Saturday, 22 December 2012

Well, that's it for 2012...


...because it's time for my holidays. That's it for 2012. The year we learned that being yourself, rather than pretending to be something you're not, is the only sure way to popularity (take note, Mitt Romney). That the next UK General Election may well be just as indecisive as the last, and that the Government's economic policy was labouring in dark and dangerous waters indeed. A year that saw a date set for a Scottish referendum on independence. The year of a wonderful Olympics, of President Obama's re-election, and the emergence of a new leadership team in China.

Fascinating stuff. So fascinating, indeed, that it almost seems a shame to leave 2012 behind. But time, though relative, does at least appear to march only in one direction. Basically, The Historian needs a rest.

But never fear: I will be back. I'll be here in the New Year: ready, willing and able to comment on economic policy, Higher Education, history, psephology and bureaucracy. There'll still be a bit of film and cricket as a side-order as well.

Look for another post around Wednesday 23 January.

Until then, Happy Holidays!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Neo-liberalism and 'The Killing'


So I've been glued to Danish TV's The Killing - the third and last series of which has just ended on BBC4 TV in the UK. I won't give away the ending for you, except to say that it challenged expectations - and it's got a lot of people pretty angry.

But what I will say is just how superb the show really was - tense, political, dynamic, characterful. It was feminist enough to challenge expectations of what a woman should be like, Sophie Grabol (above) as Sarah Lund refusing to be pigeonholed in any way whatsoever.

A no-nonsense, dynamic woman who refuses to dress in anything but jeans and a jumper? Taking on and beating men at their own (socially inept) games? Bravo.

But what really came home to me was the way in which the show evoked the crisis of the neo-liberal state, even in social democratic Denmark (where the Left is back in power after a long break). Denmark is often held up as the best place in the world to live, a paradigm for social democrats everywhere on how to combine social justice with economic dynamism.

But what did we find in The Killing? A Prime Minister desperate to keep a shipping firm, and manfuacturing jobs, in the country - and to stop those jobs migrating to China. A shipping boss faced with a crisis of profitability (and a restive board) if he stayed. Political corruption (and payoffs) across the spectrum of a very, very narrowly cast political elite. Public spending cuts undermining the police - and the pathology service. It was all a very bleak prospect indeed.

The Wire, probably the best crime series ever broadcast, took on just these themes - the decline of manufacturing jobs (in shipping, as it happens) in season two, political corruption in season three, and public sector spending cuts in season four. Exactly the same themes. Exactly the same sense of jobs and hope gurgling away down the plughole - leaving everyone wondering just how the hell to cope.

Drama reflecting reality? Charles Dickens, eat your heart out.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Minority governments needn't be rudderless


So last week I spoke at the Treasury last week under the aegis of History and Policy, that innovative group of historians at King's College London who look to bring together historians and policy-makers to mutual benefit. I can't say what was said, really (though there was nothing vastly controversial), but I can tell you what it got me thinking about.

The topic was the 1976 IMF crisis, that paradigmatic moment when a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer (Denis Healey, above) had to 'turn around at the airport', had to go 'cap in hand' to the IMF, had to squeeze and cut public spending everywhere he could find it.

Well, that's how it's been sold. Actually, sterling's decline against the dollar represented a managed 'float' downwards that got out of hand; the IMF had been into the Treasury plenty of times since 1945, and this time they were pretty gentle; spending cuts were small, and soon reversed.

But the myth has won out over the reality.

Anyway, one of the things that was most notable about the crisis was how strong Healey's Treasury remained throughout the eye-watering pressure - through all the negotiations, the tantrums, the Cabinet fights. There weren't that many leaks - well, not ones that weren't made on purpose. Healey's official team - particularly his relatively Keynesian Permanent Secretary, Sir Douglas Wass - stuck with him through thick and thin. And in the end, Labour decided to stay together and enact a balanced economic programme of tax increases, procedural trickery and spending reductions to get through together.

All without a Parliamentary majority.

This time? Well, this Coalition has quite a big Parliamentary majority (of over eighty), but Lib Dem and Tory politicians have been at each other's throats, there's been persistent leaking from both sides, and Healey's esprit de corps seems nowhere to be seen.

Maybe a minority government, struggling through day by day, would be better for governmental cohesion? It's a counterintuitive thought, but it's something to mull over.

With Labour pretty clear that they won't enter a full-blown coalition with the Lib Dems (at least with Nick Clegg in charge), and with the Conservatives shifting away from their partners even as it becomes clearer and clearer that an overall majority is beyond them without boundary changes, we may well get to find out in just over two years' time.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

England's cricketing triumph: a tale of two characters


So England's cricketers triumphed in India. After a really dreadful year of losses, political intriguing, fallings-out and retirements (including of their captain), they managed to finish the year on a high.

Now, I'm not much of a cricket commentator. I'll leave that to others - though, strangely, the most-read blog I've ever penned was on just this subject, way back in September 2011, at the moment when England's Test team officially became the best in the world. Now, that didn't last - after a horrible away series against Pakistan and a miserable home series against South Africa, the new top dogs.

But what did happen was that England didn't then panic. They held true to some of the mechanisms I praised in the autumn of 2011. What were they again? Preparation; planning; uncovering unlikely heroes; unity; ambition; ruthlessness; strength in depth.

After a truly disastrous outing in Ahmedabad, when they were pumelled by nine wickets, they decided to be ruthless again. To rediscover their core strengths. Their resilience. To pick their best team - including two spinners - and to go back to the basics of picking the best eleven for the day. Stuart Broad, ill and out of form? Sorry, but you're out. Tim Bresnan, willing to give everything but still suffering from the repercussions of a shoulder operation? So are you. It was tough: but it worked. And a new set of young players, emerged as well - Joe Root, Nick Compton - to round the picture off.

But at the heart of this monumental triumph (England haven't won a series in India since 1984/85), I offer you another lesson: a tale of two men.

One of them is quiet, and quite softly spoken; doesn't feel the pressure; doesn't even sweat in the extreme heat. He seems like a nice young man, really: dogged, a bit diffident, not particularly outspoken, a matter-of-fact, straightforward, sometimes abashed sort of person. Alastair Cook (above), England's relatively new captain, might be accused of being just a bit boring, sometimes, were he not one of the most successful batsmen of all time at such a young age.

The other man was also vital to England's eventual demolition of the Indians. A ridiculous, smile-you-can't-help-it, talent-fuelled, adrenaline-charged, absurd, breathtaking innings at Mumbai poked the Indians in the eye over and over again, leaving them reeling away from a showman par excellence. Kevin Pietersen - well, what can one say? Loud, abrasive, difficult, by turns heroic and annoying, self-assured, even swaggering, full of misjudgements and makeups. A more completely different character to Cook could not be imagined, let alone picked out.

They are two utterly, utterly different men. But that's one lesson for team-builders everywhere: yoked together, they were unstoppable.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Historians: ponder your meanings!


Sometimes it's difficult, being a historian. No, I don't mean the meetings, the paperwork, the politics. There's no need to get the violins out.

What I mean is the methodology.

Here's a good example for you - hopefully it'll serve as a little parable for early career colleagues and the like, because I hope it's an instructive case. In my new book (yes, you can buy it on Amazon), I quote the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (PM between 1957 and 1963) (above) to show how awed British politicians often were by what I call 'the Scandiavian example'. As he put it while visiting the country in the early 1960s:

Norwegian 'applied socialism' is of a fairly moderate kind and the Government is, in many respects, not unlike our Progressive Conservative Government... [but] I think both Sweden and Norway present the policies which Mr Gaitskell seeks vainly to impose on the British Labour Party. If he were to succeed, they too would win power and hold it for a long time.

Except that I didn't read on properly for - or among - my notes. I've just read Peter Catterall's splendid published volume of the Diaries, and I've been nudged to say that I should have put that quote in a wider context. You know what? I confess that I couldn't read his handwriting, spidery at best (and impossible at worst, due to a First World War wound). So I didn't catch the next bit, which you'll feel (as I do) changes the meaning more than a little:

The unattractive side of the Norwegian 'affluent society' is its increasingly Pagan character. Christianity (they have a Lutheran church) is openly despised, and a sort of vague, materialistic agnostic creed flourises... My speech at the Round Table dealt with this (in a passage about 'How to Fight Communism') and caused quite a sensation...

So a rumination about success becomes one about the hollowness of secular 'progress'. Hands up - I should have noted the disapproval along with the approval (though I make this clear with other examples elsewhere). I'm not perfect. What a shock, eh?

Now, this isn't to embrace historical relativity - to indulge in the 'historical facts are what historians happen to chose' haw-hawing of E.H. Carr's misguided What is History? 'Facts' aren't just what is churned out in the books-and-articles sausage machine. They existed; they exist. But they are in flux, and they are subject to historians eyesight, stamina and archival nous.

Thought you'd like to know.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Democrats can't be complacent


American Democrats probably feel pretty good right now. Not only is President Barack Obama (above) still streaking ahead in the popular vote (leading Mitt Romney by 3.65 per cent and nearly five million actual ballots), but they were able to defy predictions of losses in the Senate. They were even able to win a few seats back in the House of Representatives too.

Demographic trends seem heavily to favour them, too. Who are their voters? Young people. Hispanics. African-Americans. Unmarried women. Which exact groups are likely to grow and grow in size over the decades to come? You've got it - Democratic-leaning ones. In due course, the blue team might be able to put states such as Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia and even the big one - Texas - into play.

But it's not all happy days for left-leaning partisans.

The Democrats face a nasty raft of Senate elections in 2014 - with a series of their sitting Senators (especially in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana) looking highly, highly vulnerable. The odds remain that they'll cling on to the upper chamber of Congress in two years' time - but it might be a bit too close for comfort.

And in the House? Well, only a really, really good year will ever give them control there again. They've actually won the popular vote for House seats this year pretty easily - but due to gerrymandering local Republican legislatures, they've fallen far short of taking over.

And one last thing. President Obama is personally popular, despite the mediocre job approval ratings of his first term. He's an extraordinary man - a great speaker, a calm governor, and a decisive commander-in-chief. His absence at the top of the ballot might really hurt his sympathisers in years to come. Beyond Hillary Clinton (a hot favourite for the White House nomination if she wants to run), the Democrats' bench isn't exactly crammed with talent.

So Democrats can raise a toast this Christmas. But only one. Or two. The third hurrah should go to out-thinking their opponents, if they want to stay ahead.

Friday, 7 December 2012

A horror of an autumn statement


So UK Chancellor George Osborne (above) came out with a horror of an Autumn Statement. I don't have to write very much at all today, really, because the numbers speak for themselves. 

Set aside the pain for average families, which (although those on very high incomes are indeed also being squeezed) will last a long time - especially if you're in receipt of any welfare benefits or tax credits.

No, there are two real horrors for anyone who believes in the credibility of UK government policy. The first: an accounting wheeze, taking Bank of England debt vouchers onto the Treasury's books to make it look as if the deficit is going down. Coupled with putting in cash from a 4G mobile phone auction that hasn't even happened yet, that's a hell of a sleight-of-hand.

And the second? The fact that spending cuts stretch as far as the eye can see - and that no-one believes a word of them. Does anyone out there really believe that non-ringfenced spending (that falling outside of schools and hospitals) is really going to fall by a further 31 per cent in the five years from 2013, after everything's being slashed already? No, they don't - the Institute for Fiscal Studies has termed the idea 'inconceivable' - and the result will eventually be a hit to UK financial credibility as bad as the deficit reduction strategy that's never really worked.

That's why I would say that the Government's strategy is not working very well - if at all. And why it threatens the UK's credit rating. Why? Because we've been left with only a grotesque parody of old-fashioned homilies when an economic policy should be.

It's hurting. But it's not really working.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The brass neck of Danny Alexander



Tax avoidance has become something of a hot political issue recently - mainly because of the tens of billions of pounds that big companies just find ways not to pay. It's a sum, incidentally, that dwarfs (let's see) welfare fraud, or the annual cost of tuition fees, or any number of other political 'costs' that politicians don't really like to tally up. So the Government's keen to bring in some extra cash (and a bit of much-needed popularity) if it can.

That's what's behind the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's tour around the radio and television studios today. Danny Alexander (above), the Treasury's Liberal Democrat number two, has been saying that the Government is devoting just over £150m to stopping up some of the loopholds and rat-runs that large corporations use to avoid paying their fair share towards the cost of austerity.

But it's just a sticking-plaster of an announcement, without much basis in reality, when Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has been absolutely hammered by some of the largest administrative cuts Whitehall has faced (£2bn and counting, since you ask). Struggling staff won't exactly raise a cheer when, having been mugged at the station, they're given a fiver or a tenner back by their assailant's apologist. A spokesman who won't even poke miscreants in the eye by laying out exactly who they are, and what they've been doing. Or even say whether he uses their products.

It's not Mr Alexander himself. He's got only a slim chance of hanging on to his Parliamentary seat at the next General Election anyway - a fact that might help explain his willingness to stand up to his Conservative Coalition 'partners' over issues such as green energy.

It's the principle of the thing - and why American-style 'fact checkers' are springing up all over the place. We can't let 'post-fact' politics take root here, as it has across swathes of the fantastical American right. They called it right when the Prime Minister recently said that his administration was 're-investing' £900m to stop tax evasion. What he really meant, of course, was that No. 10 was intervening inside HMRC to move some increasingly-scarce cash around. It's exactly the same sleight-of-hand that we've seen today, and it's just not acceptable after all the misrepresentations, re-announcements and re-packagings of the Brown era.

The Government is, to be fair, talking about cracking down on notorious tax havens such as Jersey (which has been impotently threatening to sever ties with the UK as a result). And it's got a mixed, rather than absolutely terrible, recent record in the rather cloudy world of international negotiations over tax havens - the only level at which any sort of administrative action will work anyway. So it's not all doom and gloom.

But today's 'announcement'? What a joke.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The sad truths behind the Research Excellence Framework


No-one who's inside British academia will have failed to notice that we're now just over a year away from the dreaded 'Research Excellence Framework' census date - the moment at which UK academics have all their work 'graded'. And yes, it's as silly as it sounds. 

The 'REF' is there to allocate so-called QR funding - money that is given out to institutions, rather than to specific projects, to build research capacity. The better you do, the more money you get. So what are the consequences? Er... Grey markets, game-playing, bureaucracy, absurdist demands, a lot of upset, and, hmm, that's it really.

But let's break things down slightly more theoretically.

The transfer market. What's the first thing that you would do if you were in a middling-to-good research unit and wanted to improve by the census date? Develop young talent? Support your own staff? Yes, that's right, because the Premier League is so good at doing that in the football world, isn't it. Nope. You'd buy in big guns, promise them a lot of stuff - low teaching loads, research assistance, great labs - and then let them do their best (or worst). The whole system discourages in-house development: a situation that's getting worse and worse as funders (and the REF itself) focus on 'internationally-leading' research rather than work that would be appropriate to an academic's career stage. So a transfer market has developed, in which some 'feeder' universities do all the investment (think: Norwich and Reading in the Premiership), and then have the fruits of their labour cherry-picked by everyone else (think: Arsenal and Chelsea). Way to go, policymakers.

Workplace bullying. It's probably the case that not-so-much cash is going to be allocated by this particular round of the 'game'. The Government's strapped for cash, and lopping some REF money off will be a quiet and easy way to find some. But research managers don't necessarily respond to those incentives. They're playing a prestige game - in which the outside world will say 'ah, you got this grade - great' or 'that was a rubbish grade you got'. The university (and the individual) will be made to look bad, both to their peers (academics hate looking foolish vis-a-vis their frenemies) and to prospective undegraduates. Research managers' careers will be built or crushed. In increasing desperation, some turn to the worst forms of workplace bullying - including harrassment and suspension - to secure compliance. There's even a whole blog dedicated to the phenomenon. Really. It happens spottily and episodically - it's by no means the whole story. But it's there, and everybody knows it.

Over-management. Everyone needs managers. Someone has to do the spreadsheets. Someone has to make decisions - unalterable facts that make (for instance) populist objections to 'NHS managers' a bit hard to take. Academics aren't always very good at this sort of thing, and someone has to step in. But the extent to which managerial numbers have ballooned is extraordinary - by far outstripping any increase in the numbers of actual lecturers. Part of this is assembling the increasingly-meaningless 'statements', 'profiles', 'records' and 'databanks' that centralised research assessment requires. It's now got out of hand. It's time to call a halt and re-consider the entire field before the whole system collapses under the top-heavy weight of its own contradictions.

In short? The old Research Assessment Exercise was increasingly laughed at behind academics' hands. Now the laugher is in the open. This REF-as-emperor has no clothes, and after this time around should be consigned to history. Answers on a postcard as to what should replace it (we'll be coming back to in subsequent posts), but this parrot is a dead one.

It's yet another example of those systems I've labelled 'perestroika Britain' - neither state nor market, but an over-audited, over-jargonised, over-managed simulacrum of both, with the weaknesses of both and the strengths of neither.

Time to lay it to rest.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Happy 'Beveridge Day'!


So Sunday marks the publication of the most important social policy document of the twentieth century, bar none - Social Insurance and Allied Services, mostly written by that great Liberal reformer, Sir William Beveridge (above). Radio Four have dedicated a morning's programming to the anniversary today.

In the aftermath of the British (and Indian) Army's first real victory of the war over the Germans (at El Alamein), a more hopeful idea started to steal over the British people after years of defeat and retreat: that they might come through the war after all, and that they might build a more hopeful world after the conflict's close. It was a seismic moment of national change - and created the welfare state that we still, just about, know today.

But that welfare state's come to seem threadbare - discredited in the public mind, whether that's right or wrong, by an association with 'scrounging', with the workshy as well as fraud, and with a sense of entitlement and anger about a bloated and unheeding state bureaucracy.

A lot of that's exaggerated - the baleful fruit of press exaggeration and, frankly, lying.

But it's real, nonetheless. And it's rooted in some reality. A combination of means testing, very high private rents and prolonged structural unemployment in some of the UK's regions has meant that the system has been bent completely out of the shape Beveridge originally intended.

He thought that benefits should be paid at a flat rate, as of right, to all - not on a sliding scale moving up and up the income ladder. That would avoid the trap of dependency - and the anger of people with neighbours who were earning very similar (low) 'wages' to them while not working. Beveridge knew that rents were a problem, and added a 'housing allowance' to his intended payments. But he knew that wasn't a real solution, and large-scale housebuilding to make housing cheaper became the post-war answer to the dilemma of paying more and more money to private landlords rather than freeing people from the poverty that the landlords profited from. And unemployment? Well, Beveridge intended that Keynesian solutions would conquer that evil, meaning that the new system wouldn't have to pour money down the drain of ongoing joblesseness and that 'labour exchanges' would be able to instill a culture of responsibilities accepted for rights granted. As I say: it was an age of hope.

So what would be the answer to widespread villification of claimants really be? Well, these conclusions mean that they're counterintuitive. We should actually spend more: on higher welfare benefits for all, to get rid of a lot of means testing, on much more council housing and housing association building, and on tackling the deep-seated problems of long-term unemployment.

You won't read that from the cheerleaders for the Government's new benefits cap, now will you?

Friday, 23 November 2012

Fear and loathing in the UK


It's hard to write about recent child abuse scandals surrounding (for instance) the DJ and TV 'personality' Jimmy Savile without a sense of revulsion.

Young girls shipped in from residential institutions to Top of the Tops? A widespread culture of abuse? Powerful older men given places to sleep (and sets of ward keys) in top hospitals? What a disgusting litany of failure. It's hard to know where to begin.

But it's important to face these issues square on: and to say, for instance, that anyone who knows their history knows that all sorts of awful scandals riddled the NHS (and most of our other institutions) throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They were never free of them: at Ely Hospital near Cardiff, for instance, where mentally ill patients were treated appallingly. A culture of fear and of authority reigned: to question 'high ups', whether lay people or doctors, was much more difficult than today. The white-coated, technocratic expertise of the welfare state could be a cloak for abuse as well as a spur to reform. We need to be able to talk about these issues, to debate them, to analyse what went on - all of which is hampered by our present sensationalism.

To be honest, things have undoubtedly got better since the apparently dark days of the 1970s. Our culture has changed. We can talk about these issues: and children's complaints or cries for help are less often ignored. New institutions - such as the Children's Commissioners - now look out for (and speak out on behalf of) young people. Complaints mechanisms inside the NHS are now much more accessible and much more powerful.

So why the panic now, rather than when this nasty little archipelago of fear was at its height?

Well, it's partly because we need something to be frightened of. Something for the media to seize on - for Newsnight to try and redeem itself over the Savile case (disastrously, in the case of its allegations about a senior Conservative Party figure). When an experienced broadcaster like Phillip Schofield loses his head and tries to hand the Prime Minister a list of alleged paedophiles on air, you know there's a run on the bank named 'panic'.

I've written about this heightened sense of fevered hysteria before. It's not new. We used to be frightened about 'Reds under the bed' - a sudden communist takeover. Or we lay awake at night worried about a military coup that would see Mr Wilson or Mr Callaghan carted off to the Tower. Or we thought that nuclear war would obliterte our lives with only three or four minutes of warning - witness the absolutely horrifying, and deeply disturbing, TV dramas The War Game (above) or Threads.

Now, when most of those political and nuclear dangers have receded, the 'papers have got to us at our most vulnerable spot - our kids. So we'll cart them around in our big carbon-spewing car-buses, from school gate to party, and from party to home, pretty much ensuring that much higher risks (obesity, diabetes and heart disease) do get them in the end. If climate change doesn't first.

But less immediate, less hysterical, more hidden, and not-at-all stirred up by the Daily Mail, we tend to forget about those much higher risks in favour of a new set of difficult-to-face terrors.

What a pity.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

In defence of political parties


Last week's mayoralty and Police Commissioner elections across England and Wales were, above all, a kick in the teeth for political parties. Voters turned out in part to stop Labour winning the Labour mayoralty, and elected an Independent Mayor; elsewhere, political parties who thought that PCC posts were theirs for the taking got fingers poked in their eyes. The Conservatives managed to lose in Surrey, for instance.

Voters aren't happy with the established political parties. That's the bottom line.

But they might regret taking the plunge for the alternative, if they dare. What was it that Benjamin Disraeli (above), that great nineteenth-century Conservative Prime Minister, said about political parties? Ah yes, this is it: 'Things must be done by parties, not by persons using parties as tools'.

And why? They keep politics clean - because it's hard to effect a widespread takeover of a truly vibrant movement (not that our political parties are all that vibrant, but still). When Militant leftists tried to hijack the Labour Party in the early 1980s, they eventually got booted out - after a very bloddy battle. They have a record you can check up on, and that voters often hold dear - making sure they gave John Major's Conservatives a drubbing four and a half years after that Prime Minister's humiliating devaluation of sterling. They hold their leaders to programmes - most of the time. They connect council chambers and Cabinet rooms to the politics of the neighbourhood. They represent the great currents of opinion. Ask yourself: are British voters' choices really as cramped as they appear? From Respect on the left to UKIP and then the BNP on the right, via the Socialist Labour Party, the Greens, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and a slew of English, Welsh and Scottish Democrats, your correspondent can see plenty of choice.

The effects of this are not all that far to see. Britain is pretty well governed: quite clean; quite efficient; quite disinterested in parts. Certainly when compared to many other European countries. Voters real incomes soared between the 1950s and the 2000s, with a couple of breaks inbetween - though they have sunk and then stagnated since 2007 and the onset of the Great Recession. 

Political parties have been one key reason for this success and sense of continuity. From the Conservatives adapting to Free Trade in the 1840s, to a modern and democratic electrorate in the 1860s and under Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s, and to cultural modernisation since the 1960s, to Labour adapting to 'aspiration' and individualism in the 1990s, they may be protean, chameleon and capable of rapid change - but they carry over their earlier memories and values into those new settings.

'Independence'? I'm yet to be convinced.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Low voter turnout is not inevitable


Today's Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales have seen a pitifully low turnout - down at a ridiculous twelve to sixteen per cent in the cases that have reported so far. Bristol's mayoralty election did a little big better at just under thirty per cent, but not much.

Cue lots of hand-wringing. Parties don't represent anyone, we'll be told. They're in terminal decline - especially as Labour has just lost its bid to elect its own candidate for mayor in Bristol. People are switching off from politics based on class and geography, and they're looking for new solutions - single-issue protests, perhaps, such as that propelling the United Kingdom Independence Party up the polls in yesterday's Corby by-election.

Some of this is probably fair enough. But much of it is exaggerated. We used to be told that voters in the United States (here, as so often, thought of as the very acme of the future) were tuning out and turning off. Except that in every US Presidential election between 1996 and 2008, turnout actually rose (above) - by eight per cent in total by the end of that period. Even though turnout's fallen away again a little this time, all the votes haven't been counted yet, and the numbers certainly won't have gone back to early-1990s lows. Ask African-American, Hispanic, young, female and gay voters whether they're losing faith in the Democratic Party. They're not.

There were lots of other reasons why people didn't want to vote today. They thought of Police Commissioners as an unwelcome American import. They thought that the previous local committee system wasn't all that bad. It was dark. It was November. There were no other council or parliamentary elections pulling in the punters.

Most of all, the supplementary vote system may be easy to understand (once you're told about, which many voters think they weren't) and cheap to administer. But it is a poor way to elect anyone to anything - as voters instinctively understand. It's too tactical - you have to imagine who might come in the top two, and then reserve your second preference for one of them. It puts all your eggs in one basket. And it usually favours the 'big' candidates, who'll always attract one of those two votes if you want one to count. That will often be one of the two remaining big political parties in this country - though it wasn't today in Bristol, with the local popularity and profile of George Ferguson breaking through against unpopular local parties.

Political dealignment? Well, there's some. It's the worst-attended election of all time in the UK. But there are other issues. We need to attend to those first.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

What is conservatism, anyway?



As the US elections continue to reverberate (in my mind, at least), I offer you few apologies for turning to the fate and prospects of the Republican Party of the United States. Their recent candidate for President has now ignited the debate about why he lost - offensively blaming Presidential 'gifts' given out to young people and minorities, rather than his own shortcomings. This is not, needless to say, a great start to the party's outreach efforts. Nor does it offer an enormous sense of humility and grace. But there you are.

As President Obama continues to gallop away in the popular vote (three and a half million and nearly three per cent ahead, and still counting), Republicans should stop the fingerpointing. They should stand back from the immediate blame game, halt for a breather and take stock.

They should ask themselves this: what is conservatism anyway?

Is it conservative to intrude into people's bedrooms? Now, I don't know about you, but the true conservative would say that the state should stop at people's front doors. Disapprove of gay love? Not happy with the variegated shape of the modern family? Tough. It's got nothing to do with you anyway, pal. That's what most Americans think - and that's what small-state, small-government, anti-moralising, anti-condescending conservatives should think as well. As one Bush-era adviser put it yesterday: the next Republican candidate who talks about rape? They should have their tongues cut out before they can do their movement any more damage. In fact, while we're about it - and as British conservative Tim Montgomerie put it the other day - wouldn't it be more truly conservative, if marriage is such a key building block of the good society, to extend it to gay as well as straight Americans as soon as possible? And where does it say in the constitution that marraige is between a man and a woman? Answer: nowhere.

It is conservative to stand by while other Americans are denied healthcare? Let me sketch you a picture of a 'system' any true conservatives should deplore. It sees many tens of millions of Americans uninsured; insurers able to drop children from their parents' policies; and many more millions of Americans unable to leave their jobs or states for fear of losing healthcare cover. Now, you've probably got there before me, but this actually approximates to where the US was before 'Obamacare'. Such a system inevitably cuts into labour productivity and mobility, while assisting in a race-to-the-top costs system that sees hospital carpets and coffee machines get ever plusher (and doctors ever richer). How much better, then, would be a middle way between this and European-style state healthcare - a compulsory insurance system that tried simultaneously to lower costs while covering everybody? That, by the way, is exactly the intention of President Obama's Affordable Care Act - first proposed by the Heritage Foundation, a severely, severly conservative thinktank, and first implemented by Mitt Romney in the state of Massachusetts.

Is it conservative to stand in the way of mass immigration? Immigration is the lifeblood of efficient economies. It brings in job-hungry and hard-working young people, who are likely to have more children than the 'home' population. It fills up pension coffers. It brings in people who want to do all those jobs that rich First Worlders are too prissy to pick up. 'Tough' borders? Not so much. They are breeding grounds for people smuggling, fraud, militarisation and wasteful spending on border police forces that have very little effect on the numbers coming across anyway. The answer? Build fences, by all means (above). But you also need to provide more work permits, and a route to citizenship for undocumented migrants and their families. A true conservative knows that the state cannot, Canute-like, hold back immigration in any case: it can only manage its effects. Accept that, and you're on the path to true wisdom.

So, what are the answers to our three questions? Er, well: no, no and no. Anybody who answers 'yes' to any of these questions is not a conservative, but a mixed-up advocate of that peculiar blend of absolutist, un-conservative religiosity, libertarianism and statism that the Republican Party has become. Burke, Ranke, Disraeli, Macmillan, Collingwood: they'd all have been appalled.

Until Republicans start to answer these questions in the negative, they will continue to toil in the wilderness.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Memo to Republicans: the private sector's not all that


One of the most superficially attractive and persuasive things Mitt Romney (above) said during his bid for the presidency was: 'trust me: I'm a businessman. I can turn America around'. The very fact that the Obama campaign went out of its way to trash this legacy, and pollute this 'successful businessman' brand, shows just how scared they were about it.

Except it's all rubbish. And it shows just what a load of nonsense the whole 'businessman as saviour' language really is.

You know - all those people who say 'yada yada, in the real world, etc. etc.', 'in the wealth-creating part of the economy', blah blah... As they pull themselves up to their full height while resting one arm on a comfortably-ornate fireplace.

So. Who are these successful businessmen-in-politics? Herbert Hoover? Jimmy Carter? Yeah, they were a great success, weren't they? None of our objectively 'successful' British Prime Ministers have been businesspeople either. Churchill was a soldier and a writer, among other things; Wilson a social scientist and civil servant; Thatcher an industrial chemist; Blair a lawyer. Only Harold Macmillan had any sort of business experience (in publishing), and he inherited his company - showing very little interest in it until his long post-premiership retirement.

No, the Romney campaign is a good example of why we don't trust businessmen in politics. And why the 'real world' argument is for the birds. At a time when our corporate elites are out of control, and they've landed us in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s - when they pay each other vast sums for failure, and like to rest on their laurels - we understand this instinctively.

But perhaps we did need another proof.

Behold, then, the disaster of the Romney campaign - only now leaking out. It's an eye-watering set of blunders if ever there was one, all rooted in a view that 'business knows best' - and that government should stay out of the economic affairs. Paying bonuses to campaign staff. Relying on a top-down, father-knows-best computer system straight out of IBM in the 1970s - which then promptly crashed on the day of the election itself, leaving thousands of volunteers bereft of a centralised leadership they should never have needed. Leading 'from the front', with a homely 1950s father figure at the front. The whole thing fell apart when it collided with reality on Election Day itself. What a surprise.

Romney sold himself as a great CEO. In fact, trapped in an old-fashioned view of what the corporate world could do and be, another CEO ran rings around him. A CEO based in voluntarism. In activism. In grass-roots, bottom-up organising. In shifting landscapes, flexibility, and light-on-your-feet co-operation between real people and real communities.

His name is Barack Obama, and he's never run a company in his life.

Approaches from 'business'? Pah. You can keep them.

Friday, 9 November 2012

What the Republican Party has to learn


So - getting hammered, right? Never pretty. No-one likes it, and members and supporters of the Republican Party will be hurting pretty badly today. President Obama has been re-elected, very convincingly - more convingly than I thought he would be, and with a bigger share of the popular vote than even modellers such as Nate Silver predicted. His lead is now greater than that of President Bush in 2004, and may even top three or even four per cent in the end.

Republicans lost ground in the Senate, too. And a little bit in the House of Representatives, though here blatant gerrymandering on both sides of the aisle kept their losses to a minimum, and they kept hold of the lower house of Congress.

What should they learn? Well, and I ask this with a weary sigh: where do you start? Here's five historic lessons that the GOP should take to heart.

Stop forcing candidates to speak with forked tounge. Governor Romney (above) is, by all accounts, a rather nice man in private - and certainly one able and robust enough to serve as America's chief executive. He's also, in his heart of hearts, a moderate - as he showed towards the end of his campaign. But his party forced him to twist almost every thing he'd ever said: on immigration; on tax reform; on abortion; and on health care. They did it last time, to Senator John McCain, and they still hadn't learnt their lesson. Voters aren't stupid. They know when someone's uncomfortable. They know when someone's hiding their true self. And they switch off. This is why voters warmed to him after the first debate, when he suddenly revealed Mitt 3.0 (or 4.0, or 5.0): Moderate Mitt, pragmatic, flexible, even likeable. OK - so his views would still have been to the right of the populace, and he still came across as a starchy plaid-shirted dad from the 1950s, but that's okay. No-one thought Reagan was hip either.

Stop watching Fox News. Fox News is, without doubt, poison for the mind. Its one-track obsession with taking on and defeating 'socialist America' hasn't ended up helping their pet causes much, though, has it? The station's spectacular (and very funny) election night melt-down, during which pundits simply refused to accept the public's verdict, could once only have been imagined in satire or film. Now it's actually happened! You couldn't make it up. But there's a real point here: Republican should stop watching this stuff. It just seals them in an echo-chamber in which the voters care only and forever about the attack on the Benghazi compound; or about Obama's birth certificate; or about the President's remark about 'voting being the best revenge'. Liberals should stop watching MSNBC all the time as well, but we'll come to that when we consider the Democrats' future.

Stop throwing money at the problem. Plutocrats such as Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in this campaign season - and got (hide those smiles at the back) absolutely nothing to show for their blatant attempt to buy democracy. But their massive cash reserves blinded them to a simple truth: it's not the cash, stupid; it's what you do with it. Democrats adopted a much smarter, leaner, data-driven, statistic-drilling approach that wiped Team Romney's efforts off the face of the earth. These financial arms races can, in any case, only end up with a countervailing amount of money pouring in from the other side of American society. Labour unions and citizens' groups, in particular, basically plugged their bank accounts into the Obama cause - as did millions of ordinary Americans who just couldn't stomach oligarchs buying their election.

Stop hating people. Where do we start with this one? Selecting Senate candidates who apparently think that rape can be God's will? They might not actually think or feel this in their hearts, but their disdain for women, and their deeply ingrained wish to control them, was plain for all to see. So no-one should have been surprised to hear the following refrain in return: 'you know what, Republicans? You hate us. So we're going to give you a kicking'. Todd Akin in Missouri ran miles behind Romney in the voting - so even conservative women, who quite liked the idea of a Republican White House, couldn't stand the man. And on race, well - all you need to look at are Florida and Ohio's attempts to suppress the minority vote by changing voting rules and squeezing poll hours.

Develop a populist language that attracts low-income voters. One of the most ridiculous incidents of this whole campaign could be summed up in the headline: 'candidate to voters: drop dead'. What on earth would convince you to seek election among the people - as Governor Romney apparently did - when you think that 47 per cent of them are freeloaders? Why would you want to lead them anyway? Republicans are too rich; too cossetted; and too isolated from the mainstream of working people's lives to understand how they look. They need a great big bath of cold water. They need to reach out to average working Americans, and to start to speak their language. Forget the social conservatism stuff, and talk to real people about their real lives. Most Americans don't want their governors telling them how to behave in the first place - lesson numero uno for a proper conservative party, such as the one David Cameron has successfully led to (near-) victory in the UK.

To be honest, I could write for hours. The Republicans have left behind moderates who want to vote for them, but now have to with a heavy heart... if at all. They're in denial for now, but that'll break. They need a back-to-basics, root-and-branch, total makeover. They need to appoint women, hispanic and African-Americans to positions of power in their party, now. They need to stop acting like a bunch of swivel-eyed obsessives. They need to start cutting deals in Washington, starting today.

They need to wake up before it's too late.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Obama 2012: the winners and the losers


Well, er, erm... I wasn't all that close, was I? But this blog's predictions weren't too far off either, and at least picked who the winner would 'probably' be. It wasn't a bad night for using the following idea as an organising concept:

If Democrats turn up at the polls, the President will be very, very narrowly re-elected. Many swing state polls are assuming electorates that look a bit like the Presidential election of 2008 - younger, less white and more female than others we've got used to. So if the electorate looks like the Republican wave year of 2010, Mr Romney will win quite easily.

But he didn't. Democrats did turn up. Hispanic, African-American and Asian Americans waited in line, many for hours, to ensure that the man they had voted for in 2008 wasn't turned out of office. So did young people and women - particularly single women. You know what? America used to look like an older white man - a father figure like Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite. Now it looks a lot more black, brown, young and female - and lot more liberal and even more left-wing, particularly in the Senate. All those commentators who said 'pah, young people are too busy boozing to turn up'? All those people who said 'minorities won't bother to vote'? All those senatorial candidates who thought that women shouldn't always be in charge of their own bodies? Well, they're the minority now.

You know who the real winners were in our neck of the commentators' and the pundits' woods? The counters. The cool, the calm and the collected. The statisticians. The social scientists. The modellers. The mathematicians. The reasoners. The truth-tellers. Take a bow, Nate Silver; Drew Linzer; Simon Jackman, the Huffpost Pollster's modeller. Take a bow, guys. You were right.

And the losers? Well, this column is not usually an emotional or even a warm-blooded one. It's dedicated to the same reasonable analysis that has carried the day. But forgive me if I shake free for a moment. The losers are the liars; the exaggerators; the crazies; the 'birthers'; the fabricators; the election buyers; the fantasists; the ranters and the ravers; the losers are, in a word, the haters (take a bow, Donald Trump). And the experts who refused to judge the numbers at face value - but saw instead what they wanted to see. Where is Dick Morris now? George Will? Karl Rove? Michael Barone? That 'expert' from unskewedpolls.com? Eating word pie, that's where.

We'll be talking about the future over the days to come - for Republicans; Democrats; and for the rest of us. Where are we going now? Well, and regular readers will know that I'm going to say this, great perils and dangers lie ahead.

But for now, I will leave you with words from President Obama's victory speech. It was a heady brew of that muscular American liberalism - with all its faults and flaws, its evasions and its limits -  that President Kennedy also represented. And it contained the following tribute to that much-maligned concept, the idea of hope itself:

I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism -- the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us, so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

You know what? It's hard to summarise the United States of America more succinctly.

Monday, 5 November 2012

'Calling' the Presidential election


So after all the billions of dollars; all the debating; all the screaming and shouting and hating and fearing: it's nearly all over.

And it's time to make calls.Who's going to win?

Now, let me be absolutely clear: this column, were it to have a vote, would cast it enthusiastically for President Obama, a leader who has hauled the United States and the world back from the brink of an economic precipice. If you have a vote, and you're reading this in the United States, I would urge you in the strongest possible terms to go out and use it - and to back to incumbent.

But I think it'll be tight. Really, really tight. A squeaker. Choose whatever term you want - you get my drift.

Right now, President Obama has a 0.4 per cent lead in the Real Clear Politics average, a 1.2 per cent lead from the website Pollster, and a 0.7 per cent lead on the Talking Points Memo website. Those numbers are unlikely to change much as the last polls trickle in. How did Real Clear Politics do in 2004 and 2008? Well, they were 1.2 per cent adrift from the final gap in 2004, and they were 0.3 per cent 'wrong' in 2008. Pollster, by the way, was also 0.3 per cent off the final result in 2008. Really close; this time, that close to the gap between the candidates means that either could win the popular vote. Statistical guru Nate Silver gives the President an 86 per cent chance of winning that (statistician that I am at heart) I just can't square with this sort of uncertainty. Intrade punters, betting their own money, are saying 67 per cent right now, and somewhere between those figures might be about right.

It'll be so tight that Americans will be up all night - and possibly biting their nails for many days to come (or at least until Ohio counts its provisional ballots on November 17). And arguing about Republican governors' vote suppression in Florida and Ohio: in the latter state, its Secretary of State is trying to chance election rules at the last moment in order to make it harder to understand and comply with ID rules. There is some possibility of an electoral college draw - in which case Governor Romney will almost certainly be chosen to sit in the White House by a Republican House of Representatives - or yet another Supreme Court tie-breaker will be required.

You don't have to take my word for it - you can look at the early voting data, which shows President Obama narrowly ahead (insofar as one can tell) in Iowa and Coloroda - states he won at a canter last time. The early voting figures tell us exactly what the polls do: it's basically neck-and-neck at a national level, with perhaps some key swing states leaning over a little to Mr Obama. Fewer Democrats have voted early this year when compared to 2008 - though enough have turned up to give the President most of the swing states. If, that is, Democrats haven't been cannibalising their election-day turnout. Because if they have, they're toast.

And all this, of course, assumes that the polls are right. Now don't listen to any crazy talk here: their record is actually pretty good, on the whole, as the numbers above imply. There is a small, but non-negligible chance that they are wrong. 'Correcting for house effects', a process conducted by most aggregating websites, assumes that right in the middle of the polling range, there's a 'zero' target that's right. Take that assumption away, and anything could happen. British voters, of course, have their own memories of this: in the 1992 General Election, most polls predicted a hung or undecided Parliament in which Labour was the biggest party. The Conservatives won by eight (count them - eight) percentage points. Mr Romney could do really well with conservatives who don't like talking to pollsters, upsetting the odds: Mr Obama might bring tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking voters to the polls, or appeal particularly to young cellphone users who are hard to reach. Your guess is as good as mine on this one, readers.

In the end, it'll all come down to turnout. If Democrats turn up at the polls, the President will be very, very narrowly re-elected. Many swing state polls are assuming electorates that look a bit like the Presidential election of 2008 - younger, less white and more female than others we've got used to. So if the electorate looks like the Republican wave year of 2012, Mr Romney will win quite easily. There's plenty of evidence this year that Democrats are a bit disheartened by what they perceive as 'their' man's so-so performance in office. Republicans are passionate, fired-up, desperate to get rid of a man they perceive as a European-style socialist at best, and possibly a 'foreign-born' threat to national security at worst. You can see that from tonight's Gallup Poll, which has Mr Obama up three amongst all registered voters - but down one against likely voters. Balance that against the fact that the demographics are changing, and states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and even Arizona are inexorably moving away from the Republican Party as their electorates become more hispanic... And you have a story of anger and pride against the shifting tectonic plates of America's racial balance.

So the bottom line: expect Obama. But really, really don't be surprised if you get Romney, a candidate who gets top marks only for obfuscation and mendacity: but who might become the most powerful man in the world tomorrow night.

That is all. Enjoy!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Nate Silver and the war against statistical truth


Amongst all the noise generated by the US Presidential election (and we still don't know who's going to win) is a very, very worrying drumbeat that's pumping away just under the surface.

It's a war, waged by ultra-conservative commentators. And it's a fight against numbers - even (if you'll forgive the rather embarrasing show of emotion) against the truth.

Their nastiest bile - and some of it has been really nasty and disgusting stuff - is aimed at Nate Silver (above), hero of baseball and poker predictors everywhere, and the author of the New York Times' 538 blog. He's a man who's made his name applying statistical models of the data to predict outcomes - results that he's usually got right. Now he's being accused of arrogantly 'assuming' what will happen in the end, being privy to secret data from the Obama camp, weighting pollsters' results how he likes, and much else abusive and slanderous rubbish. It's all part of a wider picture, of course - that elements of conservative America are spinning off into their own 'post-truth' politics, in which they can question anything they like (so long as it's not their own preconceptions). A world in which they try to undermine voting machines' reputations before ballots can even be cast - though of course Democrats have long had their own conspiracy theories about the voting machines that were used in the 2004 elections.

This stuff matters. You have to understand numbers and concepts of scale to understand the world around you. Of course numbers are constructed, shifting, uncertain - as this column has argued and accepted on many occasions. But that doesn't mean that they're all as good as one another. Still less does it mean that you don't have to be able to put them in context, mobilising actual knowledge (the outbreak of italics is a metaphorical jab in the chest with a pointed finger, I know - but hey, I'm angry).

So, for instance... Republicans have been arguing that the fact that they're ahead in the polls with 'independent' voters, who aren't registered as Democrats or Republicans, means that they're going to do well next week. Which they might. But it doesn't necessarily mean this - because many conservatively-minded voters may now be listing themselves as 'Independents' as 'their' party zig-zags ever more crazily to the far right. Take another example. Republicans have been arguing that they are doing well in Ohio, based on the fact that early turnout in their countries has been very good. But get right down to the ward level, and things look rather different, with Democrats turning out well. It may well be that right-wing journalists have not dug deeply enough into the grainy mess of the raw numbers here.

And so on. And on.

There's one very telling set of details buried in all this - and it's that Silver uses the methods of social science, not the impressions of pundits or commentators. He is clear that he is not predicting that Obama will actually win: he's just saying that it's pretty likely, on the basis of the numbers that we now have, and compared to the alternative. And he's not saying that this won't be close. He's simply saying that, while close, the balance of evidence for predicting victory is (delicately but definitely) on one side and not the other. More moderate conservative voices accept all this, of course, while pointing out that their real problem is with the 'utopian' idea that models can predict the unfolding of the future.

That cod-philosophy to one side, it's important to note that Silver publishes his methods - as do other reputable number-crunchers trying to turn leads or deficits into predictions. He draws on accepted mathematical proofs. He's not alone, with other prediction sites and (something I put a lot of weight on) gambling markets also giving President Obama somewhere between a two-thirds and a 96 per cent chance of victory. He accepts that the eventual result on Tuesday night might be different from what his numbers suggest. They're suggesting a likelihood, and 80 per cent saying he'll win from a model doesn't mean he will. 20 per cent changes come off all the time (well, they come off a fifth of the time). He doesn't change his views (or his model) in mid-stream. He uses data - not the gut feelings that pull us all over the place all the time.

You know what? I prefer his approach to that of the people chucking abuse at him. Call me old-fashioned.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The myth of 'Mittmentum'


The US Presidential campaign continues to amaze. It's a tie in the polls. Swing states seem to lean over towards the incumbent, but early voting makes things look very, very close indeed. Statistical modellers are pretty confident that Barack Obama will be re-elected, but remember that they're still only projecting that by a point of two. It's going to be close. There's no time for the two candidates' lines to diverge much anymore.

We'll be talking about these factors later in the week (including ever-more personal and disgraceful attacks on bloggers who dare to predict an Obama victory), and then trying to peer through the fog of data to 'call' the election (as Americans say) on Monday.

But for now electors should beware anything anyone says about polling. The fog of war has descended, and there will be no 'truths' uttered until Wednesday morning.

Take one example: the much-discussed phenomenon of 'Mittmentum', which is supposed to describe an ever-strengthening tide of support rolling in towards the Republican's election. Republican strategists are saying they're going to win; that the polls are moving in their direction; that they're going to 'expand the map', going into states that Obama won easily in 2008 - such as Pennsylvania or Michigan.

Except that it isn't true.

Take a look at the graph that I've drawn above (click on it for a better look). What do we see? Governor Romney shot up in the polls after his successful drubbing of the President in the first debate in Denver (by far the worst, most disastrous performance by an incumbent in the history of these debates). He really did have 'the big mo' in the first few days of October. That's for sure. But then his position stayed static, with perhaps a teeny, tiny drift towards him until the last week or two, during which the Democrats have begun to reverse the tide a little.

'Mittmentum'? Don't you believe it. It's a mix of a bluff and an inappropriate methaphor. What does 'momentum' mean, anyway? Dictionaries record that the word carriers with it the connotation of ever-building, irresistible, inevitable force. And in politics, nothing is inevitable.

And by the way: you shouldn't believe anything you read that comes from the ideologically-committed from now until you see actual hard data spewing from computers on Tuesday night.

Monday, 29 October 2012

How the Nazis united the world against them



I don't normally watch much television history - it's too much like a busman's holiday. Who really wants to watch car engineering programmes after working under one all day? That's how I feel a lot of the time.

But I did happen to catch BBC Two's Codebreakers last night - which was very good, give or take the usual dramatic and/ or doomladen music and graphics. 'Bletchley's Lost Heroes' turned out to be a poignant look at two experts whose role has often been rather obscured amidst a focus on the deconstruction of the Germans' Enigma naval codes, or the controversy generated over codebreaking hero Alan Turing's disgraceful post-war persecution. Bill Tutte, who first broke the Nazis' top-level Lorenz codes, and Tommy Flowers, who built the first electronic computer to systemise the process, probably shortened the war by a year or even two. Hitler himself used the Lorenz machine, known to the British as 'Tunny' - and which they managed to defeat without having even seen one. And yet neither man was ever really honoured for their key role in the winning of World War Two, for the secrets of Bletchley Park (above) stayed in the dark until they began to leak out into the public arena in the late 1970s and during the 1980s.

For me, it was yet another interesting proof of how the Nazis had united the world against themselves. From Norwegian schoolteachers refusing to co-operated with their occupiers, to Greek Communist and Yugoslav nationalist partisans, from American capitalists to Stalin, from Churchill to Cripps, what the German state did between 1933 and 1945 was systematically cut off every avenue of escape from its dilemma. Nineteenth century German nationalists would have said: don't annoy the British; don't build a fleet; don't fight on two fronts at once; anti-French and anti-Russian nationalisms are your friend. Each and every one of these traditional nostrums Hitler ripped up - giving the lie to A.J.P. Taylor's absurd-but-enlightening contention that the Nazis engaged in a 'traditional' German foreign policy.

And there is one further, and actually rather optimistic, irony. The Nazis thought that they were waging a war against 'weakness' - against the different; the non-conformists; the apparently 'useless'. But who defeated them, at Bletchley Park? Jews; gays, like Turing; working women, employed throughout the Park; oddballs; academic eccentrics.

The Nazis were defeated by the absurdity of their own ideas. Which, when you come to think of it, is a pretty encouraging thought.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The UK's return to growth: two cheers?


So it's official. According to the Office for National Statistics (the ONS), the UK economy is growing again (above). And pretty quickly, too. This column has always predicted that the permafrost couldn't last forever - and so it has proved.

The UK has so many economic strengths - in high-quality engineering, in financial services, in travel and tourism, in education, and (as noted by the ONS today) in the creative industries - that it's been more of a surprise to see it so flat on its back for so long. Despite all its structural problems - particularly in housing, and in providing jobs for young people - you'd be hard pressed to hold this innovative and well-placed nation down for too long.

And there's so much slack to take up. Just so much. Take a look at the graph on the National Institute of Economic and Social Research's website. We're now four and a half years into the worst economic crisis of modern times, and we're still much poorer than we were in 2007-2008. In fact, the economy's smaller than it was even at the end of last year. It's always the same: just when we get the gloomiest, then the sun starts to peep through the clouds. Like in 1992-93. Or 1982-83. Or 1976-77. Once you really feel that you've hit bottom, then you can look upwards.

So slaps on the back and champagne all round, then? Well, not so fast. Growth had been held down in quarter two by bank holidays, bad weather and a royal wedding - and all the ticket sales for the Olympics have been added into quarter three. There's no way in the world that we're going to continue to grow at one per cent per quarter - which would amount to a stellar four per cent a year, of course. What with the Government still hell-bent on its (self-defeating) budgetary masochism, still miles from its absurd one-Parliament targets with almost all the cuts still to come, and with the Eurozone threatening to go into recession, there's a long and a rocky road ahead.

So all things being equal, we'll move ahead now, not so rapidly as we did over the last quarter, but slowly (if erratically) - though we'll be climbing out of a much bigger hold than we might have dug ourselves.

'All things being equal' is the key phrase: no Spanish banking failure, no American fiscal cliff, no deep Eurozone recession, and no insistence on ever-deeper budget cuts. That's a lot of 'ifs', I'm afraid.

This is a bit of a cliche, to be honest, but I'll try it: this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it might just be the end of the beginning.