Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Ministerial Honesty - is this a first?


In an address to the Development Trusts Association, Cabinet Office Minister, Nick Hurd appears to have been surprisingly honest:

"We have a very short timeframe in which to review public spending so there is a risk that in too many areas – including those places where social capital is already low - we will get it wrong."

Help! A Government Minister admits to the possibility of "getting it wrong"? Have we moved to a strange parallel universe? And there's more:

"decisions have to be taken very quickly – often without being properly thought through"

Amazing. Staggering.

Is this what they meant by the 'new politics'?


Monday, 28 June 2010

Breaking the chains of community.


There has been a terrible hoo-hah about the suggestion from Iain Duncan Smith that we might consider making it a little easier for people to relocate so as to get work. The criticisms fall into three camps: those from the Labour Party that involve making up what IDS said and comparing it to something they pretend Norman Tebbit said; those from well-meaning activists who claim that the proposals would “force” ordinary folk away from the bosom of their community thereby destroying everything good about society; and finally those who say it won’t work because there aren’t any jobs to be had anyhow.

It seems to me – whichever of these criticisms is taken – that they all rest on the supremacy of one particular take on community. And on the protection, sustenance and development of that “community” - even when the community has, for lack of employment, become wholly dysfunctional. We should “fix” the community rather than encourage its break up and decline. It strikes me that this belief in a sort of community stasis is potentially very damaging and does not reflect the reality of human nature or the evolution of societies.

In parts of our Northern cities (and in other places such as the mining villages of the Welsh valleys and County Durham) we have whole places that exist because of the need to house and support people who worked in particular industries. Today, whatever we may think about the reasons for the demise of those industries, they are no more and the reasons for such places must be questioned. Yet we persist – as we have done for thirty years and more – with the pouring of resources into these “deprived communities” hoping vainly for some miracle cure.

With the decline of mass industrial employment we have to question the point or purpose of places such as Bradford’s Holme Wood estate or the Seacroft estate in Leeds. Today, rather than these being full of homes for proud industrial workers they are become places where society’s flotsam and jetsam washes up. Approaching 70% of all “social housing” is now filled with vulnerable people – the folk housing people call “general needs” (who we would call ordinary folk on ordinary wages) simply don’t get housed in these places. Instead former council housing fills with the workless, with single parent families, with drug addicts and with alcoholics. Places that once were proud working communities have become sinks of despair – with the worst schools, the poorest access to care and the highest rates of crime.

As IDS put it a while back while speculating about the proverbial Martian's view of British social housing:

Let’s imagine the proverbial Martian were to land here in the UK today. Knowing nothing of our housing policies, you might ask him to go out and establish the purpose of social housing from what he sees.

On his return I fancy this would be his summary:

"Social housing is clearly there to separate the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional and vulnerable people from the rest of society. It’s an objective you have achieved very efficiently."

With nearly half of all social housing now in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods, you couldn’t fault the logic. As you all know better than me, the contraction in social housing of the last thirty years has residualised the tenure. Many areas of social housing are blighted by fractured families, worklessness, educational failure, addictions, serious personal debt, anti-social behaviour and crime.

Too many tenants find themselves on estates where welfare dependency is a way of life, cut off from the job opportunities, social networks and wealth the rest of us enjoy. Inadvertently and incrementally, a damaging social apartheid has emerged as social housing has changed.

So why do we want to keep such places going? Why not provide routes up and out from these places for those who have the motivation to get up and go look for work elsewhere – somewhere there might just be some? Why not provide a little incentive for people to escape from the stigma of the sink estate? And why do we seemingly insist – with our tales of “hollowed out communities” and reinforcing decline – on sustaining the unsustainable. On some kind of depressing ‘all for one and one for all’ principle – if y’all can’t have then no-one gets.

We are told all the time that “community” is good. That we shouldn’t challenge the idea of community or question its basis as the centre of social policy. And that the protection and development of community must sit at the centre of government actions in deprived places. Sometimes – just sometimes – community might not be the right answer.

Sometimes breaking the chains of community might just be a liberation for people.


Sunday, 27 June 2010

Black men, black culture and the economics of crime


The Sunday Telegraph today reports on the – unsurprising in many ways – revelation that:

“The Official figures, which examine the ethnicity of those accused of violent offences in London, suggest the majority of men held responsible for gun crimes, robberies and street crimes are black.”

On the back of these figures a debate arises as to the reasons for this situation. And sadly beneath the careful words there is a worrying tendency to promote the view that the situation exists because they are black. That somehow there is something in the nature of black men that leads them to crime and especially violent crime.

Mostly this racism is shifted one notch away from allegations of genetic inclination to criminality towards a “cultural” explanation. This argues that, somewhere in the prevailing mores of Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community is a dark truth of a violent culture. Such critics point to the popularity of music with violent lyrics, to the supposed importing of US gang culture – with its bling, drugs and guns – and to the criminal culture of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.

Others – including black observers like Shaun Bailey direct our attention to welfare and to the fact that a frightening proportion of London’s black community exists on benefits. Here’s Shaun:

“Our children grow up trapped in the benefit system. They see benefit dependency as a ‘lifestyle’: the best one available other than becoming a criminal.”

There’s a point to this except that, in and of itself, benefit dependency does not make criminals – it is as likely to provide a cover for criminality as it is to be its cause. And it is in this fact – in the reality of economics that I think the ‘explanation’ lies. Black kids get involved in violent crime because it is – on the face of it – the rational thing to do. I know this sounds bonkers but allow me to elaborate.

There's a hint in the second half of the quote from Shaun Bailey – becoming a criminal seems to many kids (and not just black ones) a pretty rational option. They grow up surrounded by crime – from fiddling benefits and shoplifting to burglary and bag snatching – and most of those involved are not obviously economic failures (at least in the limited perspective of the kids looking on).

The crime industry on our estates – and elsewhere in our inner cities – is become the dominant private business. It has clear hierarchies, provides (fairly harsh) discipline and control, allows for low level entry and competes aggressively for business. And the leadership of the business promotes machismo as a key attribute because the willingness to conduct acts of violence is crucial to the continuing success of the business. And such violence – the guns, the knives and the testosterone-fuelled strutting – becomes attractive because it is directly associated with the most successful in business.

You will find no real difference if you turn to look at the criminality of white young men from the peripheral estates surround Northern cities or for that matter the same behaviour among Pakistani immigrants to those same cities. The precise nature of the business varies (although drugs are always involved somewhere) with some preferring burglary to mugging but the reality is that, across Britain, there’s a group – a socio-economic group not a racial or cultural group – for whom crime pays.


Saturday, 26 June 2010

A little on the glory of the garden....


After a day hacking. chopping, digging, mowing and trimming I feel rather better than I did yesterday. For sure most of my body feels like someone's been over it with a meat tenderiser but the garden now looks cared for - able to grow a little, to bud and to flower.

And the garden needs this care. After a week of so of letting it rip and few judicious cuts, a little reality for the burgeoning green stuff and termination for the weeds that get in the way of the garden's glory.

Nature does the good stuff - what I do is make it possible for that to happen.


Friday, 25 June 2010

Could we save some of the cost of local government by scrapping most of it?


Once upon a time local government was a pretty straightforward activity. What happened was that local residents and local business paid a tax based (rather loosely) on property value to a City or Town Hall and, in return received a set of services and amenities. Roads, parks, playgrounds, libraries and public halls were provided, bins were emptied, streets were swept and council housing was there for the less well paid. Big councils – Counties and County Boroughs provided schools and delivered support to the indigent in one way of another. It was all good and fine and, as we know, there wasn’t much poverty or any of that dread deprivation to get in the way.

Most councils saw themselves in a matter-of-fact way – there wasn’t a lot of pointless party political posturing getting in the way of the sound business of providing services to the local community in return for the rates. People who worked at the council were ever so slightly dull – either clerkly sorts in sombre grey suits, chaps in uniforms with napoleon complexes or solid blokes with dirty hands from planting flower beds, shovelling rubbish or digging the roads.

But something changed – not only was poverty rediscovered and less wealthy folks ‘problematised’ (as those sociologists like to say) but central government discovered the deep joy of making up rules and regulation for councils to implement. The first of these – the Local Authority Social Services Act of 1970 – ostensibly pulled together existing services but, in truth, acting to create an engine of endless, self-sustaining social intervention. Each tragic case – from Maria Colwell through Kennedy MacFarlane to Victoria ClimbiĆ© and ‘Baby P’ – resulted in an extension of the rules, a further collection of ‘experts’ and more meetings, more bureaucracy. It is with a degree of tragic inevitability that there will be a future tragedy, a future review of enquiry and future changes, improvements and extensions to supposed ‘child protection’ regulation.

On top of creating the monster of social services came other bureaucratisations masquerading and ‘professionalising’ service. Greater ‘strategic planning’ powers were granted, councils took on a bigger role in the administration of a burgeoning welfare system and given these new powers many councils no longer saw their role as that boring one of serving the local resident and the local business but a much grander role of social engineering. Improvement, betterment – the grandiose process of municipal pseudo-socialism where not a thing happens in the town without the professionals at the – now renamed – civic centre having at least a figure and preferably an arm up to the elbow firmly there embedded.

Where once there was a ‘town clerk’ sprung up a ‘chief executive’. And with such a grand title came other grandly titled roles – the Head of Parks transmuted into ‘Strategic Director, Leisure’ and the ‘City Solicitor’ became ‘Director of Legal Services’. Each of these grand, important people required oppos – folk to carry the bags. And so we found a new generation of ‘Assistant Directors’ – and below them those folk actually doing the work, ‘Heads of Service’. And across all of this came the support roles – each position requires at least on ‘personal assistant’ and every function (no matter how small) requires a policy team.

Something had to be done and, as ever, Tony Blair was up for the job! In a massive change the old system was swept away – and alongside all those important, professional management jobs we now have the professional councillor. Gone were the days when the local solicitor, businessman, retired schoolteacher or trade union steward put themselves forward for the council – aiming to serve not to climb up some career ladder sustained by payment from the public purse. Those old councillors were respected – on occasion admired – for their sense of service. We looked up to them as men and women of substance in the community – people who made decisions. Today the local councillor – paid a stipend from the public purse – is seen as just another little part in the bureaucratic cog. For some – the grand, important leaders of political groups – the pay is pretty good these days (as are the opportunities for trips out, jollies and boondoggles). Such folk are the elite of the new professional councillor – trained, with job descriptions, working to KPIs and penning annual reports.

And, my dear reader, do you think you get a better service from your council as a result of all this professionalisation? Are your local councillors – assuming you’ve the first idea who they are – vastly better than those of times past? And has the result been a more effective, less costly, higher quality set of services? Of course not – we have replaced the delivery of service with the bureaucratisation of efficiency with the result being less good services delivered more expensively and less accountably. Where councillors – plus the ordinary council worker going about his or her ordinary day job - once provided all the community engagement needed we now spend millions scraping at the surface of engagement. And failing.

Local councils are now unwieldy, ineffective, badly focused and over-bureaucratic. They do too much and achieve too little. They cost more than ever before yet are less popular than at any point in history. People no longer make the link between electing a councillor and the local services they receive. Instead they see powerless – even useless – councillors lined up against a vast horde of faceless, badly suited bureaucrats speaking a strange language that almost entirely fails to explain why the streets are swept as well as in the past, why there’s no park keeper and why the council tax spirals ever upwards.

The experiment of municipal vastness has failed – we do not get better services (and they certainly ain’t cheaper) from bigger local councils. Big councils need breaking up – services should be owned, operated and delivered at a human scale again with local folk involved in designing and running them. We don’t need an Assistant Director, Cleansing (or whatever) to organise the sweeping of streets in Cullingworth – just a bloke with a trolley and a broom who knows the area and cares a little. We don’t need a vast anonymous office filled with clerks to run the local primary – treat it like any small business and it will thrive, Above all we don’t need rooms full of planners, policy officers, strategists and professional whatever they are – these are now an intolerable burden on the public who just want ordinary, simple services delivered like they used to be delivered.

The solution? Maybe we should shut down all top tier local authorities, abolish the unnecessary education bureaucracy, hand over social services to health authorities and create small, accountable community councils that can deliver the simple, straightforward services local folk want from their Council?


Why, if you have to put up taxes (and you don't), VAT is the right tax to raise


Much noise has been made about the intention to raise VAT in January 2011. Now, I’d better start by saying that I’d rather the money came from spending reductions than from tax rises. But, if we’re to have tax rises I’d prefer them to be taxes on spending rather than taxes on working and earning.

The debate about the increase in VAT has boiled down to a rather sterile, ‘did-didn’t’ argument about whether the tax is or is not regressive. The argument goes that increasing VAT is really really bad because it falls hardest on poor folk who spend (rather than save) more of their income. The Labour Party produced some rather dodgy stats showing how terrible was this impost (and before anyone asks, the stats are dodgy for a whole host of reasons the biggest being a classic rule of metrics – not comparing two scales measuring different things – but I digress).

Now I’m absolutely sure that those who have high levels of saving pay a lower proportion of their earnings in VAT. But, I’m also sure that those folk (largely in the third quartile rather than the bottom quartile) for whom housing costs are proportionately highest also pay less of their earnings in tax. Indeed the VAT changes – relatively if not absolutely – are good news for those mythic “hard-working families”.

But yes, VAT does tend to be regressive. And, you know, I don’t care. The use of the tax system as a tool for social engineering is a moral affront – whether it’s ‘sin’ taxes on booze, fags and driving or a so-called ‘progressive’ income tax system. But worse – and this is important because economics is, of course, amoral – such uses for the tax system are inefficient. Progressive tax systems are less efficient at securing the funds needed for the government to deliver its programmes.

Worse still progressive systems are market distorting – the tax system sends out sub-optimal incentives that affect behaviour as people seek to maximise their post-tax income (a situation that can and does lead to actual and virtual international flight). Taxing spending is less likely to result in these distortions (unless – as is the case with booze and fags – special extra, market-distorting taxes are imposed) and is therefore fairer and less damaging to the economy.


Thursday, 24 June 2010

Thoughts on what you would have read if the IT had worked!


I wrote a brilliant, insightful, budget-related article in my break today. You all would have been staggered by its depth, by the breadth of its argument and by the lyricism of its prose.

For reasons that are of no importance, I e-mailed it to my Council address. Sadly, Council IT has let me down this evening so you'll have to imagine the forceful brilliance of the article.

The great irony is that I wrote about the new obsession with being a "professional" - not that nasty lower class trade stuff. This is the snobbishness of a past age revisited in the public sector - a rejection of business, of getting your hand dirty and the professionalisation of everything - from managing a bin collection service to delivering meals on wheels.

We can't afford such superiority any more.


Monday, 21 June 2010

Leading the nation of shopkeepers - some thoughts


I had planned to write a reminiscence of Ted Heath who I knew briefly when I was a trainee agent in the Bexley Sidcup Conservative Association offices back in 1982. But in thinking about what I would say, I was struck by the fact that not only was the country led by the product of grammar schools from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s but, in the case of the Conservative Party, one formative element in our leaders lay in the retail trade. Heath was jokingly (and not kindly) referred to as “the grocer”, Margaret Thatcher famously grew up over the shop in Grantham and John Major’s Dad sold garden ornaments. It seems so right that the nation of shopkeepers – and nothing wrong with that at all – was finally governed by people who understood the fundamentals of trade. Who had seen first hand the pain and pleasure of retail – the good days when folk queue out the door and those bad, rainy days when the surfaces are spotless but hardly a single sale is made.

In many ways Blair was a return to type for our leaders – expensive education, professional parents and a comfortable berth in the law. And when we look across the current choice – Cameron, Clegg, assorted Milibands, Balls – what we see are more like Blair. Above all, no shopkeepers, nobody with that retail nous. And I worry that this is one reason for our current problems – we’ve had leaders who simply don’t get it, who buy those complicated schemes and involved solutions because they believe themselves clever enough to understand them. But they don’t understand them and they don’t understand the essence of trade – the reality of retail.

Let me explain. I’m a clever chap with plenty of pieces of paper demonstrating my cleverness – degrees, diplomas, certificates and prizes. But my wife is far cleverer because she has the instinctive, visceral appreciation of trade, of business. Kathryn doesn’t need telling why buying and selling, making and consuming, is the essence of human endeavour – she knows that to be true because she was brought up in a trading world. Firstly through import and export to West Africa and then over a general store in a Bradford suburb – Kathryn (as the saying goes) “gets it”.

I like to think that this essential appreciation of trade – drawn from the experience of retail – has been a boon to our government bringing common sense, a sense of the practical and the understanding that your work has to add value to be valued. Leaders like Heath, Thatcher and Major – for all their foibles, faults and failings – were more in tune with the business of Britain that our current crop of pampered hacks.

In the same way that French leaders should have their boots in the soil, British leaders need to have stood behind the counter.


Sunday, 20 June 2010

Banks, budgets and the Archbishop calling for unethical behaviour


Every now and then national newspapers – in what I guess is some form of social service – hand over prominent columns to senior churchmen. Mostly the resulting mushy thinking can be ignored or ridiculed in the same manner we treat thought for the day but sometimes the opinions expressed are thoroughly disturbing.

The Sunday Telegraph published a column penned by the Archbishop of Westminster – England’s top catholic priest – in which he urges the banks (or more specifically the leaders of banks) to behave unethically.

A key part of the change needed is to forge a cultural consensus in the financial sector that its licence to operate depends on a clear and demonstrable commitment to service. Of course, profits have to be made if an efficient and thriving financial sector is in fact to serve society. But the ethical judgment, which has to be transmitted right through the organisations concerned, is that profit must only be a means to this end, and not an end in itself. We have a long way to go to achieve this.

What the priest is saying is that managers within banks should make decisions that are not about securing the maximum return on the capital invested in the business. So what, I hear you all saying? This is wrong – not just against the interests of the business but straightforwardly unethical. Those managers – however much they are paid – are merely agents of the business owners. And the business owners require that the business focus on maximising return on investment (I know this because I am one of those business owners).

Secondly this priest says that financial organisations operate only under licence. Where on earth he gets this idea from (perhaps it comes from on high) but it is again suggesting that there should be some other relationship of significance beside those between owners and managers and between the business and its customers. Again it is unethical to suggest that a business should only operate under some unspecified entitlement rather than as a consequence of the free use of property.

The article then descends into typical priest-speak about social justice, equality and demonstrating a profound ignorance of economics and the point of measuring economic performance. And up pops the mushy thinking:

A great deal of the support which any government needs in such difficult circumstances will depend on the extent to which it is seen to be acting impartially and prudently, with a demonstrable care for basic human needs and a continuing sense of our responsibility in the wider world. A powerfully positive message will be sent if in Tuesday’s Budget the overseas aid programme to assist the development of the world’s poorest people is not cut.

Sorry Archbishop but the support for the government will come if it’s seen to be sorting out the mess – that’s it really. Where it matters – the bond markets, the stock exchange, the real economy – the positive response will come if the deficit is eliminated and the debt begins to fall. And not giving India £300 million thereby allowing them to buy up our manufacturing industry might be a good start towards achieving that aim.


Green tea, trade and a better world (or maybe just a pleasant Sunday morning)

I bought some green tea in a shop in Leeds. At a shop run by (I think) Kurds but they might be Persians. The tea is sold under the Alwazah brand, is grown in Sri Lanka and shipped by a Colombo-based British company, James Finlay (Ceylon), Ltd. I rather like this – it speaks to me of how trade does that job of connecting people and places so much better than all the diplomacy, summits and boondoggles of the governing classes. And, as you might expect from Ceylon, it’s pretty good tea, too.

It isn’t just the manifest – and substantial - benefits accruing from free trade that should concern us but the realisation that trade builds partnerships, connections, shared interests and, dare I say it, peace. Trade depends on mutual advantage rather than exploitation or seizure and the fact that the thing I buy is valued more by me than it is by you increases the size of human wealth and happiness. And in that added value comes profits – the profit that allows for the promotion of human progress, for the investment in discovery and the exploration of our world’s boundaries. Without trade that progress is no more.

Surely then our governments should seek the most beneficial and advantageous trade arrangements? Surely, the advantages – social and economic – of free trade are such that its promotion should be top of the world’s agenda? Sadly not. Producer interests – those who would seek profit in a way that disadvantages the consumer – have captured too much of government. We pour vast millions of taxes in agricultural subsidy, we set up special protections preventing a nice lady in North Yorkshire from making feta cheese or the butcher round the corner from curing parma ham, we prattle on about patronising managed trade systems dubbed “fair trade” and we think it right to give huge bungs to basic industries just to buy a few votes. All these acts are at the expense of consumers – they represent a hidden tax in the form of less supply and higher prices.

So I look at this tin of tea (and I love that it’s in a tin too) and think of all the connections, the jobs and above everything the wealth that flows from a plantation in Ceylon to a shop in Burmantofts. Plus of course my pleasure on a Sunday morning.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Government's wine and the Lord Mayor's Car - image, entertainment and the taxpayer's cash

A year or two ago Bradford Council replaced the Lord Mayor’s car. At the time there was a little debate – not about whether the Lord Mayor should have a car but which car. The Greens wanted the council to replace it with a Toyota Prius limo as part of Bradford’s contribution to saving the planet. In another camp were those of us who took the view that Bradford’s first citizen should ride in a rather better vehicle.

As a result on this debate, the council’s officers went out and bought a BMW which means the Lord Mayor rides around in a grey beemer more suited to the sales director of a mid-sized textile company (if we had any left). The argument was that this vehicle best suited the brief – it was a good price, would hold its value well, had a lower carbon footprint and was economical to run.

It still seems to me that, if we are to have a ‘first citizen’ (perhaps a debate for another time), then people expect him to be splendid – all the rigmarole, the silly hat, the ermine trimmed robes, the fancy car, the chain of office and the big mace are essential to the point and purpose of the role. The Lord Mayor isn’t Cllr Peter Hill but a personification of the city and its people.

But I appreciate that others take a more prosaic view of such indulgence – especially in these straightened times. After all this is taxpayers money and why should the taxes from some bloke with an eight year old Ford Mondeo and a mortgage he can barely afford be used for such luxury and indulgence?

Which, of course, brings us to the matter of entertainment and its necessary accompaniment – wine. Former cabinet office minister, Tom Watson, is in a right froth about the government’s wine cellar:

“Every three months or so, a small group of former civil servants dip into the cellar to see if the burgundies are ready for ministers to entertain their foreign guests at sumptuous banquets at Lancaster House. The coalition government says we are all in this together. A one-litre Merlot wine box at Asda costs £10. They know what they have to do. They should sell the government wine cellar."

Now I see Tom’s point (although it worries me that former senior ministers can’t make out the difference between capital and revenue costs – or between accruing investments and costs) but wonder whether taking this action might prove a false economy? The point is whether it’s right to spend those taxes on fine wine (and presumably on the excellent grub) served to visiting dignitaries. Personally I think it right – if we accept the need to entertain those who visit, then it is right to give them a decent glass of red wine. Giving then some hideous boxed merlot would be an insult (and it says a fair amount about Tom Watson’s tastes, I guess).

So don’t sell off the cellar but make it more transparent. Look to exploit the influence of government to get gifts. And, above all get some wine that isn’t bloody French – a few SuperTuscans, some top Spanish vintages and a few of the wonderful new world wines. Oh, and here’s a radical suggestion – with the right dinner serve Taylor’s Landlord or Thatcher’s cider. Let’s take this chance to promote great English produce rather than feeding Frenchmen with French food and wine.

Treating the nation’s guests well is a proper role of government – just as it is proper that Bradford’s Lord Mayor looks the part. I guess we could offer a bag of chips and a can of lager or drive the Mayor round in an old Transit van but I’m not sure that’s what taxpayers want either.


Thursday, 17 June 2010

Barak, BP and the principles of PR


Now it may come as a surprise to those with any knowledge of my political career, but I won a prize for PR once. There it hangs – on the wall of the office – a facsimile of the front page of PR Week resplendent with my prize-winning prowess.

It is on this basis (and I appreciate that it’s a pretty limited basis) that I am going to talk about BP. Or “British Petroleum”, as the Americans like to call the company in an act of guilt displacement almost unmatched in recent times. It would appear that, because of a major oil spill at an American-owned, American-operated drilling platform commissioned by BP, the company has found itself up to its armpits in the proverbial sticky-stuff.

More importantly, what we have seen is the meeting of corporate PR with political PR – and the political PR of the American left to boot. Let me explain.

Effective crisis public relations is predicated on three things – honesty about what is happening, description of the remedies and response in place and the constant availability of senior management in presenting these issues. The theory – that stuff I got the prize for – says that this approach will work. There will still be a crisis but the firm will be seen as having accepted responsibility, responded appropriately and that this response is led by the most senior people in the organisation. BP have done this well – as an example of applying the crisis PR playbook it is spot on. But the playbook didn’t reckon on politics.

The principles (and I use that word loosely) of political PR can be described as – don’t accept responsibility, attack someone else or shift the blame and avoid any careful, factual consideration of how to respond to the particular crisis. Politics is – as the man said – a dirty game and BP have fallen foul of Barak Obama’s need to protect his rather fragile poll position. And the fact that there’s a ‘foreign’ company to blame is a godsend. POTUS couldn’t have wished for a bigger gift horse to snog.

Barak Obama’s actions – once he’d made it clear it was “somebody else’s fault” – have been driven by the polling responses, applause and focus groups not by any coherent strategy to address the problem. Every step has been to reinforce – through attack campaigns, dissembling and what amounts to misinformation – the culpability of a ‘foreign’ company (that happens to be 40% US-owned). The full might of the Obama machine – press, PR, social media – has been directed to blaming BP rather than to working with the company to address the problem.

And, sad to relate, this negative, unpleasant and (according to the PR textbook) wrong campaign is working. It’s a sad world.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: A little Practical Magic

Let’s begin this with a disclaimer. If you think practical magic is something to do with spells, charms or incantations then you’ve come to the wrong place. Magic isn’t something we invoke; it’s something that’s there all around us waiting to be used.

So to practical magic and where better to begin than with Frazer:

“Regarded as a system of natural law, that is, as a statement of the rules which determine the sequence of events throughout the world, it may be called Theoretical Magic: regarded as a set of precepts which human beings observe in order to compass their ends, it may be called Practical Magic.”

So the practice of magic isn’t about spiritual salvation, doesn’t concern itself with god or gods and cannot provide a guide to living. But just as much the practice of magic isn’t about power as we tend to understand power in our frantic modern lives. To understand this you must understand what we mean when we say ‘magic’. In part an exclamation of joy, pleasure or excitement, magic also represents an expression of disbelief.

“How did he do that?” We exclaim, “Its magic!”

But magic is more an expression of synergy – yes, an awesome, magical sunset can be described prosaically by a scientist. But that does not explain why it is magical – the synergy between nature’s genius, our mood and our senses produces the magic. And we know we can use that magic for our ends – to further our desires. As Hoagy sang:

Ole buttermilk sky
Don'cha fail me when I'm needin' you most
Hang a moon above her hitchin' post
And hitch me to the one I love

The strength of practical magic lies not in compulsion but in mood. There is no magic to be found in rage, it is a thing of calm. Speed holds plenty of awe, masses of excitement but little magic. For magic we slow down, take a deep breath, sigh, look about us and say, “what a great place.” Then we see the magic that makes us love, the magic of contentment and the ultimate magic of shared experience.

People who look to magic for power, control or destruction are fools. The magician understands – as Himmagery in Sherri Tepper’s True Game – that people need only recognise his command of magic, there is not need to exercise that command. Practical magic does not need practice to be effective.

What's the German for surreal?


"A German student created a major traffic jam in Bavaria when he made a rude gesture at a group of Hells Angels, hurled a puppy at them and then escaped on a stolen bulldozer."

Excuse me?


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Thoughts on why bilateral aid doesn't work


I have always tried to avoid writing about international aid – not because it’s a subject without importance but because, frankly, my neighbours in Cullingworth don’t put it in their top ten areas of concern. Indeed, there are plenty of folk out there who believe that charity starts at home. But I sense, in the debate about cuts, an imminent upwelling of righteous anger at the audacity of ordinary people who’d prefer their taxes spent on schools, hospitals and coppers rather than on buying 4X4s for ‘aid workers’ to drive around Africa.

Although to be honest, that’s not where the aid cash goes as the biggest (by far) recipient of UK aid is India (nearly £300 million in 2008). You know, that poor country that owns Jaguar and our steel industry (at least the bits it hasn’t closed down yet). Perhaps we should have sent some of that aid to Redcar instead?

OK, I hear you saying that all this can be fixed, a good government will shift the aid programme away from supporting Britain’s foreign policy to targeted support for the poorest countries. Somehow, I doubt this – the purpose of the aid budget is not to alleviate poverty but to purchase the continued support of the recipient countries (although how much this actually works remains moot). That and bilateral aid programmes continue to distort the development of poor country economies because they are not associated with requirements for policy changes.

It is in this last point that multilateral aid differs as the intervention of the World Bank and IMF is always associated with requirements to change economic policies, develop better legal enforcement structures and perhaps try to collect a few taxes. The aid is still market distorting but it provides the recipient nation with a pathway to better governance. That pathway includes things like ending arbitrary land seizure, repatriating overseas sovereign funds, collecting taxes and repaying (yes, repaying) some of that debt.

But when the donor nation doesn’t like the medicine prescribed it just sidles up to a giver of bilateral aid, reels out its sob story and lo, the aid is forthcoming. And nothing is done to give people property rights, no efforts are made to end graft and governments continue with market distorting programmes of urban food subsidy, price-fixing and nationalisation.

The changes that are beginning – slowly – to improve Africa are happening in spite of aid programmes. In truth aid programmes can actively discourage the development of a strong business culture – why bother developing the necessary infrastructure of a free economy when the aid fairy will drop some cash on you tomorrow? If we worried less about so-called fair trade, social justice and other such nonsense – and concerned ourselves with promoting free markets in Africa then we’d be doing a damn sight more for poor folk than all the billions of bilateral aid money.

But if we’re going to spend that money let’s use it to change things rather than prop up corruption, graft and the old third world disorder.


Monday, 14 June 2010

How the BBC licence fee amounts to subsidising middle class hobbies


I return to this matter of the free rider. But this time, I am stretching the thinking a little to look at the extent to which certain groups receive far more value from the BBC licence fee than others. It has seemed to me for some while that, despite its efficiency as a tax (it is after all a near universal poll tax), the license fee presents some issues of equity.

At the heart of this is use – whether or not we get value from the license fee depends on the extent to which we make use of the BBC’s services. As I noted before with cinema popcorn and service stations, there is an implicit cross subsidy within the BBC's business model. And, as with those situations the cross subsidy is intended to ensure that some ‘free’ goods are provided. In the BBC’s case, these free goods are what is termed ‘public service’ and provision for ‘minorities’ (or rather a selected group of minorities – we have an Asian radio station but no station for gypsies, for example). And the biggest minority benefit goes to elite arts and culture.

This all seems perfectly fine until you appreciate that my friends who slump before assorted soaps, televised sport and reality TV are forced to subsidise grand opera, symphony orchestras and ‘up themselves’ late night arts discussions (and frankly such folk are more likely to be annoyed by this than they are irritated by Jonathan Ross’s package). Because of the ‘public service’ requirement (and limiting broadcast restrictions), my friends are contributing to religious programming, to earnest current affairs analyses and the development of a vast internet empire. I suspect that, given a choice, these friends would choose not to cough up for any of this stuff.

Which brings us to the free rider problem. Bluntly, middle class arty-farty types like me are getting a brilliant deal from the BBC – vast subsidies for our narrow, minority interests are achieved by transferring cash from people forced to pay for the license fee who would never pay for subsidising a ballet company. And these people will make some observations about these subsidies – like the fact that their chosen preferences either are too plebby for subsidy (not a lot of public subsidy for the Northern club circuit, I notice) or else are more than capable for paying their own way without support – the BBC aren’t subsidising rugby league, country and western or snooker.

So those of us who enjoy minority music, who want to watch a bunch of smug people pontificate about books we’ll never read or who want to watch god being bothered get this on the cheap because people who don’t want that stuff are paying the same price. And the BBC gets a further economic benefit from all this as those benefiting from this cross-subsidy (which is, generally speaking, from poor to rich) provide an articulate, media-savvy, well-connected lobby aimed at persuading the government to maintain the current poll tax. Plus, of course, reminding the poor saps being ripped off just how important the poll tax is to maintaining these vital cultural institutions.

As a result we have an ‘elite’ arts and cultural sector that is de facto nationalised (this is especially the case with music) – so dependent on continued subsidy that its leaders simply cannot envisage a sustainable model based on the idea that people pay an economic price to watch or listen. The very business model that makes London theatre profitable and allows for the continued extension of aging rock stars’ careers wouldn't work for Philip Glass or Newsnight Review.

I do not think the licence fee should be scrapped rather that a gradual reduction of its significance to the BBC is needed. The BBC’s business model should seek to monetise all those aspects of provision that are not clearly and definably a public service. Over time the license fee should whither to a small amount directed to clearly described and limited purposes – everything else should be paid for by the user, through advertising, using sponsorship or through other charges. I can think of no rational or moral case for carrying on with taking poor people’s money to subsidise rich folk’s hobbies – however much I may like those hobbies.


Sunday, 13 June 2010

Differential pricing keeps overall prices lower - so smile as you stand in the theme park queue!


The use of differential pricing by businesses is not a new practice – from the inception of travel there were different classes with the greatest luxury rationed through pricing and we experience the same with concerts, sports events and even the purchase of utilities. Today, ticketing systems for air travel, railways and much else allow from greater flexibility – it is far easier to capture the efficiencies of advanced sales, for example, or to charge for additional or extra services.

With pricing differential comes, as sure as night follows day, the outcry. Complaints about the terrible injustice of it all. And nothing is more terrible, of course, than me paying extra so as to jump the queue. Especially among the professionally indignant like Netmums fussbucket, Siobhan Freeguard:

“I find it amazing that parents put up with it. It won’t be long before there’s a backlash.”

Siobhan is talking about Alton Towers and the terrible fact that if I fork out loads of cash, I can jump the queues on the rides. Welcome to differential pricing and note, Siobhan, that these are businesses and if the pricing system doesn’t work (i.e. have a positive contribution to overall revenues) then the business will change it or close.

But I suspect there’s still a bunch of folk out there who think the price should be the same for everyone regardless of their degree of organisation (e.g. buying tickets in advance and seeking deals linked to less busy days) or willingness to buy privileges. These are the same people who want a single rail ticket price for everyone despite the fact that this would increase the cost of travel for most intercity travellers.

What these silly netmums and other complainers don’t realise is that differential pricing provides a benefit to all users – those buying privilege are, in effect, subsidising those who are not buying such privileges. Because some people are willing to fork out extra money to jump the queue, your ticket price for the same experience (slightly delayed) is lower.

As consumers we benefit from differential pricing – from greater choice, from more sustainable businesses and from the greater yield management that flexible pricing systems provide. The impact of imposed ‘fairness’ – whether on travel, theme parks or utilities – will be either longer queues or higher prices (and maybe both).


Saturday, 12 June 2010

Change, management and 'getting out of the way'

Having spent a surprisingly good day at the Local Gov Camp, I thought I'd ponder on a puzzle posed (in a roundabout kind of way) by Emma Langman from Progression Partnership – should we “get out of the way”.

Now by “we” I think Emma meant leaders, managers and other boss sorts. And the argument is that, in these times of change (and yes the term ‘paradigm shift’ arose but I shall treat it with contumely) those bosses are actually in the way of achieving change. Management is the problem not the solution. You also need to note that we were talking about government not the wealth-creating part of the economy.

In which case the answer to “should we get out of the way” has to be yes. Government is overweening, often excessive and definitely over-managed. And managers within the public service have – too often – an incentive to sustain the current systems, staffing and methods.

However, the getting out of the way has to be permanent – much more of what we deem “public goods” can and should be provided through private initiative and market mechanisms. If there is to be a ‘paradigm shift’ it has to be away from providing services on the basis of public monopoly and towards a more dynamic model of delivery. To achieve this we need to escape from a planning mentality towards a recognition that dynamics derive from enterprising interaction rather than predict and provide approaches – if anything changes from the regime just gone it is the reliance on planned and targeted approaches.

Ironically the ‘unconference’ approach and participation technologies like ‘open space’ play to this idea of enterprise and collaboration (although too often collaboration leads to consensual mush) and perhaps begin to show a route out from the thicket of targets and the curse of tractor stats. What public sector managers need to display is the confidence to develop similarly trusting, dynamic and engaging approaches to service delivery – including really engaging with the idea of private delivery, co-operative or mutual action and competition.

My worry is that we will see little changing – all the talk of change will be lost in the rhetoric of securing services and sustaining activity and we will once again see the triumph of efficiency over effectiveness.


Friday, 11 June 2010

Copyright, free riders and the New England turnpikes


The problem really isn’t that copyright is a bad thing. As a right it’s not really much different from assorted easements, permissions and other non-physical property rights (I don’t own the drive to my house but I own a right to use it to access my house). So I defend it and the associated right for those who own the copyright to expect the law to be on their side.

The problem is the free rider. Or more importantly the inevitable avoidance of payment (and remember this isn’t a moral argument). As such the challenge for owners of digitised information is how to protect the value of their asset. At present the approach is to seek (or rather to persuade those who administer laws) to seek more and greater powers to identify and control those who are taking a free ride.

This is a short-sighted approach that is ultimately doomed to failure. I’m by no means an expert on the working of the Internet but it seems to me that those who wish to take a free ride are going to carry on doing so. Each endeavour to close the loop – to check the metaphorical ticket – will be defeated by technological creativity. And the ever more draconian measures demanded by the owners will be resisted because of the collateral impact on legitimate activity (or the legal manifestation of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum).

However, we should not dismiss a model simply because of free rider problems – there’s a strong argument for allowing the present system to continue and for alternative models of production, protection and payment to evolve. To understand this I recommend reading this piece by Daniel Klein on the New England turnpike companies where the author describes how – despite a huge double problem of free riding – investors still stumped up to buy stock in these companies. Although these investors became stockholders in a business it was a business that they knew would lose money. In effect their purchase of stock was a private payment to secure the supply of a public good.

It strikes me that ‘investors’ in music, film and software are aware of the free rider problem but recognise that without some willingness to purchase something that free rider problem will mean no music, film or software. Thus we accept the need to purchase. Those businesses that provide simple, easy access to the product in response to these payments are like the turnpike companies in that the purchasers of this access enjoy a smoother journey avoiding the need to travel round the tollgate on a rough, dangerous track.


Friday Fungus: Praying for rain!

It’s OK. I’m not praying for rain tomorrow. The rain dance is aimed at the day before foraging for mushrooms. Right now a torrential downpour will be of little use mushroom-wise (although I did have some rather cute little fairy ring mushrooms in the lawn when I cut it last weekend). But when the mushroom season is here there’s nothing better than a good downpour.

Last autumn – when the picture above was taken – we didn’t have any rain so, despite the availability of a mushroom hunter, we weren’t able to go forage in those lovely Tuscan Hills. It rained just as we were leaving – an arrangement that would, of course, suit most holiday visitors. But not those seeking mushrooms as without the rain the fruiting heads stay small and hidden. To get the full impact that rain is necessary.

So yes I’m praying for rain – 22nd October looks like a good day!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A mad economist writes (some tips on policy-making from over the pond)


The Whited Sepulchre reminds us – and a welcome reminder it is to – about some economic truths that too many commenters ignore. The good blogger asks a series of questions to which you might respond with one of these: 1) Strongly Agree, 2) Somewhat Agree, 3) Somewhat Disagree, 4) Strongly Disagree, or 5) Not Sure.

The questions are:

Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.

Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.

Rent control leads to housing shortages.

A company with the largest market share is not a monopoly.

Third World workers working for American companies overseas are not being exploited.

Free trade does not leads to unemployment.

Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.

Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.

Now I know The Whited Sepulchre is an American and they speak slightly differently from us but these are important questions. And it is important that we understand the right answers and what they mean for policy making.

The right answer, dear reader, is either ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ in every case (and don’t go trying all that ‘ethical’, ‘socially responsible’ stuff – this is economics we’re talking here and economics is amoral). Having established this we can make informed policy decisions rather than emotive appeals to specific target audiences or ideological obsessions.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have minimum wages, development control or rent measures but we do at least know that these decisions have a downside (which may or may not be significant). And we’ll get away from nonsensical statements like these:

Raising the minimum wage will increase employment by getting people off benefits

The planning system has no influence on house prices

Making trainers in Vietnam is immoral

…and so on. We allow what we would like to be the case to govern our decisions rather than what actually is the case. I’m reminded as ever of the wise words of P.J. O’Rourke:

I have only one firm belief about the American political system, and that is this: God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat. God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club. Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. He's always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without the thought of quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.

Were Santa Claus an Englishman he would vote Labour. We already know God’s a Tory!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: Buttercups

Nature provides no better example of conflicted relationships than ours with the buttercup. This time of the year these weeds make the fields and meadows around Cullingworth a glorious sight – not the sharp, almost artificial yellow of the oilseed rape fields but a golden sheen across the green fields. For a few weeks in June this eruption of yellow delight lulls us into a love of the buttercup.

Come July though, gardeners will be back cursing and complaining about the buttercups as we vainly try to stop their remorseless spread across the flower beds and into the lawns. Wheelbarrow loads of little white roots and once yellow-topped greenery are removed, tactics for prevention varying from poisons of one or other sort to – in these less poison-friendly days – thick layers of mulch. All this will be in vain – the buttercups will return in their fancy yellow livery next year. Next year we’ll be struck by the lovely fields. And curse the invasive spreads roots that make gardening more of a chore than a pleasure.

Right now, though, I’m enjoying the beauty. I will worry about the pain a little later.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Why shouldn't footballers get paid all that money - they're the ones earning it!

This morning I was listening idly to the radio when a discussion came on about Deloitte’s latest report on the finances on football. Now I don’t propose to go into a detailed discussion of the report but instead to take a glance at the reportage. And it will be no surprise that, a few seconds into any discussion, the matter of football payers’ wages comes up – usually accompanied by words like ‘excessive’ and ‘obscene’. The reports go like this one from the BBC:

“Soaring wages are threatening the stability of Premier League clubs, according to a report into football finances. The Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance found that clubs spent 67% of their revenues on player wages during the 2008/09.”

Now it seems to me that a business sector, where despite a deep recession worldwide, UK revenues have grown isn’t a business that we need to worry about qua business. What we should be concerned about is whether that big wage bill (not that dissimilar from many high value-added service businesses) compromises the viability in that the remaining 33% of revenues do not cover the other costs and especially the debt repayments. In reality, our problem is that we somehow feel it wrong for some chav to earn such a load of cash kicking a ball round a pitch for 90-odd minutes every Saturday. I mean it’s not fair is it!

We make up all this rubbish about players wages threatening the game’s viability when it’s nonsense. We just don’t like folk earning so much money especially when they squander it all on chunky jewellery, big (rather ugly) cars and other such indulgence. No class these football players, no class!

"Aha!” I hear you say. “The big wages just mean that competition is squeezed out of the Premiership – there’s only a few clubs that can win now because of the cash.”
Like that’s new – 31 out of the 50 league champions since 1960 have been one of Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal (and a further 11 come from Leeds, Everton and Chelsea). The English League has always been dominated by a few big clubs – there’s nothing changed from all the extra cash.

Overall English football is pretty healthy – some of the clubs have a problem and (like most of our economy) there’s rather too much debt. But paying the players loads of money is the right thing to do – you get the best players in England helping build club and premiership brands and somehow it seems right to me that the people who provide the entertainment, who make it possible for the game to earn billions get most of the money. Where else should it go? To the owners, to the directors?

Monday, 7 June 2010

Motorway services stations aren't there to serve you food - which is why it's so crap and expensive


Why are motorway service stations so awful? Why do we use them when we know the experience will be unpleasant? And how do these places get away with charging us so much for the poor excuse for food and drink they serve us? I know these are matters of great importance to you all and have merited my thoughts and attention over the past couple of days (not least because I’ve been in one of two of them during a trip to and from the South West).

My initial thoughts were that there has to be an explanation – after all such service stations are universally awful. Even Italy with its slow food delights has dreadful service stations selling expensive and poor quality food. So there has to be some rational reason for the problem – why services stations are so poor and (perhaps related) why we are prepared to put up with this situation.

There are several possible reasons (and these are not necessarily exclusive) including a semi-monopoly (both at the site and in the overall ownership of the service stations), the impact of regulation and exploiting a captive audience.

To appreciate this lets look first at a similar situation – the sale of popcorn at the cinema. Here there has been some serious research at Stanford University:

The findings empirically answer the age-old question of whether it’s better to charge more for a primary product (in this case, the movie ticket) or a secondary product (the popcorn). Putting the premium on the “frill” items, it turns out, indeed opens up the possibility for price-sensitive people to see films. That means more customers coming to theaters in general, and a nice profit from those who are willing to fork it over for the Gummy Bears.

This takes us a little way towards understanding the problem except that we can’t obviously see a primary product at the motorway service station – surely selling us food and drink is their primary activity? Here’s a clue, however, from the Highways Agency regulations:

The Government specifies that all MSAs must offer:

Free short term parking for all types of vehicle
Free toilets and hand washing facilities (in sufficient quantity to cater reasonably for the traffic flow on the motorway) and baby changing facilities
Access for up to two hours for those carrying out emergency repairs to broken down vehicles.
Access to all facilities for disabled people.
Facilities must be available for 24 hours a day every day of the year
Access to a cash operated telephone

It seems clear from this that that primary function of motorway service areas is not to sell us food and drink – that isn’t in the list above. What we are doing by paying over the odds is allowing the provision of these free facilities required by regulation. Just as with the cinemas in the Stanford study, the service station operator is using the excess profits from high-priced food and drink to cross-subsidise the regulatory requirements – the free stuff the Highways Agency requires of the operators. If users paid for parking, to use to toilets and there was no free access it is likely that food prices would be much lower. More significantly, such an environment would put a greater emphasis on maintaining facilities – cleaning tables, sweeping floors and reducing litter.

I suspect that this is only part of the explanation – we now understand the high prices. But that does not (any more than it does for the cinema) explain the poor quality of both food and food service. Part of this may lie in the actual cost of the free stuff – to maintain food prices at a ‘reasonable’ level ‘requires’ quality to suffer. However, I suspect that the captive audience problem explains much of this as does the lack of real on site competition (would a ‘shopping mall’ type approach work better or would the site owner collect the monopoly profit through higher rents).

I suspect that we will carry on putting up with the price-gouging in order to have 24 hour, 365 days a year access to service stations – for the fuel, the toilets and the chance to park and have a break. And we’ll pay over the odds for food and drink so as to have that service. We’ll also put up with poor food and crap service because that’s not why we stop!


Sunday, 6 June 2010

Quote of the day...


From here on responses to the great oil spill:

It is the global equivalent of five blokes standing round a clapped-out car, twiddling various mechanical parts and musing on whether the big end has gone.


Friday, 4 June 2010

Friday Fungus: Salad (and how we can get through Summer with bacon and mushrooms)

OK guys, its summer time and that means salads. I know that this is a painful experience – no stew (or dumplings), no roasties, no rice. Above all, no chips.

But offer it up (as my mum used to say). Go with the salad regime but insist on these details:

Salads must contain other ingredients than lettuce (or even those euphemisms for lettuce – “young leaves”). Proper stuff with bite – feta cheese, walnuts, marinated olives, bacon bits (and not the dried up rubbish they give you at salad bars), lumps of cold meat, mature cheddar and something else…oh yes, mushrooms.

Now a warning here – some people think you shouldn’t eat raw mushrooms. Give you a tummy ache you know! And –from the taste perspective I rather agree. If you want to eat raw mushrooms, go ahead but I think a little cooking makes all the difference.

So folks, since you want real man salads, here’s the Friday Fungus bacon and mushroom salad recipe. You’ll need:

Some mushrooms (about four normal sized ones per person, chopped)
Good green bacon (two rashers per person, chopped)
Two teaspoons of capers
Couple of shallots (chopped)
A green salad of lettuce, “young leaves”, coriander and cucumber
A dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salts and black pepper

Heat up a heavy frying pan, fry the bacon for a minute then add the mushrooms. Stir, add some black pepper and the shallots. Fry for a further minute then cover turn off the heat and leave to stand for five minutes. Make the green salad.

Add the mushrooms and bacon to the salad, mix thoroughly. Then add the dressing, toss and serve (with a nice picture of a bowl of chips).


Ah, the open road (and why we need more of them)!

I’m a bit of a fan of roads. As a child I didn’t have a train set – I had Scalectrix (although my capacity for breaking anything with delicate moving parts meant this worked less often than did Ian Bruce’s – but then he never took his out of the box for fear of it breaking) and I had Matchbox cars.

Now Matchbox cars (and for that matter Corgi, Dinky, Hot Wheels and other less remembered brands) were important because, unlike all those deluded, backwards-looking kids with train sets, I didn’t have to moan to Daddy to get them. I could buy them out of the 12½p (half-a-crown to those still remembering proper money) my parents kindly gave me in pocket money – at least until I was thirteen when it stopped and I had to get a job (in truth several jobs).

And with Matchbox cars came track. Orange strips of plastic that could be linked together to form roads – and with generous gifts from benefactors (grandparents, aunts, uncles, Mr Sparks) we also got the bends and loops. We were made. More than anything else we did, playing with this dominated – we raced cars on parallel tracks, we set all the tracks out in a single length and saw which car went the furthest, we constructed complicated loops and bends to test the road holds and we staged multiple pile ups by crashing cars on one piece of track. I even recall doing off road – using a single piece of track to roll the cars down the garden and through the allotment.

Roads are good – far better than inflexible, expensive and unsatisfying railways. Road give us the freedom to travel – to go where we want to go, in the manner we want to travel and (more or less) at the pace we want to go. And the best roads are big wide, well-maintain motorways – safe, fast and, with the right vehicle, a delight to travel on. OK, these motorways are now congested, are full of people who perhaps need to take a few more driving lessons and could be rather better maintained (and we could perhaps spend more on this than on new crash barriers, lighting and other superfluous features doubtless justified only by some daft EU regulation).

But motorways – as the gods of roads – as great. And we need more of them. I know, I know...car travel is the new evil. Those like me (and frankly most of the rest of the population) who rather prefer to travel at our pace and directly to the place we’re going are dreadful people who are destroying the planet at our convenience. Or rather we’re not – and will be doing less of this destruction with each passing year. Cars are becoming less and less polluting and more and more safe. It’s not an unreasonable assertion to say that, by 2030 cars will not be the bad boys they are now (except of course for the vintage pick up I’ll be driving) by carbon-free, quiet and non-polluting.

But to make this glorious future work we need to build some more roads. Just as building the M62 transformed the North of England’s transport systems, the new generation of roads will see in the next step forward in economic growth and sustainable transport. And before all the swampies start digging trenches and nailing themselves to trees, think about this – motorways take up a tiny proportion of England’s land surface, they keep heavy traffic away from towns and villages thereby saving untold thousands of lives and they carry more freight, more vehicles and more passengers than even the very busiest commuter rail link. Roads are vastly more efficient, more flexible, greener and more useful than any other way of setting out a route from town to town.

Since the future lies with safe, green, flexible transport we need to plan now for the smooth, swift roads on which those cars or the future will travel.


Thursday, 3 June 2010

The stress, pain and anger of a crowded world - thoughts about the future from the past


“The incidence of muckers continues to maintain its high: one in Outer Brooklyn yesterday accounted for 21 victims before the fuzzie-wuzzies fused him, and another is still at large in Evsanston, Ill. Across the sea in London a woman mucker took out four including her own three-month baby before a mind-present standerby clobbered. Reports also from Rangoon, Lima and Auckland notch up the day’s total to 69.”

So goes part of the first ‘Happening World’ in John Brunner’s wonderful, new wave SF novel, ‘Stand on Zanzibar’. And it’s odd that the events in Cumbria took my mind straight to this matter-of-fact piece of fictional reportage. The banal manner in which Brunner introduces the ‘mucker’ to the reader is really quite frightening – we’re talking precisely about the sort of event that still today causes us such shock.

In part, Brunner was trying to describe how dehumanising mass population becomes – crowdedness breeds more stress, more risk, more chance of someone running amok. And from this event, a feature of the crowded world, comes the idea of the ‘mucker’, a person – young, old, male, female, white, black, yellow – who snaps and runs riot. Brunner does not explain or analyse, he just presents the ‘fact’ dispassionately. We don’t get to explore the details of the individual cases – we just get the event in stripped down form: “…accounted for 21 victims…”

Stand on Zanzibar is intended as a warning that with numbers come more of these (and other) events – partly a simple response to there being more people and partly a greater incidence descending from the impact of those numbers on our psyches. I’m not sure I agree with Brunner’s analysis but his presentation of the dehumanising effect of crowds is both depressing and revelatory.

Crazed incidents of murder have been a feature of human society for a long while – anyone who meander the by-ways of folk music will be struck by just how many songs there are about murder. So when we look at the events of yesterday – shocked, stunned, perhaps angry – we need to ask two questions: firstly, is this just another tragic, horrible murderous rampage or something else – something preventable; and secondly, does the event speak of a human condition stretching back through history – thankfully a rare condition?

For what its worth – and I’ve made no study of these matters – I feel the answer lies somewhere between. Blaming the gun is a fruitless diversion but trying to appreciate – and maybe on occasion notice – how the stresses, the agonies of everyday life can unhinge someone might prove a more purposeful response. Supporting scientific enquiry (and I don’t mean the ‘crackeresque’, pseudo-psychiatry beloved of the media) into the motives, reason and proximate causes of the rampages – these ‘muckers’ – might prove of some value. Although, I guess the chances of preventing some future incident in some other unfortunate place are pretty slim – if not non-existent.

Right now, the best we can do is to give a thought to others suffering – to pray if that’s your thing. And to hope that those damaged by the event can gather themselves and come to terms with what has happened. And, at some point, get on with the ordinary lives that cause such stress, pain and anger.


Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Those "veteran activists" are annoying and just possibly making the problems worse.


I wish I had that capacity – so common in “veteran activists” – for instant, unquestioning indignation. The ability to condemn without doubt the activities of those who – by their nature and past actions – must be wrong. I would love to have the ability to ignore contrary suggestions – even hard evidence – and to maintain the righteous anger that sustains my campaign against all that I believe is evil.

Instead, I have a different problem – I’m contrary. My reaction to the veteran activists’ righteous indignation is to head post haste to the other camp – to challenge the assumptions, presumptions and bigotry that drives those activists and fuels their anger. I want some nuance, a little bit of realpolitic, some consideration and a moment of hesitation while facts are considered.

Maybe, when the main facts are out in the open, there will be a chance to assess what really happened and to examine whether (and what) action should be taken. In the meantime the frothing diatribes of venom and spite, bigotry and bias, assumption and ignorance pour from the activists – whether it’s oil spills, flotillas, arrests of blokes in tents or climate change we get little chance to consider the facts or to assess the truth. Indeed, for those veteran activists, the very act of questioning whether their assumptions – that righteous belief – has any basis in fact is an act of wrongdoing.

Such questions just indicate how I am an apologist – even a supporter – of the bad people. If I question whether the policy response to climate change is right, I become a “denier” who should be silenced. If I point out that Hamas has a constitution that calls for the extermination of Jews, I find I have become an apologist for Israel. I am in the pocket of “Big Oil” if I observe that there have been far worse oil spills in the Gulf Of Mexico. And what an outcry if – in the spirit of questioning – I challenge the activists great fat sacred cows. If I wonder why, if Cuba’s so wonderful, so many of its citizens want to leave? Or inquire how exactly letting countries off debts is going to make them behave better in the future? And why fixing markets so as to favour one form of business organisation and a few farmers in relatively rich countries can be considered to be “fair trade”?

And don’t try to suggest that all this is unalloyed rightwingedness – I’m just as contrary on the need for nuclear weapons, on immigration controls and the sacredness of the ‘green belt’. Funnily enough I want to understand – to get some information together, to build a rational view of the situation (although this might prove tricky in matters middle-eastern) and get policy decisions that derive from facts rather than prejudice or ignorance. And in the meantime, my dear veteran activists, keep up your ranting by all means. Just stop condemning those who don’t agree with you, cut out the unnecessary insults and rudeness, stop with the actions that sustain justifications for violence and start asking yourselves whether you’re not part of the problem in the first place?