Thursday 15 December 2022

The valuable resources the NHS misses

This post first appeared at the Radiixuk blog...

Now that both paramedics and nurses are set to strike over the Christmas period, it is at least worth asking the question – can the NHS survive?

Especially when you understand where all the extra money came from over the past three decades (it was the ‘peace dividend’).

But don’t forget two other vital resources that are available to us all in healthcare – which could be mined and then put to use.The first is our natural ability to support friends, families and neighbours as part and parcel of our own recovery.

The second is our willingness and determination to get well again.

I will write about the first of these this time, and the second I will have a go at covering next week.

The main problem is that – despite their official commitment to ‘co-production’ – there are no official mechanisms to give a chance of this happening. I have suggested a few in my chapter for Henry Tam’s book, Tomorrow’s Communities.

The basic underlying issue is that Beveridge assumed that an NHS would cost less to run over time, because need would be reduced. That was the assumption on which the new welfare state rested and it was wrong – in fact it has been wrong everywhere, not just in Britain.

Beveridge set out to slay what he called the Five Giants – Ignorance, Want, Squalor, Disease, Idleness. The problem is not that he failed to vanquish them. He killed them stone dead, but something he never expected happened. They come back to life again every generation and have to be slain all over again and, every time, it gets more expensive.

Through 75 years of peace and plenty, Beveridge’s legacy has not managed significantly to narrow inequalities of income or health or to strengthen mutual support. Neither, in general, has the welfare state successfully tackled the underlying reasons why problems emerge in the first place.

What went wrong? This is such an important question that we hardly dare ask it, in case it is taken as a political excuse to wind up the Beveridge experiment altogether, and because the failure of the welfare state to create a sustainable improvement in social welfare threatens to overwhelm the public finances.

It is true that Beveridge was in some ways a victim of his own success – the welfare settlement led to longer lives, which sometimes (though not always) led to higher costs. It led to different diseases and to disabled children surviving into adulthood. These are partial explanations, but they don’t really cover everything. Why has health spending risen so fast for all generations, not just the old? Why is 70 per cent of NHS time dealing with chronic health problems? Why has crime risen so much in the same period? It isn’t just that people are living longer.

But Beveridge himself was more aware of this conundrum than his reputation suggests. He was aware that the NHS was being rolled out by the Attlee government on lines very different to those he had suggested.

His overlooked third report, Voluntary Action, crystallised his thinking and his warnings about what might happen if the welfare state became too paternalist, and if people’s instincts for self-help, and their ability to find solutions, were allowed to atrophy.

He wrote that the state had an important role but equally important were what he called: “Room, opportunity and encouragement for voluntary action in seeking new ways of social advance … services of a kind which often money cannot buy”.

He was afraid that his reforms were encouraging people to focus passively on their needs.

We need to take the decline in voluntary action seriously, especially as rationed public services increasingly use ‘need’ as their currency of access. The only assets people have then are their own needs, which must be maximised if they are to access help. It is hardly surprising that needs seem to grow.

But there is another problem as well, as the needs increase: the over-professionalisation which Beveridge warned against seems to have widened the basic divide in all public services – between an exhausted, remote professional class and their clients, who are expected to remain passive and easy to process.

This is not just disempowering, it can also be corrosive.

The co-production critique follows Beveridge’s third report. It suggests that the reason our current services are so badly equipped to respond to a changing society is that they have largely overlooked the underlying operating system they depend on: the social economy of family and neighbourhood, also known as the ‘core economy’.

We can no longer rely on continuing economic growth to provide enough finance for public services, and we find that our services have also become constrained by the New Public Management of centralised targets, deliverables, standards and customer relationship management software, which has narrowed the focus of many services and often undermined the relationships between professionals and patients, or between teachers and pupils.

The difficulty is that, although you can point to highly successful small examples of co-production in action in almost every service, very little has been written that sets out what taking these ideas to scale might mean.

From my experience setting up time banks in health settings, where people are encouraged and enabled to support each other in human ways – using the skills that everyone possesses – gives back some value to those skills, which have been slowly excised from our public services.

I know from this that this kind of co-production is effective – especially when it is applied to excluded communities.

It allows surgeries and hospitals to reach out into their surrounding neighbourhoods and to start the urgent process of healing.

And near the anniversary of the first vaccines against Covid being delivered so effectively with the help of ordinary people – that is worth its weight in public spending.

Monday 10 October 2022

What will happen when the Red Wall MPs realise they won't be 'levelled up'?

This post first appeared in the RadixUK blog...

I tend to agree with Ben Rich last week, in his assessment of the new government, that – however much we may worry about the robotic speaking style of our new prime minister – the politics will not change.

That is all true, except for one consideration. The electoral system, which has kept Conservatives in power for most of the past ha;f century, has a habit of sometimes wiping out parties being punished by the electorate completely – as the Canadian Conservatives were a generation ago, and as everyone else was by the SNP in Scotland in 2015.

That seems an unlikely prospect, but it is one to consider. It would put the Labour Party into power with such a boosted Commons presence that we could not be quiet sure who would lead them, with the Lib Dems as official opposition. That would be exquisitely uncomfortable – and would require a swing to the right from my former Liberal colleagues which they might feel unable to make.

The main point of this is that Liz Truss and her government now have to choose between producing an economic plan that satisfies the global  markets and one which they can also get through the Commons.

The Guardian was even speculating that – with 30 Tory MPs unlikely to support them, Liz Truss might need to make another U-turn on increasing benefits in line with wages, rather than with inflation.

According to the Daily Mail, Michael Gove is plotting to bring back Boris Johnson.

This seems unlikely, but where in all this dispute has the Big Idea gone to that Boris brought to the table: Levelling Up?

Because if that idea has gone – as it appears to have – then the Red Wall Conservative MPs who were elected on that basis will be in serious trouble.

It would make sense for them qucily to start meeting as a group and to whip themselves, as far as possible as a coherent group, rather like Labour’s relationship with the Co-operative Party.

Yet also with a view to going their own way if necessary.

Think tanks like Radix have always had an interest in new political groupings. And it would be enormously worthwhile to advise the Red Wall Tories about policy – about how to encapsulate the new approach to regeneration – if only they would ask us!

In fact, if anyone ever asked my advice about what to do and how to apply it, it would be to stay completely  ambiguous about your intentions as long as you possibly can…

Monday 3 October 2022

America may finally be turning against monopoly power

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

It is now more than a century since Teddy Roosevelt ushered in age of American anti-trust – eventually breaking up Standard Oil and other symptoms of what they called ‘robber baron capitalism’.

These events mainly took place during his presidency and that of his successor William Howard Taft - they brought over 130 cases against trusts and monopolies – yet the two key pieces of anti-trust legislation were passed outside their periods of office - the Sherman Act in 1890 and the Clayton Act of 1914.

Both are still on the statute book, including the Sherman Act’s invocation that:

“Every person who shall monopolise, or attempt to monopolise, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolise any part of the trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony ....”

It just goes to show how what really matters when it comes to enforcement of anti-monopoly is what the prevailing attitudes are – especially in Congress.

This is why the American anti-monopoly movement is so excited by the events there last week. Because unusually, the miserably divided House of Representatives managed to pass legislation on anti-trust. This is how Matt Stoller in the newsletter Big saw it:

“I’ve been focused on the problem of monopoly since Too Big to Fail banks crashed the economy during the financial crisis in 2008, so I have a pretty good sense of when there are political inflection points. And I will say with reasonable confidence that this week, the opponents of monopoly power took a big step forward. Against fierce opposition from dominant firms, the US House of Representatives voted for the Merger Filing Fee Modernisation Act, which is first time I can remember that we’ve won a floor vote to explicitly roll back monopoly power.”

The law doesn’t go terribly far. It simply increases the costs of mergers – also making sure that companies that want to merge to disclose subsidies from the Chinese government, and pay higher filing fees for big mergers, and it makes it easier to direct the extra revenue to the Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The bill makes it easier for state anti-trust enforcers to bring cases by letting them have those cases heard in local courts.

But what is most important is that the lobbyists for the big tech monopolies were boasting about how they would stop the new law in its tracks – and they failed to. It shows that there is in fact a majority now in favour of anti-trust.

Why didn’t all the Republicans support it? Because they were caught between those who hate the big tech companies and those who can’t bear the idea of supporting British-born lawyer Lina Khan, Biden’s nominee to run the FTC and a protege of Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute .

Regular readers of these blogs (if there are any) will know that I used to run an anti-trust newsletter for a couple years, via Radix, but Matt is doing such a good job with his Big newsletter that I hardly needed to carry on.

Also you can wait for years to see any glimmer of interest in monopolies in this country.

Because we have lost the centre ground in the UK – and neither the right nor the left are very interested in monopoly power. Neither think that real free, open markets are important.

The left has no track record of interest in issues of scale and consolidation, because they believe free trade is effective.

The right has a simplistic view – similar to Robert Bork and Milton Friedman under Ronald Reagan in the USA – that there is no such thing as monopoly power.

Anti-trust is a liberal approach to economics – and unfortunately the Lib Dems in the UK have forgotten this too.

Because of this, I believe, we have no interest in the way corporations behave towards us. We are obsessed by the old touchstones - inflation or public spending - but we don't normally see how these issues of scale are connected to both.

We appear to be like frogs in the frying pan, slowly cooking away, while the dwindling number of corporates in the UK laugh all the way to Wall Street and back,

Wednesday 21 September 2022

We all need a bit of magic in our lives

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

I am currently engaged in a debate with a Lib Dem friend (hello Chris!) about my last posting in this blog – about why I’m not a republican.

It’s a private debate, which is why I’m not saying who it is. He said he tried to post his comments underneath the blog, but he gave up in the end and just sent them to me.

He accused me of sentimentality. Let’s be fair and say that he also thinks that, for the time being – until we get “more important things like a written constitution, PR for the Commons and councils, reform of the House of Lords, making Britain less London-centric, etc, the monarchy is the least bad option for providing a head of state”.

He adds that “anyone calling themselves a British liberal must address the issue that any country that denies its citizens the right to aspire to being head of state needs to have a bloody good reason for doing so”.

This is where I have to disagree. Accusations of sentimentality are also accusations of emotionalism in politics – a serious charge these days.

Why? In case, by being emotional about stuff you end up like Trump – or worse. This is especially true in the UK where enochlophobia rules – the fear of crowds, which has been the case since at least 1780, when the Gordon Riots tore London apart.

The trouble with this attitude is that it makes life pretty dull.

Why did the anti-Brexit forces fail? Because they stayed rigidly cerebral, explaining Project Fear logically. If they had dragged out Vera Lynn and a couple of Spitfires, they might have been more successful. As it was, they left all the emotional elements to the other side.

I exaggerate of course, but Liberals ignore the emotional at their peril. It is a case – to quote General Booth, of why the devil should have all the best tunes.

Some years ago, I wrote an essay in a collection called Reinventing the State a sort of social liberal response to the Orange Book – though it was written by many of the same people. The essay was called ‘Liberalism and the search for meaning’.

That was a quotation from Hillary Clinton, ironically enough, because her techocracy – the antithesis of meaning – was what may have lost her the presidential election against Trump. I wrote this:

“Modern liberalism rejects both modernism and economism and it does so on the basis of its own faith: that there is no measuring system that can sum up human beings; that there is no political system that can control them; that only when you allow them the imagination and skill to solve the problems that confront them does humanity move forward. That need not be a religious faith, but it is a belief nonetheless, and it derives from religious dogma that was originally theological, recognising – as it does – that there is an element of the divine in all people, whatever their class, race or creed…

“None of those three insights listed above derive exclusively from the faith traditions that went to make up modern Liberalism: both British nonconformity (and its scepticism about power) and Catholic social doctrine (and its scepticism about centralisation). But they all imply a sceptical approach to the world as it is, a refusal to accept measures of power or wealth as they claim to be. They all demand a different bottom line to measure institutions, beyond value for money.”

I stand by every word, understanding that all politics – as Hilaire Belloc said – has theological roots.

“What lies hidden behind all the figures by way of genuine, personal, human experience?” asked the great liberal dissident Vaclav Havel in 1975, challenging the penchant of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime for utilitarian statistics:

“Supposing we ask, for example, what has been done for the moral and spiritual revival of society, for the enhancement of the truly human dimensions of life, for the elevation of man to a higher degree of dignity, for his truly free and authentic assertion in this world?”

That is why I get nervous when senior politicians on the left say, as Alistair Campbell once did, that they don’t “do God”. Because if the left decides this, they will find it hard to speak to people’s profound longing for meaning, including spiritual meaning.

None of this implies that every leftist party needs a spiritual dimension – or that only monarchy can provide these things. But it is tremendously important that they don’t rule them out.

Because there is a mystical hint of magic about a monarchy, if it stretches far enough back.

That is why – as I wrote last week – the monarch takes those intolerant strands that tend to emerge in former empires and renders them safe. Without their kings and queens, many former monarchies in Europe have flirted with fascism over the last century or so.

I don’t believe I am being sentimental about the monarchy. Nor do I feel I am being deferential.

There is a paradoxical equality under a monarchy, where money and wealth is irrelevant (or to ought to eb). Which is why you might have found people yourself next to people like David Beckham, Theresa May, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Keir Starmer, Tilda Swinton or Sharon Osbourne. alongside everyone else in the great five-mile 14-hour queue…

I know there are many of us on the left who believe that the system is everything. All I would say is that everyone needs a bit of magic in their lives as well.

And if that is sentiment, then I happily embrace it…

Saturday 3 September 2022

What does inflation really mean?

This post was first published on the blog of Radix UK.

I know, I know. It is supposed to be about too much money chasing too few goods – but, more fundamentally, what is it about?

I ask this question partly because there is now so much disagreement about this, even among economists. But partly also because I remember Michael Rowbotham, in his influential 1998 book The Grip of Death – the book that raised the curtain on the set of beliefs we now know as MMT or modern monetary theory – had an answer. He said:

“Inflation is not caused by too much money; it is caused by too much debt-money… The whole principle of changing from a debt-based to a credit-based economy is that money needs to be created, both to provide a stable money stock and to allow repayment of excessive debts… As long as it is created free of debt, distributed in the right way, and with parallel supporting measures, such money can be created in complete safety. It will not cause inflation and will simply support the functioning of the economy. The debt-free money distributed as a basic income would not cause spiraling inflation, runaway inflation, soaring inflation, hyper or mega inflation, or supa-dupa-cosmic inflation with flashing lights and sirens. It will not cause inflation because, in a modern economy, inflation is not caused by too much money …”

More fundamentally said Rowbotham, inflation is caused by human greed…

I can see what he meant. But I have a feeling that it is even more fundamental than that: inflation is caused by inequality. The more unequal the people using a currency are, the more prone to inflation it will be.

Take our current situation. Prices are rising primarily because food and fossil fuels are both scarce – mainly because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

They are rising faster because our economies are now so interconnected, and because the fine mesh of local business has been trashed and ignored by successive governments.

But where does too much money come in? I mean, if oil and gas prices carry on rising as fast as they are doing, then – in theory at least – that should have the same effect as raising interest rates.

By taking money out of the economy, shouldn’t it lower prices?

And if all things were equal, that is what it would do – but they are not. In fact, so much of our economy in the UK now panders to the ultra-rich that it has worn grooves where the money flows towards them. It gathers around them like great fatbergs and the inflation gathers there too. Then, hey presto! It spreads around.

In that respect, I think those economists around Liz Truss may be right not to emphasise the conventional treatment for inflation – rising interest rates – because that may not be effective.

Of course, giving out tax cuts won’t help very much either (quite the reverse!).

Raising interest rates will simply undermine house price inflation – which we badly need to do – but that won’t help reduce the cost of food and fuel.

So what can we do? First, levelling up or down has never been more urgent.

We also need to tackle the shortage of gas by replacing the 44 per cent of UK electricity that is currently provided by gas – and with offshore wind now down to 37p per kWh (a third of the cost of power from the Hinkley Point white elephant), we have maybe some chance of doing that.

Unlike homes, the demand is not endless for fuel here. You can’t build your way out of house price inflation, because far eastern investors will simply swoop in and buy them up. You can provide enough energy.

Thirdly, we need a larger proportion of our money to be created free of debt, for the reasons that Mike Rowbotham set out. Otherwise all but three per cent of our money supply has to be paid back to someone – plus a bit. It has inflation already baked into it.

Finally, we need to remake the economy – so that it isn’t any more dominated in any sector by a handful of megacorps.

I have become convinced that the anti-trust blogger Matt Stoller is right to blame the failure of American regulators to prevent oligopolies building up for inflation.

Maybe it is just as Michael Rowbotham said – at root, inflation is a symptom of the greed of a society.

Monday 15 August 2022

Where have our fields gone? Gone to maize - but not for eating...

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

I have been away in Spain and Portugal for nearly a fortnight and I can’t say that the news on the BBC was particularly welcoming as we made our way laboriously back from Plymouth where the ferry docked.

Thanks to lockdown, which has limited holidays abroad, I had forgotten the phenomenon that – whenever you go abroad, it doesn’t matter how long for - the headlines seem almost identical when you get home to what they were when you left.

So drought and inflation greeted us, plus the interminable clash between competing truisms and clichés known as the Conservative leadership election.

What for example are we to make of Liz Truss’s promise, made at the Cheltenham racecourse, that she was going to stop the loss of agricultural land to solar farms?

Were it not or the probability that this was a soundbite designed to appeal to the blue rinse brigade – with a hint of climate scepticism – I might have agreed. I set out an alternative before I left, in fact.

But I also have some news for Liz. The problem she hinted at is far bigger than she realises.

Nearly everywhere you look in western Europe now – certainly in Sussex where I live – there are fields after fields growing dwarf maize.

I know that, locally, these corn cobs  will in the fullness of time make their way to the anaerobic digesterat Wappingthorn Farm. But across the UK, how much of our valuable farmland is now dedicated to growing maize to feed an industry that was supposed to be fuelled by waste products?

It is hard to get accurate or up-to-date figures about this. The government’s 2020 survey suggested that 121,000 hectares are now devoted to energy crops – including biodiesel – or a little over 2 per cent of agricultural land (about the same as farmers now use for growing potatoes). About 75,000 hectares of that was maize - which in itself shows an amazing acceleration since 2012.

We won’t know last year’s figures until December this year, but luckily we have one of the few commentators who understand these issues, and George Monbiot gave over his Guardian column to biofuels in June:

“As the investigative group Transport & Environment shows, the land used to grow the biofuels consumed in Europe covers 14m hectares (35m acres): an area larger than Greece. Of the soy oil consumed in the European Union, 32% is eaten by cars and trucks. They devour 50 per cent of all the palm oil used in the EU and 58 per cent of the rapeseed oil. Altogether, 18 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil is turned into biodiesel, and 10 per cent of the world’s grains are transformed into ethanol, to mix with petrol…”

A report for the Green Alliance published earlier this year suggests that food used by the UK alone for biofuels could feed 3.5 million people (or a massive 1.9 billion people worldwide.

The government recently increased its targets for biofuels production. But clearly something happened in the last twelve months to turbo-charge the production of maize for anaerobic digesters across Europe. Probably the desperate search for sources to replace Russian gas.

Food prices have to be higher as a result.

Added to which, maize is a sub-tropical crop. It requires a great deal of water and herbicide. It is therefore highly polluting. But for some reason it is exempted from regulations to protect the environment – which must have something to do with its sudden popularity.

In other words, wrote Monbiot when he first took up this topic in 2014, “the crop that does most damage to the soil is specifically exempted from the rules designed to protect the soil. I have asked Defra six times for an explanation, and it has failed on all of these occasions to provide one. My conclusion, which holds until it deigns to provide an answer, is that maize could not be grown in this country if it were subject the rules that apply to other crops.”

So when you ask why food prices are rising, you only have to remember that – thanks to central government targets – a great deal of our land is being taken out of production to provide ‘waste’ for biofuels and the anaerobic digestion industry.

The danger is, when you have a single crop growing so ubiquitously from northern England down to the middle of Spain, that this is when you develop blights – which is what happened before the Irish potato famine 1848.

Farmers are being urged to grow grasses alongside the maize, in order to keep the land fertile, and to prevent some of the herbicide and pesticide run-off. I haven’t seen this being done anywhere. So I can only assume that we could find ourselves without either the maize or the land it is currently wasting.

And what would Liz Truss say then?

Wednesday 13 July 2022

Was Boris felled by a Treasury-inspired coup

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

The peculiar Englishness of the business about the resignation of Boris Johnson was brought home to me by the following plea in the newsletter of the American scourge of narrow-mindedness everywhere, Bari Weiss.

She said that, when it came to it, she didn’t quite understand all the nuances. “If we have a reader who understands British politics, please leave us an explainer in the comments,” she wrote. “Like, for example, can someone explain this?”

She then quoted a tweet which in turn quoted Hugh Grant…

“Hugh Grant tweeted a request at activists protesting outside Westminster to play the Benny Hill theme on their loudspeakers; when they did it became the soundtrack for street interviews with leading Tories trying explain the situation to the British people.”

It seemed very obvious to me – until I tried to put it into words. You see, Bari … um…

Benny Hill was a British comedy actor, whose Thames TV show used to come on weekly after the News at Ten. It always ended with a wild, silent film-style, Chaplin-esque chase to the tune of ‘Yakety Sax’, by the Nashville musician Boots Randolph.

This accompanied the speeded up antics of Benny Hill as he variously runs away from or chases – mainly women or nurses. Sex was involved, in theory at least: they never caught each other. It probably wouldn’t be commissioned today.

My main memory is of Benny Hill in a speeded-up film chasing a scantily clad woman through the countryside – with arms outstretched and fingers scrabbling.

The truth is that there is something of the current government in it – as Hugh Grant cleverly recognised – any scene you can think of would be rendered ridiculous by being speeded up and having Yakety Sax put in over the top. The more pompous it is, the better. It’ s bit like whistling the Laurel and Hardy theme song at policemen on parade.

Nor is it just about expensive incompetence either. I think we can all see Boris chasing buxom, scantily-clad females on a speeded up film, arms outstretched in front, just as four decades ago or more since we used to watch Benny Hill do it.

Or have I overlooked some element here that I should have explained? I think we should be told…

But the question is what was really happening in Downing Street last week?

This is important because the answer should go to the heart of what is about to happen to us all – and, although he has denied it, it looked awfully like Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid had collaborated with each other in a concerted attempt to force out Boris Johnson.

But what was so special about that moment? Why did Rishi have to go then, immediately before the long-awaited press conference planned for months by Sunak with Boris Johnson to announce a joint approach.

It was known that the two men had been at loggerheads about the message. Johnson wanted tax cuts and greater spending in the levelling up agenda; Sunak did not believe we could afford them.

For me, the whole affair looked like a coup orchestrated at the Treasury.

I remember a friend of mine confiding in me, after his first couple of weeks as a coalition spad in 2010, that he had realised that the real enemies were not either Tory or Labour – the real enemy was the Treasury.

That is not to say that I think we can afford the tax cuts the candidates seem so keen to give us (except for Sunak, of course).

The truth is that the days of the famous Laffer curve – the line graph drawn on a paper napkin in a Washington restaurant by the Conservative economist Arthur Laffer – have now pretty much disappeared.

He was discussing proposed tax increases by Gerald Ford in 1974, but we don’t have nearly such high rates of tax as they did in those days. On either side of the Atlantic.

So what should a radical centrist do in these circumstances? Who should they support? Should they support one of eight – or perhaps call for some other method of choosing prime ministers than asking 200,000 elderly types to decide for us?

Or should they maybe – like an older lady I overheard on the station platform when the news came through about the Johnson resignation – say: “Well, that is a pity. I really liked him!

Because, for all his faults, Boris was not in any sense a technocrat – and he seems likely to be replaced by one, or even worse, one still so backward that they still believe in the Treasury model of centralisation and trickle down.

But we are a think tank, and it is worrying how few of the candidates appear to be thinkers. If I was a member of the Conservative Party (which I’m not), I would have been hoping that Michael Gove would enter the fray.

I realise this would not be a popular in most quarters, inside or outside the party. Gove seemed to be one of the few genuinely competent people in the cabinet, capable not just of envisaging and articulating a future that works – but understanding the system well enough to push it through.

Still, maybe his final bruising encounter with the man who is still prime minister (he was sacked) has taken the wind out of his sails.

Failing him, what do we do? Another thinking Conservative minister is George Freeman, the founder of the Big Tent – which we at Radix merged with last year – and he is one of those managing Penny Mordaunt’s campaign. So maybe she’s the one.

The question is – can you imagine anyone filming her to the tune of Benny Hill? Her campaign video is bound to raise a few eyebrows in non-Conservative circles.

It would also probably look good speeded up to the tune of Yakety Sax.


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...