What You Can Get Away With

The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal – I’m shocked – shocked! – to discover that pharmaceutical companies are blocking drug law reform.
The future of Scotland – “Might SNP leader Alex Salmond bring in a swingeing castle tax?” The fears of Scotland’s aristocracy, brought to you in an article by someone with the surname Money-Coutts. We can close down satire now, reality has beaten it.
Orange and red – Jamie K of Blood and Treasure wonders how you’d explain the Orange Order to a Chinese visitor.
Are school vouchers good public policy? – Dan Carr looks at the question I raised in this post.
Present and future conditional – Alex Marsh on the spread of conditionality in public services and benefits.

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KNOW_MAIN_01When I was younger, it was the robots we feared. The future seemed to be going in an obvious direction: as long as we managed to dodge the threat of nuclear destruction, we’d get to watch as automation drove the world towards utopia. Machines would take over all the routine work – and pretty much all work would be routine work – leaving us free to spend our time on more useful pursuits, and utilising revolutionary new communications technology to access information from around the world and keep in touch with friends, wherever they may be. Maybe we had some doubts about the possibility of holidays in space and hotels on the moon, but all we really had to worry about was the rise of the robots. What if we became too dependent on them and sank into a lotus-eating torpor, or what if they developed their own sentience and overthrew their tyrannical human masters?

The real message was clear. If we weren’t particles of fallout or soldiers in the Great Robot War, we’d be freeing ourselves from the drudgery of having to work every day, giving everyone time to what they really loved, and that would make the world a better place. By the early twenty-first century, we’d be working four-hour days or fifteen-hour weeks as work withered away and a better society would be starting to take form.

And yet somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that dream. Now, we almost make a fetish of work, denounce sloth and idleness with all the fervour of a Calvinist preacher and no longer dream of a world where the amount of work we all do is reduced. Rather than freeing us from work, we let technology bind us closer to us, enabling us to check our emails at all hours of the day, to video-conference in from holiday just to ensure we’re not missed. We mock the French for their 35-hour week – how can anyone serious only work seven hours a day? – and the Germans for the idea that work emails should be banned from the home.

An idea I’ve had floating around in my head for a while is the concept of ‘workism’ as one of the true dominant ideologies of the current age. I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times before, and it was given a nudge by David Graeber’s article ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs‘, which summarises and presents the issues a lot better than I can.

I was struck by the idea of workism as a dominant ideology, subsuming others inside it, by some of my reading this week. After finishing Race Plan, I went on to Britannia Unchained“>Britannia Unchained (quick summary: Tory MPs with safe seats and backgrounds in think tanks reckon everyone else should work harder) both of which unconsciously parrot the tenets of workism. In a staggering passage, Britannia Unchained compares the working life of a tube driver (well paid, protected, 35-hour working week and plenty of holiday time) with a minicab driver (poorly paid, working 60-hour weeks with no job protection and no other benefits) and holds up the minicab driver as the example we should all be striving to emulate.

This is the triumph of workism over our dreams of leisure: we do not envy those who have managed to work less, but pillory them instead, insisting that there’s something wrong with them having plenty of time to themselves when that time could be offered up to meaningless productivity instead. Education is made subordinate to work too – schools, colleges and universities are no longer about creating well-rounded and educated individuals, but are judged solely on how well they equip people for the workplace.

The question to be asked, then, is how and when did workism came to prominence and how did it manage it without anyone noticing? There are no explicit manifestos to workism, no grand statement of ideological principles and denunciation of leisure, yet it sits at the heart of so much contemporary debate as an unchallenged assumption. We make a fetish out of work and if people can’t find it, we insist they participate in crude facsimiles of it to justify themselves.

Or is the problem that we got too lost in our dreams of the future to work out how to make it real?Did we spend too much time worrying about the problems of a leisure society – just how are we going to deal with the robot rebellion? – to realise that it wasn’t inevitable? Workism didn’t promise any utopias in the future, so had no need to challenge those dreams, but in the present there was no one to stop its rise or even consider it a threat. The clear challenge, then, for those of us who want to see the future of leisure we dreamt off is how do we challenge workism now and plot the path to that better future?

One way I would suggest is through the basic income, which appears to be coming back into prominence as an idea and is a simple idea to explain: everyone, regardless of circumstance receives a basic income that helps them meet their needs. This means people are free to work as they choose, rather than as they are compelled to. It changes the nature of the argument away from the idea that we should find fulfilment through our work, regardless of what it is, but that we can find our own way of fulfilment doing the work we choose. It also accepts that there are many valid ways to live that we do not currently classify as work.

I think there’s a lot more to be talked, thought and written about on workism before I come to any definite conclusions, but I think it’s something we need to acknowledge. Things have changed in my lifetime, and I want to know if we’re stuck on this course that will end with us all pledging to work as hard as we can, or if there’s another way we can go.

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Nick Robinson of the BBC demonstrates the self-awareness that he’s famous for:


Yes, Westminster’s style of politics is entirely the fault of MPs. Absolutely none of the problems with the politics in our country come from the media’s insistence on treating it all as a game or a Punch and Judy show of mutual loathing and shouting. That political journalism frequently eliminates any nuance in order to drive forward the narrative it has determined the story must be about has no bearing on the way people regard politics. There is absolutely no symbiotic relationship between a media desperate to fill air time cheaply and a political class who are desperate to appear on air as much as possible.

I’m glad Nick Robinson has made that clear.

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Via Jonathan Calder, the words of a Telegraph ‘political commentator’:

For very good reasons, Britain’s political parties do not campaign on election day.

This will likely confuse all of you reading this who are involved in politics, though I’m sure we’ll all be glad to know that we get polling day off after those long campaigns. All that getting up at 5am to deliver the first leaflet of the day, followed by hours of knocking on doors and more delivery must just have been a recurring bad dream I had every May.

Or it may just be that we don’t understand what campaigning is. Iain Martin, the journalist who wrote those words, got into a conversation with Lib Dem activist Chris Lovell last night, appears to think campaigning consists of just rallies and speeches and anything else is just “people with clipboards driving voters to polling stations”.

But then, is that all most journalists see of political campaigns? Most journalists writing about politics have never had any direct experience of it or involvement with it, and their job consists of going where the parties tell them to go to and working out which spin doctor’s stories they’re going to pay the most attention to when they write their stories. For them, political campaigns are a mix of media stunts, rallies and Important Speeches by Important People where the only role of party members and activists is to make up a useful backdrop and make sure they hold the placards the right way up. As none of this happens on polling day and journalists don’t have any invites to anything until the counting starts, it’s easy to make the assumption that there’s no campaigning going on.

Whereas most activists will tell you that polling day is the most important and busiest of the campaigning. The reason everyone looks hollow-eyed at the count is because they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning (assuming they got any sleep at all) and subsisting on whatever food they can grab. The big campaign events may not be happening – because they won’t get any coverage in the media – but all the other parts of campaigning are going at full tilt.

For a journalist – and specifically one credited as a political commentator – to claim that there’s no campaigning on polling day reveals just how shallow most coverage of politics is. Campaigns are like icebergs – there’s a very visible part on the surface, but a whole lot more happening beneath that. Journalists used to know this, but now they’re so dazzled by the bit on the surface, they imagine there’s nothing going on underneath.

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(Liz Lynne was the second to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut. I’ve formatted them as she had them in the Word document she sent but not edited them in any way, but please tell me if anything looks wrong. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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Following up from Monday’s post (a Lord thought it was ‘excellent‘, you know…) and with Nick Clegg launching a new report on devolution today, a few more thoughts that I wanted to set down in advance of writing about this properly.

1) We need a new language of devolution

I’ve had a quick look through the summary of the IPPR report that’s being launched today and it’s generally good. There are some points of implementation where I’d differ from them, but I think the principle is good.

The problem is that if you try explaining it to people, or asking them to read even the summary report, most people’s eyes are going to glaze over very quickly when they hit management-speak phrases like ‘core outcome entitlements’. The reason Yes is doing so well in Scotland is that ‘independence’ is a simple complex, easily understood. ‘Asymmetric devolution to combined authorities’ isn’t, and if we’re going to go out and argue for it, we need to understand how to make that case better. Writing that appeals to fellow policy wonks is not the way to do that.

2) We need to stop the obsession with elected mayors

If there’s anything that shows how much think tanks are generally based within the M25, it’s the idea that everywhere needs an elected Mayor. After all, London has one, so why shouldn’t everywhere else? The problem is, it’s been tried and tried again and people are generally resistant to the idea of having them. That doesn’t stop them sneaking into every report about giving power to the regions or promoting our cities as if they’re the only answer to the question.

There are important questions about how local government (and any future devolved governments) are run, but the options should be more than just status quo or mayors. We also need to break away from the idea that one size fits all, and the same model needs to apply in the same way to every authority.

3) We need simple boundaries and obvious accountability

At the moment, Colchester sits within many different areas for many different things: the East of England, the Haven Gateway, Essex County Council, Essex Police, South East Local Enterprise Partnership and many others. None of those groupings operate on the same boundaries, with lots of them crossing and intersecting with themselves and others. I know we’re not unique in this and the same pattern is repeated across the country. Different regions are set up for different parts of the government, and each one ends up needing a separate bureaucracy and structures for accountability because nothing currently exists in that area that could take it on.

If we’re going to have sensible and popular devolution, then we need to keep things simple. Boundaries need to be set, and then organisations need to be set up to work within those boundaries, allowing them to share the costs of bureaucracy and accountability. Devolved and federal systems work because there’s clearly understood accountability and responsibility, not confusion about which area you might be in for what responsibility at any given time.

Like I said, these are just some general thoughts I wanted to set down before I forget them, but all comments, thoughts and questions are welcome.

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Something that occurred to me while reading the Browne book, but it seems so obvious I can’t believe others haven’t noticed it so I wonder if I’m missing something.

Anyway, by my reckoning bringing in school vouchers either requires an increase in the Government’s education budget or a cut in the funding given to each pupil currently in state education. Here’s my thinking:

The proponents of school vouchers say that they would be a universal benefit given to the parents of every child. However, at present, not every child is within the state education sector because they’re being educated independently, and the cost of that is being met by the parents or some other non-state actor. So, if we assume the total state funding for education is T, the total number of children to be educated is A and the number of children being privately educated to be B, the average funding per student in the state sector is T/(A-B), but if vouchers are brought in, the average amount per student in all sectors is T/A. So, unless T is increased, the average amount being spent on children currently in the state sector will drop.

Am I right, or have I missed something very obvious?

(Update: Dan Carr has looked at the issue and found an answer to my questions)

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Not being one of the privileged elite of Lib Dem bloggers, I didn’t get a review copy of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, so I waited until it turned up in the University library before reviewing it. It was worth waiting for it, as if I’d laid out money on actually buying a copy, I’d have felt extremely ripped off. It was obviously meant to be a provocative book that would force a debate within the Liberal Democrats and make people realise the correctness of Browne’s ‘authentic liberal’ views, but instead it’s just the same boilerplate ‘classical liberal’ pabulum one can read on blogs and think tank websites for free.

It feels like a book that was written in a hurry, and that shows in the lack of citations or justification for many of the claims Browne makes. There are many sections full of assertions that need some sort of explanation or evidence to back them up, but none comes. This is evident in the two central assertions of the book: that it’s “an authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race'”.

Browne’s description of his ideas as ‘authentic liberalism’ isn’t based on any sort of discussion of liberal ideas or their relevance to the modern age but merely presented as self-evident truth. It assumes – like most who claim to be heralds of ‘classical liberalism’ – that there is some Platonic ideal form of liberalism and any versions that deviate from this are inauthentic or fake. It completely ignores the idea – as I discussed in my series of posts on Russell – that liberalism should be concerned with power, or that it can adapt to meet the times. It’s an assumption that liberalism was somehow perfected in the nineteenth century, and nothing needs to be added to it. Browne doesn’t have anything to say about power, except for expecting everyone to prostrate themselves in front of the power of the market and the ‘global race’.

The ‘global race’ is the second of Browne’s major assumptions, and again he doesn’t seek to justify this concept, just assumes it to be the case. For those of you who forgot, the ‘global race’ was the centrepiece of a David Cameron Tory Party conference speech and like many big political ideas before it, wasn’t one that became part of the national vocabulary. Browne, however, latches onto it with all the vigour of a Conservative Central Office intern looking to get in the leader’s good books, but doesn’t stop to explain why he thinks it’s a good idea, or even if in a globalised world the idea of a race between nation-states makes any sense. It feels like international relations by Sellar and Yeatman: Britain must be Top Nation again, then history can come to an end.

Browne’s inability to question his assumptions, and the generally rushed nature of the book mean his proposals aren’t original and rest on some very weak evidence. He talks about school vouchers as though they’re a thrilling new idea, not something that have been a feature of seemingly every right-wing screed on education since the 90s, and assumes they will work because competition. No, that’s pretty much the argument – school vouchers bring in competition and competition always makes things better, thus school vouchers will make things better. Mind you, this comes after an argument where he purports that the single biggest reason for the relative success of independent schools compared to state schools is parental choice. Not increased levels of funding and the ability to spend more on teachers and facilities, just choice.

Later, we’re told that London needs a new airport because ‘a global hub city needs a global hub airport’ without giving any meaningful definition of what either of those things are, making the whole argument a frustratingly circular one. Like much of the book, it feels like nothing more than Browne pushing his personal desires and assuming that they need no evidence to back them up. It betrays the idea that his ideas aren’t radical, but have been floating around on the right for years to such an extent that that the true believers don’t need proof or evidence to assert them as true.

In this vein, he asserts that the size of the state should be between 35 and 38% of GDP, based on a discussion of a handful of countries and Britain’s experience between 1997 and 2001 (though I think the figure he uses excludes all the off-the-books PFI spending, which would weaken his argument even more). It feels like a figure plucked from the air, and just when you would expect him to bring out some form of evidence to back it up, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just put out there as something Browne believes to be true, and used to justify a whole load of lazy man-in-the-pub bloviating about supposed government waste. Browne seems to believe that running a government is just like running a supermarket, again parroting the prevailing view on the right that everything can be reduced to businesses and markets.

It amuses (but also slightly scares) me to see people thinking that this book makes Browne a deep thinker or a radical. The ideas in it aren’t original or radical, and the thinking behind them is wearyingly shallow. Browne’s style is akin to that of Thomas Friedman, firing multiple factoids and wows at the reader, hoping to hide the lack of a detailed argument. For instance, Browne often waxes lyrical (well, semi-lyrical, his writing rarely rises to any great heights) about Chinese skyscrapers and other infrastructure, comparing them to Britain’s Victorian engineering triumphs, but neglects to think about how these things there were built. The human cost of this building, and the vast armies of poorly paid labour without any rights that build them isn’t mentioned at all.

Likewise, as he urges us to work harder so we can be part of the ‘Asian Century’, he handwaves away any mention of climate change and its potential effects. This is something that’s going to dominate the century in a much more fundamental way than anything Browne focuses on, but the few mentions of any potential environmental problems assume they can be simply solved, and nothing will get in the way of the irresistible growth of the economy. Browne trumpets his experience as a Foreign Office minister, but the overview he gives of foreign affairs doesn’t reveal any particular depths and I worry if the Foreign Office’s work isn’t focusing on the potential global risks climate change creates.

I’ll be honest and say that from all the descriptions and reviews I’d read of it, I didn’t expect to agree with this book, and I generally didn’t. What I didn’t expect, though, was for the arguments in it to be so weak and resting on so little. It’s a testament to the paucity of debate and thinking within a lot of the party that something argued as weakly as this can be seen as being a bold challenge. What disappoints me most of all is that it has nothing to say about power, and how people can get that power back from globalisation. Instead, he merely envisages a capitulation and surrender to the prevailing mood in the name of competing in the ‘global race’, when what we need is a liberal challenge and a vision of how things could be done differently. A truly radical and liberal plan for the twenty-first century would challenge the orthodoxy, but Browne’s plan is just for more of the same, dressed up in supposedly liberal clothes.

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How political science conquered Washington – Relevant to my interests and things I’ve talked about before: how political commentary in the US is taking more notice of academic research.
Victim-blaming: an all-pervading curse – How a culture of blaming the victim lets the real culprits off the hook.
How Jim fixed it: the strange, dark life of Jimmy Savile – Rachel Cooke’s New Statesman review of Dan Davies’ book on Savile’s life.
Chicken – Flying Rodent on how ‘human rights’ and ‘political correctness’ are handy shields to hide behind when you’ve failed at doing your job and want people to not blame you.
No Name – A superb piece of writing from Jack Graham on the Ripper murders and how coverage of them has ignored the women.

And as a more general recommendation, Justin McKeating is back writing on the web again. Go read.

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(Daisy Cooper was the first to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut. I’ve formatted them as she had them in the Word document she sent but not edited them in any way, but please tell me if anything looks wrong. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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