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Thumbs up for the real digital revolution

Cover of Petite Poucette by Michel Serres

Petite Poucette, by Michel Serres. Editions Le Pommier 2012.

Saint Denis was beheaded on the hill looming over northern Paris now known as Montmartre. The legend is that he picked up his own head and carried it several miles north, before finally collapsing and expiring on the site of the present day suburb that bears his name.

It’s to Saint Denis that Michel Serres compares future generations of human beings in this remarkable little book (barely 90 pages long). Petite Poucette (“little thumb”) is his female avatar for today’s young people who, with their dextrous digits, carry their heads — their knowledge — on laptops, mobiles and tablets. This is changing everything, not just the way we learn, do business and enjoy ourselves. It’s changing human nature itself, and just as importantly, the way we live together.

I’ve been a Serres fan since writing about him in my very first blog three years ago. His reasoning is razor-sharp, and he writes with the radical clarity of someone very young and the wisdom of someone very old. Yes, he’s 83, French, and professor of something very intellectual at Stanford. But he’s no grumpy old don whingeing about porn-addicted kids with minuscule attention spans and the world going to hell in an online shopping cart. Believe it or not, Serres is optimistic about the future.

You might think only a conservative could be optimistic at the moment, but Serres reckons that if the powers that be aren’t trembling yet, it’s only because they don’t understand what’s hit them. “I see our institutions shining with a brightness similar to that of constellations that astronomers tells us have been dead for a long time,” he says.

With knowledge freed, existing power structures will crumble. It starts, says Serres, with education.

Why sit listening to a tired teacher reading “approved” excerpts from a book, when the whole book is out there, freely accessible from anywhere, at any time? Why accept the established interpretations when you can read and discuss the comments of thousands if not millions of people who’ve read it and thought about it?

Why sit with your ‘arse parked’ in serried ranks, when you can sit in the park, on the beach, in the pub? Why listen to this single narrow conduit of knowledge and power (the teacher at the lectern) when the whole world of knowledge is there in your hands? And why bother learning facts when you can bring them up under your thumb? The minds of Petite Poucette will be free to think and have ideas instead of being clogged up with remembering second-hand information.

This, says Serres, is the true birth of the individual. ‘Grumpy adults’ may see this as “selfish”, but weigh that egotism against where the “libido of affiliation” has got us in the last 100 years. In the name of abstract collectives like the nation, race and religion, hundreds of millions have died. Individuals rarely ask this of each other. And no one was ever asked to die for a virtual community.

Michel Serres

Michel Serres: “I would like to be 18 years old, since everything is to be remade, everything is left to invent.”

“To no longer build a community on the massacre of another or of oneself — this is our future life set against your history and your politics of death,” replies Petite Poucette.

And are the virtual communities young people have created any less “real” than the ones we have been taught to value? ’We adults have succeeded in creating no new social connections,’ says Serres. The “community”, the nation, the church, school, family, class, the market — where do they stand today? To Petite Poucette, they are just ‘abstractions flying overhead like cardboard mascots’.

Are the British and French “nations” any more “real” than a Facebook group? Do we “belong” to a social class, or the company we work for, more than the online communities we choose to join?

For thousands of years, from the pyramid of Cheops to the Eiffel Tower, the ‘global form’ of human society has been broad at the bottom and narrow at the top, with power, wealth and the control of knowledge concentrated in a few hands. New technology is set to change that, perhaps within a generation, says Serres. The real revolutionaries are not the inventors of this technology, but the users. They will turn the world upside down.

It’s a striking view of the future, both optimistic and disturbing at the same time. But unlike the zombie ideology of free market capitalism, young people don’t have to sit back and take it. It’s something that they can shape for themselves. Serres has no fear. ‘I like to be 18 years old,’ he says, ‘because everything is to be remade, everything is left to re-invent.’

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Forgive, but don’t forget

The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

The Blunders of our Governments
by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
Oneworld, 470pp, £25

‘To err is human, to forgive, divine,’ wrote Alexander Pope. But we mortals often forget rather than forgive. Even if you lived through all the calamities described in The Blunders of our Governments, you’ll probably still find yourself asking, ‘How the hell did they get away with that?’

Veteran political observers Tony King and Ivor Crewe kick off this analysis of the biggest political cock-ups of the last 30 years with the textbook case. The poll tax was cooked up in splendid isolation by two ambitious junior ministers (William Waldergrave and Kenneth Baker, since you ask). The team never seriously considered alternative policies, ignored implementation problems and seemed deaf to even constructive criticism.

No one has ever successfully introduced a ‘head tax’ in Britain (the last attempt was in Pope’s time, in 1698). This one became a ‘runaway train’ which led to riots on the streets and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

But at least Mrs Thatcher paid the price, and hopefully it will be another 300 years before anyone tries it again. With most blunders, say the authors, the chances of ministers ever being held accountable ‘approach zero’. Worse still, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again.

Often policymakers seem to develop a defensive ‘group-think’ mentality which sees ‘all objections as obstruction’, a tendency made worse by the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation – ‘a dangerous instrument of persuasion’ which encourages group-think, warn the authors.

Then there is ‘cultural and operational disconnect’ – the authors’ polite term for ignorance. The Child Support Agency failed mainly because policymakers just didn’t realise that many absent fathers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay maintenance. Years later, ministers presiding over the individual learning accounts fiasco simply didn’t understand that some people in the training ‘marketplace’ could be dishonest. Fraudsters siphoned off a third of the £290m spent on the project.

These are Pope’s ‘human failings’, and they can affect any large organisation with ambitious plans, private as well as public. In fact, private contractors were at the heart of some our costliest blunders, including the public-private partnership to modernise the London tube, which collapsed in 2007, leaving taxpayers with a bill of at least £20bn (John Prescott and Gordon Brown, since you ask).

But, without completely exonerating officials, King and Crewe largely blame the specific behaviour of British politicians for making blunders much more likely and costly. We pay a high price for our adversarial politics and ‘decisive’ system of government, they say. ‘British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode…even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it.’

Far from being presidential, they argue that British government suffers from a ‘weak, under-organised and understaffed’ centre, a rapidly revolving door of ministers and officials and a chronic lack of accountability. As for parliament, their verdict is brutal: ‘As a legislative assembly…parliament is either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist.’

Although the authors reserve judgement on the Cameron government, the early signs are not good. ‘Omnishambles…is scarcely too strong a word to describe its performance so far,’ they warn. In fact, Cameron’s ‘may turn out to be the most blunder-prone government of modern times’.

Reform is possible, say the authors, but their tone is not optimistic. We’ll have more forgetting – and perhaps forgiving – to do in the years ahead.

A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2013.
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Stopping councils from building houses hurts us all

housing_completions_GDNThis graph from Monday’s Guardian tells you most of what you need to know about the housing crisis in the UK. It tells a simple but very sorry tale.

Nothing much happened to private sector housing completions for thirty years, at least until they fell off a cliff after the 2008 crash. Housing association building remains an insignificant part of the picture. What really matters is the complete collapse of council house building since the 1980s. This has been a disaster, and not just for potential council house tenants.

The boom in house building during the 1950s and 1960s (which ensured for the first time in our history that most people could spend their lives in sanitary housing conditions) was a highly effective partnership between the private and public sector. Very crudely, the councils built for renting and the private sector built for buying (it wasn’t entirely true – I was brought up in a house built by the GLC for sale as part of its “overspill” policy of encouraging people to move out of London). This ensured there was a plentiful supply of affordable housing for renting and kept the lid on house prices even while incomes rose.

This is why so many middle and even working class people were able to buy their own homes in the 1960s and 1970s, without getting into silly amounts of debt. These were the golden years when working families, if they were in secure employment, could buy the sort of reasonable family home that only millionaires can afford in London today. There was plenty of housing about and plenty of ways to put a roof over your head: council flats and houses, private landlords, rooms to rent, bedsits – we were providing houses of all shapes and sizes for families of all shapes, sizes and means.

Far from “crowding out” private investment in housing, or making people “reliant” on the state (as if people don’t have minds of their own), council house building was the reason people could afford to buy their own homes. Council development stimulated private development. There is no evidence from this data that the private sector is capable or willing to respond to today’s unprecedented demand for housing: the long boom in house prices which began in the 1960s has had no net effect on private housing completions at all, even from the 1980s onwards when private developers no longer had to compete with councils for tenants and buyers. It’s a dismal market failure.

If we want affordable housing to buy, we have to have affordable housing to rent, and that probably means council housing. That means lower rents and lower prices. Of course, people who are relying on property hyperinflation to fund their retirement won’t like it. But at least they’ll still have a roof over their heads.

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Mission accomplished, George?

Osborne’s recovery is just like Darling’s – only slower, weaker and later.

George Osborne’s crowing over the economic recovery reminded me of George W Bush, strutting around on the USS Abraham Lincoln celebrating the ‘end’ of the Iraq War on 1 May 2003. As Bush spoke, a huge banner behind him read ‘Mission Accomplished’. Shortly afterwards, all hell broke loose. The war wasn’t over after all. It’s arguable if it’s even over now.


Like Bush, Osborne is in a tearing hurry to declare victory and move on. He doesn’t want you to think too hard or too long about what victory looks like, in case you conclude that it doesn’t look much like this.

It’s not just that two quarters of growth at 0.3% and 0.7% is hardly setting the Thames on fire. It’s not just that this is the slowest recovery for a zillion years (you can take your pick how long, but we could go with the broadly pro-Osborne IEA, who say it’s the slowest for 170 years), making Osborne a less effective recovery Chancellor than Alistair Darling, Norman Lamont, Geoffrey Howe, Denis Healey, Tony Barber or even Neville Bloody Chamberlain). And it’s not just that falling living standards, spiralling house prices and frozen wages are making this recovery feel almost as bad as the disease.

There’s also Osborne’s own view on what constitutes economic recovery. You see, this is our second attempt to recover from the great slump of 2008. Our first recovery – far more promising than this one – was cancelled just as it was getting going by no other than Gideon George Osborne himself.

When Osborne moved into Number 11, the economy had grown by 0.5%, 0.4% and 1.0% in the preceding three quarters. But Osborne said that was no good. He threw out Alistair Darling’s more considered strategy – a successful strategy – and reached for his austerity blunderbuss. The economy collapsed back into recession, then drifted sideways for two years. Living standards, especially for working people, plunged.

Osborne said the Darling recovery was unsustainable because government debt was too high. He said we were on the road to becoming Greece, although how a growing economy and a level of national debt on a par with Germany’s merited comparison with Greece was, and remains, beyond me. He said the economy was too reliant on a house price ‘bubble’ and households were borrowing too much. Darling’s recovery wasn’t really a recovery at all and we’d have to start all over again.

Three years later, the economy may finally be crawling out from under the rock Osborne dropped on it. But the national debt will be £533bn higher at the next election than at the last. Osborne’s recovery has barely begun and there’s already talk of a ‘house price bubble’ in many areas. And with stagnant or falling wages, rising house prices can only be accommodated by ever-higher borrowing.

If Darling’s recovery wasn’t real, then neither is Osborne’s. And it’s three years late.

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The game has changed

2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.

2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.

Do you ever think, looking at the British political scene, that all possible results of the next election just feel wrong? That no one deserves to win? That we’re in a weird place where the 2015 poll might as well be decided by rolling dice or drawing lots?

Everyone says Labour’s opinion poll lead is fragile. The party doesn’t look ready to return to government and, for all his efforts, voters don’t see Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister. Optimistic Tories are talking up their ‘summer recovery’, but they’re still stuck at around 30% in the polls, and have a mountain chain to climb in terms of seats to gain a majority in 2015. Which should make a hung parliament and another coalition involving the Lib-Dems (which amounts to a ‘win’ for them) the most plausible outcome. But that doesn’t feel right either. Lib-Dem support is hovering around 10%, Nick Clegg is a national joke and the party appears to have lost a significant slice of its core support to Labour. It’s like one of those periodic seasons in the Championship when suddenly no club seems to want to win the title.

When everyone is unpopular you don’t have to be popular to win. You don’t have to have the best policies, the most likeable leader or a good record in government. You just have to be a bit less unpopular or a bit luckier than the other party.

British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways. We’re used to elections being decided by a relatively small group of ‘swing voters’ – uncommitted to either main party – shifting their heft one way or the other, ‘lending’ their votes to Labour or the Tories on an election-by-election basis. But now there are a lot more swing voters, and they’re all over the place: toying with UKIP, the Greens and local ‘anti-politics’ candidates, voting differently in local and national elections, switching back and forth between parties while puzzling over whether there’s any real difference between them, and – increasingly – not bothering to vote at all.

Of course, this isn’t new. Ever since I started studying politics in the 1980s, people have been talking about the ‘breakdown’ of the two-party system. And the share of the vote taken by the main parties has indeed fallen steadily from 97% in 1951 to 65% in 2010. Perhaps it has now (finally) reached a critical point beyond which, instead of the three-party system we expected, we are seeing multi-party politics or even ‘no-party’ politics.

Despite this, most commentators are still talking the old language of stable majorities and the ‘magical’ 40% barrier. But what if no one gets over 40% again? What if Labour’s 29% last time round was not a ‘disaster’ (as it undoubtedly was in 1983) but a ‘normal’ score for a party coming second. What if hung parliaments are not the result of an unusually strong third party performance, but the norm – and the Lib-Dems don’t have to do well to end up in government? What if so-called ‘fringe’ parties become ‘niche’ parties, able to appeal successfully to particular voters in particular areas?

If you look at it this way, Labour’s overtures to the Lib-Dems and Ed Miliband’s reputed ‘35% strategy’ (the idea that Labour only needs 35% to win an election, so why bother alienating core supporters by moving onto Tory territory?) looks less like defeatism or complacency and more like the results of a sober assessment of the political future.

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This 18th century monolith is ripe for reform

Hardly an hour passes without talk of some new reform in the public sector. For at least thirty years change has been a constant in public services. Indeed the job of a public sector leader – perm sec, chief executive or whatever – seems to involve little else but going round telling everyone how much the organisation needs to change. You wonder how they find time to do whatever it is the organisation is supposed to do when it is not reforming itself or being reformed.

The joint-stock company model remains essentially unreformed since the time of the South Sea Bubble in 1711. Pic: Library of Congress.

The joint-stock company model remains essentially unreformed since the time of the South Sea Bubble in 1711. Pic: Library of Congress.

Any failure in a public sector body – or sometimes even by a single public servant – is met with instant and shrill demands for the entire system to be changed. Mid-Staffs was not just a badly run hospital; it was symptomatic of a disease afflicting the entire NHS (if this were true, of course, there would have been no Francis Inquiry, as Mid Staffs wouldn’t have stood out). For these people, it doesn’t matter how much public services have been buggered around with, they are always ‘unreformed’. Only one reform counts: making them more like the private sector, preferably by transferring them to the private sector altogether. This is so widely accepted – even by people on the left – that an outsider would imagine our private sector to be a gleaming model of efficiency and service.

Actually, quite a lot of the private sector is rubbish. Banks, insurance companies, supermarkets, the railways and the utility and oil companies are among the most despised and distrusted organisations in the country. If you can’t find somewhere affordable to live, if your broadband doesn’t work, if your pension scheme isn’t delivering what was promised, if you can’t get a seat on a suffocating train, if an elderly relative has been abused in a care home – it’s the private sector that has failed, not the public. It’s private sector firms that brought you horse burgers, phone tapping, Windows 7, incendiary fridges, PPI, ‘self-checkouts’ and – the daddy of all cock-ups – the great recession itself.

This is the culture we cherish so much we’re extending it further and further into our lives. If you can’t get a GP appointment, your local school is failing, escaped cons are roaming your neighbourhood – even if your Boris Bike breaks down – it’s more and more likely that a private sector firm is responsible (usually Serco). We hear a good deal about the failure of big ‘government’ IT contracts – but a good deal less about the firms who failed to deliver what they were contracted to do. So why do we only ever talk about reforming the public sector, never the private?

Most private firms would wilt in minutes under the kind of scrutiny public sector managers have to deal with every day. There’s no Francis Inquiry into the obviously systemic failure of the banking sector, just a compliant Parliamentary commission under former banker and oil executive Andrew Tyrie. Ministers mull over prosecuting nurses for poor care, but pass over evidence of criminal fraud (LIBOR, PPI or pensions for example) by banks and insurance companies. There’s no shake-up of our greedy utility companies, no probe into BT’s monopoly stranglehold on broadband, no action on the eternal failure of the railway companies to provide the service passengers pay through the nose for. Just tame regulators, stuffed with industry insiders, presiding over cosy cartels that fob us off with the same products and the same lousy service under different brand names.

When Serco was caught overcharging the Ministry of Justice – ripping off you and me – justice secretary Chris Grayling said it was ‘indefensible and unacceptable’, but he didn’t do anything. After fraud and mismanagement were uncovered in the welfare to work scheme run by A4e, the company was eventually sacked. Good. But where was the inquiry? Where was the policy review? Where is the evidence that ministers have learned anything from their mistakes? (The employment minister at the time was, incidentally, one Chris Grayling.)

At most, you get the Daily Mail or government ministers railing against individual firms for their failings. But you can’t blame Scottish Power for putting up its prices, or care provider Southern Cross for trying to make a quick buck out of its property portfolio. This what those companies do, it’s what they have to do. They have one objective and one only – maximising shareholder value. And they’re not always very good at that.

There are many models in the public sector, but only one in the private. The joint-stock profit-maximising company is simply not fit for purpose in many areas. It has proved a hopeless way to run natural monopolies like railways and utilities. It’s not up to providing health or social care, as has been proved time and time again. It cannot manage competing priorities – the way public services have to do every day – because it has only one priority. Why do we think this creaking 18th century model is so perfect, so superior to everything else, that it can never be challenged and must be applied to everything we do as a society?

With only one model, all large corporations are forced into the same mode of behaviour: short-termism, cost-cutting, service degradation, price hiking, misleading marketing and pressure sales tactics. Even charities have started to behave like this. But why do all companies have to be profit maximising? Some, while needing to generate profits to stay in business and invest for the future, might have purposes other than squeezing the last ounce of profit out of their suppliers and customers. Might some have social interests, or the interests of their workers or clients at heart? Actually, many small businesses have such diverse priorities because of the way their owners choose to run their businesses or live their lives. But big corporations, with only one model to follow, have no choice but to behave the way they do.

Cameron: "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state." It's not the same thing as SERCO either.

Cameron: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.” It’s not the same thing as SERCO either.

If he’d meant a word of it, David Cameron might have been onto something with the Big Society. No, it doesn’t always have to be the state, but it doesn’t always have to be the big private corporation either. And might not the ‘third sector’ also be an alternative to the private sector as well as the public?

There are failures in both private and public sectors. But where the public sector is expected to innovate and reform in response to failure, the private sector gets away with shrugging its shoulders and wringing its hands. It’s as if the private sector was created by God 300 years ago, and must be left unsullied by human hands. It’s time we changed that.

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The man who wants to turn the world upside down

Herbert: more is less and anyone who thinks different will be "mugged by reality".

Herbert: less is more and anyone who thinks different will be “mugged by reality”. Pic:

Specious use of statistics, intellectual sloppiness and deliberate misunderstanding have been hallmarks of David Cameron’s government and its supporters, but former Home Office minister Nick Herbert’s piece in the Guardian on Tuesday plumbs new depths.

If you can’t be bothered to read it (and, frankly, why should you?) it boils down to this: as crime has fallen when police numbers are being cut, this proves that cutting public services makes them better. Not just better at getting by on a shoestring, but better full stop.

You know it already, but I’ll say it anyway: just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

There is no evidence that crime is falling because police are fewer or more efficient (if there was, you can be sure Herbert would have quoted it). Since crime has been falling for almost 20 years, during which time police numbers have risen and fallen, what evidence there is suggests there is no real link between the two.

You can, of course, just reverse Herbert’s “reasoning”: perhaps we’re getting by with fewer police because there’s less crime. Just a thought. But I think there’s an old saying that says if you can reverse an argument and it makes just as much sense, it’s no argument at all. (And if there isn’t, there is now.)

You might as well say that because it’s hot and England are thrashing the Aussies in the Ashes, England play better in hot weather. Or, just as well, that when England are winning at cricket, God sends us a heatwave.

Stuart Broad and Matt Prior celebrate another Aussie wicket: but are England winning because it's hot, or is it hot because England are winning?

Stuart Broad and Matt Prior celebrate another Aussie wicket: but are England winning because it’s hot, or is it hot because England are winning?

On this invisible intellectual sand, Herbert wants to build a very big castle: cut the NHS and we’ll all get healthier; cut schools and our kids will be brainer; cut tax inspectors and Amazon and Starbucks will stump up the billions they owe us. For Herbert’s ilk, austerity is not an emergency measure; it’s a permanent panacea. ‘It was only when the country ran out of money that the old orthodoxy was challenged,’ he writes. ‘Suddenly the world where we measured the quality of services by how expensive they were [I must have missed that ‘world’] has been turned upside down.’

On Herbert’s logic, you go on cutting until public services cost absolutely nothing, by which time they will have reached a point of infinite perfection – fucking brilliant, eh?

If Herbert really believes this stuff, I’ve three challenges for him:

  • Try applying it to the military – they’re very big spenders. I’m sure our boys in Afghanistan will welcome the opportunity to do more with less.
  • MPs are an expensive part of the private sector. As a pilot measure, why not slash your own office cost allowance? This should make you a much more efficient representative for the people of Arundel and South Downs. And having to type your own letters should give you less time to pen crap articles for the Guardian.
  • Lobby Eric Pickles (in public please) to cut funding for Arun, Chichester, Mid Sussex and Horsham councils. The super-efficient services that will surely result should pay handsome dividends for you at the ballot box (and think of all those pints lined up for you by grateful local councillors in the Arundel Conservative Club).

Time and time again ideological neo-cons like Herbert try to ram this ‘world turned upside down’ shit down our throats, and mostly we keep swallowing it: you help the poor by making the rich richer; you get out of a recession quicker by making it worse; you create jobs by making it easier to sack people. Time and time again evidence from the real world proves them wrong, but they don’t care. Their free market ideology tells them that it is so.

Saying ‘you get more for less’ rather than ‘you get what you pay for’ is certainly a challenge to ‘the old orthodoxy’. But so is saying the world is flat and water flows uphill. Sometimes challenging the old orthodoxy just means talking crap.

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Ask a stupid question…

For once I’ve some sympathy for William Hague. Asked on the radio this morning if Britain ‘supported’ yesterday’s coup which removed the Islamist President Morsi from power in Egypt, the foreign secretary squirmed and wriggled for while, before coming up with, ‘We don’t support military interventions but we will work with the people in authority in Egypt.’ Well, ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer.

You can’t support or oppose something when you don’t have a clue what it is. A democratically elected president is under house arrest somewhere. Liberal politicians like Mohamed ElBaradei appear on telly alongside the coup leader, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, to lend him their support. Pro-democracy demonstrators celebrate as the army fans out in force across Cairo. Then Sisi hands over the presidency to a top judge, a shadowy figure from the days of the Mubarak regime which the military helped to overthrow two years ago. Make what you can out of that.

General Sisi announces the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, 3 July 2013, flanked by opposition leaders including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.

General Sisi announces the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, 3 July 2013, flanked by opposition leaders including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.

Forget the 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ in eastern Europe; Egypt’s revolution looks more like those of France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or China in the 1940s.

Revolutions are a process, not an event. The overthrow of the existing regime is only the start of it. Two heaves in Russia – the first to get rid of the Tsar, the second to establish Bolshevik rule – then a prolonged civil war which lasted into the 20s. In France, Louis XVI was overthrown not by the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but by the coup of 10 August three years later. As in Egypt in 2013, the initial constitutional settlement under Louis, including the elected national assembly, was shoved aside because many people thought the original revolution was being betrayed.

Revolutions are rarely morally unambiguous and rarely set one side clearly against another; they bring to the surface all the competing tensions you should expect in a society in tumult. Revolutions are messy, they go backwards and forwards; sometimes they stumble towards the light, sometimes they fall into darkness. In Russia, one form of autocratic rule was eventually replaced with another. In France, Louis XVI was toppled but it took another 80 years – and a further three Louis of various kinds – before stable republican government was finally established in 1870.

We shouldn’t be too prissy about the military getting involved. Revolutions happen in all parts of society, including the military, and sooner or later the people in charge have to make up their minds. They can stick with the ancien régime, in which case the revolution usually fails, often bloodily. They can split, and we get civil war. Or they can change sides, and we call it a ‘coup’. All successful revolutions are military coups of some sort, whether or not they end with a general addressing the nation on TV adorned with the presidential regalia. It’s usually a decision by someone military that turns a rebellion into a revolution.

Louis XVI clung to power for three years after 1789, but it took another 80 years to establish a stable French republic.

Louis XVI clung to office for three years after 1789, but it took another 80 years to establish a stable French republic.

In Russia, the military first deserted the Tsar, then splintered into factions. It was the crucial support of Bolshevised elements at a particular time in St Petersburg that enabled Lenin to stage his audacious coup d’état on 25 October. In France, Louis was left with so little support among the military establishment by 1792 that, when the Paris ‘mob’ stormed the Tuileries, barely a musket was lifted to defend him.

By all accounts, Morsi sounds like a dreadful leader – incompetent as well as autocratic and opportunistic. Yes, he was elected, but democracy is about more than elections. The winner’s legitimacy depends on governing democratically, not just getting the most votes on a particular day. A lot of Eygptians didn’t think Morsi was governing democratically. Whether they were a voting majority of more than 50% doesn’t matter because Egypt is in a revolutionary, not a democratic, situation. Like Louis, Morsi did eventually offer to compromise, but it was too little, too late.

It’s too early to say if General Sisi’s coup is revolutionary, counter-revolutionary or reactionary. Or just pragmatic. It’s another event in an unfolding and unpredictable story. For now, all we can do is watch and wait, fascinated and apprehensive, but let’s face it, more than a little exhilarated by the whole thing.

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Little bangs and big bucks

You know you’ve hit your mid-40s when histories of ‘your’ decade start to fill the bookshelves. Writers are always nostalgic for their youth and thirty years seems about right for a proper historical perspective. I turned 18 at the height of the miners’ strike in 1984 and often feel cheated about being landed with the decade of piano-key ties and Rick Astley rather than the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. But at the time, it seemed like fun, even if I was on the losing side of virtually every political and cultural argument for an entire decade.

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s By Graham Stewart Atlantic Books, 546pp, £25

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
By Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 546pp, £25

We can assume that Graham Stewart, a former Times leader writer and historian of the Tory party, was very much on the winning side. For him, the 80s ‘exploded with a decisive bang’ and settled all those arguments for the next thirty years and beyond. Stewart’s only real reassessment of the legacy of free markets and deregulation is to imply that by not following ‘the Grantham gospel of Thatcher’s faith’ and cutting public spending, it was governments who caused the great crash of 2008.

Although Margaret Thatcher dominates the pages, she never really materialises in flesh and blood from the web of supportive clichés that Stewart weaves around her. Indeed, it’s hard to see how his Thatcher could arouse ‘the attraction and repulsion’ he says defined people’s attitudes in the 80s. She just seems so damn reasonable, at least until the end, when ‘experience was making her careless’ and her cabinet ‘were tiring of her brusqueness and rudeness’.

What Bang! really lacks – for want of a better word – is ‘bang’. Assembled almost exclusively from newspaper clippings, published memoirs (mainly those of Conservative politicians) and statistics, Stewart provides a crisp commentary on the key events and arguments without ever getting under the skin of the times. There are none of the interviews with people caught up in the big events which made Andy Beckett’s history of the 70s, When the Lights Went Out, the instant classic of the genre. Sometimes you wonder if Stewart wrote Bang! barricaded in his Buckingham University office, with the internet down, the phone off the hook and oblivious to anything that’s happened in the last five years.

This weakness is most glaring with Stewart’s chapter on the miner’s strike. While few would dispute that at the end of the dispute the miners were ‘a beaten army marching towards oblivion’, Stewart doesn’t talk to any of the miners or police officers involved, and doesn’t even seem to have visited any pit communities. Shorn of human context, this just makes the miners look silly and the dispute childish. Similarly, with the 1986 Wapping print dispute, Stewart pompously asserts that ‘the printers were protesting to ensure their industry continued to use outdated technology and inefficient practices’. In the words of the book’s heroine: No, no, no! Most were protesting because they feared losing their jobs and a way of life they treasured. To fail even to try to understand that is to fail as a social historian. Social history needs people and in Bang! the people seem to have been expunged from their own decade.

If you lived through the 80s, Bang! could make you wonder if you were really there. If you didn’t, you could end up wondering what all the fuss was about.

A version of this review was published in public service magazine, spring 2013.


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British politics goes continental

With UKIP’s success in the local elections and recent polls, Britain may be moving rapidly to a four-party system before we’ve got used to a three-party one. In fact, the trend towards continental-style multi-party politics has been going on for some time. The share of the vote taken by the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – has fallen from 96.8% in 1951 to just 65% in 2010. The scores of the three largest parties – 36-29-23 – have a very European look about them. And it’s not just UKIP: the SNP are well established as a party of government in Scotland; Respect and the Greens have MPs at Westminster.

Giulio Andreotti's often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Giulio Andreotti’s often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Until now, Britain has had no real experience of multi-party politics or the sort of shifting coalition governments which are common on the continent. Brits tend see multi-party systems as unstable, riven by bickering (both personal and political), prone to repeat elections, collapsing governments and a revolving door of prime ministers. We think of Italy, above all, which after a brief period of two-party pendulum politics seems to be reverting to post-war type, or the supposedly chaotic French Fourth Republic, which Charles De Gaulle put an end to with his presidential system in 1958. We tend to overlook Germany’s long and distinguished record of coalition government, perhaps because its two-and-a-half party system looks very similar to ours.

But the era of collapsible governments and multi-party politics coincided with what many see as a golden age in Europe. Italy may have had 48 governments between 1946 and the collapse of its post-war party system in 1993 (Giulio Andreotti, who died last week, was seven times prime minister between 1972 and 1993), but the Italian republic was a remarkable economic success during that period. Chaotic it may have seemed to the outsider, but Italy worked; the saying at the time (supposedly taken from Galileo) was eppur si muove – ‘yet it moves’. In 1987, Italian politicians celebrated il sorpasso: the moment when Italy briefly overtook Britain – stagnating under Thatcher – as the world’s fifth largest economy. It didn’t last long, but it’s a wonder it happened at all. Then came Berlusconi and a period of more ‘stable’ governments, and the Italian economy stagnated, then sunk without trace.

In France, there were 38 governments between 1946 and the end of the 1970s, when France’s political system began to crystallise into the left-right blocs we see today. (France’s tradition of multiple parties right, left and centre survives thanks to the two-round voting system, but only two are really parties of government). But this was the time of les trente glorieuses – the thirty glorious years – when France’s economy boomed and its generous welfare state reached its height. There’s no need to point out Germany’s success, achieved with perpetual coalition government since 1949.

Of course, there’s no proven link, and not everyone sees the post-war decades as a golden age. But at the very least we can say that multiparty politics, government instability and coalition administrations are not always a disaster. Fractious, argumentative – even chaotic – political systems can work.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

Maybe governments just don’t matter as much as we think they do. Belgium managed quite successfully without a government for 16 months after the June 2010 election. Another reason may be that the constant dialogue that has to go on in multi-party governments: the much-derided ‘smoke-filled room’. In Britain and the US, we tend to elect one party and leave them to get on with it for four or five years, with the opposition carping impotently from the sidelines. With multi-party systems, you may have to negotiate on every bill or every significant tweak in economic policy. This itself brings a kind of stability. Things get talked about a lot more, decisions are taken more slowly, and perhaps a lot of bad ideas fall by the wayside.

Perhaps the most important factor is that for parties to work together long-term they have to share some common values about what the country can or should be, or some sense of overriding common purpose. We saw this in Britain with the Churchill’s wartime coalition, but in France it survived in the idea of the Republic, to which almost all major parties subscribe, and the notion of social solidarity it entails. The main German parties all support the social market model. I’m not sure what common purpose Italian parties have; perhaps it’s just the need to – somehow – keep the show on the road. Italian politicians seem to relish an atmosphere of permanent crisis, and a battle for national survival can be a powerful galvanising force – as we saw again with Britain’s wartime coalition.

I doubt anyone will look back on the Cameron-Clegg era as a golden age. But the Coalition isn’t really a coalition at all: it’s just two parties locked in the same (smoke-free) room together, waiting for someone to find the key. It hasn’t worked because neither side really expected it to last, or sees coalition as a permanent feature of the political landscape. The Tories in particular seem to think the result of the 2010 election was a statistical fluke. But all the signs are that European-style multi-party politics is here to stay in Britain. We’d better get used to and start trying to make it work.