Wednesday, 29 September 2021
This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...
“Nobody in politics seems to know what the real problems are, let alone how to fix them. The government lurches from one ‘fix’ to another, and seems to think that the public finances can be repaired by taxing employees and employers alone, with no additional taxation on wealth. Mr Starmer seems to think that following what Tony Blair did makes sense.” Tim Morgan, Surplus Energy Economics
What on earth is happening? Not only are we reeling from Brexit and the aftermath of a pandemic, but something else appears to be going on too. So we have panic buying of fuel and shortages of medicines and probably food as well.
Both sides of the Brexit ‘debate’ appear to be blaming each other for this, which hardly helps matters. But since similar shortages are also happening across the USA, we have to assume that this is actually about other influences too – extreme monopolies creating shortages in order to raise prices.
To put that in UK terms, we might call it ‘economic centralisation’. This is what happens when governments have allowed the UK market to be dominated by only two companies making carbon dioxide for the food industry – both of them foreign owned.
Put like that, small CAMRA beer makers and small publishers (like the Real Press) – or, to mention Sarah’s company – small dye studios like Sarah Burns Patterns, may be part of an eventual resurgence.
But not yet. The truth is that, just as Tim Morgan has suggested for some time, the number of fixes we have imposed on our struggling, debt-ridden economy in the past two decades, are finally now catching up with us.
This kind of crisis tends to happen every four decades. But when it has happened before – in the late 70s or the late 30s or the turn if the century between the 1890s and 1900s – we knew that what should happen next. This time, we have managed to suppress economic debate, so we seem to have new idea.
Reading the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, you can see the cracks in English conservatism emerging – between those hopeless remerging climate change sceptics complaining about the price of energy, and the letters complaining about why on earth we are still building homes without solar panels.
I know which side I am on – on the radical side that looks much further back for their solutions. It seems to me that most of our current difficulties stem from the Thatcher-Reagan period in the 1980s – and the really stupid idea that monopolies somehow don’t matter.
But I know that Tim Morgan’s analysis goes deeper, suggesting that we have reached a period when it now takes more energy to generate energy – leading to his predictions of serious economic problems and resulting peculiar political results too.
What we desperately need is leaders who understand the sheer complexity of the new world. We unfortunately have a prime minister who believes it has something to do with games people play at Eton.
We have run out of tricks and fixes. We need the kind of clear-out of the political classes that happened after Dunkirk in 1940: it is time, in fact, for the politics and economics of national survival.
But nobody is even setting out their stall about what that might mean in practise yet. Some voices who might do that: Michael Gove, Lisa Nandy, Daisy Cooper – let’s hear from the next generation…
Monday, 13 September 2021
This post first appeared in the Radix UK blog...
In case anyone is at all interested, I have begun a peculiarly fearsome diet called the Wahls Paleo Plus - which involves eating very little except for meat, fish and vegetables, also minimising carbohydrates like potatoes.
I’m doing it because I am convinced it will bring back some of my missing voice, which has been slowly dwindling since I was working at the heart of government in 2012, and is now largely AWOL.
The point about this blog, though, is to unpack some of the ideas behind paleo. For one thing, I don’t know how to pronounce it - which is odd given that it is short for ‘paleolithic’, a term coined by my great great grandfather, Sir John Lubbock, in his 1865 bestseller Prehistoric Times.
Given that, there's no suggestion that we need to go back to paleolithic times, or even neolithic ones. Just that if we can organise a simpler diet based on what human beings ate in a more natural state, then health begins to sort itself out. This is what one healthy eating website says:
“The Wahls diet is a type of paleo diet. The key difference? The Wahls diet tells followers exactly how much of a certain food to eat, namely vegetables and protein. The protocol specifies that followers eat six to nine cups of non-starchy vegetables a day and four ounces of protein (fish, specifically twice a week). Plus, it has a specific focus on veggies, which Dr. Wahl posits gives the mitochondria the power it needs to convert food to energy, healing the body in the process.”
Dr Wahl herself seems to have rowed back the symptoms of MS using this diet, which of course puts her on the opposite side as the technocratic medical establishment.
Now, I have been wondering whether escaping tickbox technocracy might involve thinking about what a paleo economy would look like.
Like a paleo diet, this might not mean going back to a pre-monetary barter or gift economy as set out by Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics.
Sahlins, who died in April, said that hunter-gatherer societies are able to achieve affluence by desiring little and meeting those needs/desires with what is available to them. This he calls the "Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate."
It may be that, to reach this better kind of zen, we need to go back to a period before the 1870s in England, when most communities had access to their own food and processing, plus locally-owned newspapers, breweries, slaughter houses and banks - and I now believe that these four are crucial to making local economies work.
Of course, by the1870s, it was too late for so many of our heaving cities. It might be sensible to go back to the kind of economies people lived in during the twelfth century, when there was very little poverty, at least in England.
I have written about medieval economics before. The real question here, as it is with paleo diets in fact, is how we get from here to there. I certainly don’t want to encourage the kind of puritanism that might lead us collectively towards both.
It is also worth remembering that neither will be permanent, but both involve a great reset. What unnerves me is how much our existing legal frameworks frustrate either task. In economics, they currently encourage scale, monopoly and dehumanising size.
About the diet: watch this space...
Tuesday, 10 August 2021
This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...
About ten years ago, I was talking to someone from The-Pub-Is-The-Hub – Prince Charles’ outfit for advising community pubs. They told me how the best economic unit for a community pub to survive economically wasn’t 10,000 people in the catchment area or even 2,000. It was 500.
That was a revelation to me, and the beginning of a fascinating search for other examples when smaller units survive better economically than bigger ones.
Maybe some hint of that was also why Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has been presenting a BBC radio series about the lost kingdoms of England, like Anglia, Mercia and Wessex and so on.
I have been wondering myself about the significance of such ancient history. After all, why has the BBC commissioned Hislop now?
Perhaps because there is a deep sense that our units are now too big to be effective – and because the idea of small nations across Europe, introduced in our own age by Freddie Heineken, is beginning to work away at our imaginations.
That is in fact one of the reasons why I wrote my series of novels about Caractacus (the third part, Roman Briton, is now out) – though these are earlier nations: Celtic ones and rather smaller than those Saxon behemoths.
In fact, there were three reasons why I began researching Caractacus – party because I read about his lost autobiography which might have explained how he held back the Roman invaders for nine years (this was a misunderstanding on my part: it was probably never been written).
It was partly because the idea appealed to me of Caractacus being a Christian king facing down the pagan Romans (who just happened to have arrived a little after Joseph of Arimathea came to our shores between 3-5 years earlier).
But partly also because I wanted to re-imagine Britain as a group of semi-independent nations under a high king.
Because we only have Roman sources, we normally think of the Iceni, Brigantes or the Silures as barbaric tribes.
They may have been that of course, but they may also have been something a good deal more civilised – nations like Icenia (under King Prasutagus and Queen Boudicca, covering Norfolk and Suffolk), or Brigantia (under Queen Cartimandua, covering Yorkshire), or Siluria (under King Arviragus and covering south Wales and Somerset. And held together by loyalty – or lack of it – to a high king.
Rehearsing a list like this is even more of a reminder how much classical scholars cloud our view of our own history. These are all Romanised names – we know that Caractacus was originally Caradoc, but recovering the rest demands an informed but imaginative approach to linguistics.
The days of high kings may now be gone, but Brexit does at least give us an opportunity to think about the structure of our nation, the right scale to be most effective and where our natural boundaries actually lie.
Maybe, if we can sort out the old logical issues about UK devolution – which used to be called the West Lothian question – then the idea that, in the almost legendary history of our home, we used to live in small semi-independent nations. So we could again: not just Scotland or England but maybe home rule for London or Sussex or Dumnonia.
Either way, it can be fun thinking about a far more localised structure for Britain that might actually be a futuristic vision of nations that might provide a template for other parts of the world.
Saturday, 31 July 2021
It was fascinating to see the interview in the Observer with David Brown last weekend, about the Go-Ahead group where he has been CEO for the past ten years – including the GTR railway that I have been writing about in various places for the past five years.
It was also a little strange that no mention was made of the court case against his company for unlawfully restricting travel, in contradiction of the legal fare-setting regulations.
Who is taking them to court? Well actually it is a little complicated, but theoretically at least – it’s me…
What? Me? It sounds a little strange to say so, but – along with my fellow rail passenger advocate Eddie Vermeer – yes, I am taking GTR to court. I am doing so on behalf of those fellow passengers who I got to know when the Southern rail network came close to catastrophic failure in 2016 and 2017.
And many others too – probably over a million of them in fact.
Here is the problem. GTR is a franchise with three brands that operate on the main line between Brighton and London – Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express. The fare-setting regulations give passengers a legal right to buy a ticket which is valid for all three brands. But GTR restrict this by selling seeking tickets which are restricted by brand (Southern only). They then sell the passengers’ rights back to them, either partly (not Gatwick Express) or fully (any permitted).
I use the station at Shoreham-by-Sea, so this only affects me when I miss the train, or when GTR cancels it, and I have to rush via Brighton. But for those commuting from there, there is a daily decision to be made – do they pay the extra to go on the Gatwick Express or do they risk finding a GTR train waiting for them on the platform but not being allowed to travel on it?
I have had to waive my rights to compensation to be involved in bringing this class action – which is quite right.
Those who know me well will know that, for me, this also takes the story full circle – back to the problems of monopoly power which originally got me involved in writing about the Southern network in the first place.
So wish us luck! And watch this space…
Thursday, 15 July 2021
What I particularly felt proud about – though it is unfashionable and probably horribly politically incorrect to say so – is being English. Thanks to the restrained calmness of Kane and Southgate.
Of course, that was before the news about the violence and the muggings. In Sussex, most of the taxi drivers simply abandoned the scenes of insanity and went home.
I used to have a theory about our national personality – based on the single antagonistic meeting between Nelson and Wellington, in the lobby of 10 Downing Street (I wrote more about this in my book How to be English).
My feeling was that Wellington invented a new kind of personality for the British – clipped, laconic and unemotional. His despatch about the Battle of Waterloo was so uncommitted that the American ambassador reported home that he must have lost. That was also the personality we were brought up with.
Nelson represented the older, English version – sentimental, over-indulgent, and determined. And yet calm too.
It seems to me that we have now reverted to the original, and that isn’t always very pretty.
But most of all, I have been proud of Gareth Southgate’s obvious leadership abilities. He is one of a handful of people who speak in public in an entirely unfamiliar tone – who seem to make it possible for us all to be better people.
Another one was Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner. Neither of them are infallible, but they take responsibility for their mistakes and they explain how brilliant people can be. In fact, Cressida Dick was – as I wrote at the time – single-handedly responsible for the change in mood during the 2017 general election by emphasising the individual courage of passers-by during the terrorist attack then, rather than banging on endlessly about revenge and vulnerability.
Now I fully recognise that we have a problem in the UK with football violence and online racism. But I wish politicians could find it in their hearts to talk up the English capacity for heroism and calm sometimes.
It seems to me that most political rhetoric coming out of Number 10 at the moment appeals to our worst sides, not our best – especially now, as we head towards the Great Experiment by Boris Johnson: opening up everything just when our infection rate is now higher than Pakistan’s. It is the quintessential definition of Toryism by Gladstone: distrust of the people, tempered by fear - possibly the other way around.
Sunday, 27 June 2021
It is one of the great ironies of history that, east and west, the liberation of the agricultural slaves and serfs – the people who carried out most of the work in the fields of Russia and eastern Europe and the plantations of the southern US states – happened almost simultaneously.
The slaves were freed by the Emancipation Declaration of Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, though it required another two years to win the Civil War and finish the job. But the Russian serfs were freed from bondage to the land at almost the very same time. The declaration was in March 1861, to cheers outside the royal palace in St Petersburg, but it also took two years and came to fruition in February 1863, just five weeks after Lincoln promulgated his Emancipation Proclamation.
Both liberations were great victories for the anti-slavery campaigners, more than half a century since the first successes of the campaign against the slave trade. But they were also great disappointments for agrarian radicals. Because, in both cases, the slaves and the serfs were catapulted from bondage into poverty.
In the USA, slavery was replaced by peonage and debt bondage. In Russia, the land was valued at three and a half times its market value, and this the impoverished serfs had to pay their former owners over a period of 49 years. For many serfs, even the details of the terms were not agreed for decades. Just as the former slaves had been in the USA, many of the serfs were thrown on the mercies of the money lenders.
In short, it wasn’t enough to release the slaves – you had to release them from debt and monopoly and the economic tyranny that replaced it.
The trouble with the current ‘debate’ about slavery is that it tends towards the puritanical tickbox – historical figures are either linked to slavery or they weren’t. Simples.
The economic follow-up to slavery adds a new dimension that you don’t hear so often. Should we condemn the money-lenders in the same way or not? Might there not have been some responses to the problem as reprehensible as the great evil of slavery?
And by the same token, how about someone who was kinder to the slaves he had inherited – was he equally deserving of condemnation or not?
The same goes for British imperialists. Were they all people who should have their statues removed? How about John Hare, the last recruit into the Colonial Administrative Service in Northern Nigeria – whose book Last Man In, tells the fascinating story of a man who tried to do his best for people at an uncertain moment in history?
This is, in short, a tentative plea for nuance when we start condemning people for their involvement, either in history but also those who are involved in modern debate about these issues.
I hope I have some support in this opinion from the Nigerian novelist Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie – admittedly she was writing about gender not slavery (and I have promised colleagues never to blog on that subject). She can say things as a black woman that I can’t, so let me just quote her:
“We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow. I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and reread their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.”
Which is why all I suggest is that this is a debate that needs more nuance and complexity. Ask a question, says Adichie, and “you are told the answer is to repeat a mantra”.
It is true that young people have always lacked a little in the nuance department. They have always been iconoclastic.
So why is the corporate world adopting positions in cancel culture, as if they were youthful? That is what worries me. It isn’t so much the students that make me nervous – it’s the grown-ups. So when corporates start refusing to touch people who might offend others, on the basis of a tickbox either/or, then we all need to be a little scared.
Saturday, 15 May 2021
This post was first published on the Radix UK blog
My brother-in-law appears to be becoming some kind of bellwether of British electoral politics – he has voted at least four ways to my certain knowledge in recent years, since retiring as a headteacher. And – to my great surprise – this time he voted enthusiastically for Johnson.
Why? Because, as far as I can see, it would be one in the eye for the media for complaining endlessly about who paid for the famous Boris curtains.
This is of course one of many explanations flying around the press about why the Conservative government should have performed so well, after plunging us into covid, lockdowns, test and trace and so on.
I have three thoughts on this.
First, there remains a real question mark over the usefulness of the Labour Party in its current form, given that is remains constructed as a tool to support the industrial classes, when there are so few of them around. It still smacks of those mighty acronyms of my youth – TGWU and CEGB. We are all generating energy these days, just as we are al mix-and-matching our TV habits. The days when we all watched the same TV programmes have long gone (until 1980 perhaps, with the launch of the fourth TV channel).
Second, I have been wondering whether my brother-in-law is right that – at least by implication – the opposition politicians have found themselves entangled in the minds of voters with a preachy, intrusive and alien media. They feel, perhaps, that – when they get bored of Boris – they will kick him out themselves. When they are good and ready.
Finally, I believe G. K. Chesterton was onto something a century ago, when he talked about the “tone of bitterness [and] atmosphere of hopelessness” encouraged among socialists, explaining why he became a Liberal instead. That is even truer now than it was then.
It is hard to see how we a can arrange a government of the left that is able to put aside the judgemental, puritanical, knowing and pessimistic. The left parties that win, if they ever emerge to do so, will be positive about people and communities. The cynicism and miserablism of the left is deeply offputting, whatever their detailed policies might be.
And unfortunately, when the Lib Dems run out of their own ideas – as they appear to be doing – they get suffused and infected by the same disease. Since the first Liberal embraced the first Fabian idea – circa 1890 – they have developed the same kind of snobbery, not far below the surface.
Because that is what it is. Nor is the way out of this, as those around Starmer seem to think, about wrapping ourselves in the union jack. We have to believe in ourselves as Irish, Scots, Welsh and – yes – definitely English people too. And in our neighbours – not glancing nervously at them as possible racists or the descendants of racists – and remembering Gladstone’s definition of Liberalism, as “trust in the people, tempered by prudence” (as opposed to Toryism “distrust of the people, tempered by fear”).
And knowing that, if we can do that, we cam be great nation, and a moral one too.
This isn’t the pseudo greatness that comes from carrying a big stick – those days have gone too. It is soft power from the ubiquity of English language and culture.
We may anyway have to update the union flag too, assuming that our current government appears to be on the verge of losing Scotland.
I have always felt, rather as George Monbiot did last week, that the Lib Dems in Scotland have found themselves on the wrong side of this debate – until Nick Clegg declared the party were ‘unionists’ that was never what the Liberal Party was. Nor were they nationalists, of course. They were in favour in Ireland of home rule under a united umbrella.
If Johnson persists in his Napoleonic attitudes to Scotland, the comparison with Ireland in the 1920s will become increasingly worrying – on the verge of bitter civil war that would echo into our own day.
How do we stop this? There is only one way. Finally to sort those ridiculous constitutional compromises that have caused us so much difficulty – launching a proper parliament for England in Oxford or Manchester.
The settlement would allow, the four nations of the UK, to go their separate ways but to hold them together under the Council of the Isles, or similar, with the queen and the common currency, the foreign office and a defence umbrella. Still run out of a cut down Westminster (London might also be a sovereign nation too).
Perhaps in the fullness of time, we might even get the Irish republic to join as an associate. Scotland would be free to join the EU if it wanted to, and we would need to find a democratic and borderless way to govern the old UK.
To others on the left who suggest that England would then be doomed to have a Tory majority forever, I would direct them towards Matthew Parris in the Times last week (£), who suggests that there is a limit to how long we will all accept one-party rule.
I think he is right. If we can somehow generate an optimistic alternative.
Tuesday, 27 April 2021
There is no doubt that – rightly or wrongly – we are feeling let down by our leaders these days, whether it is for their vacillation or greed or, listening to Keir Starmer, maybe for their steadfast failure to talk about what’s most important.
Personally, I think the emails between Boris Johnson and James Dyson are neither here nor there. And the NHS blogger Roy Lilley feels the same way: see his latest blog post about accessible leadership to see why.
Neither, actually, is what was or wasn’t said in the heat of the moment in No. 10 – especially as we have not in fact had bodies “piled in the street”.
Allegations about who paid for Johnson’s refurbishment in Downing Street are much more important. So of course is David Cameron’s insanely close relationship with the banker Greensill.
Then there is the other kind of flawed leadership, displayed by Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells, pursuing 700 sub-postmasters through the courts because their hopeless IT system said they were stealing money, some as far as prison or bankruptcy. Some of them have finally been exonerated after more than two decades.
The system began to go a little haywire a good 12 years before she took up the post, yet she carried on with a kind of cruel intransigence.
Why are our leaders so infected either with greed or tickbox? Why do they regard their job as a combination of deference to those above them and contempt for those below? Is that a peculiarly British combination?
Contrast that for a moment with Sarah’s experience on Sunday, getting her jab at the Brighton Centre, which was packed with humane, calm and generous volunteers giving up their weekend to help out after a hard week at various coalfaces.
She came back from her needle encounter bubbling over with enthusiasm for the volunteers – and asking why David Cameron had been taking his banker friend to see the Saudi crown prince, who appears to have been behind the killing and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, when ordinary people were giving up their time to help out.
It is good question. It is almost as if our current crop of leaders render themselves useless for ordinary life after office, because power corrodes their humanity in some way.
So there is one element of radical centrist leadership. Somehow we have to roll back the myopic reliance by our leaders on single tickboxed indicators – whether that is money or what their the internal IT systems are telling them (my Tickbox book also explains how those who run the world, divorced from the frontline, are often the only ones who believe what their tickbox systems are telling them).
But there is a problem or the left here too, because the left also doesn’t believe that ordinary people can manage things brilliantly and humanely – and do so every day.
The predominant narrative on the left suggests that ordinary people are the source of sexism and racism – and must therefore be controlled by professionals and other tickbox systems – to make sure that only approved buzzwords are used.
That leaves the radical centre as the only section of politics where we can talk about the heroic ordinary, bringing up children every day, with great skill – before they get spied on at work or gaoled because the IT system of their employers claims they have got their fingers in the till.
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
There was one large fellow in both who used to sit at the front. I never discovered who he was.
It is hard to be precise about what sandals and beards used to mean in politics. I wrote about this in the Guardian after the first modern sandals went on display – and the peculiar way that genuine radicals seemed to flow towards this particular garb.
I mentioned that I occasionally wear socks as well and have never really been allowed to forget it.
Politically, beards and sandals became a symbol of the deep divide on the left, between Labour and Liberals, socialist and radical. For some reason, the look was never really foisted on the Greens – they tend to be portrayed more as kind of manic druids (“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government,” said a Green cartoon in Private Eye after their spectacular Euro-election result in 1989, showing them gathered around Stonehenge, blowing trumpets).
No, beards and sandals were a Liberal radical uniform. Yet their Lib Dem successors seem to have dodged them in favour of suits and dangly ear-rings. After the very sad death of Tony Greaves last week, I’m hard pressed to think of a single be-sandalled Lib Dem.
Greaves was an inspiration when I joined the party, from his position running the sandalled Association of Liberal Councillors in bearded Hebden Bridge. Or with his weekly column in Liberal News. By the time I became editor in 1992, it was Lib Dem News and he was only writing the back page column once a month – but he could still pinpoint a confusing issue and show, clearly and inspiringly, the Liberal angle.
He wrote a piece in 1997 for the Liberal History Group on ‘Why I am a Lib Dem’, rather like Keynes’ essay ‘Why I am a Liberal’. The upshot was that, actually, he wasn’t – he didn’t know what it meant – but that he was a Liberal. It is a view I have come round to myself as, in practice, the liberal and social democrat ideologies seem to me to be getting further apart.
Greaves was also the personified engine room of community politics, urging Liberals to think like newspaper editors to get elected. Not too much though – “would you vote for your local paper editor?” he said.
Community politics has not really survived. Politicians of all parties badly need to understand the newer concept of ‘co-production’ (my colleagues Edgar Cahn and Chris Gray have published a pamphlet on co-production and social isolation) – but more on that another day.
Tony embodied the beards and sandals approach – what academics describe as the ‘distributist wing’ of the Lib Dems.
This is an obscure way of explaining a now sadly obscure wing of the party. I also realise that, as one of the few people in the UK to write about this largely forgotten element of Liberal theology, I may now be the only expert left. But by coincidence, I just wrote about these issues in the blog of the Social Liberal Forum – and I came to a similar conclusion there:
There are now political academics who use the term ‘distributist’, shorn of its Catholic accretions, as a shorthand for the bearded sandals wing of the party. As one of that persuasion myself, I feel myself increasingly alone and misunderstood by either technocratic wing – neither right nor left seem to understand why I might be against big business but in favour of small, why I might be in favour of entrepreneurs but against corporates.
So I am sorry for the passing of the beards and sandals tradition from the Lib Dems – and even more sorry for the passing of Tony Greaves, the best of them.
Thursday, 4 March 2021
This post first appeared on the Radix blog.
I had my covid jab on Friday and it turned out to be the Pfizer version. Which meant, apparently, that that we all had to sit in the surgery for 15 minutes in case we collapsed immediately afterwards.
I had no idea that this had happened to anybody. So let me take this opportunity to repeat that I don’t think it helps the pro-vaxx cause to treat anyone who discusses side-effects like some kind of Trump supporter.
There is no doubt that, for a few individuals, vaccinations can be a bit of a lottery. But I had already decided that I should take a risk, if necessary – on the grounds that I, at least, need to show a little courage if we are ever going to get our world back again.
As they say, every little helps…
But I learned from the experience, thanks to the older man who managed the car park, the ancient doctor who looked like a retired car mechanic who administered the jab, and the huge numbers of smiling local volunteers who accompanied me through the whole process.
This seems to me to be the key; local volunteers can make things happen effectively and efficiently. compare that to the algorithm-laden robots in the government-procured private sector test and trace.
That is the most important lesson for me from the last few weeks.
I mention algorithms advisedly because, last week we had what I believe is the most important official admission so far of their potential for inhuman mischief, by the education secretary Gavin Williamson.
In fact he promised this year's teacher-assessed GCSE and A level exams would involve “no algorithms whatsoever”.
I take this is the first recognition that I was correct last year in my book Tickbox about where automated systems might belong, and where they definitely don’t.
The decision must have balanced the number of appeals against a flawed algorithm against how many against a marginally less flawed human teachers. In fact, this is a big opportunity for teachers it seems to me – to demonstrate the superiority of human decision-making about other uncategorisable humans.
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Sunday, 21 February 2021
My mother died over last weekend. I say that partly to explain that, this time at least, my failure to meet deadlines has a reason. And partly to say something about the passing of an amazing generation.
In fact, as I understand it, the life expectancy of people born in 1931 took its biggest leap in history compared to those born in the previous year. My mum nearly made it to 90, so that very individual experience bears out the statistics.
Something about those born around the political crisis that led to a national government under Ramsay MacDonald seems to have meant that they were built pretty tough.
They were uncomplaining - rather than stiff-upper-lipped - weren’t they, the last generation to remember the Blitz and the doodlebugs? They survived rationing, deep winters in 1947 and 1963 without central heating, plus the new world of divorces, re-marriages, relationships-without-rules. Plus disastrous property slumps in 1975 and 1988.
And they did so with good humour and without complaint or moaning on as people tend to these days - just as they are currently doing with covid.
The following generation, the boomers, were those of us who came to take the extraordinary house price boom for granted - unfortunately so much so that most of our children won’t be able to afford to live near where they grew up.
Of course, I am partly remembering a very special person indeed, but there is a policy lesson here for anyone who - as I do - believe there was anything vital about the middle class life at its best.
It is this: our ruinously high house prices can never provide us with all we rely on them for - to fill the hole in our pensions, to pay for our social care and to set our children on the property ladder.
No, we have to ratchet our house prices back down before they ruin us all. And if that seems tough - my mum’s generation would have managed.
More about this in my book Broke.
This was the generation that took us into Europe, and brought us - in quick succession - all those previously foreign additions to UK life, from muesli, yoghurt, pasta to duvets (along with avocado pears, circa 1971-2).
During my wedding speech in 2003, I called her "one of the wooden walls of England", a reference to Nelson's warships. I don't think she liked the description much in retrospect, but I meant someone who buttresses people's lives - just as her generation has done throughout.
I'm sure nobody will complain about what I have written here, because I'm remembering someone special to me. But equally I'm aware that there will be some people who regard any positive mention of Englishness as somehow retrograde.
All I can say is that I'm not one of them...
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Thursday, 14 January 2021
Keir Starmer may just be a small phenomenon. I suppose that second guessing the current UK government is not actually terribly onerous. Starmer just has to stay a couple of days ahead of the government, as it twists and turns through the covid crisis, so perhaps it isn’t very hard to appear perspicatious.
But it does mean a difficulty for Boris Johnson and his government. It looks almost as if it is Starmer who is taking all the decisions.
Every time, the government does another U-turn, whether it is about locking down or closing schools, there is the opposition leader demanding it days before. Always rather magnanimously. Irritatingly so, in fact.
There will come a point when this becomes intolerable to the Conservatives. After all, why should not Starmer share some of the odium for the decisions he is apparently making?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter, they will tell themselves, if we are really in the dying days of the crisis because of the looming vaccine. But one of the lessons of covid is that there will be alarums and twists still to come.
The government is discussing the idea of tightening controls even more, after all.
In previous crises in 1915, 1931 and 1940, UK prime ministers have voluntarily shared power in these circumstances – whenever, in fact, they are forced to take such tough decisions about people’s lives that they need to share the blame.
So what I want to suggest – and I feel sure this is a scenario they have quietly discussed in corners of 10 Downing Street – is that, if anything gets unexpectedly worse again, the government should organise power-sharing and involving all parties.
The idea of locking us all in, enforced by the police, is so unBritish that governments simply can’t enforce changes like that by themselves. That means it maybe time for a national government.
Tuesday, 12 January 2021
Not me, but the Who’s musical Tommy from 1969 – lyrics that are beyond the horizon of memory for most of us.
But equally, 2021 ought to be a pretty good year. Eventually. There should be a mini boom which perhaps may not be such a good experience for anyone buying a home…
Over Christmas, I have been thinking a little more about this elusive optimism. And it seems to me that we also have a couple of issues which may prevent this optimism coming to fruition.
The first of these is the widespread cynicism, that my colleague Joe Zammit-Lucia wrote about here before Christmas. Thinking back before Tommy, I’m not sure we have ever been quite as cynical as a society – especially on the Left (spent about five minutes looking at the comments below the line at the Guardian if you don’t believe me).
Did we feel so cynical about Willie Whitelaw or Ted Heath, though we might have disagreed with them passionately?
I don’t know and I would genuinely like to find out. Of course the cynics might say that there was nobody in office quite like Boris Johnson or Gavin Williamson.
That maybe so, but the all-pervading atmosphere of spin seems to have led directly to its cynical opposite.
It is true that we are entering a national lockdown, or its equivalent, for the third time, when the reasons we had to go into the first one have yet to tackled – the repeated failure of test and trace.
But we also have to remember what is really important now that we have, standing against us, the rise of a technocracy so total and unyielding, from China and elsewhere – and tickboxed at home too – that we have to fight it every moment if we want to win the emerging war for the right to our own souls.
So maybe need, at the start of 2021, to understand the plight of people like Loujain al-Hathloul (jailed in Saudi Arabia for campaigning on women’s issues) or Zhang Zhan (jailed in China for telling the truth about Wuhan last year) – and to realise that some of our online rage and sniping, that so dominates UK public discourse, might be missing the point.
In other words: we can make ‘21 a ‘good year’, but only if we shift our attention to what is most important – to realise why it is under threat and to act accordingly. Even if some of the symptoms of the tickbox disease are under our very noses.