Friday 28 December 2012

The transformation of the LibDems

As the end of 2012 is approaching fast, it may also be a good time to look ahead to the next general election which is only 2 years away.

The most interesting issue since the start of the coalition government has certainly been the steady decline of the LibDems. In a way, this was predictable. Having been in opposition for more than 80s years, the party had become used to play all the cards at the same time. Life in opposition was not just comfortable, it also shielded them from difficult truths and some of the LibDems were masters in avoiding difficult decisions.

The peculiar political constellation in the UK with two dominant parties and practically no fourth political party worthy of the name, afforded the LibDems a dual role, straddling parts of the political spectrum that had little in common. On one side, LibDems served as the repository of disenchanted Labour voters with strong left leaning tendencies. On the other hand, the party also accommodated more libertarian views and an economic liberalism usually only found amongst (liberal) Conservatives.

This dual role was never going to be sustainable once the LibDems entered government and it was the (more centrist) convictions of Clegg and the LibDem leadership which carried the day. The left leaning wing of the party was horrified by the decision to enter a coalition government with the Conservatives and most of those voters (and some activists) moved back into the Labour fold. But what does that mean for the future?

Given that the LibDems share some of the responsibility for the welfare reforms and the austerity budgets in the last two years, it is hard to see how Clegg and his wing of the party can perform another u-turn and enter a coalition with Labour in 2015. In a sense then, the transformation of the LibDems into a centre party with strong preferences for economic liberalism is complete. The reflects a fundamental shift in the leadership of the party as well. Market-orientated economic liberalism is probably were Clegg's heart is.

It leaves the political spectrum in a fascinating bind. Although there is the theoretical possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition, chances are this is not going to happen. If neither of the two large parties achieve a majority in 2015, the only option is a minority government of Labour or Tories (whoever has the largest number of seats in the House of Commons) or another version of the Con-Lib government.

Currently the decline of the LibDems leaves Labour in the fortunate position to enjoy a boost in the opinion polls. Yet their glee at the demise of the LibDems is premature. Their own increased popularity is  only because those LibDem voters who were quite close to Labour have now migrated back to it. To continue to attract them, Labour however needs to keep articulating a left-leaning agenda which in turn will repel those voters in the centre of the spectrum without whom Labour cannot win the next election.

Of course, politics is never just a strategic game, but rather a question of tactics. Much of what shapes the political debate today, is probably forgotten when voters will finally make their way to the polling booths in 2015. Yet the political constellation poses a challenge not just to LibDems but to Labour as well.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Why a privatised NHS does not concern me

For months now The Guardian has run a hostile campaign against the NHS reforms introduced by (former) Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. However, some dissenting voices are now emerging. In an opinion piece two days ago, the Guardian commentator Ian Birrell admonishes critics of NHS reforms that their caricature of the changes in the English NHS risks missing the most important point: the NHS was established in different times to tackle different problems. If it does not change, it will fail to address the new challenges to provide health care to millions in the UK.

Birrell argues that the main difference between the original NHS and any health care provider in the 21 century is not whether or not services are supplied by private or public organisations. Rather, the main difference lies in the problem it faces. At its inception, the NHS was to tackle infant mortality and infectious diseases. To do this, the newly formed NHS board embarked on a large scale hospital building programme that lasted into the 1980s. Hospitalisation of patients was thought to be the most appropriate care.

The programme had some success as the health of communities across the UK improved significantly. However, it also created monster organisations that were difficult to steer. Change in order to address new health problems was practically impossible to introduce, and staff morale dropped markedly due to scandals of mistreatment of patients. Despite the claim that the NHS was 'centrally controlled', it was was in fact a supertanker without a skipper.

Repeatedly, politicians tried to force the NHS to be more susceptible to steering by forming organisational sub-divisions, such as local boards (Wales for example has a long history of re-organisations of NHS health boards, their number ranging at some point from 22 to now 7).

Exasperated by the resistance of the NHS to respond to the need for change, Tony Blair's government then practically sliced off large parts of the service into semi-private providers, NHS foundation hospitals, that were operating free from central control.

Andrew Lansley's reforms were only the logical extension of the reforms introduced by the previous government: devolving the main bulk of the NHS budget to GPs operating in the communities and commissioning the services they need for their patients.

Critics are scathing about the alleged privatisation of the NHS. But, as Birrell argues, this misses the point. The NHS will remain free at the point of use. GPs have always been private contractors, ever since Aneurin Bevan decided to buy their approval to the introduction of the NHS by 'stuffing their mouths with gold'.

What has changed however is that the location of care has shifted from hospitals to communities. While some surgical procedures will always require hospitalisation, most after-care is best delivered for patients in the communities. This is not just a question of cost. It is above all an issue about the quality of care. It matters little whether a public or private organisation offers this care.

Thursday 13 December 2012

The costs of Labour governing Wales

Wales abandoned school league tables in 2001. In England the government continued to collect data about school performance and kept publishing school league tables. Whilst league tables are controversial, there is however clear evidence of the effect school league tables have on school performance.

In a study conducted by Bristol University, researchers found incontrovertible evidence that the abolition of league tables in Wales cost pupils dearly. Welsh school performance deteriorated sharply after 2001, the year the Welsh Labour government decided to cease publishing data on school performance.

Expressed in GCSE results, the abolition of school league tables in Wales cost pupils 2 grades over the last 10 years. As Prof Simon Burgess explains:

'The effect was sizeable and statistically significant. It amounted to around two GCSE grades per pupil per year - that is, achieving a grade D rather than a B in one subject. Pupils in England and Wales were performing very similarly up to 2001, but thereafter the fraction gaining five good GCSE passes strongly diverged.'

Leighton Andrews, current Labour Education Minister tries to eradicate the toxic legacy of his Labour predecessor

The current Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews has recently decided to re-introduce a rudimentary form of school league tables after a hiatus of more than 10 years. Schools will now be grouped into performance 'bands', indicating how well they do in teaching their pupils.

It would be easy to see this as a lesson in another failed Welsh Labour policy pleasing the teaching unions, but this would miss the point. What Welsh Labour was uncomfortable with in school league table was to provide more transparency in public services, and, in effect, more choice to parents. Labour in Wales still stubbornly resists the 'choice agenda', although, ironically, it was Tony Blair who formulated the basic principles of choice in public services during 'New Labour'.

The lesson is therefore not one about whether or not to listen to vested interests, such as the teaching unions. The real lesson is one about the futility to govern a modern society without giving people who use public services choices about those services, be they in the health, social care or education sector.

Monday 3 December 2012

The face of hypocrisy

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, has been at the forefront of the fight against tax evasion by large companies in the UK. She delivered a strong public condemnation of the tax affairs of Google, Starbucks and Amazon when the committee questioned some executive members of those companies publicly in November.

The face of hypocrisy - Margaret Hodge

It turns out that Hodge's outrage at tax evasion was driven by guilt rather than anything else. Hodge's own family company Stemcor has only paid £175,000 in corporation tax on an annual turnover of £2.1billion (yes, 2.1billion pounds).

Stemcor is based in the UK and one of the world's largest companies. It is owned by her brother. Hodge is a shareholder of the company. She has now announced that she would sue anybody who repeats the claim that Stemcor is avoiding taxes. She would have to start with Companies House where the filed accounts of her family's company clearly show that Stemcor has paid only 0.01 percent in corporation tax. That is even less than Google, Amazon or Starbucks. 

Hodge is no stranger to scandal. As a councillor for Islington she heaped verbal abuse on a victim of paedophilia and called him an 'extremely disturbed' individual. She later apologised. As a councillor she presided over the cover up of the Care Home scandal in Islington in the 1980s. Inexplicably, given her invidious role in the scandal, she was later made Children's Minister under Tony Blair. 

The reason for this appointment may lie in her roots. Margaret Hodge was born Margaret Oppenheimer. She belongs to one of the richest and best connected Jewish families in the world. Tony Blair may just have been loath to lose her, given that there is always a life after politics. 

Sunday 2 December 2012

Leveson falling apart - fast

The consensus around the Leveson report is falling apart at breathtaking speed. While the Prime Minister once quipped that he would implement it in full unless it was 'bonkers', and the leader of the opposition did not even feel the need to read the report before he made a commitment to fully implement it, the critics of Leveson's recommendation to introduce statutory regulation of the press are becoming more vocal and there are surprising alliances emerging.

Imbalanced and impractical - Leveson and his report on Press Media

The latest critical voice is that of Shami Chakrabarti, the human rights campaigner. She said in an interview with the Mail on Sunday that Leveson's recommendations may breach the human rights act. The irony of an alliance between David Cameron and Shami Chakrabarti converging on the territory of the human rights act may raise some eyebrows amongst Conservatives. But her view is well articulated and convincing. In essence, she maintains that a free press cannot be submitted to statutory regulation when other media outlets are not.

David Aaronovitch has recently voiced another concern. On Andrew Neill's Daily Politics he argued that Leveson was wrong to accord so much importance to the victims of press intrusion. While it is right to recognise the harm some journalists have inflicted on some members of the public, it was wrong to design a system of press regulation that only addressed the elements of journalistic activity that was wrong. Basing press regulation on the sentiments of the victims only was like asking a victim of medical malpractice to rewrite surgical procedure (my paraphrasing).

The chances that Leveson will be implemented are becoming more distant by the day, and that may be a good thing. While it is important that the victims of press intrusion are listened to, they may be bad advocates of any future regulatory system. Not to mention that Leveson seems to have disregarded the main challenge to any press regulation in the modern era: the fast and irreversible descend of national print media into irrelevance in the age of blogging and twittering.

Despite the sheer volume of the report, Leveson may just have gotten the balance wrong and his report may therefore just gather dust on the shelves. It may be small comfort to him that he shares this fate with countless other reports of the past. Britain does however need an effective system to address press intrusion and professional misdemeanors and let's hope that the industry itself will act swiftly.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Assange's problem with press freedom

An extract of an ill-tempered interview between Julien Assange and the BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi has turned on the BBC website. Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy because he skipped bail. He was to be extradited to Sweden for charges on sexual assault but refuses to face his accusers. 

In the interview he accused BBC journalist Badawi of supporting torture, amongst other non-sensical accusations. His outburst is a window into his thinking and the fact that he has a very rudimentary understanding of journalism itself. Following accusations of Assange that Bradley Manning had been tortured and was not allowed to see a lawyer, Badawi attempted to mention that this interpretation is contested by the US government and that Manning’s lawyer has in fact confirmed that he has visited him repeatedly. At that point Assange exploded in sheer rage and accused the BBC of bias for not supporting his view. 

This is instructive. For Assange, journalists are only fair and impartial if they agree with his point of view. Any other view is illegitimate and demonstrates tendentiousness. It is final proof of what many have suspected for a long time. Assange has a very limited understanding of good journalism and he often struggles to tolerate other views. This somehow neatly lines up with his political belief that America is evil incarnate. By now, Assange is on the payroll of the Russian state TV and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is where Wikileaks ended up. A famous Communist once said that freedom is always the freedom of those thinking different. Assange may never accept that. 

Tuesday 27 November 2012

The Liverpool Care Pathway - who decides?

Jeremy Paxman conducted a lively discussion yesterday on Newsnight about the so-called Liverpool Care Pathway. The care pathway has drawn some criticism from patients and carers after it has become clear that it is essentially a way to design a dignified death for patients. While this is laudable where patients are terminally ill, critics argue that it is not clear when and under which circumstances the care pathway should be implemented in individual cases, leaving it open to be used as a 'smokescreen for euthanasia'. 

The care pathway has originally been developed by palliative care professionals and geriatricians in Liverpool, but it is now widely applied in NHS hospitals. The interesting conflict however is not so much one about when to apply it but one about who makes the decision to do so. 

Newsnight showed a brief interview with a relative of a patient who was put on the care pathway. In essence, the relative argued this was a decision to let the patient die without exploring alternative routes to address the illness of patient. She reportedly 'begged the consultant' to save the life of the patient instead of applying the Liverpool Care Pathway. In such situations, the Liverpool Care Pathway may resemble more a professional device to conceal clinical decisions from relatives and patients, rather than  an instrument for delivering exemplary palliative care. 

The discussion amongst Paxman's guests however moved quickly away from the critical point that was made by the relative of the patient (and another guest in the studio) towards the 'soft' issue of how to involve patients or relatives in the discussion about the care pathway. This however dodged the actual problem of clinical decision making. 

As one of the guests emphasised, the question is about WHO makes the decision. Relatives often do not just want to be consulted in the difficult cases but want to make the decision itself. So, in difficult cases, consultation is not enough. The Minister for Care Services Norman Lamb waffled for a while and managed to skirt around the real issue, but anybody who listened carefully couldn't have been in any doubt. As medical knowledge is more widely disseminated in the population, patients and relatives will increasingly challenge clinicians in their decision making and 'consulting' is taken to be synonymous with 'deciding'. No one in the studio pointed out that consultation in the clinical context does NOT mean a fundamental shift of the decision making authority from clinical staff to relatives or patients. 

The relative brought this to the point when he said that it should be the family or the patient who decides which services he or she receives. We may agree or disagree with this, but the main message is clear. The times when NHS clinicians could make decisions on their own is over. Nowhere is this more clear then in deciding who lives or dies. 

Why Chris Patten should be toast

The Chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten, may have just about survived his grilling by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons today. However, his performance certainly has not done him much good. His answers revealed a breathtaking degree of arrogance which he could have done without. In particular his decision to reward the outgoing General director George Entwistle for a 52 day stint in his job with about half a million pounds beggars belief. Lord Patten did not even seriously attempt to justify his waste of public money to the MPs and instead simply lectured them that there was no alternative to this largesse. 

Undoubtedly the Committee will not be happy about this state of affairs and Patten should brace himself for a critical report. However, he himself seems to feel immune to criticism as long as he has the confidence of the Secretary for Culture, Maria Miller. Why Patten should remain in his job after he appointed a staggeringly incompetent BBC insider to the main job, and subsequently failed to address the serious failings in the BBC governance is a mystery. 

As one of the committee members commented during the meeting, Patten seems to think that his responsibility for oversight does not mean that he should be held responsible for anything when things go wrong. This peculiar detachment from whatever goes on in the BBC may just save him for now, but it certainly does not do the BBC any good. Patten appears unable to establish proper governance procedures in the BBC and it will only be a question of time when the next scandal breaks. Then it will be even more difficult to hide behind others. 

Monday 26 November 2012

Welsh Education Minister seeing the light

After two years of frothing at the mouth about the education reforms in England by Welsh Labour, Leighton Andrews has now come round to see the light. Last week he announced that he is prepared to remove the responsibility for education from the twenty two local authorities in Wales.

This can't come soon enough for the tens of thousands of children in Wales who have to learn under one of poorest educational systems in the developed world. Tests of Welsh school performance revealed a drop in outcomes for the last 12 years since Labour has come to power in Wales. There are many reasons for this poor performance but the main aspect is one about which the Welsh Minister is in agreement with his English counterpart, Michael Gove: local authorities.

For decades now the schools in the UK have laboured under the gross overregulation and micro-management by local authorities. More than a quarter of the education budget that is meant for schools never reach the frontline and are wasted in county halls for 'educational services', that is council workers and managers who never see a class room from inside.

Tony Blair's government started the process of change. Michael Gove continued and speeded it up. And now Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Education Minister, is about to join the reform camp. Let's see if he can see this through against the vested interests of local councils and teaching unions. The pupils in Wales certainly deserve that he succeeds.

Good Bye Welfare State!

The BBC is going to broadcast a look back at the Beveridge Report and the creation of the Welfare State (27 Nov on BBC Radio 4). The summary makes fascinating reading and indicates that a broader consensus is emerging amongst the political parties. Welfare payments are not delivering what Beveridge designed them to do, and, instead, have contributed to a population trapped in poverty and dependency.

The reasons for this are complex. Higher mobility of labour within Europe, fewer jobs in the low skilled category, a shift from industrial to a service economy with different income structures resulting in the need for top up payments for working families and much more.

Yet, one thing seems clear: the British people want to see a radical overhaul of welfare. The old status quo won't do anymore. It takes courage to embark on such an overhaul and Ian Duncan Smith may just have the determination to do it.

Friday 23 November 2012

A plea for more courage in British theatre productions

Although I have lived in the UK since 1996 and frequently go to the theatre I have rarely seen exciting plays here. One reason seems to be that the country lacks brave directors who are trying out new things. There is no shortage of writers who produce fascinating scripts on topical issues. Yet, directors in the UK tend to either favour conventional set ups or a hotchpotch of disparate ideas which struggle to congeal into a consistently riveting production.

It is also not a problem with set designers. Although most sets I have seen are again more on the conventional side, it appears more a case of being restrained by directors rather than a lack of ideas. One recent play I have seen was typical for British directing. Although featuring extraordinary performances, 'Medea' at the Sherman Theatre lacked the explosive mix of spoken word and acting that is characteristic for great production. In a way, it seems to be a problem of giving actors too much space. Several times during the show, the stage was wide open without the actor actually able to 'fill' it with their acting. They were floating, or swimming in too large a bowl, as it were.

A recent play I saw at the Schaubuehne in Berlin demonstrated what I mean by 'too much space'. The director and set designer of Tolstoi's Power of Darkness filled the entire stage with a wooden board into which only narrow tunnels had been carved. The resulting impression was one of a cut-through a living quarter to monitor the inhabitants. It instantly shaped the relationship between the audience and the actors. The actors were 'watched' in their daily routines, a bit like guinea pigs. In addition, it restricted their space for movements to long stretched tunnels where they would bump into each other, and two small 'living quarters' in the centre. The effect was one of compression, forcing the actors to act within narrow confines.

Tolstoi's 'Macht der Finsternis' at Schaubuehne in Berlin

Whether this worked for other members of the audience I don't know but I did notice that it prevented the actors from 'just standing around on the stage' and hoping to garner some energy from the next line of text.

It is this tight control of the acting space that can instil life into a moribund show. In this sense wish British directors and producers would show a bit more courage sometimes. It may just make for more exciting viewing.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

The British obsession with Adolf Hitler

The BBC has once again aired another documentary on Adolf Hitler. The obsession of British people with Adolf Hitler is a curious affair. You only need to switch on the telly in the UK and you are likely to stumble over programmes on  the Nazis or the Second World War. Most of these programmes are poorly edited and offer only simple historical narratives. Sensational claims and hyperbole is usually the name of the game. The recent BBC programme is sadly no different.

The programme's title and synopsis suggests that it would investigate Hitler's charisma but reverts to a simple historical narrative of Hitler's rise instead. More annoyingly, the BBC programme fails to capture some of the most important aspects of Hitler's ascendancy to power in Germany. In trying to explain the appeal of Hitler to a large minority of Germans before 1933 it points to his charisma without much explaining what that meant.

Historical research over the last five decades on Hitler and the Nazi regime has revealed a far more complex story. One of the most difficult issues to deal with is the fact that Nazism, just as its main adversary communism, offered a serious challenge to the political, economic and social establishment. Both regimes, communism in Soviet Russia (and in Eastern Europe post-1945) and fascism in Germany articulated a consistent anti-elitist message, something that resonated with many people in deeply divided societies. It is no surprise that Nazism and Socialism were of course seen to be two sides of the same coin. Socialism just as Nazism argued that the old elites has failed to govern their countries in the face of immense political, social and economic upheaval.

On top of this, both vile types of regimes set about to obliterate and murder large swaths of the population which in effect produced an unparalleled extent of social mobility. As people were imprisoned and eventually murdered, both socialism and Nazism radicalised the relationships between the masses and the elites. This contributed to considerable amounts of loyalty by many people even when it became clear how murderous these regimes were.

The viciousness of the socialist and Nazi regimes of course correlated with another aspect that produced enormous levels of support amongst the populations. Both offered a simplistic view of human relationships and modern societies. Their visions contrasted with the growing complexity of social and economic affairs in the wake of the First World War. Interestingly this did not extend to the internal workings of either regime, socialism or Nazism. While both pretended to reduce complexity, they created highly differentiated and competing hierarchies of power in the economic, political and social domains.

The BBC programme reflects little of the sophistication of the Nazi movement operating in modern German society and it is rather sad that such a simplistic sensationalist account received support from Ian Kershaw, an eminent researcher and author of an important Hitler biography. But I guess it is this very simplicity that appeals to many viewers. As the murderous Nazi thugs and socialist ideologues knew, reducing complexity is often soothing for the broad masses.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Why the living wage campaign is wrong

The main argument for the living wage is that it lifts people out of benefits. Currently there are thousands of people in the UK who work hard and have full time jobs yet receive housing benefit and other state support since their wages are not big enough to make ends meet at the end of the month. In effect, this shifts the burden from employers (who pay wages and through the work of their employees make profits) to the tax payer. The argument of the living wage campaign is that this is wrong.

However, there is another argument that should make us think twice before we introduce the living wage. The income differential between employees is a product of the type of work they do and their productivity. The living wage would force employers to reduce the income differential substantially between those employees who do different jobs in their company.

Effectively, this would distort the incentives for pre-employment education, training and skills. With the living wage, there would be no difference anymore between somebody who cleans the office and somebody who answers the phones. To pretend that both types of work are of equal value is simply not true. Though both should command our respect for hard work, reducing the income differential between jobs in essence signals to young people that further and higher education does not pay.

The danger would be that education does not look attractive anymore in a society where wages are the same for everyone.

Friday 9 November 2012

Paedophilia and the Prime Minister's ignorance

Cameron has declined to investigate claims of paedophilia amongst politicians as he was shown a list of potential suspects by TV presenter Schofield on air. The prime minister is in good (or rather revolting) company with his denial to look into the matter. On Question Time, Chukka Umunna has equally defended the right of paedophiles to remain secret. To most people, this will come as no surprise. As more and more details emerge from the Bryn Estyn home abuse inquiry (the so-called Waterhouse Inquiry), politicians of all colour tried to draw up the terms of reference of the inquiry in such a way that paedophiles were protected and could not be prosecuted for their crimes.

Now, the Home Secretary Theresa May has urged anyone who has suffered from abuse to go to the police. She is either wilfully ignorant of the problem of paedophilia or deliberately tries to close down the discussion about why this type of abuse has gone on for decades in care homes in North Wales. As the Sandusky trial in the US has clearly shown, paedophiles are careful to build up strong networks of friends to protect them from prosecution if allegations are made against them.

The paedophile Sandusky after his trial sentenced to 60 years in prison in the US - in the UK he would likely have been given a community sentence at best

The Waterhouse Inquiry unequivocally demonstrated that the police and the prosecuting authorities at the time had no intention to investigate the crimes at Bryn Estyn. And now, May says the victims should trust the police. How ignorant can you be? After having failed for more than 30 years to prosecute paedophiles who abused children in care homes in North Wales, it seems obvious that there is only one way of making sure that paedophiles do not get away with their hideous behaviour. Name and shame them publicly!

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Four more years but the shine has come off

So there it is. The people have spoken and they have handed another victory to Barack Obama. Whilst there was less enthusiasm for his re-election amongst many Americans, he eventually mustered enough energy to mobilise many of his original supporters to give him a second chance. And a second chance it is since neither has he achieved much of that which he spoke so eloquently of in 2008, nor has he fulfilled the hopes of so many of his countrymen.

The main narrative of this campaign was that it was a choice between two widely different visions of America. I beg to differ. Whilst the Obama campaign ran a vicious personal campaign against Romney, the Romney camp was careful to avoid shrill sounds and personal attacks. In fact, observers on the left of the political spectrum corroborated that when they spoke of a 'Chicago' campaign run by the Obama camp (Chicago politics is famous for the nasty vilification of your opponent and the spreading of 'halftruths' or outright lies).

So as the shine has come off the Obama campaign, the Romney camp seems to have mainly articulated a moderate vision of America that widely commanded respect amongst independents. Romney's address to his supporters reflected this gracious and fair attitude in the political struggle, while Obama's speech to his supporters seems to have been mainly a repeat of the hollow phrases and high flying rhetoric from 2008.

Yet the media distortion about Romney and his supporters goes even further than that. The media suggested repeatedly that there were major differences between the opponents. This is largely wishful thinking. Take the reform of the banking sector and the effect of Wall Street on the US economy. Obama had strong words of criticism for Wall Street and the investment banks in 2008 yet failed to deliver a single effective reform package that would prevent a similar breakdown of the banking system.

Or look at the bailout of the car industry. Whilst this clearly won Obama plaudits from the car makers and their unions, the money mostly went to pay enormous pension liabilities that had built up over decades. This only achieved one thing: the American car industry is back to square one. It remains largely uncompetitive vis-a-vis foreign car makers and technological innovation is low. Obama may have saved it temporarily from going to the wall, but it is still heading for a crash, bailout or no bailout.

The most important weakness of all may however be Obama's personality. In an insightful documentary Andrew Marr spoke to close advisors of the President and they indicated that, despite the rhetoric about collaboration, Obama is not somebody who knows how to work together with others. He (perhaps too much) relies on his intellectual strength and believes that by simply thinking hard about a problem, he will come up with the right answer. This showed throughout his presidency. As some of his supporters argued, Obama may be the most lonely president ever, unable to reach out to colleagues and work with them to achieve robust solutions to difficult problems. This contrasts markedly with Romney who as governor favoured a managerial style, often delegating problems to capable staff and colleagues.

And so, I suspect, we will see more of the same. A president increasingly frustrated by an allegedly intransigent 'Washington' political system and hemmed in by an inability to reach out to others. What Obama does not seem to understand is that rational thought may sometimes be a poor guide for political decision making. Politics is about people, not abstract ideas.

Sunday 4 November 2012

How to punish newspapers appropriately

The Leveson Inquiry is currently investigating how best to regulate the media. Some newspapers in particular have stepped over the (moral and legal) line over the last decade and the sanctions that were imposed by the Press Complaints Commission were little more than slaps on the wrist. 

There is hence a widespread consensus that something has to be done, yet commentators disagree about what that could possibly be. One way of looking at sanctions for violations of a code or legal framework is to argue whether the sentence is appropriate to the crime. In the developed world this has led to a significant narrowing of the options in sanctioning instruments. Hard labour is not something we generally endorse anymore as a response to illegal behaviour. Most commonly, today criminals are either punished through financial compensation or prison. 

These two instruments may however be especially blunt when it comes to infringements of a self-imposed code, or violations of good taste and decorum. Newspaper editors are unlikely to serve community sentences either, the last of the means in the repository of punishments. So perhaps it is time to look further, or, to be more precise, to look to the very distant past. 

James Cook on his voyages around the globe in the 18th century encountered a particularly tricky problem with locals on the islands he discovered. The ship and its provisions were subject to widespread ‘thieving’. Locals simply did not attach the importance to property relations as Cook and his mates did. This presented Cook with a considerable difficulty, especially as he noticed that the most common form of punishment (corporal) that was usually meted out to perpetrators in his own team seemed to have no effect with the local population. His fellow traveller, Captain Clerke, then ‘hit upon a method which had an effect’ by ‘shaving their heads for though [having a shaved head] was looked upon as a mark of infamy and marked out the man’ (Cook, The Journals, p.465).

What does this tell us about newspaper regulation? Well, Cook’s example demonstrates that the effect of punishment is peculiar to the cultural environment. It is determined not by what outsiders consider appropriate or harsh but by what is considered such by anybody within the cultural context in which the individual operates. So, here is my suggestion about newspapers that step over the line. Instead of fining them, force them to print a correction or apology in the same place and at exactly the same size in which the original story appeared. Let’s see how they would like it to have their heads shaved in this way.

Sunday 28 October 2012

On good and evil in human behaviour

The BBC and some other large organisations in Britain are currently rocked by the Jimmy Savile scandal. Over many decades, Jimmy Savile, apparently restlessly working for charities to help disadvantaged children, was in fact preying on the very same kids he pretended to help. The police now think that he was a 'predatory pedophile' who abused more than 200 children.

I have not written about this since the scandal broke because words can only fail to express the horror and devastation felt by those he betrayed, the children he feigned to help, as well as those he actually abused sexually over such a long time.

There are however two issuees that got my attention beyond the sheer evil of his actions. The first is that Savile's behaviour was by no means secret. In fact it was widely known amongst his colleagues and perhaps even tolerated by management in the BBC and the NHS hospital he worked in. So the magnitude of this scandal only becomes clear when one thinks about the wall of silence that surrounded his actions, a wall not built by himself but created and maintained by others.

The second aspect relates to the relationship between good and evil in human behaviour. Savile's nephew recently expressed his sadness upon hearing about his uncle's crimes and he contrasted it with the enormous amount of charity work Savile has done over his life time. Yet when it comes to predatory pedophiles this may confuse motivation and behaviour. Savile may well have developed and nurtured his charity role in society exactly because this line of work ensured that he had access to young underage girls and boys.

For predatory pedophiles, contrasting the 'good' they are doing with the 'harm' is a common strategy of defence. In one of the biggest pedophile scandals in the US, the recently convicted rapist Jerry Sandusky (who worked as Penn State assistant football coach) used a similar strategy. In an interview with the New York Times he pointed to all the charity work he has done, arguing that he could not possibly have done any evil because he had done so much good.

We now know that Sandusky founded and developed his charity for disadvantaged boys exactly because it allowed him access to his victims and a perfect cover to groom them for his sexual abuse over a long period of time. It seems that people like Savile or Sandusky do not do good or evil, they do good in order to perpetrate evil.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

On Cook's journals

When I lived in Aberdeen I was a keen listener of the shipping forecast every night on BBC Radio. The broadcast exuded a sense of certainty and security while reporting gales and all sorts of weather all over the North Sea. I never found it tedious to listen to it.

This may be the reason why I had little apprehension when I bought James Cook published logbooks of his journeys into the South Sea a couple of years ago. Recently, I finally got round to reading them and I am absolutely gripped by the records of the events unfolding on Cook's three journeys around the world.

The diaries of the first two journeys are littered with weather and nautical information and it may be those that make them so soothing and re-assuring to me. Yet, the most fascinating aspect of his records lies in the way in which they reflect the novelty of Cook's endeavours and the fact that many of the islands he 'discovers' have actually had contact with European travellers already. I always assumed that Cook and his mates were somehow embarking on a journey into the unknown. But, in fact, time and again he notes carefully any previous visits to the islands by others. Although maps were often erroneous and geographical locations of these islands differed widely from one account to another, many of the islands had had contact with the outer world already when Cook arrived.

A real size replica of Cook's  Royal Navy Barque 'Endeavour' in Sydney Harbour

Interestingly, Cook also notes a phenomenon that we today may call collective memory. He often noticed on his second and third journey that, when re-visiting islands, he often does not recognise any single individual of the locals in the crowd. What he finds astonishing however is that they ask him and his team often detailed questions about incidences that reflect intimate knowledge about his previous visit. Cook was a good observer and he had often very close contact with locals sharing time and many adventures with them when on the islands.

While the fact that Cook does not recognise many of the faces may simply be because of the low life expectancy in the populations he visited, the fact that something like a memory of his previous visit remained alive amongst the people is difficult to explain. Cook's journals offer countless of these fascinating details about life outside the European culture and his records remains a worthwhile read even after so many years, with or without the nautical paraphernalia.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Universal benefits to go?

Britain has a long tradition of universal benefits. Whilst some of those are rightly celebrated as a means to lift some people out of poverty and provide a unifying thread across all sections of society, some of them have become a serious challenge to the public purse.

Politicians who question the usefulness or wisdom of universal benefits, such as free bus passes for all pensioners, run into two problems. First, they sound as if they grudge some of the poorest in society the most minimal types of support. And, second, they need to explain how universal benefits can be re-designed in such a way that they are targeted at the most in need. Means testing, the conventional form of targeting benefits to particular social groups, is an expensive bureaucratic exercise whose cost often exceeds the potential savings.

Whilst universal benefits are only minor expenditure items in large budgets (such as that of Central government or England's), for the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast some universal benefits constitute a major item of expenditure simply because their devolved budgets are smaller and predominantly in those areas that 'host' universal benefits such as bus passes or prescription charges.

The former Scottish Auditor General has now raised some serious concerns about the culture of 'freebies' from devolved governments. In a BBC interview he argues that the demographic changes over the last 2 decades makes a strong case for reviewing some universal benefits. future projections of the costs of universal benefits support his argument. In the long term, some of the universal benefits are simply unsustainable and it appear also morally questionable why millionaires in Wales or Scotland should receive free prescriptions for medication.

The Scottish Labour leader has also floated some controversial ideas about universal benefits, the first time a Labour leader has ventured into this territory. The Welsh government under Carwin Jones has strongly rejected her argument and insists that universal benefits are here (in Wales) to stay. Yet, the Welsh government's case is even weaker than that of the other devolved governments. With a yawning gap in the budget for the NHS (this year alone about £240 million need to be found to save NHS health boards from bankruptcy), and no new funding settlement for Wales in sight, Carwin Jones hopes for a balanced budget are fast disappearing. So far, he has managed to lay all blame on everyone else but the profligacy and mismanagement of his own government, but he wont be able to do this much longer.

Revisiting the extent and usefulness of universal benefits may just be a starting point to reduce the gap in the Welsh budget. The biggest hurdle for this however may not have anything to do with the number crunching, but with Carwin Jones' character. Looking at universal benefits takes political courage and that is not something the Welsh Labour leader is known for.

Monday 1 October 2012

Balls' conference freebies

As the Labour Party conference in Manchester draws closer to the highlight of the party leader’s speech, the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has tried to steal the limelight from his namesake by proposing a stamp duty holiday for first time buyers. 

Balls undoubtedly will want to repeat the trick of his Conservative colleague George Osborne four years ago, who, with the Conservatives enjoying mainly ‘soft’ support in the polls, proposed a raise in the inheritance tax allowance for families to £250,000. Post-conference polling showed that the support for the Conservatives firmed up and Cameron was on his way to 10 Downing Street.

Yet, Balls may struggle to repeat this feat under current circumstances. In fact, his proposal may turn out to be a grave mistake for two reasons, one strategic, one tactical. 

The first reason why Balls may have miscalculated is that the country is in a different position now then it was in 2008. For the last two years, the public debate has been about how to pay down the debt in the best possible way, rather than about how to spend more. Although the writing was already on the wall in 2008, Osborne still operated under the impression of generous spending limits and the British public was equally thinking that there was still something to give away. Now, this has changed and the polls indicate clearly that voters expect the main battle ground to be over what and where to cut, rather than to make uncosted promises of additional spending. 

Yet, the second (tactical) mistake Balls may have made is one that resonates in particular with Labour voters. As spending is being squeezed, the Labour Party leadership is pushed hard to come up with suggestions about what they would do differently to the coalition. So far, there is a big yawning black hole (or a plethora of policy committees which may or may not report some time in the future) where there should be policies. This arguably leaves Balls and Miliband with little choice but to offer some little nuggets instead a coherent programme of reform. 

The stamp duty holiday fits into this tactic. It looks like short termism when Labour should instead strive to formulate a coherent programme to re-focus public services. Commentators have already noted how much Balls’ proposal smacks of Gordon Brown’s attitude to policy, echoing the lack of grand narrative and purpose of the last two years of Labour in power. 

So, there we are. As Balls reverts back to his old paymaster’s tactics, he may just come to regret his proposal as the country has moved on, for better or worse, to a time of spending reductions. The argument about what to cut and what not, is the harder one to have, but running away from it wont help Labour. 

Sunday 30 September 2012

Why we don't criticise the NHS

A recent survey showed that people are reluctant to criticise the care they receive by the NHS. Whilst we are happy to rate pretty much any service or good we obtain, from mobile phones to hotel stays, we are far less likely to say something critical about the NHS. The Guardian has reported on the result of this survey and the figures are revealing. Only about 250 people go online every day to rate their experience with the NHS, out of 1 million daily encounters in the NHS between care staff and patients.

The authors of the report suspect reverence for medical professionals the main reason. But another reason for why we rarely say much about the NHS is that we simply don't know. Look at it this way.

Rating a good or a service inevitably involves comparing it to a previous experience. We may often not be aware of this comparative exercise, but when we say something about a movie we have seen, we intuitively judge it against a previous movie experience. Although comparisons are complex mental exercises, the fundamental component of any comparison is a previous experience of something that we deemed sufficiently similar to compare it to. That may be easy with movies, yet harder to come by when we think about a colonoscopy. Experiences of medical care are mainly non-comparable, singular events in their nature. We do not have an operation to remove our appendix at Central Manchester Hospital and then decide to go to France to have the same procedure all over again. Once it's done, it's gone.

Not your usual NHS staff - or so you hope!

That illustrates of how little use NHS satisfaction surveys are. People simply have nothing to compare it with when it comes to medical care experiences. At best, they may re-visit the same hospital again and their rating may simply reflect whether or not the hospital itself has improved its care quality over time. Cross comparisons between hospitals or even between the NHS and other care organisations can hardly be based on patient satisfaction surveys.

As a foreigner, I have the privilege ( or perhaps the misfortune) to know two health systems, the NHS and the German system, a de-centralised health care model based on mixed economy health providers. I also work in a university hospital in Wales, one of the largest in the country. Although I bristle at the dire state of hygiene in NHS hospitals and the poor food, I could hardly comment on whether Welsh surgeons would do a better job at operating my appendix than any German doctor would. What I do know however is that if I hear any politician speak of how great the NHS is because they have the highest satisfaction ratings in years, I will roll my eyes and hope I never be asked to fill in one of those surveys.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Lisbon diary

Of all the cities in Europe I always wanted to visit Lisbon has long been top of the list. Perhaps it's the melancholy writing of Pessoa or the fascinating history of this country. Last year I visited Porto and fell in love with the language and the feel of the city: laid back yet organised, small yet big enough to have a fantastic concert hall and a beautiful city centre.

Now it was Lisbon's turn and I was not disappointed. In fact, I have rarely seen such a wonderful place for living and working. The city is big but not overwhelming, well run and clean. It has charm (and beautiful people needless to say), yet also retains a feeling of normalcy that makes it appealing and exciting at the same time.

The memorial dedicated to the discoverers in Blemel

Yet, the most fascinating aspect of Lisbon and Portugal may be its rich and exciting history. In particular, the last hundred years offer fascinating insights into the clash of modernity with pre-modern elements of life. If you look for manifestations of the recent past, you don't need to look further than Lisbon's trams. Although the city has a functioning and spacious metro system, it also kept its tram lines above ground which still prove a magnet for tourists.

Lisbon's tram

Perhaps the most intriguing detail of Portuguese history however is an aspect that is little discussed: the long 'freeze' under its last dictator, Salazar. The sheer length of his regime provides some staggering figures. Having come to power in 1929, he lived and ruled Portugal until his death in 1970. Although brutal at times, his rule distinguished itself from the previous regime, the last turbulent monarchic rule of Portugal followed by a brief interim republic, and laid the foundations for a semi-modern economy and society.

In a sense perhaps Salazar's dictatorship saw Portugal's slow transformation from a largely aristocratic regime into a modern republic, something that infuriated some because of its slowness and protracted nature, while being admired and envied by others who experienced radical social and economic transformations at the beginning of the 20th century leading to internal strife and civil war. Whatever the lessons of his long rule, Portugal is now fully integrated into the European Union and Lisbon is the Iberian pearl on the Atlantic.

Monday 17 September 2012

What has the coalition achieved?

The coalition government under David Cameron has had a rough time recently. Surveys show that key ministers are deeply unpopular amongst the British people and the poll figures for both parties, the Conservatives and the LibDems, took a beating since the Rose Garden photo op in 2010.

Happier times! Cameron and Clegg in the Rose Garden of Number 10 in 2010

There have also been rumblings amongst Conservative members of parliament about the leadership qualities of David Cameron, prompted by a perceived advantage given to LibDems in key policy areas. Nick Clegg and his parliamentary colleagues, so the complaint goes, determine policies to a far greater extent than they should. Given the widespread disenchantment with the coalition one might be forgiven to ask: what is the point of the coalition? Has it achieved anything so far?

The most effective opponent of the coalition government is not Her Majesty's Opposition, yet perhaps time itself and the tendency of all electorates to indulge in selective memory. It is easily forgotten how radical this government actually has been, much to the consternation of some former Labour ministers who had similar plans for transformations of public services, yet either never got round to implement them or were blocked by Gordon Brown.

Just reviewing a list of recent reforms reveals the magnitude of the policy programme of the current government. Fundamental change and reforms have received legislative approval in education, health, constitutional affairs and welfare.

Take welfare for example. James Purnell was the one but last Labour Welfare Secretary and his plans for welfare reforms approximated closely those of the current postholder Ian Duncan Smith. When in power, Labour had a keen awareness that the current trajectory of welfare spending was unsustainable in the long term. Ian Duncan Smith, starting in 2010, implemented a radical shakeup of the welfare and benefits system which, for the first time in more than 30 years, involves the re-assessment of benefit recipients for payments.

Despite some criticism from disability rights organisations the reforms seem to be largely in tune with the views of the British public and there seems to be widespread consensus that benefit payments require better targeting at those in need. Ian Duncan Smith carefully built the case for reform and is about to implement it, ceaselessly reminding reform opponents that simply continuing to increase welfare expenditure is not an option and may exacerbate inbuilt injustices.

In other words, he managed to locate the current reforms in the wider context of equity and justice, as well as present them as largely continuous of previous postholder's intentions. Similar feats have been pulled off by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who argued that his education reforms are in essence an extension of the academy programme started by Labour under Tony Blair.

Yet, how truly radical the policy agenda of this government has been is only revealed by looking at those areas that have little resonance with the British public. It is in matters such as constitutional affairs that investing political capital rarely pays off and hence little progress is often made over decades. Shortly after coming to office, the coalition legislated for fixed term parliaments which removed the prime ministerial prerogative to set the date of the general election, something not even Labour was ready to give up.

After only two years, the record of this coalition government compares positively with Tony Blair's first term, even though he always regretted not having adopted a more radical approach when coming to power. Yet as selective as collective memory might be, it is also usually arriving at a more balanced appreciation of achievements as time goes by. John Major's government, though deeply unpopular at the time, might be a case in hand. Major's term in office is now seen as laying the foundation for the unprecedented economic recovery in the second half of the 1990s creating the space for the expansion of public expenditure under Labour. In this sense, Cameron and Clegg may have their best time still ahead of them.

Sunday 16 September 2012

What's wrong with Wales?

The Welsh economy has been in decline for the last 4 years. Not only that Wales has been hit hard by the recession since 2008, it also seems to be caught in a vicious cycle. Since inward investment is difficult to come by, economic activity in general is low in Wales which makes it an unattractive place for any investor to be. On top of that, the economic policy of the Welsh Government does not help. The Labour government under Carwin Jones has mainly one objective: to keep the public sector as large as possible since it is public sector jobs that form the main electoral pool for his party, and because public sector employment is often the only mechanism to address structural unemployment in some areas with low economic activity.

The result of this devastating policy and the long term structural problems of the Welsh economy are reflected in the economic figures. In almost all indices of economic activity Wales lags behind all other regions, whilst it leads the four home nations in almost all statistics of government expenditure. Government spending in Wales as a share of GDP has been 57.4% in 2007/8. The comparable figure for London (with plenty of government activity!) was 37%. That's a 20 percentage point gap between the two areas.

But look more closely and the figures reveal an even more shocking picture. Wales also lags behind in terms of productivity. The gross added value in Wales compared to the whole of the UK (100) is 74, leaving Wales way behind any other region as one of the least productive of the UK.

How difficult it is to break out of this vicious cycle of enormous government expenditure and low economic activity has sparked a lively discussion amongst economists and policy makers. The only person who seems to show little interest in tackling the deep seated problems of Wales is the First Minister himself, Carwin Jones, who explained in a recent interview with the BBC that, I paraphrase, everything is just peachy and, once Wales will have internet broadband in 2015, she will pull ahead of the other home nations (at 43 mins into the interview).

The poor performance of Carwin Jones as a First Minister and his government is widely acknowledged amongst commentators and reveals one fact above all. They still have no strategy how to pull Wales out of this mess which they have permitted to develop over the last 12 years in power. There are plenty of possible solutions. None of them however appeal to Labour politicians since they would damage their long term electoral strategy in Wales. The most attractive way out of the situation would of course be to shrink the public sector and to free up governmental expenditure to invest in the upgrading of infrastructure in Wales. There can be no doubt that the current ratio of governmental spending stifles private investment and economic activity. The state in Wales has become the Leviathan that devours all else.

The other way to improve Wales' economic future would be to stop introducing petty legislation through the Welsh Assembly. Since the Labour dominated Welsh Assembly has been created it has either idled its way through the decade or engaged in matters, at best, peripheral to the state of the economy, at worst, detrimental to its growth prospects. Part of the explanation is that Welsh Assembly members of all parties are of fairly low calibre. Any politician with political talent tries to get a Welsh seat for the House of Commons rather than wasting their time in the Welsh Assembly. With a severely restricted talent tool for the Welsh Assembly, debates are often either painfully partisan and tribal, or focussed on politicians' pet projects such as the organ donor legislation or legislation to make it compulsory to install sprinkler systems in newly built houses. Needless to say that neither of those are of any consequence to the Welsh economy.

The main response of the Welsh Government so far has been to blame others for the state of Wales. Carwin Jones and his Labour ministers are habitually pointing the finger at Westminster when they are criticised for their poor performance. It is London, so their story goes, who should shoulder the blame. The statistics however belie this argument as a cheap attempt to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Wales receives much more from the treasury than it puts into the coffers of the chancellor. In 2006/7, according to official figures, £19.3 billion were raised in taxes and duties in Wales, whilst governmental spending reached £28.2 bn in the same year. Which makes Wales a net recipient of public money.

It seems that as long as the Welsh Government is in denial about its own responsibility for the devastating economic situation in Wales and as long as the Labour party clings to the mirage that public sector employment is the only way to tackle socio-economic deprivation, little will change in the land of Glyndwr.

Friday 7 September 2012

Why the US elections are so dull

'Four more years' the audience chanted, and 'U.S.A.'. In a sense, these chants represent the essence of the national conventions of both political parties who are vying for votes in the upcoming presidential elections in the US. Anyone wondering what the real choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is may be puzzled and confused: no policies were articulated by either of the candidates, no plans for future investment or reforms of the education, health, transport sector. In other words: nil, zero, nada on the policy front.

Obama's greatest asset in the re-election fight - his wife Michelle

Worse however was to come for anyone who sat through the speeches of the candidates' wives. No cringe-making remark was left out, no personal comment to low to be made by the most private defenders of their characters. And while Vice-President Biden roused the faithful in support of Obama, former President Clinton once again showed why he sailed to victory at his re-election bid in 1996. His rhetorical flourishes were polished and well delivered, taking a shine off Obama's delivery which often looked wooden and flat.

But why are national conventions of both parties so deadly boring? Despite the hype in the media, neither of the candidates offered any policies or plans for reform and so much of the media talk is about personalities and character. The main reason for this may lie in the constellation of American politics: a system of checks and balances that often delivers an impotent president and an over-potent Congress with budgetary powers. Legislative proposals are hard to get passed for a president (with or) without a party political majority in Congress, so there is little point in delineating a future policy agenda for any contender to the highest office.

This contrasts considerably with UK politics, where the prime minister commands a majority in the House of Commons. With party political discipline (and a bit of luck to have few mavericks around) his voting majority for legislation in the House is assured, so he can deliver the things he proposed to do during the electoral battle. In fact, there is a singular focus in the public mind and debate of the UK on whether prime ministers and governments have in fact delivered what they have promised in their (admittedly, often vague) manifestos.

This close link between electoral strategy and policy agenda post-election also allows moments where opposition parties can upset the governmental cart. Anyone remembers George Osborne's surprise announcement at the annual party conference to lift the tax threshold for inheritance tax to £250,000? The poll numbers of the Conservatives firmed up instantly.

Of course, much of what parties and prime ministerial candidates promise is never delivered, even in the UK. But the underlying tendency is clear: public debate mainly focuses on policies for legislation and reforms rather than personalities. Despite all the admiration I have for the US, Britain may just have the edge in this matter.

Monday 3 September 2012

Anyone running 200m in less than 22 seconds?

Anyone out there with a time around 22 seconds for the 200m? Well, certainly not me! But that's the extraordinary time that Pistorius ran in the qualifications for the Paralympics. Remember the world record stands at 19.19 seconds by Usain Bolt. So this is how close paralympians are to able bodied athletes by now.

Yet Pistorius was in for a surprise as Alan Oliveira from Brazil caught up with him on the London track and zoomed past him with a time of 21.45 seconds. Watch it HERE. What an achievement!

Alan Oliveira after he beat Pistorius in London 2012

Sunday 19 August 2012

John Dos Passos' U.S.A.

Please nobody say reading 1200 pages of literature is not hard work! But in a way, I didn't much notice how long it took me or how much of my time it occupied. In fact, I loved reading those pages! I am talking about John Dos Passos' Trilogy 'U.S.A.', a brilliant if somewhat postmodern account of life in that most exasperating of all countries during the first quarter of the 20th century. 

John Dos Passos may not be a familiar name to many reader nowadays but he was certainly somebody who influenced the style of the so-called 'Lost Generation' writers in the early 20th century. His book 'Manhattan Transfer' is still widely read today. However, few probably still read his main work, the trilogy U.S.A. which he published over more than 20 years. One reason may be because he employed a cut and paste method for some of the sections in the book, including snippets from newspaper reports or newsreels. This gives his writing a slightly jumpy tone. Yet the main narrative in the book, following several protagonists through the upheaval of the first world war and its aftermath, is brilliantly executed and a gripping read.

John Dos Passos

Dos Passos had sympathies for the political left but his disenchantment with Communist politics of the Stalinist variety shines through clearly in his writings. What he captured more than anything else however in the book is the arbitrary nature of human destiny as people move through the jungle of social commitments and rejections. He also, perhaps unwittingly, formulated one of the greatest examples of why revolutions are so rare in human history. In a chapter on one of his protagonists (Richard Elseworth Savage) who volunteered for the Medical Corps of the US Army, Dos Passos writes of his determination to join the anti-war campaign. 

'One day he saw a pocket compass in a jeweler's window on the Rue de Tivoli. He went in and bought it, there was suddenly a fullformed plan in his head to buy a civilian suit, leave his uniform in a heap on the wharf at Bordeaux and make for the Spanish border. ... He even got ready a letter to send his mother... By gum, he must write some verse: what people needed was stirring poems to nerve them for revolt against their cannibal government. Sitting in the secondclass compartment he was so busy building a daydream of himself living in a sunscorched Spanish town, sending out flaming poems and manifestoes, calling young men to revolt against their butchers, poems that would be published by secret presses all over the world... At noon Dick got hungry and went to the diner to eat a last deluxe meal. He sat down at a table opposite a goodlooking young man in a French officer's uniform ... They lifted their glasses and looked into each other's eyes and laughed. ... They were never sober after eleven in the morning; it was calm misty weather; they were very happy. One night, when he was standing alone in the stern beside the small gun, Dick was searching his pocket for a cigarette when his fingers felt something hard in the lining of his coat. It was the little compass he had bought to help him across the Spanish border. Guiltily, he fished it out and dropped it overboard.' 

It seems our plans for personal happiness only temporarily intersect with the grand plans of history. Perhaps that's for the better.

Thursday 16 August 2012

First Group extends its poor service to the Westcoast line

The government has awarded First Group the contract for the Westcoast line, which is currently run by Virgin. I have little experience of Virgin trains but I do have plenty of first hand experience of the line FirstGreatWestern runs from London to Bristol and on to South Wales.

To put it nicely, that experience is anything but 'first' class. The trains are usually hideously filthy and the main line from London to the West of England is operating with carriages from the 1980s. Doors are still manually opened and closed, and windows in the doors often do not shut while the train is moving.

As modern as you get with FIRST Group trains! 

First Group also seems to have pulled the wool over the government's eyes (once again) by backloading the franchise payments over the next 14 years. Since it is only in the last three years that they will pay the main bulk of the franchise money (about £2 billion) they will do what they have done before: pay average returns on the franchise in the first 11 years and then return the franchise to the government three years early which will incur a contractual fee which is far smaller than the £2 billion which they are projected to pay in the last three years.

If you think this is pure conjecture look at the markets today. First Group plc dropped by about 7% at the stock exchange and experts are unanimous that they have overbid and wont be able to deliver the sums they promise. The loser of this is of course the treasury whose officials seemed to have been swayed by the enormous franchise payments First promised to make when they awarded the contract but will probably go empty handed when First hits the buffers.

It seems that 'maximisation of returns' is not a good policy when making decisions, whether in investment or government franchising.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

The riots of 2011

With Britain feeling the Olympic wind under her wings, there is currently little appetite to remember the darker sides of last years. One of the low points of public life has been the riots in London and other British cities in 2011. The BBC has now released a documentary on the riots which presents the view of those who took part. The words are spoken by actors but the content originates in interviews that were conducted as part of research commissioned by The Guardian and the LSE

The documentary is revealing, if only in its conclusion that there was indeed no single cause why the riots happened. This corroborates social research which points to some evidence that collective action is rarely driven by singular motifs that apply to all participants. In fact, just as with so many other social action, individuals bring their own reasons and motivations to the event. 

There is however a clear reason why the riots spread the way they did. After a demonstration and an initial wave of battles with the police in Tottenham, the riots then spread and lasted full four days and nights. This was unprecedented and the documentary throws some light on why they lasted so long. Law enforcement was mainly absent and the police were standing back rather than confidently tackling the widespread violence. We will have to wait for the next episode of the BBC documentary to hear the police side of the story, but one thing appears to be clear already: as one of the young people said, most rioters looted 'because they can'.