Tuesday, 30 April 2013


You've got to hand it to Nigel Farage. I don't know whether it's the cigar, the pint-fuelled interviews, that he survived a plane crash caused by his own campaign banner or the fact that the UK's leading proponent of immigration controls is an elected European official with a German wife. Whatever it is, Nigel Farage has breathed some life into UK politics.

Not that I'm a Ukipper, as it were, or a "clown", "fruitcake", "loony", "closet rascist" or anything else that the Autometonians have surprisingly labelled Nige's new best friends. And I'm no supporter of the other guys either. The Lib Dems are strangely inert, apart from some genuinely helpful peers. And anyone familiar with my take on Nude Labour will certainly gather that I'm no fan of the Two Eds. Old wounds from the Brown Years begin to seep whenever their mugs fill the screen - especially that of Balls. There's a terrifying zeal in those eyes...

Nope, I can't bring myself to support any of the current crop of politicians or their pantomime parties. But that hasn't prevented the rise of a certain grim fascination with their squabbles, especially now that Farage has joined the fray. And recent trips to the Interior have demonstrated that I'm not alone. I reckon it'll be tough to round up a four-ball on polling day.

So Nigel, too, needs a nickname. And a word I learned for a university revue suddenly comes in handy. A "farrago" is a "confused mixture". That will do nicely.

Image from the Guardian.

Monday, 29 April 2013

We Need A Working Party

When Kenneth Clarke starts barking about "fruitcakes" and "loonies" you know the Tories are rattled. He claims to have been referring to supporters of the UK Independence Party, but the attack will have echoed amongst the supporters of all political parties:
"It is very tempting to vote for a collection of clowns or indignant, angry people, who promise that somehow they will allow us to take your [sic] revenge on people who caused it [whatever 'it' is]."
Surely this defines the entire House of Commons?

But YouGov's latest poll shows that only a narrow majority of Labour supporters actually believe politicians can improve our lot (the greatest triumph of Hope over Experience since records began). 

The rest of us tend to be more realistic. After all, the state is a means of facilitating our own personal efforts to solve society's problems, not a means of getting someone else to solve them for us. Hard work from each of us is required, not party politics. Party politics is mere pantomime. Or in Clarkey's case, just so much dogma doodoo

So we don't need a UKIP, or an Official Monster Raving Loony Party for that matter. We need a Working Party - a barn-raising, a bee, a 'dugnad', as the Norwegians call it. And we should lock our MPs in the Commons until they figure that out.

Image from

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

No One Is In Charge

It's a pity that we only get an insight into the shortcomings of most organisations when people leave them.

Two of the more recent insights have come from John Gieve, a former deputy governer of the Bank of England, who is wringing his hands about who is "in charge" of the UK economy; and Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, a former member of the European Central Bank’s executive board, who has reportedly told the IMF: “We don’t fully understand what is happening in advanced economies.” 

One would have thought it was pretty bloody obvious to anyone who had loitered among the top brass of the economic establishment that no one is in charge. I mean no one is in charge of even understanding how the British economy fits together, let alone actually tasked with managing it as a system. Everyone is organised into silos that barely interrelate. Surely the UK is not alone in this.

It's naive of central bankers to be still anxiously discussing their lack of understanding and leadership, especially given the events of the past decade. Our economies are a fairly loose collection of economic victims, rather than cohesive units that operate together as part of some grand scheme.

So, shouldn't we be facing the fact that events are outside of our control, and breaking open the silos, instead of pretending that the great and the good in our Treasuries or Central Banks have all the answers?

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thatcher Failed To Make It Personal

Whether you loved or loathed her, you have to be impressed that 23 years after she was hunted out of office Margaret Thatcher's funeral is as divisive as a Poll Tax riot.

Clearly Britain has failed to 'move on' from the Thatcher years, which suggests to me that the work she started was on the right track but is seriously incomplete. I mean, if her policies had been just plain wrong-headed or disastrous, Britain would have dropped them like hot coals - or the notion of 'light touch' banking regulation. Instead, we're still trying to balance Thatcher's blast of economic reality with its personal and social impact.

Whatever your politics, it's clear from all the recent commentary that Thatcher was focused solely on improving the way the failing British economy 'works'. She spent her energy arguing relentlessly with people about the nature of the problems, their causes and the improvements that should be made to resolve them. The resulting policies obviously appeared 'right wing', but this was largely by comparison with the dogmatic lunacy espoused by the economic lemmings in charge of the Labour Party and trade unions at the time. Their policies seemed predicated on the private sector operating as a charity for the public sector, rather than economic sustainability. Thatcher's opponents were not arguing either on the same rational terms or with the same rigour. Her disciplined approach ruthlessly exposed dogma, from both left and right, and homed in on the most feasible economic solution. Then she rammed it home...

While Britain's reward was increased productivity and employment, far too many of its people were ill-equipped to cope with this fairly brutal brand of politics. Thatcher is infamous for the quote that "there's no such thing as society" which is often unfairly given without the qualification she gave it. But even the full quote reveals a serious flaw in her approach:
"They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."  Women's Own, 1987.
Thatcher's words "and then" raise the issue of when, which we naturally interpret as 'when we have enough for ourselves'. But enough is never enough. Our society is obsessed with personal rights and entitlements, rather than the duties and obligations which must be performed if those entitlements are to be delivered. After all, who ultimately bears the responsibility for delivering everyone's rights and entitlements if not each of us personally? Thatcher was right to the extent that the state cannot perform our personal obligations for us - ultimately, it can only act as a facilitator for our own endeavours - but it was a mistake to assume that society would automatically benefit if each of us looked after ourselves as a first step. Perhaps this was as much a flawed belief in the 'efficient markets hypothesis' as that of Alan Greenspan (and Gordon Brown) a decade later.

At any rate, we are now faced with the fact that, in Thatcher's own terms, we are not looking after a fairly large number of our neighbours. While it's worth noting that Thatcher's governments produced consumer-oriented legislation such as the first Data Protection Act (1984), the Hospital Complaints Procedure Act (1985) and the Consumer Protection Act (1987), it took British society several more decades to establish even a basic sense of 'customer service', and most of the UK's institutions are still not designed around the 'customer'.

In my view, we will continue to struggle with significant social imbalances until we grasp the idea that society and the economy only 'work' if each of us - whether acting as individuals or employees of corporations or the public sector - acts in ways that are sustainable for both ourselves and society at the same time. It's not a matter of looking after ourselves first "and then" our neighbours, as an afterthought. Our activities have to be aligned to be sustainable. And only by focusing on our duties and obligations to everyone else will we secure our own rights and entitlements. That is the fundamental concept behind what I would call “the Personal State”. It's time we built it.

Image from DelhiNewsRecord.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

There Must Be Dancing In The Streets

Oblivious to their economic plight, UK citizens are preparing to spend up to £10m celebrating the immortality of former Dear Leader Madge. Much of the cost stems from the involvement of a mass North Korean dance troupe famous for leading their country's Founding Day performances.

While state radio broadcasts were briefly interrupted by dissidents singing hymns to mortality on Sunday, Dear Leader Dave, who will himself be immortalised in due course, defended the move during an 11 hour state television broadcast:
"We respect and admire the North Korean people for their unquestioning loyalty to immortal leaders. It's true that £10m represents a year's salary for the 1200 street performers involved, but feigning joy on a mass scale is something we need to learn from them, even at such a cost. Remember, too, that this was the specific wish of former Dear Leader Madge."
UK worker collectives also expressed their support for the immortality celebrations, with a re-enactment of the Jarrow march. Comrade Leader of the Union for Exported Manufacturing Jobs, Eduardo Millibando, said:
"This may seem a lot of money to my members, who have lost generations of employment opportunities, but they will be grateful that the nation has learned these dance steps for mass adulation when it is the turn of former Dear Leader Tony to be immortalised."
North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, welcomed the exchange, adding, "we are also especially pleased to have won the contract to build the next generation submarines for Britain's Trident nuclear programme. This realises Britain's foreign aid ambitions, while meeting our own desire to become a nuclear threat to the entire universe." 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Future Is Not Behind Us, It Lives Locally

For every old saying there's an opposite. Today's conflict lies in the adage that "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Yet "our history is not our destiny." This leaves a fine line between useful historical insight into how the world works and steering solely by what we see in the rear-view mirror. The distinction becomes critical as we lurch ever more quickly from one financial crisis to the next.

So what lessons from recent history will help us move foward, and which should go in the scrapbook? Here are 5 that I think are worth taking forward, in no particular order:
1. Clearly, the Internet is not a fad. Consumers are the winners, aided by facilitators in their battle against our creaking institutions. Yet e-commerce is still only 10% of all retail. And we are still in the 'primordial soup' phase in the evolution of our tools for extracting meaning from the great, chaotic swirl of data. So this trend has a lot more mileage in it yet and will sweep across more service sectors - if you can buy it online and have it delivered it won't be sold in high volumes on the high street. In fact, it might even be made locally...

2. In addition to democratising services, the Internet is also returning the means of production to local communities through e-enabled machines. Remote/home-working is replacing central workplaces and 'factories' are getting closer to customers, requiring a rethink of corporate systems, processes and supply chains. Huge production plants and sole-occupancy office towers will gradually become a thing of the past. High streets may well regenerate to support this trend, or as a result of it.
3. Cities with at least 3 private workers for every public sector worker see the most growth. Give that some thought if you live in a city near the bottom of this chart. This chimes with findings that economies (regional and national) whose public spending exceeds 35% of their GDP struggle to grow. You have to feel sorry for Northern Ireland...
4. The public sector is very inefficient and needs to act locally - public institutions are already being relentlessly affected by lessons 1 and 3 above, and 2 should increase  the pressure. Civil servants really have no alternative but to spend public money more wisely. Meanwhile, we'll help drive down the cost of government by dealing with the government online. Big government offices must surely go eventually. Fortunately, the moves to devolve more power to local government coincide here, but I don't think we should be fooled into thinking that's part of any real plan to future-proof the UK...

5. The UK's financial system is seriously inefficient at allocating money to people and businesses. The fact that we all rely heavily on a few major banks for whom lending to small businesses is not a core activity is part of the problem, but innovation and competition are constrained by our outdated and rigid regulatory framework and the related incentives. Crowdfunding, or peer-to-peer finance, platforms are springing up all over the country, and are increasingly focused on specific sectors, activities and locations.
In short, if I were a civil servant (see 4) based outside the south east of England (3), I would start an Internet-based service (1) that efficiently provides low cost finance (5) to help localise the means of producing stuff using e-enabled machines - or buy my own 3D printer and start renting it out (2). Now

Image from KC Anderson.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Submarine Welfare

The Tory spin machine was in overdrive today, with the Chancellor linking a fatal house fire to excessive social welfare payments, while the Prime Minister used the recent bout of North Korean toy-throwing as the kind of "extreme threat" that justifies Britain's entire nuclear submarine programme. Hell, why don't we just pay for Trident straight out of the welfare budget and be done with it?

Given the gravity of the UK's economic predicament, you might have thought our political leaders would be sticking to hard facts, rather than inciting moral panic. But you'd be wrong. Party politics is all about cynically exploiting fear and greed:
"while narrowly targeted policies will fail to draw on the strength of middle-class political pressure to defend welfare, policies with wider coverage actively recruit the sharp elbows of the middle class." Source: The Solidarity Society: why we can afford to end poverty, and how to do it with public support. Fabian Society, 2009
That's right, the Tories have been tearing pages out of the Left wing playbook, even if they're trying to work the same trick in reverse. Blame all bad stuff on the welfare state, so most voters will want to spend less on it.

Ironically, the Left seem to think they got this idea from the Right, as explained by Rhiannon Lockley in her “Red Book” essay on "Understanding the Psychology of the Working Class Right Wing": 
 "...the key achievement of propaganda is to make the belief being transmitted internalised to the point where its origin is lost and it is accepted as natural and self-discovered by the individual... The volume and diversity of negative messages about scapegoated groups in the right-wing media today does much to achieve this, and it is also supported by the factual style of reporting which presents arguments as definite rather than exploratory." 
The truth is, they're all at it... endlessly spinning and scapegoating instead of solving the root cause of real problems. And we're paying for it. Big time.

So how do we get these people to focus on the real issues? Where do we start?

I think we need to play them at their own game. And the best place to start is closest to home. We should link all our ills to government waste - not the welfare budget or the healthcare budget, but the £166bn that the public sector wastes on itself - nearly a quarter of the UK's entire annual exenditure. Every time a politician strays from a discussion of the hard facts in any area, we should ask them how he or she is going to spend less on travel or communications costs, or office space or, dare I say it, expenses.

Once they demonstrate an ability to get that basic level of waste under control, they can graduate to discussing how to control state taxation and spending in other areas. But the bizarre rants of North Korean leaders and random criminal acts, however tragic, should be a long way down the list.   

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