Monday, September 29, 2008

Death of an historian

History is our collective memory, the product of research, analysis and debate. Just sometimes it can be a personal memory too, encapsulating the sense of a lost world. One historian who managed to cross both spheres was William Woodruff, who has died aged 92. Though well published in a long academic career, he found popular acclaim late in life with his memoir of growing up in working class Blackburn, The Road to Nab End.

So how did someone who left school at 13 end up at Harvard? The answer is Adult Education and, specifically, the WEA. As its legacy is being so casually discarded today, it is apt to reflect on Woodruff's achievement and remember the person who was his early mentor, "his grandmother Bridget, who loved books and encouraged him to do the same".
"She was very talented, and look where it got her," he would say. "She ended up in the Blackburn workhouse."
We must never take our privileges for granted, nor forget the wasted talent of those who were never able to fulfil it. It's time to fight back.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Empty seats

It was the Rugby League National League Grand Finals day today, held this year at Warrington. I was there, as always.

Last year I wrote,
A crowd of nearly 21,000, bigger than those at three Premiership football matches, turned up to watch a triple header of lower division Rugby League. The National League finals is now one of the great days out that the RFL do really well.

So why are the Rugby Football League trying to kill it? This is the last year of automatic promotion and relegation with a franchise system due to come in for next season. Instead of prowess on the field, the key to entry to Super League will be lobbying off it. Will grounds be filled to watch two teams play for little reward? I doubt it.
This year, a crowd of just over 7,000 turned up to leave the smaller stadium half-empty. It is still a great day out and this time we saw three close contests and the Division One final between Salford and Celtic Crusaders was a thriller. Salford, to my chagrin, equalised with a last-second penalty to make the score 18-18 and take us to extra time where their superior fitness told.

Was I right? In one sense the comparison is unfair. Salford and Celtic Crusaders have both been granted Super League franchises though neither are well-supported. If Salford fans are relatively small in number, the Crusaders' fan base is tiny and though I really wish Welsh Rugby League well, I have to wonder if their elevation has come a few years early, like Gateshead and Paris before them.

The big test will be next year when the favourites to contest the final will be teams with much larger support, Leigh, Widnes and Halifax spring to mind. However, this year's crowd shows that there is a lot of work to do to re-establish the National League in the public's imagination.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I would like to dedicate this song to a number of special people; Gillian McKeith, the holistic nutritionist, Health Secretary Alan Johnson, journalist India Knight, and all the many others who have spent so much of their time and energy selflessly working to rescue me and those like me from the terrible fate that is our lot.

Hat tip Paulie

Friday, September 26, 2008

A sense of proportion

It has been a week of hyperbole.  Earlier on, Marcel Berlins decided that my blogging habit might be a force for evil. 
It is possible that we will find out, in five or 10 or 20 years, that, in the internet, we have created a monster we cannot tame, whose capacity for doing harm exceeds any good it once brought.
Berlins ruminated on the possible need for "controls on entry" for the Internet. (Is there no end to this ID card fetish?)

His main anxiety seemed to be about the web being a focus for conspiracy theory and he picked out the MMR scare as a prime example.  Now, I rather think that the opposite is true. This was started in the mainstream press, not the blogosphere, and excellent, medical blogs, such as Black Triangle, have played their part in countering the scare mongers.  

For every website proposing nonsense there is another promoting truth.  It is now easier to access authoritative scientific material and debate than ever before. Websites such as Real Climate have become important resources for both professional and lay readers.  Sanity and clear, rational thought is dispensed through wonderful sites like Butterflies and Wheels.  It is just as easy to argue that one of the main functions of the net is to provide an accessible platform for debunking crackpot theories as it is to fret that it is a method of their propagation.

Then, trailing clouds of clichés, Sunny Hundal appears with the proposal that blogging is going to save the left (and the world no doubt). Bloggers are central:
...we need to campaign to further a liberal-left set of ideas that chime with what Britain wants and where we want to go.
Phew!  I bet no one had thought of that before.  Praise be to bloggers.

It doesn't take long before the still, small voice of sanity is heard. Paulie crops up with a pertinent critique based on his insistent advocacy of representative democracy.  He brings us all back down to earth.  

We are having a conversation.  That's all.  Not that it is unimportant. At its best, blogging can provide "a good, high-quality conversation" for others to eavesdrop on, friends and strangers, from all over the world, and, at times, the debate can be heard by the weak and the powerful alike and who knows what influence it may eventually have?

In the meantime, as the advertising slogan would have it, it's good to talk.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fighting back

A new organisation has been formed declaring, "we believe that affordable access to the life changing opportunities provided by education is the hallmark of a civilised society". The website is here.

Why is it needed? Read this from Peter Kingston,
The auguries for England's devastated adult education service are grim. Few have any hope that the government's response to its consultation on informal adult learning will include plans for restoring the 1.5m evening class places that were lost over two years as a direct result of Labour policies.

...But having underspent on its controversial Train to Gain programme for the second year in a row, did the department plough the surplus cash back into some other segment of FE — adult education, say? No, it shoved it across into the higher education budget.

Sceptics of the government's creed that employer demand should be the prime factor in spending public money for adult FE say that this year's £200m Train to Gain shows pretty conclusively that even when free cash for training is piled in a trough in front of it, industry has little appetite.

"The real adult skills crisis is the impact that government policy is having on wider adult learning," says Professor Ewart Keep from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.

"As more and more of the adult learning budget is diverted into Train to Gain, often to pay for the accreditation of skills the workers already have, the overall number of adult learners falls. As a result, we are in danger of moving further away from any meaningful notion of lifelong learning."

The situation in University Adult Education is also critical, we haven't seen the cash. A national adult education service, controlled and run locally, something built up over more than a century by dedicated hard work and the hope for a better future, is being decimated. It is a national scandal.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thoughts on totalitarianism

Harry Barnes has opened himself up to a bloggertarian attack with the suggestions in his Normblog profile that the UN should, in effect, be the vehicle for a new, more extensive, Bretton Woods agreement and that most private transport should be replaced by public transport. Peter Risdon of Freeborn John is one of those who commented that these suggestions conflicted with Harry's determined anti-totalitarianism. In comments on Harry's response, I argued that Risdon's definition of totalitarianism was so wide as to be a catch-all rather than a useful tool of analysis. He replied with the following,
... Harry's first comments are totalitarian in the broad, generally understood and used meaning of the word and may not accord with other more contrived definitions.

His comments are particularly unlikely to accord with those definitions of totalitarianism contrived by some on the left to acquit the left of the charge of totalitarianism.
This is so off beam that I felt that I wanted to post more here. One of the most egregious errors in political debate is the use of terms outside their specific meanings. For example, I tend to use the word 'fascist' to mean anyone who disagrees with me. It is a bad habit. It turns important concepts into slogans, whilst imprecision allows people to slip between different meanings of the same term to confuse and obfuscate.

There is a huge literature on the subject of totalitarianism, but the term was popularised in the post-war period by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski (later President Carter's National Security Advisor) in their book, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, first published in 1956. Far from being "contrived by some on the left to acquit the left of the charge of totalitarianism" the book was denounced by many on the left as a Cold War device to equate Soviet Communism with Fascism. However, though part of their analysis is specific to their times, I think that the main thrust of their argument holds up pretty well and only a few old tankies would now deny the horrors of Stalinism.

Friedrich and Brzezinski put forward a thesis that saw totalitarianism as consisting of a number of interlocking features,
The basic features or traits that we suggest as generally recognized to be common to totalitarian dictatorships are six in number. The "syndrome", or pattern of interrelated traits, of the totalitarian dictatorship consists of an ideology, a single party typically led by one man, a terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly and a centrally directed economy. Of these, the last two are also found in constitutional systems ... These six basic features ... form a cluster of traits, intertwined and mutually supporting each other, as is usual in "organic" systems. They should therefore not be considered in isolation or made the focal point of comparisons ... (my emphasis)
Considering them in isolation is precisely what Harry's critics are doing. They are taking two proposals, with which they disagree, and labelling them as 'totalitarian' on the basis that they could fit into a general definition of totalitarianism as, for example, "modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior." Even with this generalisation, the only way they can paint Harry as a totalitarian is to ignore all the other areas that he doesn't want to regulate!

In fact, as a democratic socialist, all Harry is arguing for is the use of collective means to deliver universal, individual freedoms, in this case the right to free and unhindered travel. Libertarians can coherently say that they disagree with the means, they can follow Hayek in expressing their concern that this may be a 'road to serfdom', however, it is manifestly not the case that this proposal is, in itself, totalitarian or in contradiction with Harry's anti-totalitarian sentiments.

The world has changed since 1956, but totalitarianism is still with us. Today the description is often used to describe jihadi Islamism, in my view correctly. This does suggest that Friedrich and Brzezinski overemphasised the institutional features of totalitarianism and its link with modern mass societies. Islamism certainly has an all-encompassing ideology and would arm itself with all the repressive powers of the modern state. However, it does not have a leadership principle, nor is there a mass single party. Its organisation is diffuse and self-sustaining. This brings me back to my undergraduate days and the start of my long engagement with the history of political thought.

I have had many fine teachers in my time, but I owe most to Alex Shtromas, a libertarian. He was terrifying in tutorials and charismatic in lectures. Though our politics were different, I learnt so much from him and his influence has been profound. Totalitarianism was one of his main topics and he brought more to the debate than the astonishing depth of his scholarship. He spoke with immense moral authority as a refugee from Stalinism and as a Holocaust survivor. His line was that totalitarianism is not exclusively modern, it is a phenomenon that has arisen throughout history at times of revolutionary upheaval, including in Calvin's Geneva and Mediaeval Millenarianist movements. The key to it was the belief in an ideology that claimed to be "in possession of absolute and/or finite truth and wisdom". This was not just dangerous in itself, but, wedded to state power, could be an instrument of mass murder. He would have had no problem identifying jihadi Islamism. All of which makes Harry's advocacy of public transport seem just a tad insignificant in the totalitarian stakes.

Sometimes I wonder about the exaggerated nature of contemporary political debate, inaccurate epithets abound. Some, though by no means all, libertarians also strike me as having a monist absolutism that makes me uncomfortable. They have a very different approach from Alex's eclecticism. I certainly have never been able to see the Welfare State as the moral equivalent of the gulag. Surely it is time for a sense of proportion here, Peter and Harry are arguing over transport policy in a democratic society, not the imposition of a new reign of terror. Totalitarianism should be no part of it, even as invective.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday night cat blogging

Thanks to Angela

Passing time

Apologies for light posting. My return to work was accompanied by one of those nasty head colds that make your brain feel like overcooked porridge.

Another year ticked over yesterday and so today, with the sun drying out my sinuses, we headed for posh Cheshire by slipping over the Manchester Ship Canal via the little toll bridge (12p one way).

Cheshire is full of 'country inns' that offer 'fine dining' not pubs with food. Grim. We walked out of one at the sight of pretentious customers and the overzealous exercise of portion control on a stock menu, got lost and ended up seeing an unpromising pub tacked on to a garage.

We were about to reject it, then I spotted the narrow boat. Right on the canal, it served brilliant beer and vast slabs of roast meat with fresh vegetables for not a lot. Brilliant.

So I'm refreshed and ready for the fray, if older and heavier, so you may find something vaguely worth reading here in the next few days. Then again...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Back to work (2)

Idea shamelessly nicked from a conversation between Mike and Jim D and yes I know Peggy Lee did it better.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A personal note

Today was my first day back at work after a long absence through ill health. It is an odd, unsettling feeling to step back into a familiar that has become alien. The institutional issues remain, yet feel less urgent, more trivial than they did. The purpose of our organisation, adult education, never seemed more vital.

This is a persistent paradox, the purest of aims and ideals have to be delivered by institutions, which are often vehicles for less elevated human concerns. It is a theme explored in Ursula Le Guin's science fiction novel, The Dispossessed. The novel is subtitled, An Ambiguous Utopia. I could settle for that. If the utopia is worth having, I can live with the ambiguity. Pessimists, cynics - away with them. Let's continue to dream.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Menacing machines

I have an electronic weather station that tells the time, temperature, humidity and predicts the weather. It can be set to speak in one of those disembodied electronic voices and for some reason I have left it on. At midday everyday it cheerfully reads out the details.

This week, low, grey clouds have scuttled over Hull. Every so often the constant drizzle has been interrupted by lashing rain, showing that the roof leak that brought a corner of my bedroom ceiling down is back again. It is unutterably depressing. Then, at 12 o'clock, this cheery, synthesised, mid-Atlantic voice tells me that the weather forecast is - sunny! What is up with it? Is it trying to console me with false hope? Is it cruelly taunting me? Did I get the satirical model by mistake?

There are plenty of machines that nag you, my car shouts at me if I leave the lights on for instance, now I have one that is spreading misinformation and false optimism. They are taking over I tell you. We are doomed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Don't look back

I have just watched a delightful film on DVD, Πολίτικη Κουζίνα, mistranslated into English as A Touch of Spice. The very good Wikipedia entry gets the title right.
The original Greek title is Πολίτικη Κουζίνα (Politiki Kouzina) which means Cuisine of the City and refers to the Cuisine of Constantinople - Cuisine tis Polis (now Istanbul). However, in the film's promotional material, the word Politiki of the title is depicted in capital letters, therefore allowing an alternative reading of the title, as Πολιτική Κουζίνα (Politiki Kouzina) which means Political Cuisine signifying the important role that politics played in the lives of the main characters.
It is a romance; a love story of the bond between grandfather and grandson, of the memory of a childhood sweetheart and of the complex relationship between Greece and Turkey. All are explored using, surprisingly, the metaphors of cooking and, more obliquely, of astrophysics. However, one theme is constant, the lingering pain of exile.

The film is in Greek, Turkish and English and a sundry thought struck me. It is speculative, but as my own struggles with the Greek language make me curse our monolingual culture, I wondered whether our neglect of other languages could arise from the fact that, though we are well travelled, the English have generally encountered other peoples as hosts or conquerors, rarely as supplicants. Even our tourists arrive in triumph. It is our good fortune and our loss.

The ending offers hope. The command to Orpheus was not to look back or he would lose his love. Fanis, the main character, issues the same warning to his old lost love with a different meaning. "We look back and that image remains as a promise". Sternly facing straight ahead defends against pain, but bars the doors to joy. A child turns round and smiles.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pure class

Yesterday in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee wrote,
The right spits venom at talk of class, except to sneer at middle-class leftists, but avoids hard facts: a working-class child is 15 times less likely to move upwards than a middle-class child is to stay put. This is no classless society, but a society whose politics conspire to deny it.
Right on cue,
Cambridge today will condemn attempts to force elite universities to recruit more pupils from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds.

In a robust attack on government “meddling”, Alison Richard, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, will say that universities are not “engines for promoting social justice”.
If they are not to embrace social justice, does that mean they prefer social injustice, or are they just indifferent to the fate of their country? I have no doubt that elite universities recruit some highly able students, but they also have the Hooray Henries for whom the social ambience is more important than academic achievement. Even if we started punting on the Humber, they wouldn't come to Hull. Educational inequality and achievement are not the only issues that matter to widening participation, this culture also excludes; the casual acceptance of privilege does not come naturally to those who have none.

Of course, the fact that elite universities recruit disproportionate numbers of students from public schools is purely down to the fact that there are public schools for them to recruit from. Though 'top' universities remain bastions of privilege, they are at the apex of a system of inequality, and in some ways I have a little sympathy with their resentment at the tokenism implicit in the actions of a government that is so unwilling to even talk about equality, let alone develop an egalitarian model of political economy. It is hard to see that getting a few more middle class kids from state schools into Oxbridge is going to change the world. However, any sympathy dissolves when I see their resistance to self-examination and determination to hide behind a myth of meritocracy, a pretence at classlessness and a belief that education is somehow socially neutral.

My work over the last twenty-five years has brought me into contact with many of those who had been initially excluded; fantastically talented, hard working, wonderful students. Good people all and some are still good friends. By holding fast to their elitist values, Universities are excluding the best for the sake of the mediocre. They don't know what they are missing. Mind you, some of the students I have known would shake them up a bit. And boy do they need it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Holy evolution

Evolutionists Flock To Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain
Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic.
The Onion has the full story.

Via The New Humanist


Paul Stott has linked to a paper he gave at a recent Anarchist Studies Network Conference. Stott is a Class War veteran and posts on the 'truth' movement at 9/11 Cult Watch and its associated blog.

The paper is worth a look and focuses on the development of 9/11 conspiracy theories in the Muslim world, arguing that the link between Arab conspiracy theorists and those in the West is anti-Semitism, which he sees as central to the whole movement.
Yet the problem of anti-semitism within the UK 9/11 ‘truth’ movement cannot be seen as a few isolated individuals joining a web forum, instead anti-semitism can be found in the truth movement from the top down.
Stott sees the far right as the main vehicle for anti-Semitism and, as a result, he reckons that 9/11 conspiracy theory is not just nonsense, but dangerous, fascist nonsense. As he points out, despite the rise in hostility to Muslims following the attack on the Twin Towers, "In 2006, Greater Manchester Police figures suggested Jews are nearly six-times more likely to be victims of faith-hate based crime than Muslims."

In emphasising links to the far right, I think that he understates the strength of left anti-Semitism. There has been much focus on contemporary left anti-Zionism as a vehicle for anti-Semitic discourses recently, but this is a far older tradition in the left and I have have come across casual and deeply unpleasant anti-Jewish racism in 19th Century Anarchist material. Arguably, this is more important than covert fascism for explaining the appeal of this nonsense, especially when allied to an unthinking anti-Americanism. Anarchism today is not exempt either as Contested Terrain points out in this excellent post. This makes Stott's intervention all the more welcome.

There is one other factor too, which should never be underestimated in the appeal of these ideas. Imaginative fictions are so much more attractive than banal reality, certainly to those with messianic tendencies, but even to ex-Labour Cabinet ministers as well. Whatever, this type of conspiracy thinking is delusional and dangerous and gets in the way of a proper understanding of the world based on truth, scholarship and reason.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Saying goodbye

I was at Hilton Park this afternoon for Leigh's last Rugby League match there before moving to a new stadium. They lost an exciting play-off game with Whitehaven to a late try just when extra time seemed likely.

It is always a sentimental occasion when a ground closes. They are places holding many memories, but, let's face it, Hilton Park is now a crumbling dump. It also became hostile and unpleasant to visit for a while when the club went through hard times until the new board got hold of the club and rebuilt it. My favourite memory is of Swinton's unexpected Second Division Premiership semi-final win in 1989. All the Leigh fans shook our hands to congratulate us and offered to sell us their tickets for the final! The Leigh club were also great to Swinton when we found ourselves homeless and allowed us to play a few home games there. So good luck to them for a fine future, even if the powers-that-be have cast a shadow over their future prospects by abolishing automatic promotion.

It made me think of many of the atmospheric but basically awful grounds that have disappeared in recent years, all to be replaced with new, beautifully appointed stadia. Traditionalists moan about a lack of atmosphere nowadays, but my memories of the old grounds are not just of poor facilities and stinking toilets, but the fact that I often couldn't see a bloody thing. They all seemed to have shallow terracing, where my view would be ruined by the inevitable late arrival of a giant who would plonk himself in front of me.

However, for Swinton, the closure of our historic stadium, Station Road, in 1992 was a tragedy. The fans were not given the opportunity to commemorate its loss as the sale was not announced until after the deal had been done and the season was over. That, and an ill-fated move to Bury FC, ripped the heart out of the club and a precipitate decline followed. There was no shiny new stadium for us, just promises that remained unfulfilled. Last year hopes were raised again, but now the air is thick with rumours of a move to Darwen in Lancashire. This would be the final blow for many fans.

A whole range of famous grounds have gone in recent years, Wigan's Central Park, Huddersfield's Fartown, Warrington's Wilderspool, Hull FC's Boulevard, are just some, with others to follow. More and more matches are now played at excellent venues. Those hankering after the good old days can now watch the celebrated documentary from 1980, Another Bloody Sunday, following Doncaster's attempt to avoid losing every game of the season, on You Tube. The opening footage is of their match against Swinton. Doncaster's old ground, the aptly named Tattersfield, is long gone. Here is the first part, it might just change their minds.

Incidentally, after many moves and crises, Doncaster now play here.

Maybe there is hope for Swinton after all. Maybe ...

Poetry corner

Comment of the week came from another of those obscure, self-appointed guardians of moral rectitude, The Campaign for Real Education. Radio 4 invited them to comment on the row about the dropping of a poem by Carol Ann Duffy from a GCSE syllabus because it deals with knife crime. In reply to the obvious point that there is also quite a bit of knife crime in Shakespeare, the real education chap agreed that Bill the Bard could stay - part of our national heritage you know - but then said that there were "uplifting", "modern" poets that could be studied - like Wordsworth, with his one about daffodils, and Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Where do they get them from?

Saturday, September 06, 2008


Last night I was at a wedding reception for a civil partnership. It was a lovely occasion. Two happy people and two proud families pushed the boat out to host a lavish party. Contrast this simple affirmation of mutual love with the hatred exuded by the immoral moralists of the traditionalist right and you can see where morality really lies. And, once more, it was another reminder to those 'anti-imperialists' not to romanticise movements and countries that would make such human happiness a criminal offence.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Nicked from Snoopy hat doffed to Will

A Greek triumph

Everyone who reads this blog knows of my affection for Greece. Now I can reveal the latest triumph for the nation, this time in an international literary competition. They have not just won the Bookseller Magazine's Diagram Prize, but the Diagram of Diagrams, awarded for er ... the strangest book title for the last 30 years.

Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers, published by the Greek Hellenic Philatelic Society of Great Britain, narrowly beat People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It to the award.

There is a full report here, and check out the picture. Oh to be wandering through that olive grove ...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Disillusion and despair

Do I feel like this because there is something deeply, ethically wrong with English football or is it because it has happened to Manchester City?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The march of the meritocracy

No excuses! You are fat and we are slim because of our superior will power. We are wealthy and wise because we work hard. We are at the top because we are the best. Pull your socks up you smoking, binge drinking, junk food eating underlings and you can be like us (well not quite, because we are still better than you). Ah, the velvet tones of the meritocratic elite exercising its self-satisfaction.

There was another excellent reminder of the perniciousness of this way of thought in this extract from Ben Goldacre's new book, Bad Science.
The World Health Organisation's Commission on the Social Determinants of Health reported this week, and it contained some chilling figures. Life expectancy in the poorest area of Glasgow - Calton - is 28 years less than in Lenzie, a middle-class area just eight miles away. That is a lot less life, and it isn't just because the people in Lenzie are careful to eat goji berries for extra antioxidants, and a handful of brazil nuts every day, thus ensuring they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.

People die at different rates because of a complex nexus of interlocking social and political issues including work life, employment status, social stability, family support, housing, smoking, drugs, and possibly diet, although the evidence on that, frankly, is pretty thin, and you certainly wouldn't start there.

... Food has become a distraction from the real causes of ill health, and also, in some respects, a manifesto of rightwing individualism. You are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. You hear it from people as they walk past the local council estate and point at a mother feeding her child crisps: "Well, when you look at what they feed them," they say, "it's got to be diet, hasn't it?" They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that's why you're healthy. You're going to see 80. You deserve it. Not like them.

It isn't just individualism, there is also the certainty of superiority underlying current day attitudes. It irritatingly pervades the current moral panic on obesity. More importantly, just as there are vested interests lurking in the huge diet industry (and in the marketing of food - I have just bought a packet of haricot beans that says prominently on the packet that they "may help decrease cholesterol"), so the cry of individual responsibility is highly convenient for a political elite that does not want to face the real importance of inequality and poverty to health, let alone tackle it. Instead they pronounce in unison, "let them eat carrots".

When Michael Young coined the term in his famous satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy, he described this attitude perfectly. The book was a warning against it. He could scarcely have imagined that his scorn would not bury the idea. Instead, his catchy name eventually, and ironically, ended up being central to the programme of the Labour Party. It is the triumph of the smug - and of a myopic political cowardice.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Putting the liberal in the liberal left

It’s all the rage at the moment. In an attempt to find some way to recover from the dire situation Labour finds itself in, the party is in search of a big idea. The latest fashionable route to salvation is the argument that Labour needs to explore its radical liberal origins. From Nick Cohen to David Marquand people are writing about it. I have touched on it before here and here. The chief protagonists are Philip Collins, close to the Work and Pensions secretary, James Purnell, and Richard Reeves.

19th Century radical liberalism and anti-statism as a way out of the current pickle eh? It could be promising. Here's a sketchy outline of the development of the perspective.

It emerged in the early 19th Century based around two interlinked concepts. The first was class and the second property. Early radical liberals saw society divided into the productive classes, those who did the work, and the unproductive classes, who did little or nothing. As for property, it was all in the hands of the unproductive classes whilst the ones who did all the work lived in grinding poverty. Their view of property was drawn from their reading of Locke that only labour confers ownership. Therefore, they concluded that the workers had a right to directly own the products of their labour and to be able to exchange them freely. That this didn’t happen was down to the distinction between just and unjust property, or the natural and artificial right of property depending on who you read.

If just property was ownership conferred through labour, unjust property was ownership through theft. How else could the unproductive classes live on the work of others if they didn’t steal it? This larceny was committed through monopoly and aided and abetted by the state. The source of radical liberals’ anti-statism was their view that the state used law to protect these proceeds of crime, and then indulged in a bit of pocket picking itself. It was an institution devoted to maintaining and forcibly defending injustice.

Later in the century, radical liberalism added a gender analysis to its arsenal. And so, for example, its opposition to state regulation and social control was not purely based on the utilitarian arguments of Mill, but on the view that such regulation was the forcible imposition of the public values (their private ones were often very different) of a male, middle class elite on the lives of the working class and women.

Radical liberals were more than theorists, they were into practical direct action as well. By the end of the century, a non-statist response to class oppression was being constructed through autonomous working class organisations, from autodidact educational associations, friendly societies, co-operatives, trade unions and the like.

This is all worth revisiting, I agree. Not a bad basis for a left party, with all that emphasis on class exploitation, gender inequality, workers' ownership and the like. However, is this what today's writers really mean? Er, no. Here Collins and Reeves spell it out.
As healthcare becomes increasingly about chronic care, control over funding and treatment has to pass from the profession to the individual. This will make the care people receive more appropriate and more cost-efficient, while institutions will join up, finally, around the patient. Passing control to individuals means they can spend their NHS entitlement on double glazing if they think it a better treatment for their asthma. Such a service is designed to produce good outcomes, because individuals are granted as much control as possible.
A novel approach indeed. What if these empowered asthmatics happened to be wrong? Suppose that double glazing did nothing for their asthma and it turned out that they needed steroids after all. What would happen after they had spent their entitlement on tasteful home improvements? Do we leave them to choke to death? The weasel word here is “entitlement”. Yep, they are talking about bloody vouchers. This particular suggestion seems to me to be a recipe for gullible people pouring NHS money into the pockets of charlatans selling quackery.

19th Century anti-statist radical liberalism was against corporate capitalism; it was in favour of direct workers’ ownership and working class autonomy. It opposed exploitation and social control through the state. It spoke up for the liberty of the individual and allied it to a political economy based on extensive property rights. It advocated autonomous individuals and communities in control of their own lives. Often it was concerned with ensuring working class access to the expertise of professionals, such as doctors and teachers, rather than giving the inexpert the right to spend public money overruling them.

Is it relevant today? Certainly, but no one appears to be advocating it. Instead they are conjuring up a fictitious view of the Liberal Party of 1906 and amalgamating it with the worst of contemporary right libertarianism, thereby neatly relegating the successes of post-war social democracy, with those awkward egalitarian sentiments and universal welfare state, to a footnote of failure. This is not radical liberalism, it is not giving individuals and communities control over their lives, it is an incoherent mess guaranteed to lose an election.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Art and class

As adult education for anything other than workplace skills disappears down the tubes this made great reading. Ed Vulliamy writes, in a profile of Simon Rattle, of El Sistema, a Venuezelan scheme "whereby the poorest barrio children in shanties beleaguered by gang warfare and drugs are organised into orchestras to play classical music".
It was the brainchild, 30 years ago, of an extraordinary man and inspiration to Rattle, José Antonio Abreu, who once told me, unforgettably: 'The rich owe the poor a debt which they will never pay materially. But they can repay it culturally, so that to deprive the poor of great, high art is a terrible form of oppression.'
Nice if they repaid the debt in full though. In the meantime, some music.

And an encore

Political renewal

One of the more interesting articles of last week has attracted surprisingly little attention. In it David Marquand warned against the misunderstanding and underestimation of a Cameron-led Conservative party.

I remember Marquand well as he was Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at Salford University when I was a mature student there between 1978 and 1981. He was one of the least pretentious and most approachable of people and was always up for a drink. At the sniff of a booze-up the professorial finger would summon up bottles of wine and he supported me as I started in adult education by giving talks to students and, of course, coming to the pub afterwards. However, he also played a central role in what I consider to be one of the most catastrophic political miscalculations of the post-war years, when sections of the Labour right left the party to form the SDP. The resultant split in the centre-left vote kept Labour out of power for the next fifteen years.

In this article Marquand takes on the complacent view that David Cameron is really a wolf in sheep's clothing. He argues that Cameron represents a genuine breach with Thatcherism and, instead, is firmly in the Burkean Whig tradition.
Burke summed up the essence of the tradition in a phrase: statesmen, he wrote, should combine a "disposition to preserve" with an "ability to improve". Headlong change, based on a priori theorising, could lead to disaster, but so could rigid adherence to the legacy of the past. True statesmanship was a matter of sensing intuitively when the time had come to tack. Butler, one of the canniest Whig imperialists of the postwar period, said much the same nearly two centuries later. The tradition that had formed him, he wrote, was "neither fixed nor finished". It was "responsive to the demands of each new age" and, above all, "empirical as to method".
It was the strength of this tradition, he argues, that meant that the Tories fully accepted the post-war settlement established by the Labour Governments of 1945-51. Its loss of influence signalled the radical break with the past under Margaret Thatcher.

I think that Marquand is right, but there is an element to this that he misses, a class struggle within the Conservative Party. Cameron's leadership marks the triumph of the shires over the suburbs and the return of the old social ascendancy. If Cameron succeeds in leading his reluctant troops away from Thatcherism it will, astonishingly, leave Labour as the Thatcherite party. Hardly surprising then that Cameron is eclipsing Labour in the polls because there is another reason why the Tories supported the post-war settlement, it was popular.

Marquand concludes by talking of the Labour Party.
Against that background, Labour talk of a leadership change is not just petty and mean-minded; it is sublimely irrelevant. The question that matters is whether it can retrieve the non-statist democratic republican strand in its heritage - exemplified by John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Tom Mann and RH Tawney - and abandon the heavyhanded, statist democratic collectivism that has been second nature to Labour governments since the 1920s. There is still time. Just.
Well, I am not sure how John Milton crept in to this eclectic bunch together with the 19th Century liberal Mill, Tom Mann, who passed through Marxism and Syndicalism before becoming a Stalinist, and the Fabian Tawney. Mill excepted, they are curious choices as representatives of an anti-statist political tradition. However, Marquand has a point when he sees the need for an abandonment of what seems to be New Labour's view of how to get re-elected; be nasty to criminals, foreigners, the poor, teachers and fat people, and then cut taxes for the affluent, sorry, aspirational classes. And, of course, a change of leadership certainly would not matter in the slightest of it did not result in a change in ideological direction, but it would be crucial if it was the vehicle for renewal in the same way that the choice of Cameron over Davies was for the Tories.

What about that ideological change? Is Marquand right about anti-statism? Does it mean the replacement of Beatrice Webb with Ayn Rand? Has the Anarchist hour come round at last? Or should, as Philip Collins suggested, Labour be looking towards liberalism as the source of its inspiration? The reality is that collective action through the state is still popular and necessary. Did the savers with Northern Rock recoil in horror at the rampant statism of the government in guaranteeing their deposits? No they simply ended their wholly rational run on the bank.

I would argue that Labour needs to recover its social democratic, or even democratic socialist, traditions. These saw the need for strong collective action to ensure economic security, health care and universal education. The state was also there to rescue people from market failures. What they didn't include was rampant managerialism, target setting, central control, recording of personal data and the imposition of mountainous bureaucracy in an attempt to impose pseudo-markets on the public sector.

The problem with New Labour is not statism per se, but that it is being applied in policy areas in which it should have no place, just as anti-statism is similarly misused to justify de-regulated markets and a public sector reform agenda centred on privatisation and consumer choice. Instead of using collective action to, however imperfectly, ensure that capitalism at least contributed to public needs, they decided to regulate people to ensure that they could serve the private wants of capitalism, hardly the historic role of Labour.

Marquand gets the Tories right and understands the threat, but I see his prescription for Labour as being dangerously incomplete. I am fully with him in favour of a more libertarian social policy and an extension of personal liberty and control. However, that cannot happen without economic security and that, in turn, requires collective action. It means standing against the powerful interests of monopolistic corporations (that was certainly the position of 19th Century libertarians). And above all, it means rediscovering and celebrating the key aspects of post-war social democracy that liberated people from fear and want. Not that you would guess it from the hand-wringing of the Blairite ultras, social democracy was a success. It is still a vote winner.