Friday, 30 April 2010
The first story is a report from the New Statesman (that I found suitably fisked by JuliaM) on Margaret Hodge’s campaign in Barking:
“There are 11,695 families on Barking and Dagenham's housing list and local anger has been directed at the new faces they see down the street. As I follow Hodge canvassing, complaints about housing crop up again and again. We hear tales of families that have had to wait three, five or even more years to get a home. One man has spent eight years living in a one-bedroom flat with his wife and four children.”
Now Labour machine politicians like Hodge want to blame all this on right-to-buy – on the wicked Tories. But that’s only part of the story – yes right-to-buy had an impact on the stock of social housing. Yes, right-to-buy has led to an increase in private rented property on formerly mono-tenure estates. But local authorities like Barking have not replaced the shortfall and more importantly have created the situation where only people in “priority need” get access to social housing.
The result of this is precisely what the residents of Barking interviewed by the New Statesman were saying – houses in the area are simply not available for the working sons and daughters of current residents. Not because they’re white but because they aren’t in “priority need”. Which brings me to the second story where Victoria Derbyshire interviews a soldier wounded in Iraq and who cannot get a home (a pre-requisite for getting a job) because he is not in “priority need”.
In truth our housing system – I can’t credit it with the positive term “market” – is almost entirely dysfunctional. Constrained by stifling rules and regulations, battered by politicians and simply not delivering good homes for hard working people like it should. And, unless something changes, it will get worse – already in London so-call “affordable” rents are not really affordable for low paid workers and this will be the case in Leeds and other cities in the next few years.
As I said, be prepared for housing to become a really big issue some point soon.
Since we’re talking about Argentina, I would be remiss of me not to mention a mushroom – Psilocybe cubensis – that is native to that place and indeed has been called the “Argentina Mushroom”. Firstly, you should note that possessing these mushrooms is illegal in the UK as they are “those” sort of mushrooms. And it would be tricky to plead ignorance as they don’t grow wild in the UK either!
Secondly, there’s a beef connection. Cubensis grows on cow dung or where cow dung has lain:
“Large, fleshy, cap and a persistent ring on stalk; bruising blue; on cow manure. Color varies depending of the age of the mushroom. When they are babies they can be a deep golden brown. As they mature the caps lighten turning a rich golden color right before their veils break loose.”
This mushroom has become one of the most commonly grown drug mushrooms spawning slang names and DIY kits. And – according to The Partnership for a Drug Free America – this is the effect of using Psliocybins.
For my part, I’m sticking to all those fantastic, edible mushrooms – life’s weird enough without the need for hallucinogens! With them you just get this!
Thursday, 29 April 2010
The holidaying Geek from Oxfordshire posted a little video explaining the problem with big numbers. It points out that huge numbers mean almost nothing to us – in truth we struggle to make the distinction or have any real grasp of the scales involved. And this becomes more problematic when political communicators (which some folk feel is spelled “L. I. A. R. S.”) mix up the measures used by switching between millions and billions or by referring to percentages in the same sentence as real numbers.
And this confusion is compounded by mixing up concepts – right now most of the public don’t know the difference between “debt” and “deficit”. This isn’t because the public are stupid – in their own lives they’re pretty good at understanding budget deficit (I’ve got more to pay out than I’ve got coming in) and total debt (I owe so much but only have to pay a little of it back right now). It is because our political leaders like us confused. And right now they’d like us to think that halving the deficit – reducing the country’s overspend by half – can be seen as somehow reducing the debt when that simply isn’t true as each year that debt is getting bigger.
Which brings us to F.A. Smith, who was born in a back-to-back in Heanor, Derbyshire, went down the pit at 14, got out of the pit and into college and ended up as a regional director of British Coal. He was also my grandfather and, most relevant to this discussion, Chairman of Penge Urban District Council in the 1950s. And we are concerned with his view on the setting of budgets, which can be stated as follows:
“…the amount of debate about a given budget item is in inverse proportion to its financial value.”
Thus an hour or more might be taken arguing about how much it cost to clean the Chairman’s car or the saving from not providing tea and biscuits at meetings whereas the multi-million pound redevelopment of the town centre will go through more-or-less on the nod. So to link back to the spin referred to above, we spend ages discussing how much NHS hospital chief executives are paid – and getting ever more indignant about it – while ignoring the fact that halving the pay of every senior civil servant will not make any noticeable difference to the scale of either deficit or debt.
When big decisions finally do get made about the deficit (and the debt), those decisions won’t be subject to great campaigns, intense scrutiny or detailed debate. Nor will they feature on the front page of the newspapers for weeks on end. These are big decisions about cuts in spending, about making jobs redundant and about stopping providing services or giving benefits that are given today. And they will be made in comfortable offices away from public attention, managed through party whips and delivered in the form of a dry statement from ministers.
Wednesday, 28 April 2010
We think our political response to war - and the arguments we make about it - to be new. But certainly in the capacity for Government deceit (at alleged deceit and accusations of deceit) nothing has changed. Here's Abe Lincoln criticising the Mexican War and arguing that Polk's justifications were...
"from beginning to end, the sheerest deception..."
...and that Polk (the Democratic President of the time):
"...originally having some strong motive...to involve the two countries in war and trusting to avoid scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory."
Lincoln argued that Polk had:
"...swept on and on until disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself...a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man."*
Now this was partly an example of Lincoln's style - his use of moral judgment to design a political point - but is was at its core political opportunism as Lincoln had backed the war!
*Quotes are from a speach by then Congressman Lincoln to the House of Representatives, 12th January 1848 and are taken from David Reynolds, "America, Empire of Liberty"
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
What I don’t understand – although I have tried – is why otherwise intelligent seeming folk like Susan Hinchcliffe can make sweeping statements saying that “free markets don’t work”. Especially when she works for a business organisation. Indeed, this sweeping ‘anti-market’ statement is really common – and hardly ever challenged.
Some folk seem only to like markets where everyone is small, where there are no large dominant organisations and no bad capitalists. Just friendly smiley folk talking to you over a market stall or serving you at their shop counter. And the way to do this is to tax big businesses and businesses doing or selling things we disapprove of (gas guzzling cars, premium lager in cans, cigarettes, imitation samurai swords and air travel). Or better still to ban them altogether.
This makes me cross. Firstly because banning things is a blunt – and mostly ineffective – weapon but mostly because really free markets would do just what these folk want if we stopped messing about with them! Why do you think large businesses support environmental auditing requirements, extensions of worker rights, tariff protections, the common agriculture policy, expensive city centre car parking, large regulatory quangos and an array of market controls too bewildering to describe?
Have you guessed? Big businesses like all this regulation because it keeps small businesses from competing! The big car manufacturers lobbied hard for OEM parts protection – and Nick Clegg’s euro-pals said yes and closed down the free market for car parts. All that banking regulation rather suits the banks and will continue to do so as it makes it really hard to set up a bank – keeps down the competition! And have you ever wondered why the newspaper industry is so keen on controlling the Internet and stopping new competition from self-generated news? It wouldn’t have anything to do with stopping competition would it now?
So next time you hear the terms “market failure” or “free markets don’t work” remember the small trader on your local market or the corner shop in your village. And note that they struggle because Government tries to control markets – through taxes, through regulation and through stupid laws. And remember that, despite all this, despite the efforts of government to do the bidding of big business, markets still thrive, still work and still deliver value for you and me.
OK, I’ve had it. I’ve had it up to here. Can we finally get rid of that elephant? You know the one. That one, over there, in the corner. The one that’s referred to at every meeting, in endless second-rate bits of punditry and now by otherwise normal blokes cuddling a beer in the local.
That elephant has to go. I don’t care that you want to talk about not talking about it. I want it out of my room, your room, the meeting room on the fourth floor and any other room in which it might be lurking.
Why, you ask? Because I don’t want to talk about it. That elephant is an excuse, a cop out, a reason not to take part, That elephant is an obstacle to proper discourse. That elephant is the metaphorical equivalent of the ignorant bloke in the van who parks across your drive. That elephant has done its job, move it on, clear it out. I’m not talking about talking about the elephant in the room.
But the giraffe on the patio….hmmmmm?
Sunday, 25 April 2010
I've been wasting a little time doing some psephology - trying to get a better handle on what the current opinion polling might affect the outcomes in West Yorkshire's cluster of marginal constituencies. My little model (and I won't bore you with the details except to say is applies the variation from 2005 actual results implicit in the current polling. So here are the results using Saturday's YouGov rolling poll:
Bradford East: Liberal Democrat Gain (maj.1118)
Bradford West: Conservative Gain (maj. 1369)
Calder Valley: Conservative Gain (maj. 3867)
Colne Valley: Conservative Gain (maj. 2922 over Lib Dems)
Dewsbury: Conservative Gain (maj. 241)
Elmet & Rothwell: Conservative Gain (maj. 333)
Halifax: Conservative Gain (maj. 1097)
Keighley: Conservative Gain (maj. 757)
Leeds NE: Labour Hold (maj. 1439)
Leeds NW: Lib Dem Hold (maj. 6450 over Conservatives)
Pudsey: Conservative Gain (maj. 567)
Shipley: Conservative Hold (maj. 5313)
I'm not going to update this every day but you get the gist I'm sure - most of the Tory key targets look likely to pretty close run affairs. There's no doubt that the effort on the ground - the 'get out the vote' effort, the canvassing, the knocking up, the local campaign will be important. Right now, the Conservatives and Lib Dems seem ahead - more leaflets, more posters, more positivity. Nevertheless there's all to play for in many of these places.
Friday, 23 April 2010
Suddenly – and delightfully – after generations of subsuming Englishness into the nebulous nothing that is “British” we have rediscovered that there are awesome, incredible, creative, big, cheering, tuneful and traditional things about being English that those poor, shivering Celts don’t have. And we should celebrate…
…we should celebrate:
Pies, puddings, pork scratchings, pints of foaming ale.
…we should shout out loud about:
Duck races, scarecrows, country houses, cockney rhyming slang
…and we should dance and sing to:
Morrismen, hornpipes, skipping songs and Elgar
Above all this we should stand up proud, drink our beer and cider, smoke our cigars and remember how bloody lucky we are to be living in England. Ignore those PC, hand-wringing naysayers. Stick two fingers up at those who see pride in place as something to be sniffed at. Celebrate the myths of England! And recite Kipling's "Charm":
“Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great nor well-bespoke
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation
Lay that earth upon thy heart
And thy sickness shall depart!”
So we have a mythical, dragon slayer for a patron. I remain a proud Englishman. And grateful at last to say how magical are the places of England – beyond compare, places of wonder.
"...it grows gregariously, and often in large fairy rings (which can be many centuries old). Young specimens are domed buttons and the cap, stipe (stem) and gills are all milky white. The cap is dry and fleshy and remains domed throughout its development, smelling strongly of meat. The cap has inrolled edges when young but flattens as the fungus ages. The stipe is ringless and tends to have a bulbous base.The mushroom is smooth with no scales. As the fungus ages the cap flattens and becomes deeper in colour to a pale tan.
The spore print is white and can only be seen on dark paper. The stipe (stem) is broad and solid often with a curve or kink in the middle. The cap measures from 5-15 cm in diameter and has a smooth texture and has ridges on it and the fungus grows to some 10 to 15 cm tall."
Thursday, 22 April 2010
Now as my regular readers know, I have issues with the idea of fairness – not that I think we should set out to be “unfair” but that life is (as nearly everyone’s mum and dad says at some point) not fair. Some folk seem to be more fortunate, prettier, cleverer, wittier and less prone to saying stupid things when keeping one’s gob shut might be more sensible. But, since ‘fairness’ is so important, I thought I’d ask how we know whether this or that policy is actually making things more fair.
If I play Newmarket with you and clean up all the pennies – is that fair? If we both turn up for an interview and I get the job because the interviewer liked me and not you – is that fair? Is it fair to take something off Fred and give it to Joe because Fred has more of that something? And when Fred’s extra is the result of good fortune (or what we see as good fortune), what then?
Surely (and assuming we can define it) luck is normally distributed? Some people are very, very lucky and some unfortunate folk seem cursed with ill-fortune. Now the latter may be the result of getting on the wrong side of The Gentry but I suspect it more likely just the curse of mathematics – that bastard normal distribution curve again! It seems the only way to make things fairer is to compress the curve – to have fewer fortunates and fewer unfortunates.
Measuring fairness requires us to measure good fortune, to assess luck and to then take action to redress (in part) the negative impact of luck by removing from the lucky that which they have gained as a result of good fortune rather than some other means (hard work, for example). This is plainly nonsense – and perhaps explains why so many advocates of “fairness” reject out of hand any sensible quantitative approach to the assessment of Government policy. That it is seen as “fair” by these advocates is quite enough! We shouldn’t worry whether is really makes for better or happier lives – misery will be fairly distributed!
Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Tuesday, 20 April 2010
"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; - but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD!"*
Monday, 19 April 2010
So let me be the first to say: “whoopee!!!” Well done Britain for getting your priorities right, for realising that a fine piece of low-brow entertainment (in this case a dancing dog) is far more worthy of our time and attention than three politicians pitching for votes. We can see politicians preening and pontificating every day of the year but we know that the auditions for “Britain’s Got Talent” are the only place where we can see tap-dancing leprechauns, cutely singing kiddies and, of course, that performing dog.
And it does seem that others share my view! In the Guardian for heaven’s sake!
Sunday, 18 April 2010
OK, so the worst happens and we get an inconclusive result on May 6th. What’s the deal and how should it be handled? These are some thoughts at least partly informed by ten years of sitting on a ‘hung’ council. Without going into lots of complicated constitutional waffle, the options are as follows:
A minority government formed by one or other of the parties either through getting the support of the second or (in the case of the party with the most MPs) one party abstaining
A coalition of some sort between two (or more parties) – these take a multitude of different forms from formal public agreements to slightly shady backroom fudges. “Governments of National Unity” and such like are merely pompous forms of coalition
The essence of negotiation under these circumstances is as follows:
1. Know your strengths and your limits. The Liberal Democrats have set out their stall which provides strengths but also provides the risk of reneging in order to secure a coalition arrangement
2. Understand the risks of coalition. Joining a coalition as a minority partner means being outvoted all the time – the party only has the ‘nuclear option’ of walking out
3. Appreciate that propping up a minority government can be bad for your popularity. The old Liberal Party discovered this in 1979
4. Don’t try to agree everything at the outset. Again the Liberal Democrats have set out a ‘five point plan’ that contains some specifics (a referendum on electoral reform for example) and some more vague assertions. There is scope for negotiation
5. The deal – whatever arrangement is preferred – is more important than either the detail or who gets which job. Saying Vince Cable has to be chancellor or William Hague has to be foreign secretary sits below the agreement on policy and legislative priorities
6. Be prepared to lose votes and for the party outside the arrangement to look for ‘wedge’ issues aimed at splitting the arrangement. And remember it’s better to lose a vote or have your proposals amended than to lose the ability to propose legislation and act on budgets
If there is to be such and arrangement what might a Tory offer to the Liberal Democrats look like?
1.Putting Gordon Brown back in Downing Street would be a disaster – people voted for change even though they weren’t sure what that change might look like
2. Propose an immediate public review of government finances aimed at identifying the scale of the problem, identifying savings and proposing cuts
3. Agree to a referendum on electoral reform (which I suspect is a non-negotiable Liberal Democrat position) but insist on support for proposals on European referendums
4. Set out a ‘localism’ package combining some of the ideas around ‘free’ schools, changes to local government financing, elected mayors and the system of local elections
5. Scope a “Big Society” plan that gives local activists and others greater power to get change, power or action
6. Insist on rolling back the database state being an absolute priority for action – the Tory deal breaker
Finally, we need to recognise that the hung parliament will mean less legislation since the government can never be assured of support. But also the circumstances place greater powers in parliament – with a smaller legislative programme from government there will be more time to get the detail right, to debate what is happening and for individual members to challenge the hegemony of the whip.
The freedoms and liberties in such a place are not the frantic rush of the market or the screeching of rights but a deeper, older freedom. The freedom of Old Hob:
"His dead are in the churchyard - thirty generations laid.
Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made;
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine"*
Being a conservative isn't about ideas, policies or philosophies. Being a conservative is about understanding the magic of place. Of looking out onto something loved, cared for and cherished knowing that this generation and the coming generation will continue to love, care for and cherish that place. It should be second nature for conservatives to care about the environment - not from some abstract, scientists' fear of the future but because of Old Hob - and tomorrow's Old Hob's too. Woodie Guthrie was wrong - this land isn't our land, at least not forever.
And being a conservative isn't about government - large or small - either. Indeed, Old Hob's story tells us that the masters change from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation. But Old Hob and his wife, his brother and his children remain. What the conservative says is that government doesn't know better than Old Hob. Indeed, when it comes to that loved, cared for and cherished place, Old Hob knows a damn sight better what's right than any politician, planner or bureacrat.
The magic lies all around us - in the myths of history as well as its truths, in folklore, in song and in half-remembered tales. As Puck concluded:
"Trackway and camp and city lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn -
Old Wars, Old Peace, Old Arts that cease
And so was England born!
She is not any common earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare!"**
We can rant about government, cry foul as our freedoms erode, bemoan the passing of politeness and the singing of songs. But in the end our boots are dirty, planted firmly in the soil of some fine place. So slow down again. Witness the magic of where you live and love. And feel what it's like to be a conservative.
*From "The Land" by Rudyard Kipling
**From "Puck's Song" by Rudyard Kipling
Friday, 16 April 2010
"And parents really shouldn't feel too anxious about puddings - sponge and custard is a good dessert to offer, surprising as that may sound," says Jessica Williams, a paediatric dietitian.
And the shiny pair (plus the dishevelled looking chap) were not asked about their preferences – do they like their mushrooms adulterated with garlic? Or are they fans of lightly fried wild mushrooms with just a hint of herbs, salt and pepper? Maybe (please tell me this ain’t so) one or other of the “leaders” doesn’t like mushrooms? Surely it would be wrong to have a prime minister who didn’t eat mushrooms!
Gone are the days when mushrooms were matters of great diplomatic significance – when a twitch in the production stats for field mushrooms sent tremors through the markets. And the world is not a better place for this – for allowing mushrooms to fade from the agenda of power. Do these men not realise that mushrooms are good for you? That mushrooms can help save the planet? And that mushrooms can help all of us cope with living in a place where bureaucrats, politicians and other busybodies run riot with our freedoms?
Maybe in the next debate? Or may be we should all respond to politicians like Grigory Perelman:
“You are disturbing me, I am picking mushrooms”
Thursday, 15 April 2010
Four unions representing tens of thousands of youth and community workers in the voluntary sector have said they will demand a substantial pay rise.
There is apparently a world shortage of such workers and whacking up the pay is the obvious route to close that gap (although the unions aren’t at all clear quite how they arrive at a shortage of “about 4,000”).
So who’s going to pay this “substantial” pay rise?
1. The taxes of ordinary hard-working folk
2. The charitable donations of ordinary hard-working folk
Either that or the unions have finally cultivated a money tree (scientific name; Quantitivus easingii).
Wednesday, 14 April 2010
When I worked in advertising, we used to describe the kind of copywriting displayed by JK Rowling in The Times as “regurgitating the brief”. Rather than assembling any creativity, any spark of original thought, any personal research, the copywriter simply puts some words around the brief presented to them by the advertising planner (that’s me). I’d done the digging, dredged up a few choice facts and figures (maybe the odd focus group), done an outline of the brand positioning and suggested a way in which the writer might like to position the work. If all the writer did was lazily churn out a couple of hundred words telling me precisely what I’d told them, I would be less than pleased.
Maybe she did her own research but in this piece JK Rowling appears to have ignored entirely many actual facts about the numbers, nature and problems associated with being a lone parent – and most importantly chooses to ignore entirely the life chances of the children involved. Indeed, JK Rowling’s sob story is entirely focused on self – on her lonely struggle against the evil Tory government, on how her sheer endeavour dragged her from the depths of despair to heights of authorial success unparalleled in modern times despite the best efforts of Tory ministers to stop her (conveniently avoiding the two years freeze on lone parent benefit rates that Gordon Brown over saw in 1997 and 1998 by getting her book published).
J K Rowling made no reference to the Children’s Act – that piece of Thatcherite legislation that gave protection to single mums (or rather their offspring). Or for that matter the Family Law reform Act 1987 which abolished the legal concept of illegitimacy. Nor did our successful author mention those Tory changes to benefits that extended and enhanced the money given to women unfortunate enough to find themselves out of work and supporting a young child. And JK omitted to mention that no new benefits for lone parents have been introduced since 1997 (although some have been merged and made simpler).
However, what I found most sad about JK’s sorry tale is that the financial support for her and her child – the support that enabled her to qualify as a teacher, write one and a half novels and plan for a further five novels. That financial support came from a Tory Government and without it Ms Rowling would not have the life she enjoys today. Instead of recognising how such support can help mums achieve, JK lurches instead into a series of rather snide digs at David Cameron’s background, has a really rather sad sideswipe at Michael Ashcroft and grossly misrepresents Conservative proposals on welfare before finishing with a one-sided recollection of past times.
But worse still JK does all this while dismissing the contribution of voluntary organisations and charities to supporting people through unemployment, with the trials of single parenthood and with the challenging task of building up the confidence and motivation to live a truly independent life. Only Government is fitted to support these people says JK. Maybe she hasn’t noticed how loads of that support she talks of from Labour is now delivered by private businesses, by charities and by voluntary groups?
Perhaps, she’d like to come and talk to the people I work with – people giving support to teenage mums, people helping homeless kids get housed, people giving advice and support to those out of work for the longest time and people working to give communities the skills and confidence to take control. It seems JK would prefer supine, forelock tugging communities fit only to hold out a quavering hand to the goodness that is government.
...well I don't. I want strong people. Strong communities. Confident neighbourhoods. And more mum's with the chances JK had back in the 1990s.
It seems I won't get that from Labour.
Charles Burgess Fry, known as C. B. Fry (25 April 1872 – 7 September 1956) was an English polymath, an outstanding sportsman, politician, diplomat, academic, teacher, writer, editor and publisher, who is best remembered for his career as a cricketer. John Arlott summed him up thus: "Charles Fry could be autocratic, angry and self-willed: he was also magnanimous, extravagant, generous, elegant, brilliant - and fun [...] he was probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age.” Neville Cardus wrote that he was "a national gallery and a theatre and a forum.”
Fry's achievements on the sporting field included representing England at both cricket and football, an FA Cup Final appearance for Southampton F.C. and equalling the then world record for long jump. He also reputedly turned down the throne of Albania. In later life, he suffered mental health problems, but in his 70s was still able to perform his party piece: jumping backwards onto a mantlepiece from a standing position.
The other thing you need to know about C. B. Fry is that he was an amateur. Now I know that this example is an extreme one but the central point remains – there’s nothing inherently wrong with not being “professional”. With not choosing to turn everything in life into a career. I mean look where the two approaches got us.
While Britain was run by amateurs like C. B. Fry we created the richest manufacturing country in the world, extended the Empire to the farthest flung corners of the globe, produced magnificent literature, gave the world its greatest team sports, explored the boundaries of science, opened up the world to free trade and enterprise, built fantastic buildings and generally contributed more to the betterment of the world than any previous group of men and women in history.
Now we’re run by professionals – professional police chiefs, professional hospital managers, professional university leaders, professional marketers, professional educationalists, professional managers of every shape and size – all frothing at the prospect of some letters to adorn the name. Every job seems to require a degree and a chartered institute (or better still a “Royal College”). Look at us. Look at the mess we’re in. Look at the pettifogging, sub-optimal, misguided and down-right stupid decisions being made by so-called “professionals”.
And perched at the top of all this chaos we have professional politicians.
Bring back the “cult of the amateur” before it’s too bloody late.
Monday, 12 April 2010
Hardly a day goes by without someone – usually a politician, journalist or quangocrat – uttering the word “accountability”. This could be in reference to spies, to the BBC, to family courts and to the actions of ministers. In all of this debate though we really don’t get to ask – let alone answer – the central question: what on earth do we mean by “accountability”?
So, in the interest of clarity and understanding, I thought I’d have a bash at defining accountability. And, as ever, it turns out to be harder that one might expect. Indeed, what many term “accountability” isn’t accountability at all but transparency. Take that family courts example:
“Measures to increase the public confidence in the family courts are being introduced in stages. The rule change in April 2009 allowed journalists to attend most family cases in county courts and the High Court, as well as family proceedings courts to which they already had access. However, the media were still only able to report the gist, rather than the substance, of proceedings they attended.”
Allowing reporting is not increasing accountability – it is welcome but does not “hold to account” in any substantive way, those charged with administering the family courts or those delivering “justice” in those courts.
In the case of the BBC we face a different aspect of ‘accountability as transparency”:
A cross-party committee of MPs has called for greater transparency regarding its executive and talent costs and accusing it of presenting some of its audience figures "in a somewhat cavalier manner".
Now the ‘committee of MPs’ do have a role in holding the BBC to account – although they have no direct power to act being limited to what they have done – publishing criticism. The BBC can – and does – ignore such actions so they cannot be seen to define “accountability” either.
And the same goes for spies – a committee of MPs meets privately and reports publicly on the activity of the security services. Again this is welcome transparency but does not really address the matter of accountability. In a democracy, public bodies are accountable (or should be) to the democratically elected government – to ministers. And it is ministers who are accountable.
All good so far. But this is “democratic accountability” – a particular flavour of accountability. Is that the only form of accountability? Or can we begin to see a different, less corruptible form of accountability emerge? Accountability to the consumer. Let me explain.
We live in a mature consumer society and most of us are informed and confident enough to challenge businesses providing poor service or a bad product. And in doing so we want some reparation – we hold the business to account for its failure to give us what we require. Businesses operating in competitive markets know that persistent service or product failures threaten the sustainability of the business and will act to reduce the number or impact of these failures. The business is very aware that the consumer can go elsewhere.
In the case of government supplied goods and services, this consumer accountability is moderated by the fact that, in most cases, the consumer is not the customer. The customer for, let’s say, the issuing of passports isn’t the individual wanting a passport but whoever holds the power to issue the contract to the passport agency. I cannot hold the passport agency to account (by, for example, purchasing that service from a different supplier) and rely on the long, complicated and deniable chain of accountability up through the Home Office to a minister.
We can see that the same circumstances apply in almost every case (although accountability may be to a council leader or police chief rather than a minister). Since I have no choice in who I get the service from, I am unable to use my ability as a consumer to ensure that the provider is accountable for service or product failure.
There is absolutely no reason why a whole range of government products and services – issuing passports and driving licenses, administering the vast array of benefits and tax credits, schools, hospitals, student loans and grants – cannot be delivered in a competitive market. The impact of creating such a competitive environment would be to drive down the cost of providing the services - a direct benefit to us as consumers and as taxpayers.
Indeed, any public service delivered to us an individual users could be considered for such an approach. And in doing this we would apply to government the power that consumers have to hold business to account.
Sunday, 11 April 2010
The Liberal Democrat leader said he feared "serious social strife" if an administration with minimal support raised taxes, laid off public sector workers and froze wages.
Taking his cue from St Vince “Jeremiah” Cable, young Nick is predicting riots, looting and thousands taking to the streets to protest.
Now I don’t know about you but this reads to me as the utterings of a man wholly unfit to be put in charge of anything – let alone someone who should be allowed anywhere near any sort of lever linked to even the remotest outpost of power.
If there are to be any riots – and I doubt this somehow – they’ll be because smug, euro-fanatical greenies like Nick Clegg have clobbered ordinary people once too often. It will be the price of petrol – or something similar – that will send people onto the streets not that a few thousand diversity managers, five-a-day co-ordinators and climate change policy officers have lost their jobs.
Sadly, Nick and Vince are so desperate to get jobs, big offices and fancy cars after the election that they’ve swallowed Labour’s hung parliament strategy hook, line and sinker. Don’t you understand Nick – Gordon knows Labour can’t win and wants a hung parliament so he can keep his mitts on the keys to Number Ten!
Various folk have reported – with differing degrees of indignation – on Labour’s targeting of cancer sufferers. And I’m sure others will ask the questions about data protection and the misuse of personal data (bearing in mind that you cannot use geodemographics to identify breast cancer sufferers*).
However, nobody questions the essential deception in labour’s “appointment within two weeks” offer.To explain this I’m going to give you a personal story.
At the end of last summer I went to the GP as I had a lump in my throat that wasn’t going away. The GP referred me for an ultrasound scan to establish more information (I joked at the time about her thinking my throat was pregnant). This was duly done and I visited the GP again who referred me to a specialist. All this took around six weeks – a long way outside the target of two weeks.
Except that I wasn’t referred to a “cancer specialist” but (quite rightly) to a thyroid specialist. Who referred me for more tests, two further ultrasound scans and some further tests. In the end, I had my throat cut in January and the (thankfully benign) lump removed. All this on the good old NHS – great doctoring, truly awful bureaucracy and appalling front-of-house service. Took about six moths beginning to end.
I’m not complaining about this process. It seemed entirely reasonable and sensible. I don’t feel hard done by at all. So why have a wholly arbitrary and unreferenced requirement of two weeks? Especially when the doctors can get round it by not describing something as “cancer”!
*Seems to me (as an expert on geodemographics) that Labour are lying on this one
A comment Vilma McAdam, one of the “Telegraph Jury” struck me. Asked “What issue has made the impact in the campaign” this lady’s response was:
“Unfortunately the debate seems limited to the economy.”
What of earth is she on, you ask? All is revealed by Velma’s “job”:
“Retired local government official”
One of the new elite then!
Saturday, 10 April 2010
Canvassing in Cullingworth today was – as it always is – a really pleasant experience. Met lots of my lovely neighbours, enjoyed chatting about their gardens, children and the state of our potholes – plus a bit of national politics thrown in where folk insisted! The morning concluded with Grant’s excellent pies and peas – what could set you up better for a further hour or two of doorknocking.
Really impressed by the number of people planning to vote for Phil Davies because he’s helped them out with some issue or other. One gent came up and shook his hand for responding very quickly to a query he’d e-mailed last weekend. As ever, good service matters
Also impressed by how many people are backing Phil because of his positive stance on personal liberty issues – the smoking ban, the unwarranted attack on drinking and the death of the pub.
It was also clear that even those who disagree with Phil respected his consistent, honest and principled stance on various issues
On a personal note, I like Phil even though he and I don’t agree on everything. The way he spoke with my neighbours, addressed a range of questions – general and specific – and was willing to take up the cudgels on behalf of residents was very impressive.
I’ve no idea whether the general response was good, bad or indifferent – although I can say that, if all the constituency gives the same positive feedback as Cullingworth did today, Phil will be back representing us in parliament with a more comfortable majority than the 422 his won by in 2005! Yes, there were Labour voters, there were one or two angry non-voters, a smattering of people planning to switch from Labour to Conservative, a couple of Lib Dems and even one voter switching to Labour because she likes Gordon Brown!
A good days work, I think.
I was reminiscing yesterday about working at an advertising agency before the arrival of the Internet and the ubiquity of the computer. We were really excited by a whizzo little in-house communications system, by the prospect of sending finished art electronically to the printer or the newspaper! It is striking that so much has changed in less than twenty years – to the point where the loss of Internet connection at work results in everything grinding to a halt and the phrase –meant in jest – “the computer says no” reveals a truth about how we have become dependent on the computer and all its bastard off-spring.
However, the result of all this is that we seem unable to conceive of a solution to a particular work challenge that does not involve the application of (usually costly) IT. Take the management of personnel records and the administration of time as an example. Assuming this is a requirement – and I guess in these bureaucratic times it will be – a business with fewer than 50 employees will spend time and money creating a secure record system. They may be gulled by a slick salesman into networking the system with timesheets, leave records and sickness all seamlessly undated by the shiny new system. At a cost.
And it’s that last part that gets me. Would it not be simpler to employed an old technology called “the locking filing cabinet” and fill it will folders for each employee into which timesheets, leave cards and other records can be inserted? It’s only 50 folders for heaven’s sake!
Struggling even further back into the murky mists of time, I recall a discussion at a Conservative Party Agents training event (yes, dear reader, I was one of those once) about getting computers. And yes computers are good at storing stuff, at sorting stuff and at not working at critical moments. They will even send you nice prompts! But as one of my fellow agents commented – “they won’t knock on bloody doors”.
It’s taken me a while to get here but the point is that we should use the technology that is most suited to the problem at hand – in a lot of cases this will be some form of IT but not always. Computers are lousy salesmen and using extravagant database systems to order small quantities of data is potty especially when a lot of that data is qualitative. A well-managed Rolodex and ordered folders are as effective a tool for the salesman today as they were 50 years ago.
Friday, 9 April 2010
"I have made it absolutely clear what my views are: we cannot have people standing as candidates for the Labour Party who express these views...."
Gordon brown quoted in Daily Mail
The Institute of Direct Marketing (a fine body of men and women) have commented on the emerging social media campaigns at the election. The gist of the observation is firstly:
“Marketing Week reports social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter will be primarily used to attack the opposition in the run up to the May 6th polling day.”
And secondly – by way of warning:
“Ivan Ristic, director and co-founder at Diffusion, recently warned that political parties need to be careful in their use of social media during the campaign as there is much less "command and control" of the platform compared to political spin seen in previous eras.”
Which presents an interesting dilemma for the parties given the extent to which they have been trying to direct campaigning centrally. The traditional media demand a centralised campaign as local paper and broadcast media (outside London) has very little impact and the approach adopted by the parties suits this demand. But emerging alternative media – including social media, the world of blogging and specialist publishing – does not fit into this neat paradigm.
The election may – as Iain Dale has observed – have become more “presidential” in nature but alternative media are beginning to shred that cosy, London-centric model. Indeed, twitter, facebook and the blogs are more akin to the old-fashioned street corner soapbox hustings that to the sleek, besuited, controlled media message of the Mandelson-Campbell era in campaigning.
The fall out will be interesting to watch.
The central revelation of the last set of statistics was that UK mushroom production was declining – the area of beds dropped 18% between 2004 and 2007. Home produced mushrooms account for less that a third of UK consumption – a disappointment that the Mushroom Bureau is trying to put right (and they have a lovely, funky little web site with some nice recipes too)!
My only worry is that the main effort in promoting mushrooms is to try to focus on their health value – as a “superfood”. Now while I know mushrooms are super, I have my doubts about the term “superfood”. However hard I try, I cannot be convinced that my considerable consumption of mushrooms is reducing my risk of succumbing to chronic conditions let alone getting cancer.
UK mushroom production – indeed commercial mushroom growing across much of the world – is dominated by the good old white mushroom (agaricus bisporus). And we should note that the mushrooms we call ‘portobello’ and ‘chestnut’ are just variants of the white mushroom. The Mushroom Expert – in describing the distribution of agaricus bisporus could not resist a little witty remark:
“Ecology: Scattered on pizzas, gregarious on salads, densely clustered in grocery stores--and occasionally scattered to gregarious on manured soil…”
While we are seeing more variety in cultivated mushrooms on grocery shelves – shitake are now quite common and we see a slow increase in the amount of oyster mushroom on sale – the traditional mushroom continues to dominate. In reality this is because it is very flavoursome, easy to cultivate, flexible, can be stored and is simply a very good vegetable to have around. All our obsessing (and boy do some of us obsess) about wild mushrooms and strange imported fungi from China should not distract us from the fact that the field mushroom is yummy!
Thursday, 8 April 2010
Firstly, we have Billy Gotta Job on the insignificance of voting (and why this is as it should be):
“Except that we’ve been deluded into thinking that democracy is an individual pastime, no different in essence from voting in the X-Factor. That by voting we can somehow take forward our own individual interests. That politics is like a pick’n'mix sweet counter in which we can select our favourite orange creme, but ignore our unloved nut cluster. That identifying interests that we have in common with others is a sort of ego annihilation, and a defeat for our personal independence. But in truth democracy is not about us as individuals. It is the right to be insignificant, to make no personal difference. The true threat to our democratic health is not spin-doctors, or the media, or expenses scandals, or sound-bites, or the distractions of celebrity culture. It is the myth that we should form our political judgments by totting up whether we’ll be 50 quid better off under this party or that, and that collective interest is no more than a quaint hangover from the past.”
Now I don’t really believe (and I guess that this won’t be a surprise to my small band of loyal readers) in the supremacy of collective interest – indeed I see collective interest as merely the mediated agglomeration of individual interests. However, Billy has a point – as an individual act, voting is of vanishingly small significance. You vote, my vote, Gordon Brown’s vote are not going to make the difference.
Whether or not we vote is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election.
The second piece – from the doyenne of Libertarian bloggers, Charlotte Gore – who says she does not care about the result of the election:
“So the most important lesson I learnt was that I really, really, really don’t care any more. In the choice between the Conservatives or Labour, the only real loser is everyone else. A different bunch of vested interests calling the shots, different types of interference with people’s normal day to day lives and I’ve no doubt that the State will be bigger and more expensive by the time they’re through, no matter what. Taxes are going to go up, the Private Sector will continue to shrink and there’s only one direction that Civil Liberties are going in.”
Except Charlotte does care – she cares enough to have spotted what Billy spotted – that her vote is insignificant. That only as part of a perceived collective interest can our votes count (which is why libertarians should oppose proportional systems of voting based on votes for parties). And Charlotte’s problem with voting is not resolved by there being a party somewhere for which she can vote positively – let’s call it the Laser Cat Party. Even with that party, Charlotte’s vote – insofar as it can really effect change – remains insignificant. The large parties (and attached vested interests) continue to control the process and – as membership declines – the use of public funding will act to exclude the Laser Cat Party since it would not receive funding.
So why vote? The answer is simple and it’s the answer your granny used to give. You vote because it’s the right thing to do and because, however insignificant it might be, voting is often the only chance you’ve got of getting something changed. People really did chuck themselves under horses, people really did get killed, people really did strike, march and protest so as to get that right to pick up a stubby pencil and mark a cross in a box once in a while. Don’t get me wrong, if you choose not to bother it doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re not really letting down your suffragette great grandma or the great uncle killed on D-day.
So go and vote it’s your chance to do something. And do it loudly, proudly and knowing that it’s the most significantly insignificant act you can undertake.
Wednesday, 7 April 2010
Gordo the Brown. An aged, half-ogre Priest of Himmelfarb, Gordo has used his powers to overthrow Bliar the Great, the fallen paladin who used to rule. His prime weapons are Nokkya, a powerful throwing block that stuns on impact and Trak Tor Statt, a mighty iron-bound book. Assisting Gordo is Man del Sunny, a half-fairy, half goblin rogue (who many suspect of having designs on Gordo’s job for himself) and the apprentice, Ed who can also wield Trak Tor Statt.
David of the Cameroons. A paladin trained at the school of Eytone, David is protected by the Coat of Bullingdon and arms himself with the great sword of Tone (seized from the hands of Bliar himself) and the Mace of the Baroness. Beside David are Gideon, an apprentice mage of great promise but little charm and Boris the Magnificent, the greatest scholar and illusionist ever (according to his own story).
Clegg O’Hallam. Known as young Nick to most around him, this tyro Priest of Libdemfocus has little skill with weapons but the assistance of a strange yellow bird. His main strength is St Vince, a powerful and holy monk renowned for his doom-laden prophecies and surprising skills as a dancer. St Vince is armed with Ey-tol-uso and Iwuzreyet, paired clubs that may only be wielded by the righteous and holy (or possibly the smug and self-important – the tomes are unclear on this point).
These are the main players but watch out for others – for Gryphin, the evil half-orc streetfighter, for La Lucas, the overweening elven druidess and for Lawd Farage, the chippy old rogue. On the fringes of the battle we might see the barbarian shaman, Salmon and a strange old witch called Esther as well as various supporters of Gordo, David and Clegg. All is set for a great battle indeed!
Many experts on polling question the effectiveness of the “what if” question:
“If politician X was leader of Party Y why would you be more or less likely to vote for them”
There are too many chances to be wrong for this to make much sense as a question – Politician X isn’t leader, you many already have a 100% likelihood of voting for Party Y, the election is in the future. In essence this type of question expects people to make a prediction of their own behaviour following a given change – a we are not especially good predictors of our own future behaviour under such circumstances. Indeed, these questions are really just a variation on “who would you prefer to be leader” or “which policy would you prefer”.
Which brings us to the way in which these questions are used to justify policy decisions. By way of benign example, let’s talk about libraries. Most of the population are not members of a public library and have at best a very occasional engagement with the library service. This isn’t to say we don’t want libraries – we’ll fight hard to protect these vital local services even though they are not services we (or anyone we know) makes use of.
Faced with this problem – declining library membership – the local council undertakes a review part of which involves surveying the public. But first the council thinks of lots of exciting things to do with or put it its libraries – computers, coffee machines, self-service issuing of books, book clubs, kids parties - you name it. And in the survey the council asks whether these things will make non-users more or less likely to use the library.
Now let’s assume that library non-users (or a majority of them) say that some or all of the changes will make them more likely to use the library. Seizing on this, the council rushes through the changes – despite that fact that current library users have said they don’t want these changes. Ah, says the Council, the policy will attract loads of new users to the library and we’ll be in clover!
So what happens? Well the current users of the library don’t like the changes (noisy kids, impersonal service, coffee stains all over the table and so on) and some decide to get their reading material from Oxfam or Waterstones. And those non-users who said they would be “more likely” to use the library? Not a sign of them. Result of the policy changes? Probably further library closures, reductions in the book fund and another review.
This is precisely what happened with banning smoking in pubs – non-users said they didn’t like pubs because of the smoke. And that they would be “more likely” to use the pub is smoking was banned. Existing regular pub users – overwhelmingly – opposed the ban preferring good extraction, separate smoking rooms and other measures. But no – banning smoking would make pubs more popular. Those non-users said so, didn’t they?
In truth those non-users said nothing of the sort – they didn’t go to pubs because they didn’t like pubs. And the smoking was just one factor – mostly they didn’t see the pleasure in sitting a drinking away from their comfortable homes. Nothing to do with smoking, nothing at all. And, following the ban, these non-pubgoers have not started going to the pub while at the same time loads of previous pubgoers now stop at home where they can smoke. With fewer regulars, the remaining hardy folk began to drift away and the local was left with three customers at 10pm on a Friday night.
The result? The pub closes. The community loses a local facility. Ordinary, harmless folk have nowhere to go for a pint and a fag – other than at home of course. Some of that much vaunted social capital is lost. The football team folds – it was a PUB team after all. The gardening club slowly declines. Other groups become ever more cliquey. Why? Because a ban brought in to satisfy folk who never used pubs resulted in those pubs closing.
Tuesday, 6 April 2010
My son was moaning about the price of a bus fare into Shipley yesterday.
"It's not like that in Bath," he says, "we have competition there."
It would appear that an enterprising bus operator has put on blue buses undercutting First's orange buses (these colours must be a Bath thing) on the popular trip from Bath itself up to the university. Back to my son:
"The blue buses charge £1.50 return, " he says, "compared to £1.95 for the orange buses. All the freshers who live on campus are waiting for the blue bus now."
And it gets better!
"The orange buses have announced a price cut to £1.50 return," says Jethro, "and the blue buses are offering a return of just £1 after 7.00pm!"
So there you are guys, competition works. And works quickly to the benefit of the consumer.
Health? Education? Bring it on!
I’ve been told there’s an election on and have decided – in the interests of research (and getting them elected) – to spend a little time with various Conservative candidates. Not all are standing for parliament, some are local councillors. Most of this will be after 27th April when I am taking time off work for some gentle campaigning.
The people I’ll be supporting (time, money & travel arrangements allowing) – and who you should all support too are:
Glen Miller. Not just because of his name but because he is a very good local councillor in the Worth Valley* (to those with a literary bent that is the area around Haworth and to train buffs has a well-known steam railway). And one of my best friends!
Phil Davies. Partly because he’s my MP (and I’ll expect his support when I’m up for election) but mostly because he’s proved to be one of those voices of sanity on drinking, smoking and personal liberty. He is also this sites official mascot.
Wakey Tory Boy. Otherwise known as Anthony Calvert. Has the task of campaigning to unseat the odious Ed Balls in Morley & Outwood. ‘Nuff said. (Might also nip over to campaign for Nick Pickles whose standing against Ed’s wife in Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford)
Zahid Iqbal. A truly nice guy who will make an independent-minded MP for Bradford West (and the house needs these – especially ones whom understand the property markets).
Val Townend. Councillor for Baildon ward – incredibly hard-working on behalf of her residents, genuinely cares about the communities she represents and is very, very insistant!
Matt Lobley. Another hard-worker (and Chairman of the organisation that employs me) who will do a great job serving people in Leeds North East – including a fair smattering of my wife’s family
Gordon Henderson. Will be the next MP for Sittingbourne & Sheppey – where better that the Kent marches to be an MP! Won’t be a pussy cat when he gets there – like my MP, Gordon’s a fervent eurosceptic and has a penchant for outspoken bluntness. Also a man with a successful business career and impeccable local roots
Iain Lindley. Rather owe Iain support for his running of the Vote UK forum – although god knows what will happen if he gets elected. All us political anoraks with no forum! A tough fight in Worsley & Eccles South but Iain’s got as good a chance as anyone.
I'm happy to consider supporting others - if you're a Tory and can put up a good case for having me turn up to help, just let me know!
Whatever, I'll be blogging a few thoughts on these campaigns.
*political geek point: Worth Valley Ward was once represented by Eric Pickles and contains the birthplaces of the late Bob Cryer and spinmeister, Alistair Campbell.
Monday, 5 April 2010
All government can do is make and enforce rules - a polite society needs more than that, it needs us to defend it
While driving to the cinema I had an interesting conversation with my wife and son regarding behaviour. This began with the usual litany of things we dislike – old people who think their age grants them the right to queue jump, people putting their feet on bus or train seats, those heading for early deafness who think the whole carriage should hear their music, litter, chewing gum and not letting folk off the carriage before embarking. All pretty regular stuff for a discussion in the Cooke family of grumps!
However, the discussion moved on a step further to discuss how ‘society’ might respond to such problems. And why there is such impoliteness and disrespect. We managed to blame parents, teachers, the telly and computers games before sanity returned and we remembered to blame the government. They’re in charge of rules so it must be their fault.
And here lies the problem. We have abrogated responsibility for good behaviour – passed it over to the government. In doing this we forget the fundamental limitations of government – all it can do is make and enforce rules. Government can only use threats, can only punish, ban or bar – government cannot set example, explain the reasons for politeness or provide moral direction.
The result of making polite behaviour ‘someone else’s problem’ is precisely the disrespectful, rude and selfish society we rant and rail against. Yet our response isn’t to ask how politeness might become commonplace again but to call for more rules, more enforcers and tougher punishments. It appears that until we become Mega-City One, we will not be satisfied.
It may just be me but I fear this way madness lies – rather than ever more draconian enforcement and even more controls, laws and regulations would it not be better to start expecting polite behaviour beginning with the youngest? To have children address their teacher as “Miss”, “Mrs” or “Sir”. To expect children to stand when grown ups enter the room. To cherish silence. To encourage quiet speaking. To celebrate quiet order.
You and I don’t litter the streets because of the minuscule change of being fined. We hold open doors, help people with heavy bags and say “please” and “than-you” because it’s the right thing to do not because we might be punished for not doing so. Yet we seem like rabbits frozen in society’s headlights at the prospect of expecting politeness from those around us. We’re told by the enforcers not to challenge bad behaviour – they might attack you or something. And we keep our heads down and hope that the enforcer arrives and deals with the perpetrator. But Judge Dredd never does arrive.
Those of us who can retreat to a safer world – to our homes, to the safety of the car’s bubble and to offices with door security – and sit it out. We avoid public transport, busy town centres at night and places where the impolite might gather and disturb us. We have to take our share of the blame. We have to start challenging impoliteness and rudeness.
But we have also to ask our government to lift the shackles of restraint – to allow police officers, teachers, shopkeepers, pool attendants, bus drivers and train conductors to be intolerant. In fact to permit all of us – all the polite people – to question, challenge and confront ignorance, rudeness and bad behaviour.
Alasdair Palmer, writing in the Sunday Telegraph wonders about David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea (and I’ll forgive him his rather huge statistical faux pas). Not for once about whether it’s a good idea or not – I guess like me that Alistair sees it as essentially a good idea harking back to the Burkean roots of Tory thinking. Instead he heads with this observation:
“I wonder if Mr Cameron actually knows what ‘being a member of an active neighbourhood group’ involves for someone whose day job has nothing to do with politics, and whose life does not revolve around it. The first thing it involves is giving up large chunks of your leisure time. Instead of spending it with your family or your friends, you have to devote it to arguing about administrative procedures with people you don’t know and may not like.”
Yet again we have the prospect of the “politically engaged” berating those with better things to do. ‘You are all idiots’ is the inference we draw – but that’s how we are. It’s very English of us, as Alistair points out with reference to Rousseau:
“The 18th Century political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau despaired of the British precisely because we were content with the pursuit of our own private happiness and weren’t interested in devoting our lives to serving the community. He noted that the city-states in the ancient world were true democracies in the sense that every…adult participated directly in every major political decision. But then, as he pointed out, the slaves did all the work.”
So yes we are idiots – good idiots. We will ‘participate’ when it is in the interests of ourselves, our families and our friends. The social capital of modern English society isn't constructed from political engagement but from private activity – from the village scarecrow festival, from the am-dram society, from taking the kids to play football, from drinking in the local (if the smoking ban hasn’t closed yours down yet), from a host of activities where the only role for government appears to be to get in the way, to ban, to regulate and to prevent.
I want a big society, I want people to be active and engaged – but that doesn’t have to mean sitting on committees, worthy ‘social action projects’ or attended mind-numbingly dull community forums. It also means enjoyment shared with friends and neighbours, it means the sponsored walk round the park or the garden trail. It includes the dinner party and the kids’ party. And it includes sitting with a pint and a cigar chewing the fat with your mates (or even - if you insist - playing dominos).