Monday, 6 June 2022

Jubilee report: what a peculiar nation we live in!

This post first appeared in the Radix UK blog,,,

I spent the afternoon of the first jubilee bank holiday on 2 June looking around Virginia Woolf’s old home and garden in the village of Rodmell in Sussex.

It was a beautiful place and a flawlessly lovely day.

After locking ourselves for a little while in the world of Bloomsbury and Keynes, it became clear that from the other side of a hedge towards the down and the sea, marked by a prominent union flag, wafted the unmistakable aroma of sausages cooking.

A few minutes later, we had gone beyond the hedge ourselves to find a number of people apparently dressed in union flags, outside a cricket pavilion. plus musak from a big band, and one older lady who had been at the 1953 coronation.

It was all horribly, deliciously English – the kind of event that Virginia Woolf herself would have written about without really approving of – and we ate our sausages and onions along with the other early-arrivers at the Rodmell village fete.

I enjoy jubilees, I have to say – but I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the old London-centric heritage idea – that somehow national celebrations are just a matter of mixing some beefeaters, some London buses and a flypast by the Battle of Britain flight.

I have no problem with flummery either – on the one condition that we celebrate effective institutions, simply hanging onto the ritual while hollowing out their meaning and purpose is just pointless and horrific.

Some years ago I wrote a book about the English (How to be English) which lists some of the other peculiar elements that make up the sense of being English – from marmite to the last night of the Proms.

I’m aware of course that this won’t include the other nations of GB, but since I believe that our future requires us to be more ambiguously separate, I’ve stuck to pontificating about just the one of them.

But in the case of England, what I found was that many of our most distinctive ‘memes’ actually started elsewhere – from fish & chip (Jewish) and Morris dancing (moorish) to Henry V (Welsh).

I find amazing, and rather wonderful, is that you can actually construct Englishness from these. It may be that the particular at any time is all the English share – and we simply add to our number by a kind of osmosis. After all, it wasn’t that Englishness was created by the climate or weather, which changes from year to year.

If so, then I believe we need to think a little harder than union flags and beefeaters, though I suspect sausages and fried onions might always have something to do with it.


Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Public Services: too tickboxed, too inhuman, too complex

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

In the heyday of Gordon Brown’s chancellorship, I went to a conference about the future of ‘extended schools’. The first speaker was an amazing headteacher, Debbie Morrison, then the head of Mitchell High School in Stoke on Trent, who provided me with the first story in my book The Human Element.

She told the dramatic story about how the school had been turned around, and also her first day in post. There had been a commotion outside her office and her secretary warned her to remain where she was. An angry mother had recently hit another member of staff around the head with a pair of muddy shorts.

Three years on, that same parent was the head of the school’s anti-social behaviour unit. Her friends had also taken responsible roles around the school. And they were paid – unusual this one – in chocolate coins.

It struck me at the time that this was not just a prime example of co-production in action; it was also the logical extension of localism. You can’t have government guidelines about how to pay people in chocolate coins; it is depends entirely on the relationships involved, and on the people.

Debbie Morrison is one of those people who is a genius when it comes to making relationships with people and making things happen. You can’t boil that down into a set of deliverables.

After she sat down at this conference, the next speaker was the civil servant charged with rolling out extended schools across one of the regions. It was clear within a minute or so that he would fail, and for precisely the same reason that Debbie Morrison succeeded. He thought in terms of systems, KPIs, targets and guidelines.

He missed the one crucial ingredient that made the difference between success and failure: the crucial, missing human element.

He was also revealing the besetting sin of officials; the habit of boiling down successful examples to universal principles that they believe can be applied anywhere.

It’s a paradox – one which eluded me when I was writing my book Tickbox about the way that algorithms and targets have undermined our ability to act on the world. We have complicated our approach to public services by using tickbox methods, in the hope that they can deliver complex services to people.

Since the Blair/Brown era, we have been trying to measure every aspect of delivery in the hope that we can effect what seems an increasingly complex reality on the ground.

But we fail – because tickbox simply can’t impact on the complexity of people and places.

On the other hand, if we could go back to a simpler way of delivering services, by training professionals to break with the idea that everything they achieve can be measured – the ‘McKinsey Fallacy’ – and encouraging their ability to use their human intuition – then, and only then, can we apply those ideas.

Our need to categorise everything is driven partly by it, but that is a kind of fake simplicity. That is why we have a multiplicity of different kinds of specialists, who feed those narrow demarcations and definitions – as people tend to do.

That is also one of the reasons why services have become so expensive to deliver – because it costs so much to deliver health, education and social services separately.

When they launched the localised NHS in Greater Manchester during the coalition, it became clear quite quickly that they needed to bring together the services aimed at back pain and mental health – especially for those who were off sick from work for either reason. Now, in Manchester, you will be seen by both specialists at once in a joint clinic.

This seems to add to the costs of the service, but only until they can bring those professions together.

Most of us don’t require specialist support most of the time, I’m glad to say. So I think we can dimly perceive the future of services – bringing together schools and health, social and health care and social services, delivered on the same sites, by doctors and educational professionals.

Plus co-produced services, delivered partly by coaches and by people and families who have been through whatever their problem has been, and who are coaching other people and families back to robust health as part of their own process of recovery.

That will release funds for the specialisms and hospitals that people will also need some of the time.

That is the way back to effective services and humane professionals.

Have you wondered why we are now so suspicious of any official in a suit? Because they are probably working for local authorities and have no leeway to treat us like human beings. They are kept people - held fast by their complex systems.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Now the food megacorps are too big to fail, are we heading for famine?

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog

George Monbiot in the Guardian on Friday suggested a frightening prospect about the food inflation we are currently experiencing.

He says the problem has been that, like the banks, over-consolidation of the food industry – now that just four giant companies control 90 per cent of the world grain market – means that they are now ‘too big to fail’. To coin a phrase.

So what if they suddenly run into difficulties, as the big banks did in 2008? This is what he wrote:

“…. here’s what sends cold fear through those who study the global food system. In recent years, just as in finance during the 2000s, key nodes in the food system have swollen, their links have become stronger, business strategies have converged and synchronised, and the features that might impede systemic collapse (‘redundancy’, ‘modularity’, ‘circuit breakers’ and ‘backup systems’) have been stripped away, exposing the system to ‘globally contagious’ shocks.”

That is certainly a fearsome prospect, but it need to be linked with other thinking along similar lines.

Why exactly does over-consolidation lead to inflation? That is the question answered in one of the best newsletters around, by Matt Stoller on monopolies and called simply Big.

Last week he wrote about the Cantillon Effect, called after the French 18th century economist Richard Cantillon:

“Cantillon described what happens to class of people in the economy when a gold mine opened. Those near the mine, or with connections to the king, were the first to get access to the increased money supply. They bid up assets, and gain political power. Then as the gold moved into the rest of society, inflation in normal goods is the result. (Cantillon also noted that imports increase dramatically after a gold discovery, articulating a version of what is today known as ‘Dutch disease’ in economics.)

Last year, Stoller wrote that: “From railroads to plastic bags to semiconductors to ice cream, Wall Street and monopolists are creating shortages and exploiting them…

That is spot on. Perhaps because the Liberal spirit has been dulled in the West, the main Liberal contribution to economics has been silent – a critique of monopoly power.

I am reminded of the research by the economist Amartya Sen, who studied the great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which 1.5 million people starved to death.

He found that there was no real shortage of food. It was just that people were no longer able to ‘command’ it.

It was too expensive or they had no right to it, or something. Similar problems applied in other famines from the Irish Potato Famine to the Bangladeshi famine more recently.

In other words, food shortages are a ‘populist’ lie; famine is about inflation and inequality – which also leads to inflation.

Sen also, it seems to me, pointed at the truth about a possible grassroots solution.

Ten years ago, I wrote a short, radical history of the UK allotments movement, and I found myself quoting the following letter to Country Life, written at the height of the first Dig for Victory campaign in September 1917:

“The assumption on which a national policy of agriculture is based seems to be that the food supply of the country depends chiefly on the large cultivators. One is not prepared to say that there is no truth in this. The five-hundred acre farm must yield a greater absolute percentage of the food supply than the little plots. Still, that is not all the truth… Some remarkable instances can be given to show how this works out practically. For example, a man who had cultivated forty rods of land, when he set about it was able to produce as much from twenty rods as he had done from forty rods.”

In other words, economies of scale don’t exist here. This approach, which has development experts on side, means supporting small farmers – because, in the end, attention to detail by committed small farmers will produce food, in the right places, at the right prices.

This is, once again, small versus big. Economies of scale versus diseconomies of scale.

The discovery that small farmers out-produce big farmers was set out in the 1970s by Amartya Sen, but it actually isn’t a very new idea – as the letter to Country Life shows. The great radical William Cobbett noticed it when he was defending Horton Heath in Dorset from enclosure, noting that poor people could make poor land productive:

“The cottagers produced from their little bits, in food, for themselves, and in things to be sold at market, more than any neighbouring farm of 200 acres.

He noted that ten farms of a hundred acres each could produce more than one farm of a thousand acres. But it was a varied and diverse productivity, compared to the handful of products grown by the big farms. And there lies the source of the muddle. Monsanto and those like them don’t measure yield in the same way.

As I argued in my book The Human Element, the fundamental problem is that, although the West won the Cold War, we have adopted an increasingly Soviet economy ourselves – where an increasingly tiny elite, manage massive, technocratic monopolies, getting fat at the expense of ordinary people.

And which are in the end not capable of meeting people’s needs, for reasons we understood perfectly well back in 1989.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

How i stopped worrying quite so much about nuclear annihilation

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

I can’t be the only person in the country at the moment who wakes in the early hours of the morning worrying about a nuclear attack.

As Dr Johnson said about hanging, the impending loss – not just of my own life – but everyone I know and love and our whole tradition and history too, certainly concentrates the mind wonderfully.

I can’t believe it is good for my mental health – or anyone else’s either.

Added to which, there was the historian Antony Beevor spelling out the extraordinary peril that we now find ourselves in – explaining how Putin has backed himself into a corner. With the help of the Americans, he is now contemplating his nuclear stockpile.

"Putin wants to terrify us," said Beevor in the Mail on Sunday. "And he does, because his own disastrous mistakes have backed him into a corner. He is prepared to use nuclear weapons if Russia faces an existential threat, and by Russia, he means his own regime if it is defeated in Ukraine. This has created far greater dangers for the world than at any moment since 1945."

Part of the problem is that I feel so powerless to do anything about it. It isn’t the kind of thing that is likely to be prevented by a stiff letter to my MP.

But then, it is at times like this that I think of Wellesley Tudor Pole and his ‘silent minute’ – begun at the height of the blitz on British cities in 1940.

It so happened that, when he went to see Winston Churchill about the idea, he found the new prime minister had been worrying about rumoured links between senior Nazis and occultism. Tudor Pole’s proposal spoke to that as well.

He was a former major in the British army, who had been on Allenby’s staff in Jerusalem in 1918 and had gone to great lengths to make sure that the British protected the life of the mystic ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, one of the key figures in the start of the Baha’i faith. Later in life, be bought the site of Chalice Well Gardens at the foot of Glastonbury Tor.

His proposal to Churchill was that, with the help of anyone of goodwill, he would build a psychic barrier against Nazi invasion.

For one minute every day at 9pm, he would light a  candle and, for a minute, he would imagine the barrier and pray for peace.

This was said to be why Churchill asked the BBC to broadcast the Big Ben bongs every night at 9pm, as a kind of focus, which they did from November 1940.

The ‘silent minute’ was revived by Dorothy Forster in 1993, in time for 9/11. So while I don’t want to interfere or to change anything, I have a feeling that 10pm is the new 9pm – that is when the main news of the day is broadcast.

All this post is designed to do is say that I will light a candle just before 10pm every night – I will then, for one minute, pray for peace and imagine us protected by a huge semi-permeable dome, covering Britain and Ireland, permeable to everything except intercontinental ballistic missiles, which just glance off and roll harmlessly into the sea.

As any sensible policy wonk will understand, there is no way this could possibly protect us – which is why it can’t do any harm to try.

And it is action to take. Which will make me feel better, even if nobody else joins in…

Monday, 9 May 2022

On the prospects of being blown to atomic dust

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

The British people are prepared if necessary to be blown to atomic dust.

So said Sir Alec Douglas-Home when he was prime minister. There are so many things wrong with that statement – yet it is also a quintessentially patrician and British way of putting it.

Who are ‘the British People’ described here? Did he mean you and me? Because I don’t remember ever consenting to being blown to atomic dust.

Even worse, it was said by a man whose class probably meant that, personally, he would be inside a government bunker – probably in a regional seat of government under the Chilterns.

Now, I have no idea as an ordinary citizen how much this ancient emergency system is still working. I remember, when I was training as a journalist at Harlow Technical College in 1981, we were all shown around the nuclear bunker underneath Essex County Council. And many of us – especially for some reason the women trainees – were so cross about it, that I felt it would never be repeated.

What annoyed them was not so much the silly messages, left behind after their most recent exercise – one said: “AUTHORISE RELEASE OF 200 CREAM BUNS: POLICE ESCORT” – it was the sense that we were being tricked into the idea that we could survive and fight a nuclear war.

When I was a reporter in Oxford in the early 1980s, there was a room in the basement of the town hall which was supposed to be where they would manage the city from after a nuclear attack. Inside were two telephones, a map and a set of instructions which said: “What to do in the event of a nuclear attack on Oxford – No. 1: Make tea”.

This was good advice. But really the room was mainly used to keep bicycles in.

Since the end of the cold war in 1989, our own government has – rightly or wrongly – neglected these kind of precautions. So now, with a kind of proxy war happening against Russia, with Boris Johnson popping over to Kiev whenever he can and the Russian foreign minister threatening this country most weeks, I don’t believe this is good enough.

The government can’t have it both ways after all. Either Putin is sane and sensible, in which case, why has he invaded Ukraine, so disastrously? Or he isn’t, in which case I’m not reassured by defence secretary Ben Wallace and his blithe dismissal of the risk: "We are part of a Nato partnership of 30 nations who outgun him, outnumber him and have potentially all the capabilities at our disposal. I don't fear him, and I think we should be very grateful in this country that we have a nuclear deterrent."

What happens if Putin is as crazed and illogical as we fear?

Of course there need to be consequences for Putin for all he is doing – and there will be – but, if we are going to take the risk of standing up to him, then our government must put some resources behind protecting us all.

My prediction is that, if the conflict in Ukraine carries on for years – as Liz Truss suggests it will – then these issues will increasingly rise up the agenda here.

But what can we do about it – if nothing else because it beats sleepless nights worrying about whether the UK will be there in the morning?

First, I think we need to put money into civil defence again, so that we know we are not just protected by the fantasies of the current cabinet. In the second world war, there was a powerful political campaign for deep shelters for the urban population. We need something similar now.

Second, it is time to devolve resources for keeping people safe as far as they will go – to voluntary groups that may already exist, like Neighbourhood Watch or the new local welfare groups that emerged during the lockdown.

Finally, we need to make common cause with the Russian dissidents – and make links between them and our own. That was the historian E. P. Thompson’s strategy in the early 1980s – that the opposition to the cold war on both sides needed to make common cause with each other. That is certainly a healthier approach than the idea of 'cancelling' all Russians.

As the Common Sense newsletter, run by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, put it last week: "FIFA and UEFA suspended Russian soccer teams from competing. A university in Milan cancelled (and then reinstated) a course on Dostoevsky. The International Cat Federation banned Russian-bred cats from competition. This, of course, in addition to blocking Apple Pay and Google Pay from ordinary Russians connected to sanctioned banks...."

Where, you might ask, are the British dissidents? Like Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges in the USA  - people who discern the opportunity now being seized by a few washed-up cold war warriors and arms dealers who are keen to prolong the crisis? I don't know, but we need a few of them now...

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Looking back at 1997 - maybe what followed was inevitable

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog

It is a little terrifying to think that thee general election of 1997, which brought with it such a sea change in our politics, was now 25 years ago this week.

I remember it as much for the extraordinary turn in fortunes for the Lib Dems, more than doubling the size of their parliamentary party to 46 seats in one leap, as I do for bringing the Blair-Brown show to power.

I was editor of Lib Dem News in those days, the party’s weekly paper, and I had spent much of the campaign travelling around the west country and other places, like Evan Harris in Oxford West & Abingdon, Brian Cotter in Weston-super Mare, Stephen Williams in Bristol West and Mark Oaten in Winchester (I particularly remember meeting his beautiful wife Belinda in the high street).

It was the perfect example of the so-called 'dual approach' at work: the Lib Dems were winning places where they had previously won local government influence. “Heading east from Penzance towards the capital - a journey of more than 300 miles,," wrote a Times columnist in 1993, "drivers spend all but the half-hour traverse of Avon motoring through counties that are dominated or controlled by the Liberak Democrats,"

It certainly felt like that as I drove through huge fields with huge blue posters, but Lib Dem gold or yellow posters in profusion on so many houses.

At the party at the Pizza on the Park on election night, that the campaign chair Richard Holme said, as Tom Brake won his seat in Caterham – which had long been a part of Lib Dem Sutton – that he had never heard of it before.We had become so used to never quite managing to win at a general elections – it was amazing to find ourselves suddenly popular.

I had been expecting a breakthrough like this since I had joined the Liberal Party in 1979 – I had even made a bet with my grandparents that we would win 50 seats “next time”. But 1983 came and went, and my grandparents died. In 1997, I finally felt some measure of justification.

The campaign had been characterised partly by a tacit alliance between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. That night, Ashdown was given a police escort to London after his own count in Yeovil. He believed he was driving up to London to take power.

I believed in those days that this was a disastrous idea. Now, I’m not so sure because – with the benefit of hindsight – it seems to me that so much of New Labour’s rule for the next 13 years was technocratic and flawed. What a difference the Lib Dems might have made if John Prescott had been faced down by Blair when he complained and persuaded him to dump his promise to Ashdown…

We could perhaps have prevented the Iraq war, and maybe insisted on a fair voting system for Westminster, but I’m far from sure that my own party would have had the self-confidence to reject Labour-style technocratic centralisation using numbers – a horrible boulderisation of the enlightened approach by alternative economics thinktanks like – like the New Economics Foundation – to spread skills downwards and to measure everything.

“But what else can we do?” Lord Falconer said to me in 2001 when I told him I was writing about too many numbers at the heart of government. Could we have predicted the growth and damage of tickbox – or that it would undermine the trust of anyone using services, or in politicians that saw the world in terms of a common good that over-rode individual rights?

Could we have, back then, seen the future enough to know what disaffection it would bring along with it, so that Blair's so-called 'modernisation' agenda now looks like a terrifyingly inhuman cul-de-sac?

I doubt it.

So it maybe that we were stuck with the history we have in fact been living through. It is just that it could and should have been different.

It is hard to recreate the sense of victory of the young over the old and worn out that the 1997 election seemed to mean, back then. "Did you stay up for Portillo?" was the main question we asked each other - which was a question about whether we had seen the shock defeat of the next Conservative leader, Michael Portillo by a young Labour type called Stephen Twigg.

Well, I did, but I was back home by then, trying to work out what it would all mean now that so many of my thinktank friends were all involved in inquiries which were to take us in and out of No 10 for the next few years.

So we didn’t achieve the enormous changes we had set ourselves to do, but we came pretty close…

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Why Boris and Biden need to be a little more measured about Ukraine

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

When I was writing my Tickbox book, I found myself researching the great American technocrat Robert McNamara,

Like many other people in deep thrall to Tickbox, McNamara was also pretty emotional. His career was characterised by extreme loyalty, not just to Kennedy, but for a time also to Lyndon Johnson, his successor. It was a passion that nearly sent him insane, but it also led to his egregious habit of quoting selective numbers in public to defend his president – even, as it turned out, as he turned against the Vietnam War.

Still, it was the calculating element of McNamara’s personality, not the romantic side, that first brought him into conflict with the US defence establishment as Kennedy’s Defense Secretary – and particularly with his old boss, the USAAF general Curtis LeMay.

As such, McNamara was next to Kennedy throughout the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, urging a blockade rather than the massive strike favoured by some of the top brass. The most implacable of his opponents was his old chief Curtis LeMay, now also reputed to be the original for the Peter Sellers film Dr Strangelove.

“Kennedy was trying to keep us out of war,” McNamara said much later. “I was trying to help him keep us out of war but General Curtis LeMay, with whom I served as a matter of fact in World War II, was saying; ‘Let’s go in. Let’s totally destroy Cuba’.”

More helpfully, the US ambassador to Moscow Tommy Thompson was also there and urged Kennedy to reply directly to Khrushchev’s earlier, less aggressive message, where he promised to remove the missiles in return for a face-saving undertaking that the US would not invade Cuba. He worked out that Khrushchev needed a device to allow him to step back, and – as it turned out – he was right.

As McNamara tightened his grip over US defence policy, LeMay became increasingly implacable. He ended his career as running mate to the racist governor George Wallace in the 1968 presidential election. But that is beside the point.

The real point I am making here is about the importance of finding a face-saving formula. McNamara and Thompson realised this, and so did Kennedy. 

The problem we have is that the situation in Ukraine is increasingly dangerous because both the British prime minister and the US president seem determined to ‘win’ the conflict there.

They are neither of them stupid, but the truth is that the Ukrainian war came as a godsend to both men. Johnson could grandstand and avoid the fallout from ‘partygate’…

What result are they really intending? That somehow the cavalry will sweep through and arrest Putin, bearing him off to the Hague and his personal war crimes prosecution?

That isn’t going to happen. Khrushchev did not long survive the Cuban crisis. He was removed from power by Kremlin insiders like Leonid Brezhnev, partly because of what had happened there. He was retired from 1964-71.

Putin may well need to be ousted, as Biden says, but – since we are not into regime change any more these days – then that can’t be our decision.

The Russians will have to do it. And only then – maybe – we might find a way to putting him and other war criminals behind bars.

I am not drawing parallels with Khrushchev. The Cuban Missile Crisis was nothing like the war in Ukraine. But we may still be heading for some kind of Cuban style stand-off.

That is the point when I am praying, for the sake of the world, that there is someone like McNamara or Thompson to put the case for a chink of hope, rather than just unthinking gung-ho voices like Biden and Johnson.

There can be no winners in these conflicts and, although the Ukrainians are at the moment pushing back the Russians – with huge skill and courage – I am not sure how long this will last.

And even if it does, we don’t want to push Putin into such a tight corner that he does something even stupider.

Monday, 11 April 2022

Why we need to start embracing complementary health

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

I am treading on eggshells here and I am far from sure I will reach safely to the other side. We shall see.

As many of you will know, I have been diagnosed with parkinsonism – a variant (though nobody is quite sure which) of Parkinson’s Disease. That has made me peculiarly interested in complementary health of all kinds – even if I hadn’t had chronic eczema for years too.

The difficulty is just how little there is of it over here. Rather as alternative education has been squeezed out by the ‘consensus’ in the UK, so has complementary health. It is as if we in the UK have started believing our systems so much that we can imagine no alternative.

I have found acupuncture, osteopathy and homeopathy really helpful – especially, perhaps, the latter. Nutrition is not really complementary in the same way, but I kind of think I would have been better if I had changed my diet earlier.

I mention this because homeopathy has been the focus of huge negativity from both sides of the political spectrum.

There is something naive about the mainstream opinion that there is no ‘evidence’ for any of these – as if any pharmaceutical company was dashing to carry out the research, or any medical researcher was keen to destroy their career by asking them to fund it.

I am not being 'anti-science' here - as I am occasionally being accused of. Quite the reverse: I am a follower of Karl Popper. I really believe political rhetoric as shifted us too far from scientific method.

Nor am I an anti-vaxxer – I’ve had three jabs and covid too – but equally it has been clear to me for some time that there was an emerging issue about our immune systems. I have no idea whether this has anything to do with overloading our immune systems with childhood immunisations – or maybe it’s our appalling food, air quality or the strange electro-magnetic pulses we need to keep the economy ticking over, or something else.I’m not a medic or a scientist, so I don’t know – I am asserting this as a patient. But I think we will need to look beyond our current systems and knowledge at some point.

Yet although I’m finding it hard to hear anyone discussing these issues in the UK, there is a huge underground cascade of videos from the USA on these subjects – mainly related to the peculiar experience of the pandemic we have all just lived through.

The trouble is that, largely because of the two political camps in the USA, this debate can’t really take place openly – because of the assumption from both sides that anyone at all sceptical of prevailing medical opinion in the USA must be a Trump supporter.

That makes many of my own more sceptical opinions (which I am too nervous to spell out here) shunnable by the mainstream.  It isn't hard to understand why so many American sceptics are veering off towards Trump-style populism.

Why is everyone so sick these days, I asked in a recent blog? Why are our immune systems so often malfunctioning? These are important issues which can’t be dodged forever. They will emerge again, and you can see some of those US doctors – who have been cancelled in various ways – beginning to articulate a series of new approaches, while the mainstream is still trying to push opposing views under the carpet. And especially on the left: hence the danger here.

In fact, I believe that those who have suffered chronic health problems – who have in some ways found themselves maintained in that by the health and pharma systems – may over the next few years forge themselves into an important and influential movement. They will be looking afresh at issues like 5G and other mass experiments, or low-level radiation.

They may well be sceptical abut 'experts', as Michael Gove was - drawing a distinction, as I do, between genuine expertise and those who are just steeped in the current system or ways of working, as i set out in my book Tickbox.

It may be 20 years before this alliance feels themselves as strong politically as they need to be – but if they find themselves aligned with Trump and other climate sceptics then these will also be carried along to power alongside them.

That is why it is so vital to organise some kind of post-pandemic rapprochement between complementary health and the radical centre. Don’t forget that was how the Five Star movement took its first steps to power in Italy by linking with everyone they could find online with an interest in complementary health.

The alternative is that we will be forced to face down another version of Trump when it really matters for people and planet. There is no necessary link between climate scepticism and medical scepticisms. And we need the latter to defeat the former – before it's too late!

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Forty years on: don't let's go back there!

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

It feels a little exhausting to say so, but the invasion of the Falkland Isles took place exactly four decades ago on Saturday. Ah yes, I remember it well.

I was a junior reporter, a trainee, on the Oxford Star in those days. On that particular day (2 April 1982), I was heading for a weekend training course in Oxfordshire with other trainees and I remember picking up a hitchhiker on the Oxford bypass, who turned out to be a naval rating who had been unexpectedly ordered back to his ship.

It was my first indication that something was really happening.

I have two points I want to make about that time.

First, just how unusual war felt in those days. I did not remember any conflict – apart from Northern Ireland, of course – for my whole childhood (I was born two years after the Suez debacle). Harold Wilson had managed to keep us out of the Vietnam war. There had been British peacekeepers sent on to the island of Anguilla in 1966, but in the end the government sent London bobbies (the New York Times headlined the affair ‘The Lion that Miaowed’)!

These days, when we have endless military challenges, it is hard to remember what it felt like then to end a period of almost complete peace.

That was one reason why I was, at the age of 23 and newly obsessed with politics, so keen to dash back to my bedroom between lectures to listen in to the debate in the Commons – and it was strange to find only one of my colleagues seemed keen to discuss it (how are you, Candida?).

Looking back to that debate, it was amazing to remember how bellicose Michael Foot and the Labour opposition were in the immediate aftermath of invasion – perhaps because they smelled blood: the Thatcher government was desperately unpopular at that stage, and Foot may have believed that nothing could be done and that this would prove their final straw.

The second point I want to make was that the recovery of Margaret Thatcher’s reputation and the apparent success of her government can be dated pretty accurately to the moment that the destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile (4 May).

I had been out canvassing for the Liberals that evening in south Oxford (for Victoria Mort) and I took a break – and, like everyone else – I saw the lugubrious Ministry of Defence spokesperson Ian Mcdonald announcing about the sinking.

Going out again afterwards. I found the mood had completely changed. Someone had even nailed a copy of the Labour election address to a telegraph poll and scrawled the word ‘TRAITOR’ across it.

Looking back, I have a feeling that was when the tide turned against the Liberal-SDP Alliance.

You can see the same difference with the fly-on-the-wall documentary Warship¸ two series of which I have been watching on My5 – which is upbeat, thrilling and a relaxed view of the navy, as the Duncan is involved in a missile strike on Syria after it used chemical weapons. Compare that to the 1976 series Sailor, an uptight, class-obsessed view of the oldest ship in the fleet, the Ark Royal – where Captain Gerard-Pearse is seen complaining that none of his instruments are working correctly.

It was the same distinction between the film Chariots of Fire (1981) and Lindsay Anderson’s last film Britannia Hospital (1982), with Leonard Rossiter playing a slightly cynical hospital manager trying to smuggle the Queen in through the picket lines outside.

Say what you like about the old ways of seeing the world, I definitely prefer Chariots of Fire, the unexpected success to the unexpected, and undeserved flop. It looked back beyond that feeling of exhausted cynicism that prevailed in Britannia Hospital – or in Ark Royal in Sailor or any other metaphors for the nation in the late 1970s.

For all my frustrations with the current state of the nation, I don’t want to go back there.

Picture courtesy of (Gobierno de Argentina) -

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

We may be more generous than we fear we are

This first appeared on the RadixUK blog

It is strange what a difference a few weeks make. As the refugees began to stream out of war-torn Ukraine, pouring into Poland and finding it hard to get to the UK, because of the usual, embarrassing bureaucratic barriers, many of us watched with comfort and shame – a mixture of the two – to watch BBC news film of the generous Germans crowding into Berlin railway station to offer their homes to desperate Ukrainian families.

It just went to show, something or other – we said to ourselves, fearing that it was just the Germans or just the continentals. If only we British could be a little more like that – or so we thought…

Fast forward a couple of weeks, to Michael Gove’s announcement about how we might do something similar, earning £350 a month by doing so – and we now all feel a little happier about it.

Then suddenly, 25,000 people had signed up for the refugee scheme within the first hour. OK, then there were more barriers to surmount…

But it demonstrated that the ordinary British were as hospitable as any other nation. It made us feel good about ourselves – which is tantamount to actually becoming better people (as Cressida Dick showed us back in 2017).

The implications are important. That when our political system is designed and interpreted by people who are more suspicious and nervous about people’s motives, then we will be too.

Nor is this just a problem about governments of the political right. Socialism seems in practice to encourage a kind of corrosive cynicism. In fact, both ends of the political spectrum are intolerable in different ways.

Instead, what we need to do is to share the business of government with people – a process known as co-production – because, as the late, great social innovator Edgar Cahn used to say, people have a fundamental need to feel useful.

Everyone does – not just those who are qualified to run public services. And I know from the experience of starting time banks, for example, that when you give people who have only been receiving care their whole lives the chance to give back, then you can transform their lives.

That seems to be to be an indication of what radical centrism might mean: it is the opposite of Home Office style tickbox suspicion and Leftist cynicism too.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Why is everyone so sick these days?

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog

Why are we so sick these days? I mean, really?

It wasn’t suppose to be like this – thanks to Beveridge, we had assumed that when you start treating people for free then it should cost less, year on year to keep people healthy. But it hasn’t worked out like that anywhere.

Of course, there are conventional reasons why health is so expensive - from changing diseases to the survival of more premature babies. But I don't think any of those are really adequate explanations.

There seems to be something about the way we live has made health as expensive as it has become. Because it is also the service of last resort, where all our problems come home to roost – including issues that the NHS was never designed to deal with. It hardly matters what it is – if it affects people adversely, then in the end it adds to the weight on the NHS.

So why? The first answer is that this to have something to do with the rise of mental ill-health. The WHO says that up to 300m around the world living with depression – which  is pretty amazing, given that depression has only really been known as a problem since 1980.

I have been reading and absolutely fabulous book (full disclosure: the author, Susan Holliday, is a friend of mine), called Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart).

Back in 1975, the great psychologist James Hillman warned that “in psychiatry, words have become schizophrenic, themselves a cause and source of mental disease”.

I understand her quotation from a patient along these lines, when she describes “the frustration of trying to put something into a box that is slightly too small.”

I understand this also as a parallel to the related problem of Tickbox, where we are equally trying to break out of the stultifying definitions. The “words we use today to articulate our emotions arrive preconfigured,” writes Susan Holliday. "[They] become desiccated and opaque, like cataracts.”

Sue is describing the antidote to this problem, how to really see to “the ecology of the human heart”. I thoroughly recommend her book.

But of course there may be other reasons for the rise of chronic ill-health.

There are waves of online lectures crossing the Atlantic these days about various generalised interpretations of the huge numbers of people who are suffering from ill-defined combinations of anything from digestion to neurological issues, whether they have something to do with the gut-mind link or auto-immunity (see for example, Dr Peter Kan).

The danger is that we may no longer be allowed to question some of the central tickboxes of NHS delivery, on the grounds that our tramlines are “based on the science” and only those who are steeped in the existing ways are qualified to question them. Or on the grounds that the research has been done – without understanding that some theories will never get funded for testing.

That is why we still have to be vigilant about some of those technologies that our masters most approve of – like 5G or the next generation of nuclear energy. In case their failure to see outside their own definitions and boxes blinds us all to why we are no longer healthy.

Monday, 14 March 2022

Cancelling Russians, kicking dachshunds

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

If you look back at Hansard in 1939 and 1940, you find that leading members of the Labour Party can barely open their mouths without reassuring themselves that the Nazi regime did not have the raw materials they would need for a long war.

Attlee, Dalton and Bevin were self-deluding, of course. But I have been hearing echoes of that reassurance as we tell ourselves how much Putin has miscalculated. My feeling is that he hasn’t miscalculated nearly enough.

Then there is the problem of the sanctions.

My herbal dopamine that I have been ordering regularly from France is no longer being exported to the UK, because of the difficulties of exporting anything from the UK these days. It occurs to me that we are trying to do to the Russians what we have done to ourselves in a much smaller way with Brexit.

Whether dropping Russia from global trade will actually damage them long-term isn’t clear.

In the short-to-medium term, of course it won’t be good, but if they are forced to substitute their imports with something Russian-made, then the great American critic Jane Jacobs used to say that was how cities have always developed themselves.

In the meantime, we both have to get by without proper components or supply chains. And as the cost of energy rises, that can only intensify the problem.

It may have been inevitable but – in a period of history when people find themselves baying to ‘cancel’ anyone they disagree with – that some ordinary Russians will get in the way.

Poor old Valery Gergiev, for example – one of the greatest conductors in the world – was sacked by the Munich Philharmonic after he failed to make the compulsory statement of disapproval of Russian behaviour.

It is all surprisingly like the start of the First World War, when the British were surprised by the period of ‘gallant little Belgium’.

​But with the treatment of musicians like Gergiev, and the way they dropped music by Tchiakovsky from a Cardiff concert last week, is a little too reminiscent of people kicking dachshunds in the streets for my liking.

I suppose that, when politics becomes symbolic – mainly because of people’s sense of powerlessness – that is what happens. But we will need, eventually, to reach some kind of acceptable compromise with Putin, so we need to keep some things open...


Why are we wrestling over Munich – all over again?

This post first appeared on the Aspects of History blog...

Why are we arguing again about appeasement, the Munich crisis and Neville Chamberlain, UK prime minister from 1937-40?

The immediate hook is the film of the Robert Harris novel, Munich: The edge of war – and its obvious agenda to rescue Chamberlain for history.

You will remember, especially if you have seen the film - which has been available on Netflix from last weekend - that Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement handed over the northern region and defences of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without firing a shot.

The film itself is beautifully acted by an Anglo-German cast, and there is a brilliant performance by Jeremy Irons as an avuncular, inspirational Chamberlain.

I’m sure than Chamberlain was inspirational, in his way. But I am far less sure that we are right to regard Munich as tribute to what the historian AJP Taylor called “a triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”.

I have been fascinated by Munich because I have a family connection to those events – my great-aunt, Shiela Grant-Duff was Observer correspondent in Prague in the late 1930s and was engaged at the time in an increasingly desperate debate with Adam von Trott – who features in the film as the original of Paul von Hartmann, the anti-Nazi co-hero.

The other reason I have an interest is that I wrote a book about Munich (Munich 1938), with the context included – especially the plot to depose Hitler by his own generals the moment he had ordered an advance into Czechoslovakia, which Chamberlain so fatally undermined.

Two arguments have emerged that imply some kind of rethink might be necessary. First, that Hitler bitterly regretted not going to war in 1938 – though, as we saw in the film, he probably would have been deposed and shot if he had.

Second, was Chamberlain’s justification for getting Hitler to sign his paper promising never to go to war with Britain again: that the whole world would then see that he had broken his word.

But Chamberlain explained this to Lord Dunglass, his young PPS (later Alec Douglas-Home) on the plane home – not, as the film shows, to justify himself to Hugh Legat beforehand. It was actually a justification after the fact.

The problem was not that Chamberlain took no notice of the German army plot to depose Hitler. He never actually got that kind of approach in Munich. Partly because Adam von Trott was still living in China and still involved in his passionate debate with my great-aunt, which she described in her book The Parting of Ways.

Nor could he have done so at that stage anyway, as Irons-as-Chamberlain explains.

Yet Foreign Office officials in London and Paris had in fact already met representatives of the opposition, some months before. There was also a feeling among the British that they could not trust people who would betray their own government.

It wasn’t until 1943, when Dietrich Bonheoffer met George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, secretly in Stockholm, that the opposition took the British into their confidence by listing some of the conspirators – so many of the German army top brass. But even then, Anthony Eden would not, or could not, row back from the British position that they would insist on unconditional surrender, come what may.

The UK government definitely let down the German opposition to Hitler, and not just in 1938. But the real problem was what was done to Czechoslovakia in Munich.

The film makes it clear that the Czechs were not included in the four-partite conference. That was unfortunately only half true. In fact, there were Czech government representatives in the same building, but virtually under house arrest.

After the signing ceremony, Chamberlain and the French PM Daladier went to browbeat them into submission. “Can we not at least be heard before we are judged?” asked the Czech diplomat Hubert Masarik. The British and French shook their heads sadly.

The real problem with Munich was whether it is ever right to guarantee peace by forcing a smaller nation to accept invasion without fighting back.

It is true that war was avoided for a year – which gave both sides the chance to re-arm – but the Czechs had a sophisticated army which gave up without a fight, and 400 of their tanks (plus the factories that made them) became part of the Wehrmacht. When the British were forced back to Dunkirk 18 months later, they were pursued mainly by former Czech armour.

It wasn’t really the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength that so scared Chamberlain and his colleagues – the fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, then we and the French would be drawn in (and the Russians).

That is why, after the agreement was signed, the British and French ambassadors to Prague roused President Beneš from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but they would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed.

The following day, Beneš capitulated.

Ironically, Daladier recognised the truth - which is why he called his cheering Parisian crowd 'morons'. Chamberlain was appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge his own cheers at the same time.

But why are we having this debate now? (see what I wrote in Prospect, for example). Strangely, the divisions are along traditional lines, with the Times – the very heart of appeasement in the 1930s – backing Chamberlain now.

Luckily, I’m not the only one defending the Churchillian version of events - the Financial Times has now weighed in against the appeasers.

The divisions in UK politics were resolved after Dunkirk by the sacking of most of the senior positions in the nation. And as Labour leader a generation later, Michael Foot opened his 1983 election campaign by accusing the Tories of still being the ‘guilty men of Munich’, a faint memory of his Guilty Men book about Munich in 1940.

Perhaps the establishment has yet to get over their wounds from 1940 – and they want traditional Conservatism back. Just as the current standard-bearer seems to be in difficulties.

Was it really a coincidence that, the day before the film came out, David Davis used the same words to Boris Johnson that Leopold Amery did to Chamberlain in the no-confidence debate after the Norwegian campaign?


How can we avoid our politics drifting the way of the USA?

This post first appeared on the RADIXUK blog...

What does a sceptical liberal do about great conspiracy theories like QAnon, the bizarre Republican party idea that Donald Trump is leading resistance to cabal of satanic paedophiles who have taken over the US government, led by his last presidential opponent Hilary Clinton?

I agree with Ben Rich last week – both that American politics seems to have descended into an abyss where facts no longer matter, compared to competing narratives, and that Gabriel Gatehouse’s BBC series is absolutely compelling on the subject.

Gatehouse dates the QAnon story to the death of Bill Clinton’s friend Vince Foster in 1993 – who killed himself by the Potomac and became the focus of an amazing series of stories, building on each other, via internet chat rooms into a whole parallel reality. And bizarrely spread partly by our very own Sunday Telegraph.

Now, I know from my past in television how quickly the death of politicians and gather about them the lurid patina of conspiracy. Like the death of the SNP vice chair Willie McRae, who is now widely regarded as having been murdered by the state, when in fact he killed himself (how do I know? I will explain another day…).

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories – for the reasonI set out before. But that does not make me entirely credulous about every official statement, no matter how many times I am told by the Left to “follow the science”.

In fact, like so many others who became politically aware during the 1970s, I’m not going to dismiss every scare story as nonsense. Because of that, I became a journalist and because of that that I presumably became a card-carrying Liberal at about the same time.

So yes, I am a sceptic, because I remember what happened with drugs like thalidomide. I am sceptical about the safety of 5G to human, animal and plant life – not because I believe it caused covid – but for the same reason I can’t believe that every vaccine is safe for everyone. They won’t kill most people, but there are a few for whom they can be dangerous.

Why? Because I remember the stories that have come and gone since 1980 which showed me that governments and establishments prefer their stories simple – especially when it comes to technological breakthroughs.

So when they vaccinated British troops bound for the first Gulf War in 1991 with a cocktail of different vaccines, there was a significant minority whose immune systems were overloaded – with disastrous effects.

So when a UK researcher discovered the human form of BSE – known by the tabloids as Mad Cow Disease and caused by adding dead cows to cattle feed - he was hounded out of his job by the security services.

This was not really the fault of politicians – which was how agriculture minister John Selwyn Gummer could find himself feeding his daughter a beef burger on live TV to show how safe it was. He was as much a victim of groupthink as everyone else.

That was how those middle class types who invested in Lloyds of London were hung out to dry some years later – because nobody official had accepted that, for the previous six decades, asbestosis had been killing people (more about this in my book Broke­).

So what should we radical centrists do when you are confronted with so many bizarre tales about vaccines and the real causes of the pandemic.

This is what I think we should do – because a sort of polite scepticism is probably the right stance for most official pronouncements:
  • To remember that deliberate conspiracies very rarely work – they are too complicated (like QAnon).
  • To know that if the future of fake food threatens to damage our health, they will eventually be discovered in the end – and those who failed to investigate will reap the whirlwind.
  • To seek out the voices that cling to objective reality.
Like, for example, the fearless American writer Bari Weiss (I have been listening to her fascinating investigation into the story of Amy Cooper – who lost her job and was driven from her home for calling the police about a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park).

Because I don’t believe we have reached the level they have in the USA, where the competing narratives have disconnected themselves so completely from the facts that most people believe some kind of civil war is inevitable. In the UK, we need to avoid this kind of mob rule by clinging to civilised argument, both sceptically and optimistically.

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul used to say that, when you fight anyone, you get like them - and there is a sense that both sides of the American debate are getting increasingly like each other - certainly responsible for each other.

So let us end with what Bari Weiss says, in her review of the year since she resigned from the New York Times:

"Doomsday thinking is pleasing. Among liberals and progressives, I think it comes from a sort of self-indulgence and self-absorption. It makes you feel like the star of the show, struggling to survive under late capitalism, just one election away from the End of Democracy, and probably months from violent civil war. On the right, I think much of this comes from a kind of nihilism, or a justification for sitting back and doing nothing. Falling too deep into American catastrophe porn (let’s say, Libs of TikTok videos) lets you check out and take the blackpill. Liberalism tried and failed. These are the end times. Let’s get the popcorn and watch civilization collapse. But: What if America is actually in pretty good shape? What if we’re not in the last days, on the edge of slaughtering each other? Things always need improving. Suffering needs alleviating. (I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t think that.) But what if we took the panic level down a few notches...."


Do the Red Wall MPs hold the key to the centre ground?

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

I have to say that I feel sorry for Allegra Stratton. I completely agreed with Matthew Parris about her predicament – that was no laugh of hilarity against sick people, or anything remotely like it. It was a laugh of nervous embarrassment. As Boris Johnson must also have recognised.

So when he hung her out to dry, by implying otherwise, I felt pretty ashamed to have him as prime minister.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when everyone I met in southern England seemed so united in their rage at any prime minister. The conservative ladies around here can’t stand him, and my builders want the Queen to step in…

Yet, really – as Joe Zammit-Lucia suggested during the crucial week – Boris’ parties are really neither here nor there compared with issues around the latest covid Christmas.

It may be that when we find that the government has gone back to its old, incompetent ways, trying to tickbox their way to delivering the booster jab centrally at the same as encouraging panic – so that nobody can get one.

Personally, I find the whole business of queuing online out-tickboxes even tickbox (it involves the classic Tickbox situation whereby those at the centre are reassured by the numbers, and only those at the sharp end understand the chaos).

That is when people get seriously angry.

The question is whether the radical centre can profit by it in some way. I would suggest that there is an emerging political force that we could learn from, and perhaps vice versa: the Red Wall Conservative MPs.

These are people, as we keep being told, who are semi-detached from mainstream Conservatism. They are also less complacent and angrier than many of their fellow Tories.

Their only hope of being re-elected seems to me to lie in some kind of separate identity from the government.

I’m not suggesting some mass resignation. I am suggesting that, like the Liberal Unionists more than a century ago – or like the Co-operative Party inside Labour – they might begin to develop their own semi-autonomous leadership in the Commons. And with it, that sense among their constituents of who they are: standing for competence and devolution.

When they do that, I believe they might be the key factor in the major devolution of power that is so urgently needed in the UK. They might even be the means by which the Trusting the People report – published at the Conservative Party conference in October – might see the light of day as law. But they have to act together.

I hope that, if they did that, then we at Radix - alongside the New Social Covenant Unit - could help them think through where they stand as a party within a party…


The metaphysics of covid-19

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

This may seem a peculiar post to write on a thinktank blog, yet writing it is a result of my sense that beliefs are at least as important as Mckinsey-style measurement. They certainly are in the world outside the hothouse we know as the Westminster ‘bubble’.

Why, after all, is a good quarter to a third of the adult population of continental Europe so keen to avoid vaccination? Because of the fundamental beliefs they hold about covid that frame their responses.

The real issue about the disaster that has hit the world is not so much about statistics anyway - but about what we believe about it. Not so much about precisely who caused it, but about its true significance.

And here we find ourselves in a largely evidence-free zone. What I can say is that the real issue around covid is what it is for – and therefore why it has arrived.

There will certainly be positivists out there who think these kind of questions have no meaning because they are unverifiable. They are certainly unverifiable now, but they derive their meaning from being able to verify them one day – either individually after we die or sometime before that.

The real leap I take here is to introduce the Jungian idea of a collective unconscious into a policy discussion. Though I am aware that,by introducing a past and a future, I'm already straying some way from Jung's original idea.

it possible, in other words, for our own human futures and our combined human pasts have been wrestling with ways to draw humanity into a safer space?

Are there ways in which humanity can survive the combination of crises before us?

I don’t know, but our future selves do know and I believe covid was a way to bring us to that safer space.

Remember that covid-19 has been a virus that targeted the old and infirm. It has not targeted children, nor young, fit and healthy people like the flu epidemic of a century ago. And believe me – I lost my wonderful mum to covid – so I understand that these are not losses that are miraculously pain-free.

I was involved last year in writing some background materials for three short films, made via the New Weather thinktank about the enormous benefits of covid – as well as the obvious difficulties it has brought in its wake.

Maybe it was a kind of minimum viable package capable of nudging humanity in the right direction - of survival. You can see the almost miraculous lessons learned within days of the first lockdown and since, in the UK, that local people working together can achieve a great deal more than centralised or corporate diktat.

It showed us that we can look after homeless people if we want to. It encouraged people to get back on a bike.

The issue is whether we can learn the lessons, about flying in particular. The most obvious is the lesson about sharing vaccines. It seems obvious to me that we will have more panics like the one we are now having about the omicron variant, and while we queue in the cold drizzle – as I did last week – to get my third dose, there are so many other people around the world who need a first one.

Until we can think in a little more human ways, we may be doomed just to repeat this over and over again.

So, what is it that you believe about covid?


Are we approaching the next wave of community innovation?


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

I have been very interested to see the slow return of a broader consciousness of history, after it has driven out by a combination of modernism and economism. I would like to think that my own, very tentative timeline for a history of community development since 1940, published over the summer by the Local Trust, has helped a little.

Either way, last week, I found myself at a fascinating online conference in the Spaces of Hope: People's Plans programme – and was wondering, gently to myself, about why so much of what has happened before, and how much has been achieved – by the Eldonians in Liverpool, the Glasgow housing co-ops or in Coin Street on London’s South Bank – has been so quickly forgotten.

Whose fault was it that recent governments have shown so little interest in community-driven, bottom-up regeneration?

Traditionally, most of us have blamed the political right, and it was true that the Thatcher government was not very interested in sharing power with impoverished communities.

But I have a feeling that the conventional Left needs now take an  equal part of the blame – given that they are all so nervous about appearing populist or Trumpist, that we are not supposed, any more, to doubt what the ‘experts’ say – or state officials – when most community development has to start precisely with that kind of scepticism.

Somehow we need to remember that people and communities have some reason for scepticism about conventional regeneration – that somehow all we need to do is to persuade cities to specialise and the build motorways and IT superhighways, and – hey presto!

Unfortunately, most cities specialise in precisely the same sectors, none of which – however hopefully we may train the locals – are likely to employ most of those who need it.

It could therefore be the political Right which takes the necessary leap of imagination. That is what I wondered when Michael Gove, of all people, launched a report at his party conference called Trusting the People, published by the New Local thinktank and the New Social Covenant Unit and written partly by Danny Kruger, Gove’s new parliamentary aide, and other Red Wall MPs.

It is interesting because it talks about the next stage of Conservatism which is to “to put power and trust into the hands of the British people”.

Gove has been assumed to be backing these principles for his own version of planning reform. Needless to say, the Tory ‘free market’ thinktanks – Adam Smith, IEA and Cato – are not too happy about it.

Here is the argument, it seems to me. Almost nobody wants to go back to the pre-1970 age of building upwards by targets, launched by Harold Macmillan as housing minister, which led directly to a new generation of slums and to the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968.

But equally, it seems to me that the Thatcherite approach by Howe and Lawson to let the market decide clearly hasn’t worked either. It has raised land and property prices to disastrous levels. 

For some reason the entire political establishment believes this is because we have ignored ‘price signals’ which imply a shortage of homes. But nobody has persuaded me how one can ever supply enough housing to satisfy the demand, for example, for Far Eastern investors who want to buy into the London property market.

It isn’t too few houses driving up property prices – it has been the over-supply of mortgage finance seeking too few houses. It is classic inflation, in fact. Subsidising mortgages can only make this worse.

The government, to give them their due, does appear to be beginning to grasp some of this. So what do you do instead? The pamphlet doesn’t say, though it does mention briefly that neighbourhood planning should be “universal and the ultimate arbiter of local development”.

This is how it ends, calling for Conservatives to “come together to clear the political pathway to enable power to flow through to the people”.

Community-powered Conservatism is the only credible approach which promises to improve our quality of life, strengthen our economy and unite our nation. This is a Conservative project for the next decade and builds upon our greatest asset, the people of the United Kingdom.”

I have only one and a half problems with this rhetoric, which otherwise I would be out there cheering on. The half problem is that, personally, I don’t like appeals to ‘The People’. That smacks a little too much of Alec Douglas-Hume taking us for granted (“The British people are prepared if necessary to be blown to atomic dust”).

Trusting people seems to me to be a civilised, practical way forwards; trusting The People smacks a little of centralised Stalinism.

The other worry I have is remembering some of the Big Society rhetoric from a decade ago. The language was all there, but I remember meeting those most associated with the idea shortly after the new coalition took office in 2010 and finding my brain completely addled by how shallow it all was.

So, my question is this. If Gove really lets communities decide on planning applications, and they decide ‘wrong’ according to the government – how will he resist the huge pressure on him to bring in safeguards to prevent it? So is the Conservative Party is really ready to let go of central power?

I feel sure they will be eventually – because, in a democracy, people get what they want. But local people will need some protection to get involved in local planning, and then – how do you stop the usual rot setting in?


We need a new kind of national plan

This post first appeared on the RadixUK blog.

Things fall apart,” wrote Yeats in 1919, during the flu epidemic, “the centre cannot hold…”

The best certainly lack all conviction, while the worst/Are also full of passionate intensity. It is a scary time,

The problem for any government, not just one determined that we should still be living in around 1986, is that it has to be obvious to most of us that most of their quick fixes fix nothing. Continental lorry drivers don’t want to work here – who could possibly have guessed it, and when we have been so welcoming before…!

The next few weeks – I predict – will see a deepening of the staffing crisis in the care sector. There may be some more bankruptcies among the smaller gas providers too – these are all symptoms of having a covid crisis on top of an energy and staffing crisis.

In recent weeks, I have made a number of strategic suggestions about how to tackle the fundamental issues without making matters worse – from developing a paleo economics plan for devolving economic power to major anti-trust action to break up the monopolistic companies that purport to serve us.

But what we really need is some kind of national plan, which can unite us and show us what we might do to help drag ourselves back from poverty, and to help save the planet at the same time.

I don’t mean the kind of centralised targets in Stalin’s five-year plans, I mean something like Max Nicholson’s ‘National Plan for Britain’ of 1931 (and thanks to Ruth Potts for writing about this on the 80th anniversary; it is now past the 90th).

Nicholson was one of the founders of the green movement – he died in 2003 aged 98 and was one of those who launched the WWF with Peter Scott and the Duke of Edinburgh. But as a young man, as assistant editor of the Week-end Review, he drafted a special issue including ‘A National Plan’.

This was February 1931. Within months, the UK government had collapsed under the weight of post-war austerity, a National government had been formed, led initially by the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, the navy mutinied at Invergordon (September) and, by the end of the year, work on the liner Queen Mary was stopped on the Clyde.

It was a tough time, and the conventional activities by Labour and Conservative politicians alike failed to work. Roosevelt was still a year away in the USA, Oswald Mosley resigned from Labour two weeks after the Plan was published and formed the New Party in the UK.

The National Plan was important partly because of what it led to – the first thinktank, Political and Economic Planning (PEP), now the PSI. It was formed at a series of meetings at the Ivy restaurant in London – with people like Israel Sieff from Marks & Spencer, Nicholson himself and the Huxley brothers Julian and Aldous.

In retrospect, I am not sure whether we would approach a national plan in the same way. It was far too technocratic. In fact, Aldous Huxley never showed up again, and spent his time writing Brave New World in reaction to it. I tell the strange story of the start of PEP as part of my history of M&S in my book with Andrew Simms, Eminent Corporations.

We need to find a way that we can return responsibility to local people and get all the sectors on board – to show how to build an economy that can save the planet and save our lives at the same time, and how the moving parts might fit together.