Friday, 29 November 2013

Boris Johnson and the science of IQ

Boris Johnson's recent speech on equality and intelligence helps to show why those in the know rule him out as a future Prime Minister. He might be witty, interesting and above all able to cut through to the public in the way few other public figures can. But he's also a fly-by-night tightrope walker who makes it up as he goes along.

So it is with his mayoralty. So it is with this speech.

Boris (above) posited that there can't be a greater or wide measure of equality in our society because citizens have different levels of intelligence, as measured by their IQ scores. Well (deep sigh). Well. Well. Where does one start with this particular misunderstanding of just about everything that's been written on the question for the past thirty or forty years? It's not that it's elitist - though, as the Deputy Prime Minister said in reply to Boris' rant, it certainly is. Were one to show that there was an ineluctable link between academic ability and achievement, one might think that a bit of elitism in terms of written schooling might be justifiable, if not particularly helpful to the eighty to ninety per cent of children who'd be left out of the grammar school education Boris has been calling for.

It's not that. It's that his science is just so, so wrong. People are of course born to be different. Their height, speed, capacities and acuities are different. So far, so good. But the idea that there is a fixed leve of something called intelligence - well, here there's a parting of the ways.

So here's a thing that Boris didn't say: IQ tests are a joke. Their results shift around all over the place, with children gaining very high and very low scores across time, the same child racing ahead of the IQ 'average' one week and behind the next. There is no one fixed and unchanging quality called 'intelligence'. Here's another point he must know, but chose not to make: they measure a certain type of inside-the-box logic chopping, rather than true intelligence. Want to group things of a certain type together very quickly? Do some rapid maths in your head? Fine. IQ's for you. But if you want a truly testing, questing, flexible, reflexive and creative type of learning - like that the Chinese and Singaporese increasingly worry that their rigid education systems miss - you'll want to throw those tests in the bin and start again.The whole point about the 11+, the out-of-date and derided British exam that relied on IQ, is that civil servants were forced to concede that it had been discredited very rapidly after the 1944 Education Act that helped to enshrine it in British culture.

Here's some more points: there's no evidence that what IQ numbers we do have are related to those of parents. There's nothing to support the idea that IQ is correlated with economic success - quite the reverse, in fact. There's lots of evidence, on the other hand, that IQ-based systems privilege middle- or upper-class ways of speaking and reasoning, rather than the different types of knowledge prized by other socio-economic groups. And that politicians like to stigmatise people of 'low intelligence'. Mrs Thatcher's intellectual svengali, Keith Joseph, did just that in 1974 - evoking a row about the 'underclass' that reverberates to this day. Boris is tipping a cynical nod and a wink to a constituency he knows he'll need if he's to storm the ramparts of his party, and then No. 10 Downing Street.

But if the intellectual case was 'inequality is fine, because it reflects ability' than every single step of that argument is just wrong. False. The opposite of opinions based on evidence. Grounded in nothing. Nada. Squat. Zip.

Perhaps the Mayor of London should do his research before he starts talking - or, just perhaps, exhibit a little more intelligence.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Hurrah for 'Doctor Who'!

If you're reading this in the UK, and you haven't heard that this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the long-running science fiction serial Doctor Who (above), then you've been living under a rock. The BBC has spun itself like a top in endless promotion of perhaps its most iconic and famous show; fans have been driven into ever more fevered paroxysms of speculation.

But it's worth reflecting on what the ever-regenerating, ever-changing, ever-shifting Time Lord has given us over the years since Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman put the Galifryean on our screens. He's been there for most of all our lives, apart from a long, long hiatus between 1989 and 2005, broken only by a 1996 TV Movie. He's thought about and faced the problems of our age, and shown us our society in a mirror that we didn't always like - but which was always meaningful, always sharp and always important.

Have a think. Have a flick back through the back catalogue, and consider the way in which our problems have involved the Time Lord's adventures. There's been the threat of robots taking us over the brink of war, long before Wargames and Terminator in the 1980s (The War Machines, 1966), militarism and the First World War, the same year as the film adaptation of Oh, What a Lovely War! (The War Games, 1969), worries about cybernetics and humankind's artificial 'enhancement' (Tomb of the Cybermen, 1967), ruminations on genocide and ethnic cleansing (Genesis of the Daleks, 1975), the nastiness and solipsism of the 'leisure society' (The Leisure Hive, from 1980, and Vengeance on Varos, from 1985), and finally the madness of the Cold War (Warriors of the Deep, 1984). There were even some great big green worms, unleashed on the Third Doctor by a sinister corporation called Global that was busy pumping out pollution that would soon threaten the world with a great big wave of slime (The Green Death, 1973). Nasty stuff - and totally in tune with the apocalyptic environmental fears of early 'seventies Britain.

The revived series had carried on where the old one left off, going back to think anew about the Cold War (Cold War, 2013), genocide and ethnic cleansing (Dalek, 2005), the nature of justice and revenge (Family of Blood, 2007), genetic engineering (The Lazarus Experiment, 2007) and even urban planning and city life (Gridlock, 2007).

That's one of the reasons we love it all so much. Not just because it's a great big dinner of adventure, excitement, mystery and space travel, with a side order of nationalistic British flag waving to boot. Yes, that's all great. But what's really important is how the Doctor has made us think - and feel - about ourselves for a long, long time now.

Let's raise a glass: hurrah for Doctor Who!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Jonathan Trott, everyman


Jonathan Trott's departure from England's cricket tour of Australia must touch at the heartstrings (above). A dedicated man, immersed in his sport, and famed for his physical and mental toughness in the middle, has been brought low by a 'stress-related illness'. That might mean many things, but right now it means that Trott is hurting. A lot.

We've been here before, of course, for instance when Marcus Trescothick was forced to come home in 2006. But cricket fans and commentators are starting, just starting, to get a handle on a problem that's been dogging the game for years: the black dog of depression. Former captains who were rather too quick with their criticism have apologised, mortified to hear about the problems they've probably exacerbated.

Now, the statistical underpinnings of the idea that cricketers are more prone to depression (and suicide) than the rest of the population are open to question. But there's no doubt that professional sport as a whole exposes men and women to nearly unbearable pressure. Do you fancy your entire professional identity and ability coming undone in front of tens of thousands of people - with many millions more watching at home? No, neither do I.

But there's no doubt that progress has been made, both within a rather conservative game, and in our wider society. Graeme Fowler, who played for England back in the 1980s, has spoken with some bravery about his own battles with depression - struggles that wouldn't have met nearly such an understanding or sophisicated response as they do today. We've come a long way. Senior figures within the game are now just about able to talk about their own 'demons', problems, doubts, worries and fears. We need to go further, because we've basically just come out of cavedwelling ignorance and started talking about depression and anxiety as if they're the same as having hurt your leg. But it's all a start.

It's be nice to think that people might stop hurling ridiculous insults and threats at each other while they go about their business - and hold back before they call each other names. The hosts might look at themselves a little quizzically after this. Quite apart from anything else, Australia's big and aggressive talk before the game nearly came unstuck on day one of The Ashes - and their opponents might regroup and stick together even more tightly now one of their number has been wounded. It's probably a forlorn hope, and we'll probably all be back whacking each other with a little cricket stick in a few days, but hey - it's something to hold onto.

For now, it's worth saying this: lots of people are struggling all the time. It's impossible to live without feeling like you might come apart. You have felt that. I have felt that. Everyone has felt that. Maybe there's someone struggling next to you at work right now. Why don't you ask them? Why don't you talk frankly about your own problems if they ask you? One thing's for sure: the principles of World Mental Health Day - frankness, fairness, compassion, dignity, openness - have never been more relevant.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Remember John Kennedy today

The fiftieth anniversary of President John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas, is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to govern, or to be a leader, or to try to effect policy changes, in the modern world. The image of JFK (above) has often obscured more than it has revealed, for his personality seemed so dazzling to so many at the time (and since) that any historical insights about how he actually governed seem to have been blotted out.

Start with this: he was confident in his own abilities. Rich, tall, handsome and magnetic, he was difficult to know - but self-assured and self-reliant enough to ignore what the 'experts' told him. Many of his military chiefs advised an immediate military strike at the beginning of the near-fatal Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy ignored them, allowing his Soviet adversaries to climb down the ladder he offered them - the secret removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Continue with this: he looked like he knew what he was doing. Through all the affairs, all the constant, compulsive womanising, all the pain from his back, all the chronic illnesses and all the pills, he stood up, smiled, walked and talked like you should follow him. And many did. He understood the power of the image. But it was more than that. He understood (like the present incumbent) that the power of words has not passed away in the era of the big state and the big missile. Indeed, it has become ever more important to give and shape meaning in an ever-more complex world. His extraordinary inaugural address, which has gone down in twentieth century history as the very acme of what a speech actually is, is only one example.

End with this: he understood that you can't get rooted in one political community or one outlook. That can be an intellectual prison - especially for a chief executive, who has to take all arguments and disagreements unto himself for resolution. He talked tough on communism - while trying to negotiate the superpowers away from the brink. He defended the value of the dollar (appointing a Republican to be his Secretary of the Treasury) while trying to break out of the relative economic stagnation of the 1950s. He vacillated and hesitated on civil rights, before finally beginning to move towards the only viable solution - desegregation.

Catholic realist that he was, one of his purest insights was that attempting to erode darkness by degrees, and working every day towards apparently impossible goals, was and is as important as actually arriving at any destination. As he put it at his American University address on the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:

While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both. No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion. But it can... offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race. The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough - more than enough - of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on - not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.

There is little more to say than this: remember the strategy of peace. Remember President John F. Kennedy today.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Grammar schools are not the answer to our problems

Sir John Major's emergence as a new-old type of 'Red' Conservative is a curiosity of our era. Serious-minded, experienced and worried about the type of grey, hidden and grinding poverty often found in our near suburbs, his is an expected but not-unwelcome (re-) eruption into our public life.

This time he's gone for the dominance of the privately-educated in our public life - which, if we look at the Cabinet or the top professions, is indeed just as 'shocking', troubling - and damaging - as he says.

The remedy some seize on, though, is a completely ahistorical fantasy. The cause of the grammar school is being heard again in the land, full of mendacity and historical ignorance about the 'opportunities' granted to 'the bright' by the existence of a test sorting the clever sheep from the not-so-clever goats at the age of 11 or 14. It was the 'system' that was adopted in England and Wales between the 1944 Education Act and the Government Circular announcing official disapproval for the idea which went round in 1965, but which took about a decade to bring this division to an end across most of the country.

It's an idea that's gained a bit of traction in recent months, with the United Kingdom Independence Party taking up the idea, various right-wing commentators writing that the end of selection was only one symbol of the end of meritocracy and our hard-and-fast aspirations to actually greater real knowledge, and even left-wing commentators making clear that selection by house price (given the premium paid around 'good' schools) isn't much of a replacement.

Memo to everyone: grammar schools didn't work by encouraging social mobility.

We only have to look to areas which still have them - Kent, for instance - to find schooling systems much more divided than elsewhere, much more scarred by the use of private tutors, and much more divided by social class than areas dotted with comprehensives.

But we can look historically at this question too. You'd expect me to say that, but studies of children born in the 1950s show absolutely no social mobility premium for areas with grammar schools. We have lots of official evidence from the 1950s that children from poorer backgrounds who went to grammars were much more likely than others to drop out. And it's much more likely that the rising economic tide of the time - and increased equality - helped people escape poverty, rather than the few Latin lessons and blazers handed out to a lucky handful.

You don't have to believe me. You can listen to two (actually very conservative) officials bemoaning the division of the school system at the time, revealed in their private correspondence in (ahem) my new book, published last year:

This country is pouring out its human wealth like water on the sands... A system under which failure to win a place in a selective school at 11+ meant complete and irrevocable denial of the coveted opportunities associated with a grammar school education could not hope to win the support o fparents, and could not survive the day when their wishes could gain a hearing.

Want to pour out our human wealth on the sands? Go ahead, build some more grammar schools. Otherwise - make universal secondary education to sixteen (and now eighteen) work properly. As someone once said: there is no alternative.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Wanted: new garden cities

The news of a new Wolfson Prize for the best new Garden City ideas is welcome indeed. The concept of Garden Cities (above) represented the best of Edwardian social reform, an ideology of national progress that cut across political Left and Right and focused on the health, happiness and dignity of working people. They were to be 'light' and airy, bringing parkland into the heart of the town while spreading small but proud semis out along rivers and lakes. Providing work, shops and amenities in their peripheries as well as their centres. Allowing normal people to aspire to live a life previously available only to the privileged few. That's a far cry from today, of course, when central government seems hell-bent on stigmatising local authority tenants as 'over-occupying' spare rooms they might use as studies or stores, but there you are. The money's on the table. Have a go if you want to.

The real reason we need to think about such new-old spaces is that we have to build more houses. Many more houses. Think: tripling or quadrupling our output. Now. This minute. Look at the numbers: building one million more homes in the next five years will only keep up with demand. At the moment we might 500,000 to 600,000 if we're lucky. At a time when most articulate young people are coming to realise that older generations have grabbed all the deckchairs, doing anything else would shortchange anyone under the age of thirty to an entirely unacceptable degree.

What's happening on this front? Well, the Prime Minister's entirely well-intentioned announcement that new towns and cities were on the way has just been quietly junked. Mainly because Conservative voters in the South-East of England - mostly over the age of thirty themselves, of course - don't like the idea. And everyone else can just live in vastly over-priced boxes in the middle of nowhere, thank you very much.

That's a mindset that will just have to be ignored in the years to come. It's as simple as that.

Now don't think that 'Public Policy and the Past' wants all our green spaces just concreted over. There's no need - especially when golf courses cover more of Britain than housing does. Such spaces could be contained, as the post-war New Towns were. No-one thinks Harlow is about to eat all of Essex, or Crawley Sussex. A new generation of garden cities could be high-density, high-public-transport, bike-laned adornments to our society. They could be visceral, surprising, winding, new-old places for us all to meet, greet, charm and chat - along the lines of Lord Richard Rogers' Towards an Urban Renaissance, published in 1999 but never paid more than lip service in the intervening years of toy-build and low-build.

Come on. Let's build a new city between Oxford and Swindon, between Swindon and Bath, and between Leamington and Oxford. Then let's build more - between Stevenage and Bishop's Stortford, and between Bishop's Stortford and Chelmsford. For a start. Because that's what it's going to come to in the end, and if we start now, we can manage and control the building so that we're proud of it.

We face a housing emergency. We need whole new cities. We can build them interestingly, vividly, brick-by-brick, square-by-square, wiggly line by zig-zag terrace. But we need them desperately. And we need them now.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

HS2: mind the numbers gap

This blog has always been a great advocate of looking beyond the surface of any numerical claims. That's because they're hard to understand and interpret. But it's also because they're made up. In the best sense, of course, in that you've got to build them up from other numbers - with different meanings, provenances, orders and structures.

It's the same with all the claims and counter-claims about High Speed Rail 2 (above), which is supposed to take very rapid trains north of London, to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, in two stages over the next couple of decades.

It's probably - just about - still worth building. No doubt the Great Western to Bristol looked like a big gamble when Brunel laid it out. But it worked - and it still works, with essentially the same line carrying tens of thousands of people a day. The chance to build this kind of infrastructure comes along only once in a lifetime - and in HS2's case, perhaps once every several lifetimes. It will serve as a workhorse of British travel for many, many decades, meaning that the money spent might still be worth it. If its costs keep rising, it might one day be time to pull the plug. That moment doesn't seem to have arrived yet.

But the thing that we can say right now is that you should beware of the traps involved in taking all the claims about its economic benefits too seriously. These have been officially revised down now on so many occasions that it's not worth even putting up all the links. And why? Because the business case rests on lots of assumptions that you might or might not want to make. About how much the time of leisure and business passengers is worth, and the relative merits or demerits of upgrading other lines. About how much work business passengers will be able to do on wifi-enabled trains and on their smartphones. About growth in provincial cities, and indeed the economy as a whole. About the true costs of planning blight. About the mulitipliers to apply to the building work in the first place. And so on - and on. You can plug the data in and get pretty much to where you want to go - which helps to explain the confusion and the doubt around this project, and many others.

It's a pity, really, because it's these indeterminacies that allow the scepticism about everything and anything government tells us to continue growing - an increasingly powerful force in our politics that at first appears far from the apparently-prosaic realities of a train line. It doesn't help that the Government made such a comprehensive mess of the renewal of Virgin's train franchise, in a Yes Minister-style foul-up involving a junior civil servant typing the wrong values into an Excel spreadsheet. But the real challenge to our public policy is far deeper: how can we even discuss our collective choices when even the basis of the numbers are now so complex - and so contested?

There isn't a technical answer. There's only a philosophical and, at one and the same time, a practical one. It's called politics - the art of choice itself.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Getting it wrong - and getting it right

Show your workings. That's what we tell students, in pretty much every discipline that we academics teach. And why? Because if they don't, neither the student nor the teacher knows where the calculations have gone wrong - or where the arguments have gone awry.

And when you can see where you went wrong, you should be able to pinpoint where you could go right next time. So welcome, then, to four times that 'Public Policy and the Past' got it wrong. Forget getting it completely right about Universal Credit: sometimes a mess-up is just as instructive.

1. President Obama's re-election might be a very, very narrow one. A relatively left-wing president (above). A listless and only slowly-recovering economy. A fired-up opposition, with a candidate tacking towards the electoral centre just as fast as he dared. A recipe for a close one, right? Er, no. Sorry about that. In the end, when all the fuss had died down, President Obama was re-elected pretty easily, dropping only one state that he had won in 2008. The lesson? He got out his voters. His team used all the numbers and techniques available from quantitative social and economic sciences - and all the grass-roots force of community activism - to reach every single voter they could. And they damned the Republicans and their candidate for being a throwback to the bad old days. Ed Miliband's Labour Party has taken the former lesson to heart; the Conservatives will try to utilise the second in 2015. It's going to be a close run thing between them.

2. Tuition fees at English universities would put off large numbers of poor students, who would look askance at the huge sums involved. Well, no, not really - or not yet, anyway, at least among full timers. If fees rise successively to £20,000 or more, then overall numbers might fall. The real underlying problem with the new tuition fees scheme in England has always been that it's completely financially sustainable, will land the taxpayer with nearly as many costs as the old one while lumping debt onto the younger generation, and doesn't provide universities with more money even while it charges everyone more. But 'Public Policy and the Past' also thought that £9,000 a year would sound like a lot. It hasn't sounded like enough to put large numbers off. The conclusion? Younger people know what a good investment Higher Education is; but even more clearly, we are still going through a cultural revolution, familiar throughout the developed world, which is making post-18 education an assumed norm, rather than an exception. That's a powerful reminder of how much things have changed since the 1960s, when only a small slice of younger people went to universities.

3. Greece would exit the Eurozone. Greece is still in a mess. It's still getting worse, out in the real economy where jobs, cash and even basic drugs are scarce - even if the Government's borrowing is now beginning to come down. It will go on for years. The crisis may even threaten the existence of Greek democracy. The answer? Well, normally you'd go for the three 'Ds' - default, devalue, deflate) - or at least a mix of them. Iceland has bounced back pretty quickly from its brush with economic death. Argentina came back strongly from its early 2000s crash. This blog has always thought that's what will happen in the end. But Greece can't go down that line. Its Eurozone partners won't let it. And, after last night's failed vote of no confidence in the Athens Parliament, it's clear that her politicians won't force the issue - at least for now. The lesson here is simple: political commitment to the Eurozone, the fear of chaos if bits of it start to break off, and the power of northern Europe's creditors (particularly Germany) are all more clearly intact than we had thought. The European Union and the Eurozone are staying together - for now.

4. The 'Help to Buy' scheme turned out to be a mouse. Banks were quite happy to take taxpayers' money to subsiside mortgages - at a price. The price was very high interest rates on 'Help to Buy' deals, which involve the Government standing behind the deposits of buyers who can't reach the 20 to 25 per cent of houses' value that risk-averse banks want you to slap down on the table these days. This seemed to mean that the scheme would be a bit of a damp squib. Why borrow at between four and five per cent, when you could wait for a year, save more, and borrow at two per cent? Well, the quite rapid takeup of this scheme provides the answer: the many twenty- and thirty-somethings fear that, if they do nothing for a year or two, house price inflation is now such that the door to a homeowning future might close on them forever. So they're rushing in. The lesson here is that the virus of desperate whirlygig househunting, that only way to make any money in the UK, is back - if it ever went away. It's another disaster in the making, akin to the abolition of dual Mortgage Income Tax Relief in the late 1980s, or the secondary banking crash of the early 1970s. No-one cares for now. If this turkey of a policy isn't put out of its misery quite soon, in two or three years voters are going to wake up and realise that they're on the hook for many tens of billions in private debt - while at the same time holding a student loan book that no-one wants. Reducing the deficit? Don't make me laugh.

So that's four valuable lessons in four mistakes - a four-for-four record. We don't recommend getting everything wrong all the time, mind, but a healthy dose of humility - and a good old dollop of analytical revision on the side - can help us see where our assumptions and prejudices end, and where reality begins. What's why we blog: to work things out as we go along; to play around with our ideas as they emerge; and to keep an honest record, in our case, of what we thought history (and History) might tell us about public policy.

In an age that's seeing many sound the death knell of the independent blog, it's not a bad set of aims. Stay tuned for more predictions - and more mistakes.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Could rapid recovery turn into quick retreat?

Not the least of this blog's problems over recent months has been keeping up with the increasing rate of economic growth. We said that recovery would feel like a slog. Well, it still does - and it will for many years to come, if income growth is any indicator. But we thought that GDP figures would be pretty moderate as well, and they're probably going to turn out much better for 2013 and 2014 than anyone would have thought just a few short months ago.

But might this sudden burst of energy lead us into another quagmire? Businesses and consumers have curled up in so much fear and doubt, for so long, that they're now obviously going out and blowing some cash. That's great - for now. But the recovery is just as unbalanced, and just as patchy, as all the others that have led us right back to where we started since the end of the post-war 'golden age' in the oil and energy crisis of 1973. Because for all the talk of 'rebalancing' and 'export-driven growth', this incipient boom looks relatively unsustainable, at least over the medium term - just like all the rest.

That's going to cause a great big headache for the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. The Bank is also tapering off the monetary drip-feed the economy's been on while it was in the emergency room. Soon, and quite soon as these things are judged, it's going to have to start raising interest rates, despite his attempts to signal that he wants to hold out on that as long as possible. Current market sentiment says that this will happen late on in 2015, or perhaps in 2016. If it happens sooner - any time this side of a General Election - then the Government's much-trumpeted satisfaction at appearing to edge us back from the economic brink will evaporate pretty quickly. House prices are one reason. One reason voters increasinly sense that house price rises are a bad idea - despite (of course) wanting their own properties to spiral upwards in value - is that they know that the return of this particular fever pushes the next rung of the ladder - for both themselves and their children - ever further away. But consumers are in a lot of debt overall - which successive Osborne budgets have assumed will rise to offset the Government's own closed pockets. Small rises in interest rates might get us into quite a lot of trouble, quite quickly.

'Public Policy and the Past' offers you two historical parallels.

In 1955 Prime Minister Anthony Eden (above) and his Ministers were confident, purposeful and successful - riding a wave of economic decontrol and growth that put Eden back in Downing Street with an increased majority. Within a few months his Chancellor, Harold Macmillan, came back to the electorate with an Emergency Budget slamming on the brakes. Labour said: 'we told you so'. In 2004 Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, won re-election boasting about his economic record - and the need to return his Liberal Party to office in order to keep rates low. Interest rates than rose, and rose, and rose - for years.

Both debacles did lasting damage to the idea of central economic management. Both might be replayed over the next few years. For returning to office on the back of a housing boom is not the smartest of plans - ask Conservatives with memories of what came after their 1987 landslide.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Universal Credit is dead: someone should have the courage to say so

The Government's reaction to the implosion of its sad - but predictable - Universal Credit debacle is instructive, for it fits exactly into the five stages of grief. First, there's shock. Then, there's denial. Then anger. Then bargaining, hoping against hope that you can put right what's gone wrong. Only then can come acceptance, when the bereaved can move on.

We've pretty much got towards the end of the denial stage now. We're getting to the 'anger' bit, where the well-intentioned but seriously-out-of-his depth Secretary of State lashes out at everybody, including his own civil servants. Government press releases may say that the scheme is moving forward, but everyone knows that it's about as over as New Labour or the Spice Girls - you might hear talk of them now and again, but no-one seriously thinks that they're going to make a comeback. Only one area has gone ahead with the recent 'roll-out' of the scheme's pilot phase, rather than the six planned even on a scaled-down timeframe; all the talk within Whitehall is about moving to an even more web-based system (one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry about this suggestion), or just ripping the whole thing up and starting again.

What that means is that the denial and the anger will pass - indeed, they already are. And then the bargaining will start up and then die away - the special pleading, the pain of admitting all the money you've poured into something has gone up in smoke. The attempts to salvage something - almost anything - from the wreck. Soon, there will come acceptance. After a General Election, there'll be a new government, in which case Universal Credit will get buried, or Iain Duncan Smith (above) himself will get moved on by a reinvigorated Prime Minister powerful enough to move a potential right-wing rebel to another job - or to the backbenches. He'd have loved to do that a year or so ago, of course, but Mr Duncan Smith resolutely refused to move - some tribute to his tenacity, if not to his insight.

Then whoever's in power can move on. Perhaps to address the total failure that is the Work Programme, nearly as much of a blot on the landscape as Universal Credit. Or maybe they'll be able to reconstruct the new Personal Independence Payments 'scheme' for disabled people so that its private assessors don't muck up so many of the cases. Those schemes have an odd curate's egg quality - they are good in parts - but the stench emanating from Universal Credit's corpse is blocking out just about every other idea in town.

Universal Credit was a good idea, in parts. But it turned out to be impossible to deliver, certainly over one or two Parliaments, and probably forever. Our society is just too complex, our computer technology too unwieldy, our frontline agencies too overwhelmed. We should have a funeral, do a bit of mourning, and then have a (sober and dignified) wake. Anything else is just throwing good money after bad.

Here's a memo for the Department of Work and Pensions: Universal Credit is dead. Time to dig it a hole and leave some flowers.

Friday, 1 November 2013

NHS scandals: they'll always be there somewhere

This weeks' official government report on National Health Service complaints makes for grim and depressing reading in places. It's long been time to face a fact that's been staring us in the face: some parts of Britain's NHS can be nasty, brutish, unfeeling and downright cruel. Lots of elderly patients end up herded around, while no-one really knows what to do with them. Lots of people are treated with unfeeling brusqueness, rudeness, nastiness and even malice. No-one can read the case studies from Mid-Staffordshire without shaking their head sadly at the injustice of it all.

Now there are lots of reasons for this. For one thing, cash-starved local authorities don't want to deal with ever-rising numbers of old people, leaving hospitals and doctors scratching their heads as to what to do with them. Hospitals are hardly the place for them, as there's often nothing physically wrong with them, at least acutely: but where are they to go?

The most important insight historians can lend to all this is that we've been here before. Again and again and again. We've had scandal after scandal - and revelation after revelation of poor treatment. Ely Hospital in 1967. South Ockendon in 1972, and Normansfield Hospital in 1976. All of the subsequent inquiries revealed that patients who could be ignored often were, relegated to backrooms and hidden wards, well out of sight of hospital and long-stay authorities who basically didn't want to hear about any problems. 

What were the results? New governmental machinery. In the early- to mid-1970s, a Health Service Ombudsman, still there to this day - who could only look into the administrative side of these questions. New complaints mechanisms, forcing hospitals to take patients' views seriously. New legal rights. Citizens' and Patients' Charters. Commissions and Councils and Boards and 'Champions'. And so on - you can read about it all here, if you've a mind to track through an academic article about it. Where has it got us? Well, care is undoubtedly better overall now - partly because of much higher spending, and partly because NHS professionals have gradually got softer, friendlier and more patient-friendly over the years. 

But none of the formal and governmental changes have eradicated poor treatment. Because they can't.  It's a category error, like a visitor to Oxford asking where the university is while the buildings of its Colleges are all around him.

Only a cultural shift on the ground and in the wards can do that, along with many of the practical and admirable changes to training, treatment, complaints at institutional level, local management and constant vigilence that the Clwyd Report recommends. And an acceptance that, in such a huge organisation, poor treatment and downright nastiness will always be there somewhere. It can be driven down and into the corners, but it can't be eliminated altogether.

That's what the history of these scandals tells us - an insight that might make us worry about the very complex and impossible-to-manage NHS that is being born right now, under which no-one is quite sure who is responsible for exactly what. Will the future really be less risky than the past? No-one seems to know. More patients' rights, and some hard-headed practical reforms, say 'yes'; deep, grey and fuzzy administrative confusion says 'no'.

Watch this space.