new categories of good and evil - and not many more than they ever have.

Let me give the final thought to the Rev Eli Jenkins from Under Milk Wood:

"We are not wholly bad nor good,
We who live beneath Milk Wood..."

If we can remember that, it might steer us away from the puritanism that so often afflicts new elements of morality.

You can also find Saving Munich 1945 in paperback from Amazon and on kindle.

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Saturday, 4 July 2020

Hate versus rage and the problem of history

This post - or a version of it - was first published on the Radix UK blog...

In the week that the banks failed – that strange week in October 2008, where everything seemed to be unravelling – I ventured into the City Business Library, in its familiar, slightly unkempt building off London Wall.

I used to spend quite some time there, when I was writing about the history of money. I remembered it – perhaps wrongly – as a font of hidden knowledge. By 2008, it certainly wasn’t that.

Where were those decades of back issues of obscure American business magazines? Where were those strange 1960s books of business predictions? I asked at the desk and was informed that it was the library’s policy to dispose of most material after three years, and all of it after five years.

It was rather a strange discovery. Wall Street and the City of London had allowed the banking system to collapse because their risk software had little or no memory beyond ten years – barely longer than the business cycle.

Most of those taking day to day decisions about risk in the City were in their twenties and had little memory of the great rises and falls of the market. Their lack of history had hampered their ability to see events for what they really were. Which is why Andrew Simms and I wrote Eminent Corporations, to try and inject a little light history into the corporate world.

I don’t suppose the City Business Library’s decision to bin anything dog-eared contributed to this historical vacuum – it was symptom not cause. Nor was the Blair-Brown government’s strange blindness to history (heritage was one of the only areas of government funding to go down under New Labour), but neither of these can have helped.

Yet the excision of history from business commentary and corporate life – and its replacement by marketing mush – was definitely one of the major causes of the 2008 crash. But I hadn't expected that the political left would also reject history, as they have been doing recently in their war against statues, using Black Lives Matter as their excuse.

I feel myself on the side of the BLM campaigners. But I am disturbed by the assumption that all history - and specifically English history - can be reduced to a one-dimensional parade of cruelties. Including individuals like Nelson, Gladstone and Peel who - though imperfect - have been treated as heroes, and for good reasons, for generations.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to have been caught up in the puritan enthusiasm for removing memorials.

Two things worry me about this particularly. First, because history is what holds us together and makes us who we are: people cling to their pride in it - not because the English were perfect (quite the reverse), but because that whole contradictory complexity is there to help us understand ourselves.

Without a history, people have no rudder. That anyway, according to Hannah Arendt - is one of the roots of fascism.

Second, while you can understand the fury of black people about their past and present in the Americas, I find I am repulsed by the generalised rage released by the so-called 'culture wars'.

It is rage which appears to me to be wholly negative - it is just against things, and simply pro one of those generalised strings of initials. It is the mirror image of Donald Trump's equally projected hate, part of his desperate attempt to win a second term as president (though not of course its moral equivalent).

Where is liberalism in all this one-dimensional tickbox politics? All over the place it seems to me. There is no way the left can win votes while they dismiss our whole history. Or when politically correct language stays what it is now - a way for the articulate middle classes to prevent the working classes from speaking out; they dare not use the wrong language, which constantly changes.

The radical centre seems to me to reject either hate or rage, aware that human life is mainly joyful and loving, though not of course exclusively so. Where it isn't, the solutions are likely to be economic not cultural. We believe in people and their extraordinary abilities. We can't dismiss them as Trump does (as the poor) or as the British establishment does (as the Mob), or as the left does - as potential child molesters, wife-beaters and racists.

This is more urgent an issue than it might seem. Because the culture wars look increasingly like a creation of Trump's. Every southern statue that gets lynched, every new expression of enraged cultural cleansing, and Trump believes he is closer to home.

The danger is that he may be right.

A very good friend has remonstrated with me about this post, and personally I found the opportunity to talk to someone on the other side of the argument about it - without either of us falling back on the usual insults - a massive relief.

He argues that someone could have thrown the epithet 'politically correct' at any new idea - from anti-slavery to CND. He may be right, but then there is something vacuously modern about the idea that all you need to do is to change the language. That would have been pretty incoherent to everyone until about 1972.

Ad there the rgument rests - he is persuading me that PC language is primarily a kind of politeness. I am trying to get him to recognise the underlying snobbery at its heart. 

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Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Goodhart's Law and the multiple covid cock-ups

This post was first published on the Radix UK site...

The speech which gave rise to the law that now bears Professor Charles Goodhart's name was actually called ‘Problems of Monetary Management’. It was a comparatively dry piece of econometrics at a conference called by the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1975, the participants mainly being eminent monetary economists.

In his discussion of the new-fangled doctrine of monetary targeting, Goodhart suggested that ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.’

It seems extraordinary that his self-styled ‘throwaway remark’ on monetary targets should now be in the social theory textbooks as ‘Goodhart’s Law’, and yet it is. But more than that, it has developed into one of those priceless pieces of theory that might be the antidote to the phenomenon I have dubbed 'tickbox'.

The monetary issue seemed a simple one to solve. Everyone seemed to agree that it was. They would focus on measures of monetary growth, and when the money supply began to grow too much, interest rates would rise and gently ease it back down again. The trouble was that it didn’t work.

As he was going through the figures that came across his desk from most countries every month, Goodhart began to notice something peculiar. It didn’t matter which country it was, or which target they chose – the act of establishing a target seemed to change it. Whatever monetary target was chosen, because of its relationship to incomes or inflation, would lose that relationship pretty quickly. It was certainly not what was supposed to happen.

These were the bones of Goodhart’s Law. It was clear that the very act of making one figure a target and paying attention to it changed the behaviour of bankers. They would put in extra effort, or interpret their work in slightly different ways, to please their superiors and to meet the target. It was this quirk of monetary theory that Goodhart pointed out in Sydney in 1975.

If you use a piece of data as a target or as a box that must be ticked, then the data will become inaccurate. That's Goodhart's Law.

Take for example the idea set out in cartoon form by the American cartoonist Zack Weinersmith, which imagines that – through some hideous policy brainwave – all children have to stop studying poetry or the arts and start practising clock-mending, and the number of hours spent mending clocks becomes the target for success among schools. It all seems logical, given that so many top engineers are known to have been keen on taking clocks apart when they were children. But the policy has the reverse effect, as one might expect. ‘Science is dead, engineering is static, humanities are unknown,’ says the penultimate picture. ‘All is clock.’

The final comic picture shows the policy-makers congratulating each other, because ‘according to our clock-based metric, everything is great!’

This little story has not actually come to pass – yet – but it does demonstrate the issue that Goodhart’s Law poses to organisations, especially large or centralised ones. Not only does the target skew everything, so that the original relationship – in this case, the link between great engineers and clock-mending – is no more, but the target then blinds the distant policy-makers to the truth because they have over-simplified the world and perhaps even lost a way to describe what is now missing.

Inspired by the system thinker John Seddon, whose new book Beyond Command and Control was published recently - more on that soon - I have begun to realise just how much of an effect Goodhart's Law has.

It happens subtley as the definitions are tweaked and the top managers delude themselves. It is also becoming clear that the government's copious mistakes with covid may have been largely the result of their ignorance of Goodhart's Law. The latest thoughtful FT piece by Andrew Hill suggests something along these lines.

Perhaps most deressingly, it transpires that ministers fell back on scientists at SAGE who, according to the BBC programme More or Less, were arguing among themselves how fast the virus was doubling the infection rate. So, Goodhart's law being what it is, they chose the most optimistic conclusions - that the UK were four weeks behind Italy when it now seems clear that we were only one week behind.

That is why we failed in the UK to lockdown sooner. Other nations did the semsible thing - Greece and the Indian state of Kerala , without the benefit of advice from the top epidemiologists in the world - and simply shut their borders, and save thousands of lives as a result.

I never criticised the use of data in itself in my book Tickbox, but it looks worryingly as if the people who surround themselves with data and try to use it to take political decisions are likely to be a great deal more deluded than those who don't. If so, we should blame the effects of Goodhart's Law.

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Friday, 12 June 2020

Why are the ruling classes so scared of the mob? It's about Latin.

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

There is quite enough about mobs and mob rule at the moment without me needing to join in. The starting point of this post is the effect this has on governments, and UK governments in particular.

I have written before about the bizarre way in which UK governments, certainly back to the Gordon Riots of 1780, have lived with this underlying fear of the mob - an affliction known as enochophobia.

That manifests itself mainly in the bizarre snobbery which the establishment treats anyone outside itself, whether it is people from country towns in, say, County Durham, or the BAME communities of Bristol. This is what Gladstone meant when he characterised Toryism as "distrust in the people tempered by fear".

I have been thinking about this phenomenon for some time, and particularly its roots in classical education, which regards the Roman world as civilised and the poor old natives of this island as barbarians. I'm not so sure that this was not actually the other way around.

I was first alerted to this idea by Graham Robb’s brilliant book The Ancient Paths, one of a growing number of historians and writers to start rethinking our pre-Roman past. But it was George Jowett’s strange and peculiar book The Drama of the Lost Disciples which got me thinking about Caractacus for the first time.

Jowett died in 1969 after a distinguished career as a boxer, publisher and planner in Canada. But the research behind the book, in the Vatican archives, is an equally important legacy. His argument was that, according to the archives, it wasn’t just Joseph of Arimathea who came to Britain in 38AD, as legend suggests – it was the Virgin Mary and many of the surviving disciples of Jesus who took refuge in Glastonbury that year, joined later by St Peter and St Paul.

Jowett’s plea was that, given that the medieval church recognised this claim by giving British bishops precedence at the great councils of the Church – we ought to take this more seriously. Or at least as seriously as the flawed and compromised memories of Roman writers with axes to grind.

If this was right, Jowett suggested, then it may provide a different interpretation to the Roman invasion five years later. It may also be that Caractacus, as the archives suggest, was not a backward pagan type, but Christian king battling the pagan Romans and desperately trying to hold back their tide of brutality.

So I have written Caractacus’ autobiography as if Jowett was right. As such, I am attempting to strike a small blow against a those generations of positivist scholars who identified with the Romans more than with their forebears defending our homeland – who regarded the invaders as ‘we’, and continue to try to subdue the real spirit of these islands ever since. Caractacus managed to stand alone for nearly nine years against the biggest and most sophisticated army in the known world, after all.

And while we are about it - if anyone out there happens to know where I can find out why it is that English history traditionally starts in 1066 - with the arrival of the ruling class - and why we number our kings from then, despiet there being Edwards on either side of the divide? I would genuinely love to know...

In the meantime, the first part of my Caractacus trilogy (Nor Shall My Sword Sleep) is now published and I am busily writing the second. So comments and suggestions are most welcome...

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Monday, 25 May 2020

The 5G witchhunt and the dangers of tickbox science

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

When my Tickbox book came out, the only vaguely negative review I received on Amazon was from someone who decided that, because I wanted to move the argument forward a little, that I was somehow ‘anti-science’.

I have to say that I’ve been itching to write about tickbox science ever since. Though I fear I may confirm my critic in his prejudices by doing so.

I should say at the outset that, although I have no scientific training, I do have a degree in philosophy and I have always been fascinated by the various interpretations of scientific method.

I understand how science moves forward by demolishing its own arguments, paradigm and theory by paradigm and theory. It therefore makes no sense at all – as the doyens of evidence-based policy suggest – that science is somehow fixed and final. I take tickbox science to mean precisely this:  – that every idea or theory or brainwave needs to be measured against the sum total of published evidence.

This is absurd, especially as published evidence requires that somebody must have taken the decision to fund the original research, and - with the advocates of tickbox science wandering the internet, seeking who they would devour - that can be a dangerous business.

As you may have realised by now, I am tiptoeing worryingly into the 5G controversy.

I am not defending everyone who says that 5G has somehow caused the covid-19 outbreak. It is hard to discern how this could possibly be the case. But I am aware of research which suggests that 5G – because it is pulsed – might compromise people’s immune systems.

Most of those scientists who are nervous about 5G tend to be experts in the medical implications of electro-magnetic fields. It reminds me of the 1970s, when the establishment went after experts in low-level radiation, after evidence that it might be more damaging than high-level radiation over long periods.

This 5G claim is hardly proven, but – after the witchhunt against everyone who steps out of the narrow lines of tickbox science – I can’t see anyone daring to apply for grant funding to prove it one way or the other.

There is the real danger of tickbox science, or tickbox anything, in fact – it closes minds. It makes ideas impossible to express. And that is the very opposite of scientific.

Do I have a bias here? Well, yes I do. I have chronic eczema and I know that 5G is said to affect, not just insects, but human skin. Nor so I see why my skin should suffer just so that my neighbours an get faster downloads of ‘Call of Duty’ or other murderous online abominations.

I admit it. So go on, ban me from Twitter, why don’t you? There are already a range of things you are not allowed to say about 5G on Twitter or Facebook. And there is a Tory MP trying to make it against the law.

So how, without ridicule, should we stop people burning down 5G installations as they appear on our streets?

There really is only one way: we have to restore some trust in official spokespeople (starting perhaps when a prime minister next goes into hospital).

The problem is that, as the most stupid vandal knows, there are some technological developments that are so profitable that nobody is going to dare to say they are unsafe.

That is why it took 50 years from the 1962 Smoking and Health report to ban second-hand smoke. It took a similar time for governments to act on asbestos, though the evidence had been understood since the 1920s.

In those circumtances, there is a complication because nobody dares to do the research, and scientists who apply for the money to do so put their careers on the line.

I remember meeting researchers who dared to suggest that mad cow disease might be dangerous to human beings and they were threatened by the security services. There are big stakes.

But in those days, it was just the establishment versus the truth. There was none of what we have now: a group of self-appointed puritans committed to tickbox science, who want to seek and ridicule anyone who thinks differently. The lineal successors of those who tormented Galileo and Copernicus.
That is about as far from the genuine spirit of science as it is possible to get.

Now, when you get handed your licence to write these blogs (figuratively speaking), they do impress on you the need for policy solutions. How do we restore some trust in the certainties and uncertainties of science? How do we stop both sides from undermining the whole thing?

I would suggest a lay committee, comprising scientists, wonks, philosophers and members of the public, appointed independently of the government to advise on risks. Note the word 'advise', because as Philip Collins put it in The Times last week (£), there is a great deal too much "bogus certainty in the air" - and in the end, these are political decisions.

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Friday, 10 April 2020

Introducing my play, The Party Leader

I have written four plays before - they range from a full-length play about the Three Day Week in 1973/4 to an invocation to devolution so that my home town of Steyning declares itself independent of the UK - this one performed in the cricket club during the Steyning Festival two summers ago.

I find it hard to write without an element of humour, as my tongue wanders into my cheek. So when the Radix thinktank asked me to write the play The Party Leader, it was obvous it would have a few laughs.

We had recently become the first thinktank to publish a novel, now called Dead Idol by Nick Tyrone. So we felt it made sense - if we were going to use all the different cultural options to make a case for a politics of the radical centre - to commission a radio play.

There was one other moment of ignition: when I was told, in the days when most people of sense appeared to be in the process of launching new centre parties (some more radical than than others), then perhaps they should get the party platform agreed first - and then find a leader, preferably one untainted by the existing political system.

We briedly discussed round the world yachtspeople and actors and actresses and then left the subject - but it stayed with me. What happens, I wondered, if you elected someone so untainted with party politics that you hadn't actually asked them first - and the bones of our play began to become clear in my mind.

In a perfect world, untainted by covid-9, I imagine that we would launch our first radio play sometime in the autumn. But our world may by then be pretty unrecognisable, so it probably made sense to release it now.

Immediately before the lockdown, a group of us - from Steyning again - got together in the home of Malcolm Duke (to whom thanks so much) and recorded it. So thank you also hugely to Deborah Sparkes, and Sue and Geoff Goble, who acted in it - with Malcolm playing a theatrical agent. Then in the last few weeks, Zyg Coombes has pulled it all together brilliantly.

So I present to you: the very first thinktank radio play. It is only 40 minutes long and quite fun, so I thoroughly recommend it... You can hear it here (click on the picture in the post).

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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Ask not what your NHS can do for you - ask what you can do for your NHS

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

The late, great Tony Gibson, the pioneer of UK community development, who I knew a little, used to talk about the origins of his vision in Stepney in 1940 – abandoned by the government during the Blitz, their town hall bombed out, when local people managed to organise basic services for themselves to help cope with almost infinite need.

His autobiography Streetwide Worldwide describes how, at the age of 21, in charge of a ten-strong Pacifist Service Unit there – with one steel helmet between them – he managed to find a tie and his father’s briefcase to walk past the queues at the People’s Palace theatre in Commercial Road in to talk to the town clerk .

The overwhelmed council officials had gone there when their office and filing systems had been bombed. Tony found the town clerk desperate to talk to someone and armed him with some of the resources he needed.

This is how I described it in my recent Counterweight pamphlet for the Local Trust:

“One of those who were there, who broke into the locked and shuttered council offices in Stepney borough, and who witnessed the way that the neighbourhood regrouped and organised makeshift police and social services for themselves out of the chaos, was a young Quaker ambulance driver called Tony Gibson. It was his memory of this, and the right people have – when they feel abandoned by those who administer them – to take matters into their own hands, which led to the launch of the ground-breaking unit at Nottingham University, Education for Neighbourhood Change, his influential 1978 Pelican book People Power, and other projects which led to community development, community technical aid, and all the rest…”

I still feel a sense of inspiration from that. Not that I am claiming that people have been abandoned to their fates during the current crisis. But governments have to remember that not only do people have the right to intervene as volunteers, but that – if the need is obvious – they will do.

They also need to know that this community response is absolutely critical to tackling any kind of disaster – as it was when floods overwhelmed the east of England, during a storm in January 1953, which also claimed the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria and over 300 lives.

In fact, the demise of the old voluntary sector since then – often informal and church-based – has in some ways been echoed in recent years by the austerity-driven demise of its successor, formal and lottery-funded.

What we have seen in the last few weeks is not just the recreation of a neighbourhood support structure – including the Lib Dems which have put their local government campaign at the disposal of local communities, chaired by former NCVO director Stuart Etherington – but the building of a new infrastructure which will be there with a bit of luck ready for the next crisis too.

It is also a reminder of the political roots of the radical centre. If the business owners tend to be represented by conservatives, and their workforces by socialists, then the radical centre aspires to represent this other, neglected and forgotten group – the self-employed, sole operators of small businesses and the volunteers.

In fact, it may have been that the Lib Dems never grasped this and went off on a quite different search for a ‘core vote’ that sealed their fate.

But let’s leave that on one side for a moment. By the end of this virus, with a bit of luck, we should have a cadre of volunteers that are integrated into the warp and weft of services, yet out of reach of their hopeless, dysfunctional tickbox systems.

We might then be a little closer to the classic statement of the radical centre that John Kennedy never quite said: “Ask not what your NHS can do for you; ask what you can do for the NHS.”

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

But still not enough to support the self-employed...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. It is a time of excitement and of fear, of enthusiasm and exhaustion, generosity and selfishness. It is a moment for breaking rules; it is an epoch of clinging to tickbox processes.

If I was Charles Dickens, I would probably go on. The key point is that it is an age of paradoxes, and especially when you start to think about the longterm results of this virus shutdown.

In 1939, when we last declared war in this kind of all-embracing way, you might go into shops or any organisation and be told - if you dared to complain about anything - "Don't you know there's a war on?"

I haven't yet been told "Don't you know there's a virus on". But as I try to negotiate my way through Santander's tickbox facility, trying to negotiate myself a mortgage holiday - where the phone directs you to the website and the website directs you back to the phone - I half expect that classic response of the second rate and hidebound.

This is what I mean, and amidst all the bravery and new thinking too. Here are some other long-term trends we might expect:
  1. The return of the boffin. Experts have had a bad press recently, but now there they are flanking the prime minister at his press announcements. It is economists that still require forgiveness.
  2. More local heroes and heroines. And yet the people we will be most grateful to by the end won't be experts at all - they will be engineers hacking ventilators and our neighbours setting up outreach systems or local bookshops heroically staying open, at least by delivering books by bike.
  3. The roaring twenties. Well, that's what happened last time economies were unleashed again.
  4. The return of inflation. And yet - despite the threat of deflation - it seems unlikely that the government will be able to balance the work going on in the economy with the circulation of cash.
  5. A spike in divorces. We have all heard the phrase: "If I'm going to be stuck here with you for the next three months, then you're going to have to..." Christmas leads to divorces and this is like an endless Christmas.
  6. The return of the baby boom. And yet, when people are reunited, we also know what happens. And it will be widely understood, except by the government officials who plan ahead for school places. So expect trouble around 2026.
Perhaps the most interesting question is around which of these economic changes are likely to be permanent - especially given how close to the edge so many companies have become.

I'm not sure anyone will miss the airlines and airports (except the British, of course, who fly more than any nation on earth). The future of food looks set to be local with short supply lines after all. But if the economy was in such a dire situation before, then it may be that some government support for salaries will have to be semi-permanent.

At the moment, these arrangements suffer from two major problems - they are are much too complex to get the money out quickly. Santander isn't the only organisation to keep their tickbox systems in place - and directing the self-employed towards a dodgy and overwhelmed universal benefit system seems doomed. Then there are huge problems with quantitative easing, which we know means even more inequality. It is as if Rishi Sunak didn't mean it when he said that would set aside ideology - except, apparently, the ludicrous pretence that governments don't create money.

It pains me to say it, but Trump was probably right that the way to preserve the economy is to provide what the Japanese call helicopter money for everyone, to fend for themselves and pay basic bills over the next few months. I would suggest that the Bank of England creates about £1,000 per adult per month.

The main question is whether this will put further pressure on the pound. This seems unlikely if the Americans are doing it too. There may be inflationary pressures as a result - given how little work is actually happening in the economy - but those may also counteract the deflationary pressures that are also going on.

If it goes just to self-employed people and sole traders who employ themselves (I have to declare an interest here), it would mean an injection of £10-£20 billion a month, probably directly via the tax system. Speed counts - nobody has time for tickbox any more.

It may be that they need to increase income tax temporarily by 1p in the pound to take it out of the economy again.

Alternatively, we have to innovate along similar lines, using a parallel digital currency along the lines of the recent scotpound proposals by the New Economics Foundation.

They great advanatge for these is that they are simpler to administer and very much faster to get into people's hands that the tickbox ways the government is proposing.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Enochophobia in the time of cholera, and the new Shell Crisis

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

In the time of cholera, which - despite Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I take to be the 1830s, there were riots in the back streets of London among the poor who believed the government's intention was to let them die so they could turn their bodies into what they called 'nattomy soup' - to feed the others.

By the 1840s, there was Ebenezer Scrooge worrying about the so-called surplus population. There was the government allowing the Irish potato famine to take its course.

There has always been a strand of British government that treated the governed with some disdian and fear. It is a fear of the mob, a problem known as enochophobia.

So when we believed the government's plan for treating the corona virus was 'herd resilience' - and it meant that 70 per cent of the population needed to be infected, it would mean that, at only on one per cent rates of mortality, losing half a million dead in a few months. To put that in context, that is twice as many as died in UK cities during five years of blitz in the second world war.

The good news is that the health secretary has denied that is the policy and it is now clear that ministers have changed their minds. It would have been a traditional mixture of Tory disdain and radical utilitarianism if it had been - but what is the policy? And why does there remain some confusion about it?

My worries about this derives from the road-building programme in last week's budget - which represents an exhumation of the old Lloyd George Roosevelt New Deal policy of road-building to boost the economy. They cannot possibly believe, as they claim, that it will do anything to rebalance the regional economies. Quite the reverse: more roads means there will be a subtle sucking noise as economic activity sucks down to London - are ministers really so old-fashioned that they have never thought these things through?

That is the kind of boneheading thinking we feared from this government. Luckily, they do seem to be getting to grips with things a little. So in case you thought the government's approach to corona was enochophobia dressed as science, then here are a few bits of better news...
  1. There has now been some recognition that they need to organise the emergency manufacure of respirators and ventilators, with the same kind of urgency that the government sought out exocet missiles on the black market during the Falklands War. They may not succeed, but if you know of a capable manufacturer, please pass on this spec.
  2. There does seem to be a home testing kit on the way, even if ministers have not yet grasped that they need to have some alternative to official testing, If they don't know when they've had it, then people will find it impossible to stop self-isolating when they are actually well - and can help.
  3. Once those are in people's hands, it can't be long before they launch a website which will allow people to upload their experiences of the virus and to give researchers some idea of its spread. Like this one on open source equipment.
  4. Ministers must by now have grasped that they can have people self-isolating OR looking after older relatives, but not both. There are now community groups that are gearing up to keep people safe and to help those who are sick. See the article by my colleagues Lindsay Mackie and Andrew Simms on genuinely civil contingensies.
  5. There is no doubt that the Chancellor's statement yesterday is an important step forward, but probably the only way of preserving the economy is to organise a new form of money creation on the Japanese model of helicopter money - I would suggest an off-balance sheet payment of £1,000 a month to every adult (more on this later).
Politically, I have a feeling that the potential game chnager is the looming ventilator scandal. It reminds me of the shell scandal of 1915 - which led to the replacement of one old-fashioned premier (Asquith) by a more ruthless though less principled one (Lloyd George).

It may be that the lack of ventilators will lead to the replacement of slow-moving, lovelorn Boris Johnson with celtic determination in the shape of Michael Gove.

One final hopeful thought: the sound of community singing in Sienna in locked down Italy, through open windows. There is the authentic noise of the human spirit.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Why Back to the Land is about to roar back (come along on 19 March?)

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I have an unproven and probably unprovable theory about new movements - political or otherwise - which is that they usually involve reaching back into the past, borrowing an idea and reshaping in a modern way.

That would, for example, explain slow food, a movement that emerged from Italy in the 1990s - reaching into the past is how we give radical ideas a sense of authenticity. Without that historic edge, it can appear too glitzy; without the modern edge, it is liable to collapse into a morose and deeply conservative melancholy or fundamentalism.

That is for example when the original Populist Party in the 1880s, the people who inspired The Wizard of Oz, became white supremacists. Or when the social credit movement of the 1920s and 30s collapsed into anti-semitism.

One thing that follows from this theory is that one way to seek out future mvements is paradoxically to look to the past. Which is one reason I believe the Back to the Land movement is about to beome politically important again.
Back to the Land is one of south east England's contirbutions to the world - a reaction against the first great industrial city (London). It grew up in the early 19th century, and included inspiration from William Cobbett (a radical), Samuel Palmer (a Tory), William Morris and Richard Jefferies (socialists), John Ruskin (a high Tory, or so he said), Peter Kropotkin (a communist), Mahatma Gandhi (an Indian nationalist), G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc (both Liberals and then Distributists), Henry Williamson (a fascist), and Fritz Schumacher (Green?) and so on.

All of these influenced each other in a tradition that stretches through to today, and these may not have been the political labels they would have chosen to describe themselves. Most (though not all) of them also have high Anglican or Roman Catholic links, even if was just an obsession with gothic architecture.

Their big problem was that the conservaive part of their nature tended to struggle with the radical parts over the issue of gender equality.

One of the reasons I think that Back to the Land will become an important political factor here - apart from its obvious relevance to the climate crisis and the issues around local regeneration and how to achieve it - is that women are now the driving forces.

Perhaps this began with the American Distributist Dorothy Day, editor of the Catholic Worker, who marked a shift of energy in the Back to the Land movement from predominantly male to predominantly female. After her death in 1980, those who came after her – from Pam Warhurst in Todmorden to Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, from the pioneers of the local food movement in Dorset to the Chipko women of Uttar Pradesh – have tended to be women.

It was the Distributists who had led the way battling against eugenics, agricultural cruelty and pesticides. But while Ruskin wrote and Palmer painted, and did it very well, the women acted. Gandhi’s programme of agrarian devolution plus nation-rebuilding – in some ways an offshoot of the same English tradition – is so often led by women.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of this shift is the change in the status of allotments in the UK. By the 1970s, this tended to be a dwindling retirement activity for men of a certain age, like pigeon-fancying. Now the 100,000 people waiting for allotments in London alone, and those who are growing things on the extraordinary multi-ethnic informal landscapes that allotment sites have become, are overwhelmingly women.

These issues will be important in our new world of changing weather and far less foreign travel - even if it is to avoid whatever infection that follows the corona virus, and visited upon us by our globalised middle classes.

That is anyway going to be part of my message on March 19 when I'm giving a talk on 'Could Distributism still change the world?' at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex. If you can be in Sussex then (near Hassocks Station), it would be lovely to see you...

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Sunday, 16 February 2020

How might we go about enacting a no #tickbox policy?

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Here are the three most egregious versions of tickbox that I have run across in the last few days…

First, the government’s proposals to reform the early years foundation stage, which the Early Years Alliance warns is risking turning it into “a series of bullet points … a narrow tickbox approach.”

Second, the unmissable NHS blogger Roy Lilley used a similar word to attack the CQC, the doyennes of tickbox in the health sector:

“The Confed, Providers, NAPC, the Shalfords, the Mulberries, unions, the think-tanks should find the guts to say what the dogs in the streets know…

…it is time for a narrative that says; when we started to look for quality improvements all we had was a clip-board and a box to tick. Now, we have data, algorithms and machine learning. We are able to spot problems in the making, warn leaders and support them to sidestep disaster. Keep us safe...

When there are viable, sensible alternatives, to carry on with clapped-out inspection wins no applause from the people failed by quality…”

Third, the so-called uberization of mental health in an important article by Dr Elizabeth Cotton who writes the blog Surviving Work. The article followed the conference last year called the ‘industrialistion of care’.

This refers to the way the government’s favoured IAPT approach to mental health is “based on a series of patient assessments that use tightly-scripted questionnaires allowing only minimal freedom of discussion between therapist and patient.”

This is the model that is increasingly being delivered online, often by staff unqualified as psychologists.

Complaining about people’s lack of qualifications is the layman’s version of tickbox, but there is no doubt that people’s special mental health needs requires this excessive simplification. More on the mental health aspects of tickbox in my book.

I suppose I would probably add the government’s consultation on green regulations for new homes, now closed. Stupidly in my view, they want to prevent local authorities from experimenting with setting their own higher environmental standards for new build – on the grounds that you can save money if everyone has the same regulations.

Thus is a classic tickbox mistake, because economists tend to measure economies of scale but ignore the diseconomies of scale.

So whether it is bowlderisation, stupidiification or uberization – or McDonaldisation (the title of a 1993 book by Georg Ritzer) – we know tickbox now for what it is, an insidious and creeping problem that is suffocating our ability to act on the world.

I proposed in my last blog a self-denying ordinance, a pledge signed by professionals, promising to ignore the tickboxes imposed on them and do what is necessary for who ever stands before them.

That seems to me to be one approach, appealing to the humanity and pride of the professions and challenging them to show they have not been completely hollowed out.

Could we also legislate for large organisations so that, when they use a tickbox system, they must also provide an obvious and easy access to a human being if people want one? But then, what such legislation would actually be trying to tackle would be the way that some organisations, public and private have such overwheening confidence in their own systems (the Immigration Service and myHermes spring to mind) that there is no way to register a complaint which has any chance of reaching a human being.

What else do we need for a fully-fledged No Tickbox policy that might be enacted? Please let me know…

Buy the book from Hive. Buy from Amazon. Buy the audio version.

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Monday, 10 February 2020

Towards a heroic No #Tickbox pledge

This blog first appeared on the Radix UK site...

It has only been a fortnight since the publication of my Tickbox book, but the trickle of background information that was beginning to emerge when the book was first out has now become a flood.

That is clearly also my mood to some extent, even more than when I was writing the book: I now see symptoms of tickbox everywhere I look.

Teachers tell me that this is the reason they are leaving the profession. I’ve heard from NHS psychologists, prison officials, health workers - though not yet the marketing or HR people responsible for the ubiquitous five-point surveys every time we have any kind of interaction with businesses…

I suppose my top tickbox this week will have to include the news, uncovered by the BBC’s Moneybox programme (no relation!), that serious complaints about the Department for Work and Pensions can take around four years to resolve.

This example reeks of tickbox because the DWP makes the absolutely classic mistake of measuring their performance only from the moment their senior experts open the file, which is usually at least 18 months from the time the complaint is made.

There should be a word for that kind of dodge, because it happens so often - and always has done (a symptom of Goodhart’s Law in action). As far as I know, there isn’t.

I’m also glad to be cited in the British Medical Journal, no less, by Miles Sibley in his plea for more person-centred feedback being required if the NHS is really going to provide person-centred care.

I was fascinated to see a link there to a blog by Andrea Siodmok in the open policy blog of the Cabinet Office, looking for what she called 'thick data' alongside more conventional but doubtful big data - most of it seriously compromised by Goodhart's Law.  She means data with depth, about human beings - not instead, but so that big data and thick data is required to test each other.

Then there was the news that, unsurprisingly, the roll-out of universal credit - a good idea undermined and stupidified by tickbox - has been delayed again.

I came away from my Steyning Bookshop event (see picture) with a greater understanding of the meaning of tickbox. It means that people take less responsibility for the inevitable way in which the people they serve fail to fit the preferred process.

There is both the meaning and a potential antidote to tickbox. It amounts to a plea to people serving the public to take a little more responsibility. I don't mean flinging caution to the winds, but enough to make the system work. Perhaps we need some kind of public pledge - at least an I WILL NOT TICKBOX bumper sticker?

You can buy the Tickbox book from Hive or Amazon.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

The great #Tickbox campaign starts here...

This month, I have published two contributions to what I hope will be a new debate about the insane and unhumane system that is attempting to manage the world on behalf of those who own it. One is my co-written Radix pamphlet Whatever happened to doing? and the other is my book Tickbox.

The great thing about having named a modern phenomenon is that you get sent examples from all sectors. These are now pouring in. Here are three of my favourites from last week…

The first is the most obvious, in some ways. It was the BBC news story about inspectors warning schools against gaming their league tables by making pupils take less prestigious games GCSE exams, rther than giving them a proper rounded education.

The Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman is in fact emerging as one of the scourges of tickbox, but she can’t slay the beast alone.

Then there was the example, which I was forwarded on Twitter (thank you, Naomi and Jon) about going to a school parents evening and seeing even the best teachers starting conversations using tickbox colour-coded exam score predictions:

"Every teacher, even the good ones, began with a colour-coded grid of test results. I don't care. Does he show love for the subject? Does he knuckle down when asked? Has he got ideas? Is he fun? Does he ask questions?"

Quite. In my earlier books The Tyranny of Numbers, I found myself suggesting an Emperor’s New Clothes test which any numerical targets or KPIs should be subject to - yes, the exam results are impressive, but are they educating people; yes, they have a high ‘grit’ score - one of the ways my children’s school asseses pupils - but are they happy?

Finally, and most depressingly, is the letter at the top of this post, sent to looked after children (I don’t know where). Can you imagine a real parent sending anything remotely like that to their own children?

The letter includes the sentence, after apologies for the inconvenience, about how the latest SDQ “requires the completion and return to your allocated worker no later than 10/01/2020 (incidentally, the same date as the letter).

There is little sign of a backlash so far, though the one review I have received so far on Amazon is critical. The reviewer does not understand how identity politics has anything to do with tickbox (“God only knows how,” he says).

Perhaps I might humbly ask him to read my ‘tickbox politics’ chapter again, where I try to explain precisely this…

He also claims that I am “anti-science” for criticising the official cult of ‘evidence-based’. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I also believe science should be about asking difficult questions. That is how knowledge progresses. When and if it became simply about testing concordance with existing knowledge, then it would indeed have succumbed to tickbox. Luckily, I have more faith in scientists than that…

So if you feel differently, do please add a review to Amazon (pretty please!). I would be ever so grateful.

You can buy the Tickbox book from Hive or Amazon.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Tickbox and the mystery of the disappearing books

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

Why are there so many blank walls in public libraries these days? Is it because librarians have, despite decades of inculcation, conceived a dislike to the printed form? It seems unlikely.

I first discovered the phenomenon visiting the award-winning Thornton Heath Library in Croydon. The design in concrete and glass certainly looked impressive - but what happened to all the books?

There are people who might have said that was what a library was for - some of us still read after all (especially after the decline in ebook sales) but libraries are still slinging out the legacy of human knowledge, preferring us to dependent on knowledge via Google.

It is unfortunately also the trend for school libraries, blank walls, empty shelves, more iPads, especially those which follow trends most slavishly…

But the we had the good fortune to visit one of the biggest schools in West Sussex, where the school library has built up, among other things, an enviable local history book collection.

We asked the librarian how she had managed to swim against such a tide, and she said it was a matter of keeping your nerve when the library system instructs you to dispose of any books that haven’t been borrowed for six months.

It is precisely this kind of system that face so many people working in the public and private sectors - the mixture of online tickboxes, KPIs, targets and centralised controls that their managers rely on to monitor performance.

This is the ubiquitous system I have called Tickbox in my new book of the same name, and which explains - or so I argue - why we feel so badly let down by governments, services and companies alike.

Most of us know precisely what is wrong with Tickbox - that most of these measures or targets either miss the point or get finessed by managers. Those who can’t see it tend to be the elite forces who run the world - and who believe what they are told by the frontline. And who dream of automated systems that can manage organisations without what they fear are messy human interventions or decisions.

The result is that officials tick boxes to allow them to move on but where nothing has changed (as tey seem to have done at Grenfell Tower), or we get tickbox targets which focus on the wrong things because what we really want - love, care, education - isn’t measurable.

Or we find ourselves in a ridiculous complaints loop where is is impossible to talk to a real person who would understand our problem in seconds (try myHermes if you really want this kind of entertainment).

Or we get irritated by being asked on a five-point Likert scale how we would rate our latest minor interaction with the bank - where the rep ‘suggests’ that you might make it a 5.

Now the example of the school librarian is instructive because she just refused to throw the books away. And because it is all virtual, nobody seems to have complained.

Though, actually, we never asked her about that.

It is an excellent example of how we take back control of the world - though Tickbox has encouraged an administrative culture where nobody takes decisions. We just say no.

There are few enough examples of this in practice, certainly in the public sector. The Local Trust has been charged by the Big Lottery with giving away a million pounds each to 150 impoverished or isolated neighbourhoods, with the single proviso that local people come up with an agreed plan to spend it. That is the opposite of tickbox (tockbox perhaps).

More controversially, the Dutch healthcare system have developed its own method of ‘scrap sessions’, where staff get together to identify targets or tickbox bureaucracy that needs to go. We need something similar in the UK.

But we first need to name the problem - which is why I wrote the book. Tickbox is the machine those who run the world have created to manage things in their absence: we need to call it out and then switch it off.

You can buy the Tickbox book from Hive or Amazon.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Optimism, naivety and the counterculture - towards a way forward for a radical centre

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

Long-standing lib Dems, battered by a disappointing general election result – the third in a row – then had to cope with a Guardian column by former Times editor Simon Jenkins, urging the party to wind itself up.

Let’s leave aside some of Jenkins’ arguments about tactical voting – which don’t really stand up – and tackle the central claim that there is no potential role for the Lib Dems to fulfil, even if they do not at the moment.

Because, we have to face it that – if that was true – then all of us who are trying to develop the radical centre ought to pack up and go home. That would leave the field free to two ancient and backward-looking perspectives – perhaps also ideologies – with their negative way of looking at the world.

For me, there are three areas we need to investigate to find ways forward and to show why Jenkins was wrong.

First, and most important, is the vast gap for any kind of political vision that represents the view of families and communities across the UK. Of course, there are families and people who are cruel or exploitative to each other, and worse. But there is no point in building political correctness, let alone an ideology, on the cruelties.

Racism, hate and sexism are neither of them best fought by assuming they are everywhere. Love between people is absolutely ubiquitous, and communities are more usually accepting, supportive and creative places – and, if you think otherwise, then that is liable to re-shape them.

Unfortunately, the culture war that appears to be engulfing us sees hate everywhere, and more and more the angrier both sides get, believing that under every bed and in every closet there is exploitative, dysfunctional rage – or somebody spreading it in the opposite direction.

Yet there is a potential ideology that spreads power downwards, trusting people because people care for each other – not because cruelty is impossible, but because we can confront it better if it isn’t hidden in plain sight by all the rest.

This will be regarded by both sides of the culture war as na├»ve. Which is what I was told when I claimed during my only appearance on a radio phone-in programme – a programme called ‘Honey, I’m home’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia during the G7 summit there in 1995 – when the very few callers who weren’t wrong numbers accused me of exactly that for my point of view that economics could rescue the world if it re-thought itself.

I said then, as I believe now, that all I was saying was that everything wasn’t completely hopeless. If we are to build a way out that can’t be dismissed as politically correct, based on the obvious love between people you see nearly everywhere, that is the attitude we will have to confront.

Second, neither of the two ideologies to which Simon Jenkins wants to hand a monopoly on political debate has much interest in the devolution of power – probably our most urgent missing element in reform (as Jenkins recognised himself in his pamphlet Big Bang Localism). Because without it, the government of the UK is set to become even more sclerotic than before.

The centralisation of power is the main reason we have been so badly governed over the past generation. Not because our politicians are so poor, but because the system they ate operating is failing, The Lib Dems have pushed the cause of devolution since the invention of Liberalism, but they seemed to have partially forgotten this – I would suggest – during the past election.

There always was a tension between the devolution of power and support for the EU. It maybe that the tension is unnecessary, but there does appear to be a kind of erosion between the two of them.

Third, the same applies to economics. If the radical centre will not defend the free market from the monopolies that make such a mockery of it – and increasingly so – then nobody will. The Conservatives believe that the free market is the some kind of Darwinian force, justifying pretty much any abuse, and Labour has little or no interest in free markets.

So who, if we are just left with them, will defend the liberal idea of free markets that allow the weak to challenge the strong and wealthy?

For these reasons and others, the radical centre is not just an obscure and dwindling sub-ideology, but the way out.

The culture war we are now experiencing appears to be the death knell for the emotions so successfully spun by John Lennon in his song ‘Imagine’.

But ‘Imagine’ was simply one expression of the counterculture that emerged out of the 1950s and 60s and provided the fuel for so much people-centred, humane reform – for which the Liberal Party so reluctantly and unconsciously provided a political pathway.

We don’t really understand these roots because, as far as I know, there has been no proper history of the ideas behind the counterculture, or community development, and other elements. In fact, if anyone out there feels the same way and would like to fund me to write one, please do get in touch!

But I believe that somewhere amidst the optimistic roots of the counterculture – optimistic about people and their nature – lies a way forward. Whether the Lib Dems are able to grasp this and to reform accordingly remains to be seen.

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