Sunday, 25 October 2020

Good luck, and goodbye

All good things come to an end – and every blog must too, as personal sites become scarcer and scarcer and professional or hosted blogs jostle them aside. So this is the last of hundreds of posts on this site. We hope they’ve been illuminating, enlightening – and sometimes infuriating.

It’s exactly ten years today since ‘Public Policy and the Past’ started up, and this is as good a time as any to bring down the curtain – because of a suitable anniversary if nothing else, but also because the practice of readable, historical, data-heavy and self-critical reflection is even more common these days.

You can read that in lots of places: you don’t need some amateur on Blogger filling up your day. That said, it’s been a real ride, we’ve learned a lot, and we hope you have too. Today, ten years after the words started to flow (or chafe), hopefully it’s a suitable summing up to look back on what we said, what was right, what was wrong – and more importantly, why. Let’s not waste your time too much – let’s keep it to four headings.

Getting it wrong. First of all, the number one thing any analyst must do is highlight misses rather than bullseyes. These tell you loads more than the successes, because they allow you to pinpoint where each bit of machinery is doing under the bonnet – and where. Exactly why did your prognostication fail to stick? Isolate those precise points in the chain, and you’ve made progress.

Here’s a couple of examples: we thought that Greece would probably be forced to default and abandon the Euro, suffering mightily as it was under its ‘structural adjustment’ programmes, to the extent where neither the European ideal nor economics itself made any sense any more. That didn’t happen. Its elites and people were too committed to Europe; the leap in the dark (and the nightmare of organising) embodied in a new Drachma was just too much. So far, so much learning.

Another example is university tuition fees. We thought that very high fees (of which more later) would put students off, particularly those from low-income or non-traditional backgrounds. This just wasn’t right, and that tells us something again: the social revolution from below that is swelling student numbers is perhaps unstoppable. Put that together with the coming demographic bulge in the number of 18-year olds, and as you read people moaning about how big universities have got you should know this: they are likely to get much, much bigger in the years to come.

Elections. Here we built up a fairly creditable record, with one major blemish. As you’ll all know by now as you refresh Nate Silver’s 538 again and again, if you aggregate polls and then apply them on a curve in probabilistic manner, you’ll get quite close to the final answer – if there isn’t a shock applied to that system from ‘outside’, and if the collection and compilation of those numbers are right in the first place. Big ifs, but them’s the breaks.

So again and again and again we said that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party was just not doing well enough on any historical metric – by-elections, polling, leadership ratings – to win the next General Election. We were vindicated in 2015, though that didn’t exactly take Nostradamus, did it? We struck a good balance about the 2012 Presidential election in the US. We treated Trump seriously from the outset, which was an important win, and we spotted the potential for a Hung Parliament in the UK General Election of 2017. All very pleasing. It’s a B+ rather than an A-, because between late 2017 and late 2019 we also thought Labour could win any new election. But more of that below.

Universities. This is where we started, really, all those years ago, so it’s pleasing to loop back and look at what we said. What was that? Analysis that now sounds wearyingly familiar: that the university funding system set up by the Coalition in 2010 was a Doomsday machine that could eventually blow up the whole sector. Not particularly because of high fees themselves, but because the Government was itself meeting the upfront cost of a big-ticket item that now had all its wires exposed, and would become more and more unpopular (as well as unsustainable) over time.

As the cost of university education rose and rose – necessarily, as technology improved, resources got pricier and pricier, and a generation of worn-out buildings had to be replaced – politicians began to realise that they couldn’t let the fee go on ballooning outwards (it became especially onerous once the Office for Budget Responsibility insisted the cost be added to the Government’s debt).

So Theresa May froze the fee in 2017, and set the scene for an ongoing crisis which will eventually see British Higher Education implode like a bad soufflĂ©. If more money doesn’t appear soon, an increasingly toxic and unhappy sector will slide into mediocrity and worse via the medium of open industrial warfare, a brain drain and widespread redundancies even as student numbers rise. Slow handclap, everybody.

Corbynism. We got the impression everyone enjoyed our writing about this benighted topic. We didn’t. It was horrible. A load of screaming and shouting in a room that had never exactly been calm, but had not for decades been full of such angry and exclusionary adulation either. ‘Behold the man of peace!’ they shouted as they hustled and jostled and lied and failed. Anyway, it’s all over now, as predicted here, and as analysed here. Exactly what we’d warned and warned and warned about – an electoral asteroid hitting the planet – did in the end make Earthfall. It wasn’t pretty.

Except, for a while, we did believe that Corbyn-Labour could make it into government – for two reasons. Firstly, the Conservatives were very divided, and for a time in 2019 looked like they might split altogether. They didn’t, as we should have known from a long history of their lack-of-principled success in hanging onto power. The Tories do split – and they did in 1846 and to a lesser extent 1904 – but usually they don’t. This time, they splintered less than Labour, with inevitable consequences.

Secondly, we probably went far, far too easy on the Corbyn experiment. This was not a matter of electoral expediency: of the fact that it was rather less than likely to win Labour an election. This was a moral question. Even as we raised the red flags (or perhaps the pink banners of social democracy), we excused Corbyn for his past associations, his narrow-minded prejudices, his self-indulgence. We held back from passing a judgement of institutional racism, and probably we still would – cautious, and maybe too tentative. As usual, the electorate knew better. The lesson, as so often, was this: believe everyone when they show you, not tell you, who they really are.

So that’s the end – but an end long prepared for. Perhaps the thing to leave you with is the long view. You scroll through Twitter, you look at people’s shock (and awe) on Facebook, it looks like a doomy world is falling to bits. Right now, in the time of Covid, it really, really feels like that – and perhaps nothing will ever be the same again.

But in the macroscope beyond the individual pain and tragedy of Covid or welfare ‘reform’ or endemic structural racism, things probably will chunter on – and probably go on getting a little bit better. We’ve been here before, many times, in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, or the polio terrors of the 1940s and 1950s, or the fascist attack on democracy that lasted from the 1920s to 1945, or under the shadow of the bomb during the Cold War. We made it through then, and we can make it through now – bolstered in tiny part by greater reflection, more self-criticism, better statistics, cooler heads, and most of all the exposure of the charlatans among us.

On that note, and those recommendations? Thank you so much for reading, good luck, and goodbye.

Friday, 25 September 2020

End of the line for universities?

When the bough breaks, it breaks big, and the fall of the limb exposes all the weakness and the rot within. That’s what’s happening in Britain’s universities at the moment, as they look on at the situation in Scottish Higher Education in a state that hovers somewhere between worry and panic.

Thousands of students are now isolating, a small number are sick, and both undergraduates and postgraduates in both Scotland and areas experiencing chronic coronavirus outbreaks – in Manchester, for instance – are now subject to draconian measures not previously known in peacetime.

In Scotland, students can’t socialise outside their household, can’t go to the pub or a bar, can’t go back and visit their parents, have very little face-to-face contact with their lecturers, and are being threatened with harsh penalties if they dare to step out of line. There’s even swivel-eyed talk that students might not be allowed to go back to the parental home at Christmas. This despite everyone on Planet Earth (as opposed to Planet University) could see this crisis coming a mile off, and said so.

But, in truth, some sort of reckoning has been coming for a very, very long time. Britain’s Higher Education system is experiencing something close to an existential crisis, perhaps even a moral or spiritual meltdown, because it no longer knows what it is for or where it should go. It’s not that it can’t locate itself. It no longer even has a map.

You only have to listen to actual academics who work within the system to hear the warning sirens that something has gone extremely awry. You could read this piece by British-German academic Ulf Schmidt, in which he deploys quite bitter and emotional language to describe his disenchantment with Britain’s universities, and indeed his move ‘back’ to Germany. Just actually walk in someone else’s shoes for a moment:

Britain’s cherished higher education sector, once the envy of the world, is on the brink of collapse. The humanities were world leading – and still are in many areas. Scholars in English literature, creative writing, the arts, languages, history and philosophy were acclaimed across the globe. But now the sector as a whole is bankrupt, not just financially, but morally. It has lost its integrity and seems unwilling to engage in critical reflection about the causes of this unprecedented malaise.

Or you could open the pages of the London Review of Books, and peruse Malcolm Gaskill’s long farewell to the academy he’s worked in for most of his life. He’s recently taken early retirement, partly because of the severance deal on offer, but he was worried about how his colleagues would see his retreat from higher learning.

But what did they say? We all wish we could go too, but we feel we can’t – either because our professional identity is bound up with the world of books and papers and conferences, or because we can’t afford it, or because we just don’t know what else we’d do. The constant refrain? That was predictable: ‘it’s no fun any more’. And indeed, a great deal of light seems to have gone out of our Higher Education system.

There are many reasons why such a toxic situation has developed, and some of them are hugely under-written. We talk a lot about ‘commercialisation’ and the ‘neo-liberal university’, rightly in some ways, but also in very general terms that don’t help us really use the argumentative scalpel rather than the sledgehammer.

The effect of high fees on universities has for instance been far less than lifting the cap off the numbers they can all take. The quasi-Graduate Tax brought in by the Coalition government in 2010 made much less difference to the way universities operated than the crazed scramble to grab hold of ever more students since the cap was lifted for the 2014/15 academic year. So if you’re blaming the ‘neoliberal university’, it depends what you mean.

It won’t have escaped your notice, either, that it’s the Scottish system that the coronavirus debacle has hit first and hardest: a sector without undergraduate fees, and with far less competition than in England, but also afflicted with that strange mix of conservatism and commercialism which actually characterises Britain’s flagging universities.

There are plenty of culprits. The increased rent and fees that universities can bring in, in a highly financialised property market, has turned their heads. Datafication and the reduction of students to single pages of interrelated numbers is another silence we don’t address much.

Pretty random selection and promotion criteria for management, inherited from a previously planned system and not made up under ‘neoliberalism’, are also highly corrosive. Some university managers are superb: some of them, well, they are as crass as they are unheeding.

This stuff matters, as it filters down or spreads out from the university’s centre. One thing it does it raise the principal-agent problem: the cracks and faultlines and perverse incentives that spring up in the space between one set of actors (the ‘agents’, in this case heads of universities and Ministers) and another (‘principals’, for our purposes here the teaching infantry on the front line).

After a series of long and bitter strikes, many lecturers have come to see the agent class as a problem: as a very highly paid caste of individuals who are out for themselves, either in terms of hopping to a ‘better’ institution in a deeply hierarchical profession, or while topping up their pension pots while the sector’s scheme is in crisis, or just in bashing the staff for apparently no reason.

Coronavirus has made this worse, too, because many lecturers deeply resent – and some are extremely anxious about – a return to face-to-face teaching with the single biggest infected age group in the country by far. This is especially the case when universities have a completely viable, and indeed in an age of social distancing easily the most practicable, alternative open to them: online teaching.  

Another hard-to-negotiate maze looms into view here, and it’s again familiar from game theory: the hard puzzles of co-operation. It has not escaped anyone in the sector’s notice that, faced with instructions to go in and teach – even when people are in their sixties, or have chronic conditions, or are rightly or wrongly petrified – many lecturers are voting with their feet.

It’s easy: you just say you’ve got a cough and you can’t get a test. Who’s going to check? Indeed, who can check, or has the time to check? It’s easy: you just say you’re teaching the module online, and you challenge Head of Teaching or Head of Department to say different, now it’s started. It’s easy: you get your union rep or doctor or friendly lawyer to write you a letter and watch your line manager fold.

Except, of course, that the more powerful you are, the more likely those techniques are to be successful: another calculus that challenges lecturers’ self-image that they work in a sector that has more moral heft and normative grasp than the private sector. Reader, they don’t, and the realisation that they don’t is administering hidden damage as it runs through the concealed wiring between feeling and performance.

It is furthermore not a good place to be when institutions that rely on social capital and goodwill need every ounce of those qualities now. Still, after the push has come the pull. After being told to put on a smile and welcome students back, the game theoretical defection of the agent is now being followed by the class defection of the principal. What goes around… comes around.

None of this is actually most managers’ fault. Just as they have been abandoned to coronavirus by a government that firstly couldn’t care less whether most universities shut or expanded, and in fact might welcome a tussle with unpopular educators, they have been put in an impossible position. Without more money to navigate the crisis in front of us right now, they had to open back up as best they could, or lose students to competitors willing to tell better stories than they can.

As in the microscope, so the macroscope. Managers can’t help it that Ministers have told them to get in the barrel and fight it out for student numbers. They can’t change a world in which they are the punchbag for populist campaigns against the ‘woke campus’ – whatever that is. They can’t walk back the revolution in Public Relations or data or the New Public Management. They’re stuck too.

Even so, what all this means is that the inside of a university now looks like a particularly arcane M.C. Escher lithograph. They are deeply unhappy places. Many academics are now experiencing a slow-motion run into the sands which is very familiar to students of clinical depression, and there’s an article to be written about that all on its own.

Academics tend to be rule-governed achievers. They’ve jumped over hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. They can’t stop doing it, so when a government or a manager asks them to leap yet another high jump, they say ‘how high?’ and ‘how many?’ But that’s a wasting asset: there’s only so many years you can do that before it degrades your mental health. Academics also tend to prize order and security over reward. Now they can’t control coronavirus, or their own workload, they blame their employer, the system – but most of all, they blame themselves.

‘Look after yourself’, says the faceless employer over email: ‘take a break’, ‘do some cooking’, ‘go for a walk’. Then, just after that vanilla-scented parcel of joy has been received, another twenty or thirty messages arrive and another couple of overlapping Zoom meetings start. Many colleagues wonder: when am I supposed to look after myself, and when am I meant to take all these breaks? As they look out of the window and realise it’s already dark. A tiny and unaccustomed voice starts up again, in the whisper that accompanied the withdrawal of face-to-face co-operation: stop. Just stop.

Continuously, they just get a bland stream of emails as if everything is fine – cheery missives about online seminars and conferences, exciting initiatives, new hires and future plans. That makes everything worse again. Because everything is not fine, it can’t be made to be fine, and it isn’t going to be fine for some time to come. Being advised to do some yoga and some breathing exercises won’t make it fine either. The tiny voice continues: you’re not actually valued at all.

For many academics, and we’re talking impressionistically and anecdotally here, the present crisis only brings the multiple facets of the kaleidoscope together into one single picture. That picture says, in an ever-louder tone: somewhere, somehow, the joy of teaching and learning and finding out got lost.

Watching the sector treat students like the spread of coronavirus is somehow their fault is for many the last straw. Two or three decades of increasing bureaucratisation, managerialism and jargonisation, all of it inculcated and internalised via hierarchies, isolation, hoop-jumping and a simply unsupportable culture of overwork are now coming home to roost. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes moment: the second that university staff and students realise that the stage of empathy is empty.

Maybe the coronavirus situation on campus will be brought under control. It’s certainly not too late to do that, and large swathes of the country are still fairly Covid-free. Maybe students who are locked down can be protected and encouraged the way they would be in a ‘normal’ year.

But the gamble looks to be going really wrong, and it’s exposing what everyone knew and has been trying to raise big red flags about for years: something within the state of Higher Education is deeply, deeply rotten. That is bruising lecturers, hurting students, and harming the country itself. It’s probably too far gone now to be salvaged for what it might have been and what it still could be, but we could at least try.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So there is now only more monthly blog to come. Hopefully it will be a good one...

Saturday, 15 August 2020

The end (for now)...

That's it for now - there's no 'Public Policy and the Past' blog entry for August, because it's holiday time! Well, if one week away - with your laptop - is a 'holiday', though it probably does count given what everyone's gone through over the last few months. With the British government still facing its greatest crisis since the Second World War, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report into the Labour Party soon due, and Higher Education on the precipice, this blog will be back in September for just a little while yet. Hopefully that will help to make just a little bit of sense from it all, if indeed any can be made. Happy August!  

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given this traditional August break, there are only two more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones...

Friday, 31 July 2020

Should university really prepare you for a job?

Language matters. It reveals what you’re really thinking. It displays some of the mechanics of how you’re thinking. It shows off to the world not only what you want to say, but also quite a lot about what you're trying to leave unsaid. Imagine how depressing it is, therefore, if you work in Higher Education and you have to listen to Ministers – actual Ministers of the Crown – speak in the most deadening, heavy-footed, depressing way about a sector they barely perceive as it is, let alone understand.

To that end, let’s take a look at two significant recent speeches about England’s universities from the Education Secretary (Gavin Williamson, above) and the Higher Education Minister (Michelle Donelan). Take your eye off the ball of policy for a moment – lest you get carsick at what we are supposed euphemistically to call the challenges ahead – and look at the way they speak.

First, Donelan, whose speech was surely much more interesting for how it expressed disappointment and frustration than it was about true opportunity:  

Today I want to send a strong message – that social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university. For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals. True social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path.

There you have it. University is all about ‘courses that… improve… life chances or help with… career goals’. For Ministers, ‘social mobility’ is about the ‘desired destination’: end-points defined in relation to those self-same and critical ‘career goals’.

Next, Williamson, a man whose contact with reality is tenuous at the best of times, but who surpassed himself recently when he gave a ‘speech’ along the same lines:

I don’t accept this absurd mantra, that if you are not part of the 50% of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50% who choose another path. It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really, they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment. Especially when the evidence demonstrates that further education can open the doors to greater opportunity, better prospects and transform lives.

The emphasis on the importance of Further Education is absolutely right (though Williamson’s own government has done its own part in gutting FE of meaning and purpose). But take a look again: FE and HE are just two ‘different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment’. That’s what ‘greater opportunity’ and ‘better prospects’ mean.

Now, had we once been sacked by a Prime Minister for endangering national security, and were our chief claim to fame owning a pet spider, we would keep quiet about ‘skilled employment’ and ‘better prospects’, but leave that to one side for a moment. What’s really bothering you, and by the way us, when you read all that?

Yes, it’s the soul-enervating, grey-tinged, narrow-horizoning of the whole lot. It looks like a Paul Nash of the consciousness, and not one of those uplifting ones from the 1940s about the ultimate victory of democracy. Oh no: it looks a lot more like a load of that crazy-paving mud and blasted treescape he started with in 1914-18.

Let’s get this straight. University does not exist to get you a job. It does not exist to smooth your path into the workforce. It does not exist to give you some skills. It does not exist to help your employer. It does not exist to ‘open up opportunities’. It does not exist to lift your salary. It exists, only and ever, to learn with you - to experience with you the moment, as the Goldsmiths academic Les Back puts it, where the 'luminous fragments' of your past experience and present knowledge fuse.

We’ve recently been taking a look at some actual ideas about, and voices from, Higher Education. Needless to say, the actual insights involved (and looked at a bit more theoretically here) are by some way more heartening, and just a little more uplifting, than the management gobbledygook Donelan and Williamson read out from the teleprompter.

Let’s look at Lowborn, Kerry Hudson’s memoir of growing up poor across England and Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s. What does she say about university, at the end? Inspired by an extraordinary teacher, she decided to give it a go with her BTEC in Performing Arts. Check the different cadence, tone, words, intent:

I decided I would achieve the highest grades I cold… My audition speech was Lady Macbeth decrying the permanence of the stains of her mistakes that could never be washed away. I got an unconditional offer to start university in London. I finally made my way to the big city that seemed to promise everything, but most of all a future with wide horizons and choices that would be mine. From that moment onwards, I started running and didn’t look back. Until this year, until I was ready.

Or we could check out Deborah Orr’s extraordinary autobiography, Motherwell, so lived and vivid that it makes you astonished that she isn’t still with us. Orr had a difficult time at St Andrews, to say the least, struck for one thing by (shall we say) the class divides of the place, but despite her parents’ doubts she made it through and she got her degree. How did she become one of the best writers of her generation? It wasn’t through the skills panel in her module handbook. There was chance, experiment, serendipity, busking it, wondering, hanging about. Listen:

When I was at St Andrews I did two years of English, two years of philosophy, one year of modern history, one year of medieval history, one year of social anthropology and one year of Arabic culture. The last – which I signed up for as everyone said it was really undemanding – has probably been the most useful. Bizarrely, although I never went to lectures in my own subjects, I’d slip into history of art lectures sometimes, because I could see the point of those. Even St Andrews, so fantastically traditional when I was there that it was compulsory for English literature students to learn Anglo-Saxon, had embraced the Kodak Carousel… The loose crowd I eventually ended up in [were]… some former students who’d never left, some ‘townies’ attracted in rebellion to student life – sex, drugs, rock and roll. Also – Barleycup – a vile coffee substitute – plus macrobiotic food, the I Ching and shiatsu massage.

Lastly, because the point hopefully now looks pretty obvious, Tara Westover – now an academic and writer, but in the 1980s to the early 2000s an emergent talent torn between two worlds. Her Mormon background and faith, her tough and trying upbringing in conservative Idaho, clashed with her university education (and eventual place at Cambridge) until she had what might be thought of as an epiphany. This is how she remembers meeting Jonathan Steinberg, eventually her Doctoral supervisor:

I mumbled something about historiography. I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement – since realising that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected – a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a… process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed on was not the history I had been taught… In knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it.

See the difference? On the one hand, the stifling constraints of the instrumental, and therefore meaningless, demands of use and usefulness. A managerial process that has deep roots: in Human Capital Theory's view that education is investment, in just those economics of social capital, and in the needs of Departments of Education the world over to get and keep their share of scarce budgets. It's an argument likely to prove a diminishing asset, even in its own terms, but it's still an argument. Still, on the other hand, it's challenged by a far greater contrast and enemy: actual life, real life, the warmth of feeling hopeful, optimistic, sharing, world-shifting, outward-looking. The feeling of being changed, with and alongside others, and not just individually. Expressed in a language of being changed that feels true, and not part of some tendentious simulacrum.

The university exists not to serve the one, but to give voice and rise to the other: to the glorious risk of education, its grand adventure, its sense of an opening, its stealing of a fire, and – following Westover – its moment of revelation. Government has forgotten that, if it ever knew it. You should not.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given the traditional August break, there are only two more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones...

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Where is Scotland going?

It may have escaped your notice, what with an ongoing, world-encircling and panic-inducing pandemic, but the British state has not escaped its many crises. Coronavirus can blot them out, accentuate them sometimes, light them up always: but it has not made them go away.

The most immediate of these is of course Brexit, and the extent to which the United Kingdom should or can pursue a deep and abiding deal with the European Union – not just on trade, but on health, education, travel, security and more. A deal is still quite possible, perhaps even likely, but it’s not on the table yet.

Beyond that, the next and even more daunting mountains – holding the state itself together. Most people have understandably got their attention pointed away from constitutional matters at the moment, but prospects for the cause of Scottish independence are looking brighter and brighter. That will cast a long pall over public affairs for some years to come.

Polling reveals the pro-independence camp to be at an all-time high. Where they were toiling at the end of last year, posting results of between 38 and 46 per cent, they now ride high, hitting 50 per cent in the latest Panelbase poll – a lead of seven per cent over Scotland’s unionists. And there’s more to it than the numbers: the cause of the union looks weaker, less enduring, more threadbare as the months tick by.

It’s not just that the young favour independence, though they do indeed feel like that – in huge numbers that make the world ‘landslide’ look a bit puny. It’s that Scotland’s No campaigners are now leaderless, rudderless, divided and just a bit punchdrunk. Increasingly, they just look like they’ve had all the fight knocked out of them.

The ruling Scottish National Party have colonised most of the civic institutions that used to be Labour’s for the asking. The three unionist parties hate each other almost as much as they do the Nationalists. Without Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives’ energetic leader up until 2019, Scottish Tories look colourless. No-one has so much as seen Scottish Labour’s leader for years.

Most of all, the present context helps the SNP no end. They basically have no opponents. A seemingly endless succession of Conservative governments in London boosts their case that ‘progressive’ Scots ought to want out of the Union. UK Labour’s unpleasant and unending civil war threatened, up until early this year, to make Labour the quintessential nasty party. The Liberal Democrats have just missed another gilt-edged chance to break into the really big time, just as they did in 1974, 1983 and 2010.

Most pressingly, coronavirus itself has boosted the SNP’s fortunes even further. Crass as it is to say this aloud – and the whole deadly mess weighs on all of us – Scotland is perceived by its voters to have done better than ‘England’ in the fight against the virus.

That’s not always fair. Scottish public policy has been all over the place. Care homes were left unguarded. Testing has been chaotic. Schools policy has veered all over the place. Scotland’s per capita deaths are not all that far behind England’s.

But two factors have made the Scottish public’s ‘rally round the flag’ focus on the Saltire in Edinburgh and not the Union Flag in London. One: First Minster Nicola Sturgeon is quite simply a much more plausible figure than Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Agree with her or disagree with her – and this blog does not believe that secession would be in the best interests of Scots – she somehow manages to be both more nimble and more weighty than that bloviating try-hard in No. 10.

Then, point two: Scotland has deliberately emerged out of lockdown just that little bit slower than England. It is not clear that this will make much difference to the prevalence of Covid-19. Frankly, all the ‘facts’ are slewing about journal pre-prints right now. But what it does do is create some bright yellow water between the SNP and the blue team in Downing Street.

As Johnson struggles to hold together a national consensus around reactivating the British economy (and, let’s face it, four national consensuses), his numbers sag back towards normal dislike: Sturgeon’s, and her government’s, soar. It’s not particularly fair, but hey. Nothing is, in the end.

And so the SNP will likely win an overall majority again when we get to next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, just as they did in 2011 (but failed to in 2016). That’s not certain – nothing is, in the age of the pandemic – but it looks pretty likely right now. That will set off yet another existential crisis for British politics. Stop us if you’ve heard all this before.

Holyrood will call for another referendum on independence. It will not even have been seven years since the last one. Like buses, referendums all seem to come bunched up together. But who can really say that the mandate won by David Cameron in 2014 has not run out, after everything that’s happened? The prospectus for the Union now seems fundamentally altered, not least because now it does not involve staying in the European Union.

The Scottish Government will, even so, now run into a problem. That’s because they can’t legally hold a referendum – not without a so-called Section 30 Order under the devolution legislation gaining permission for such a plebiscite from the UK’s central government. It will be at this stage that the long-running and chronic nature of this likely crisis may become apparent.

It will not be in Johnson’s interests to give way at this point. As the economy drags itself out of the coronavirus slump – if we’re lucky – and as his own government reaches mid-term after eleven years of Tory power, he is hardly likely to risk it all on a completely reckless gamble ‘north of the border’ (as he no doubt thinks of it).

If he lost, he would have to resign. And there is nothing, nothing in this world more important to Boris Johnson than Boris Johnson. Not his dog. Not his cardboard buses. Not his many indiscretions. Being Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, is all there is to the whole puppet show.

Nor will his small cadre of Vote Leave ideologues willingly give up the levers of power in Whitehall and Westminster for what they must regard as a sideshow and a bore. Their mission is, firstly, to rewire the British state to conduct single-shot missions of scientific and industrial renewal, and secondly to push back against the long hegemony of left-liberal ideas in the cultural and intellectual sphere. Who cares about Scotland when you’ve got those pieces on the table?

So Johnson will just say ‘no’ – and keep on saying no, all the way up to and including a General Election. What’s that, we hear you cry? That would be a democratic outrage? Well, let us introduce you to: the Prorogation of the last Parliament; voter ID laws; attempts to diddle shielding Members of Parliament out of their voting rights: and so on.

There’s a second reason why you’d let the SNP keep calling for a new referendum on independence. And that’s the way it gives you a wedge issue in England. You can warn against a Labour government reliant on the ‘foreign’ SNP; you can turn English voters against the ‘feather-bedded’ Scots. Although the evidence that the tactic worked in the 2015 General Election is sketchy and limited, it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act mandates the next General Election be held in May 2024, but the legislation is likely soon to be repealed, and it may be that the Tories will go to the country as soon as 2023. That will make pressure from Edinburgh even easier to resist, in the run-up to the next election.

What better cry in England could there be than keeping the whole country together? What better toughness can be displayed than just saying ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘no’ again to the SNP? There is of course the risk to both the Union and the Conservatives’ Scottish seats, but firstly no-one in the midst of those radicals now running the country cares much about the Union, and secondly the Tories only have six Scottish seats, two of which look highly vulnerable whatever happens.

So the gamble is all one way: the risk clusters very thickly around granting a Section 30 Order. It can’t be ruled out. Johnson may see the ball suddenly break out of the scrum, and decide to run for it, pell-mell towards another messy brawl. But it’s less than likely.

For these reasons, after coronavirus the British state will face the arduous task of putting back together its place in the world – and of staying together at all. A long-running battle will emerge, absorbing and exhausting, over whether to draw a new and hard border near Carlisle and Berwick. The Tories will keep shaking their heads. Scottish public opinion could get angrier and angrier.

Because of the frustrations and delays of what could well become a deliberate stalling strategy, the case for the Union may well then be lost. Johnson will deliberately be leaving the unexploded ordnance of a second independence referendum to a future Labour minority administration. The Tories will thus seek to hobble, and ultimately blow up, any left-wing government from the start. They may well succeed.

These strategies are not attractive. But they are rational. And they could well work – setting the scene for another set of ructions in Northern Ireland and Wales. Institutions seek to defend and replicate themselves: the continuity of government is all. But the continuity of British governance is now deeply in doubt.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given the traditional August break, there are only three more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones...

Monday, 25 May 2020

All the damage they can do

This blog doesn’t think much of Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings (above). You may have noticed. Way back in 2016, we called Johnson ‘a poor man's Silvio Berlusconi, endlessly replaying his own triumphs and legends back to himself’, and invited readers to boot him back into ‘the dustbin of history’. Hey, take our advice, don’t take our advice. It’s up to you.

As for Cummings, well. In February we labelled him a ‘one-dimensional… symptom of a much, much deeper rot – the gangrene that tells you where the worst of the wounds reside’. Never let it be said that we’re behind the curve here.

Together, the two of them give full rein to the worst id of the toddler’s instincts. I am strong. I can do as I like. You are nothing. You are stupid. I am powerful. Now you see where that gets them, you and everyone else – starring and crowd roles in a dark tragi-comedy that couldn’t be bettered if several skeletons and several lovers fell out of several wardrobes on several stages. All at once.

Cummings’ lockdown adventures in his native North of England are now a thing of record (if not of beauty). Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and believe his story (which doesn’t seem all that much less believable than lots of other things in British politics these days). His wife was sick. His son got sick. He was probably very scared. He wondered what on Earth to do. That’s fine, and understandable.

He took himself off to a site on his father’s property. He isolated. He didn’t see anyone else. Now, that’s pretty much a violation of the spirit of England’s lockdown rules at the time, and maybe, probably, of its letter as well. He still knowingly took the virus to a new chunk of the country, outside the capital that was its hotspot at the time. He still could have introduced it into the hospital his son ended up in (though he eventually tested negative).

It was a reckless, stupid thing to do. And Cummings should at least have given thought to how it would all look. Granted, no doubt he was frightened for his family. He knew where to find a bolthole. Maybe you’d have done the same. Maybe you wouldn’t. It was human error, of a type that perhaps the overconfident Cummings thinks he can build systems to guard against, though one - we should note - about which he has shown very little contrition.

Then he went out again. In a car. With his son in it. To test his eyesight. Yes, really. Now here’s where things get even more difficult. Quite frankly, that’s such a bizarre and Fawlty Towers-style detail that, like a ‘hard saying’ in Biblical studies, it probably did break down like that. But it was another stupid, foolhardy, rash and dangerous thing to do. We’re starting to maybe, sort-of, wonder about Cummings’ judgement. Are you?

There are a further series of dark undertones to consider. The first, and right now the least: the implications for Cabinet – and indeed all ordered – government. Can you imagine how the Health Secretary (and previously-designated fallguy) Matt Hancock feels about all this? Perhaps he's a bit angry. And the civil servants, at least one of whom let their true feelings out on Twitter when Johnson first came out to defend his man?

Governments must stick together, work together, speak together – and elected politicians, rather than a rather absurd but always-on angry Svengali, should in the last analysis make decisions. That’s how the chain of responsibility should work, and must work if the House of Commons – and by extension the voters – are to exert any influence at all.

And then there’s the immediate consequences on the ground. Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, although its immediate threat to life has abated. Spikes and flareups are happening all the time, and this government might have to order another full lockdown if things get out of control in the autumn. We don’t rate Boris Johnson. You probably don’t. But like it or not, he’s the only leader we’re going to get for some time to come. At this moment above all, we all need him to succeed - and to do that, people have to trust him, follow his advice, put some faith in him. Cummings just blew up loads of his credibility. That matters. Right now that matters a great deal.

The fight against Covid-19 has been put back by Cummings’ ridiculous odyssey, and then put back much more by his pallid semi-apology and thin attempts to brazen things out. The British public have to this point stuck at the very difficult changes to everyday life that they have been asked to bear. But consent comes from the ‘bottom’, allied to co-operation and contract from the ‘top’ (or what passes for the top these days). Take a hammer to that sense of community – to honesty, believability, transparency – and you are gambling with the whole edifice of compliance.

We can leave you with no more wisdom than that of that much-missed (and vastly-underestimated) political fighter, Jim Callaghan. During the 1979 General Election campaign, Jim was savvy enough to feel the sea-change around him. As he admitted to his driver at one point, sometimes politics is just buckled and transformed, and there’s nothing you can do. That change of feeling, he detected, was for Margaret Thatcher, and he was right.

It’s possible to imagine – though this might turn out completely wrong – that we are at a similar inflection point now. What do the Conservatives’ new voters really, really hate? Unfairness. The people ‘at the top’ – dare we say, the ‘elites’ – getting away with it. Well, this is them getting away with it redux. Had Cummings been, ooh, let’s say a dispensable scientist on an advisory body, he would have been out of a job. But because of who he is, he isn’t. It’s as simple as that.

After Labour’s betrayal of national security and Britain’s interests after the Russian chemical weapons attack on Salisbury – when they basically read out a Kremlin press release in response – something palpably and definitively changed about voters’ estimates of them. Are we at another one of those moments now? Could this be another of those periodic electoral shocks that change the landscape? It fees like it could be.

One of Callaghan’s other famous quotes came to him as he looked in the mirror one morning. Dragging Britain through yet another crisis, even this famously patriotic (and ex-navy) leader lost a bit of heart. ‘If I were a young man, I would emigrate’, he thought. If you take a quick look at the emigration figures, lots and lots of people felt the same.

It was hard, looking at that sunny Downing Street garden full of press waiting for Cummings, not to feel something of Callaghan’s ennui. While medics in visors and goggles literally battled to save people’s lives, the mind of the British state, its core executive, its policy-making community, its lobby journalists, was not on the crisis at all – but on one silly man and one stupid trip. It was pathetic, it was ridiculous, and it was embarrassing.

Lots of people looking at Johnson and Cummings right now can turn and look in the mirror too. And then they can turn again, and see the enormous strides that the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have made against the virus. Many of them are young. Some of them are probably pretty restless. Perhaps they should, and maybe they will, start to consider Callaghan’s challenge.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given the traditional August break, there are only four more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones... 

Friday, 17 April 2020

On coronavirus and conspiracies

The Age of Coronavirus is also a Time of Conspiracy. Maybe the Chinese government made up the deadly disease in a lab, and then covered up just how many people it killed. Perhaps it’s those 5G mobile phone masts putting so many people in hospital, and killing so many others.

There’s plenty of WhatsApp messages hammering those messages home if you want to read them (and you can get hold of them). There are even celebrity videos backing these apparently outlandish ideas if you want to watch them. Rather than tutting and sighing, so often the reaction of the expert or the practitioner, it’s perhaps best to ask: why is this happening?

First things first: most people don’t believe the conspiracies. It’s a minority taste. According to polling by Opinium, ‘only’ seven per cent of voters think that new mobile phone technology caused the coronavirus outbreak. That’s fewer than think Elvis lived on after his apparent death in 1977. Second and even more important, that constrained conspiracism has policy implications. Most Britons aren’t going around blaming China or 5G (above) – they’re following guidelines with even more alacrity than the citizens of most other states, and for the most part they trust their scientists and their government.

Even so, a significant swathe of the population do believe lots of the stories they scroll through on their screens. That seven per cent of adults adds up to maybe four million people. Nearly a quarter of respondents have told YouGov that the novel coronavirus either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ came out of a lab. Some of them have gone out and vandalised 5G technology. The Government obviously thinks it can divert some of the blame onto China, or it wouldn’t brief newspapers that China will face some sort of backlash when this is all over.

This is part of a pattern. The same short circuits are everywhere. Trumpians and Eastern European authoritarians place the blame for the rule of capital at the feet of one man: George Soros. Donald Trump’s closing political broadcast during the 2016 campaign – his ‘Argument for America’ – blamed ‘the establishment’ and ‘global special interests’ for everything, a poisonous assertion played over footage of Soros and other public figures who happened, just happened, to be Jewish. 

Liberals blame Russia and Putin for Trump and Brexit. Agents of the ‘Deep State’ draw the ire of the authoritarian Right and the populist Left. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party protested again and again about BBC ‘bias’, a line they knew played well among their activists and distracted them from Labour’s many sleights of hand over Brexit (they usually dropped those complaints once everything had gone quiet). Everything bad is laid at the door of ‘them’: ‘the bankers’ and ‘the elites’, or perhaps ‘the immigrants’ or ‘the foreigners’.

This is not, of course, an entirely new historical conjuncture. Those radicals who opposed the British Empire’s South African War at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often detected in its prosecution the guiding hand of ‘the banks’, or diamond traders, or the fantastical ‘Jewish interests’ they imagined stood behind both. Many literate Edwardian citizens came to suspect the influence of the Kaiser and his spies behind every shift in international politics.

Conspiracy theories have always interlaced themselves around British politics and British public life. The ‘red scares’ of the interwar years paralysed Labour and delegitimised socialist policies. Lots of people always thought the moon landings were faked, and maybe between four and 16 per cent of British adults still do.

Still, this present outbreak of one-size-fits-all thinking does still seem rather different. It reaches across the political spectrum; disinformation from many bad faith actors and some states seem prevalent; it binds together tribes beyond as well as across formal politics (as anyone versed in the conspiracy theories of the anti-vaxxers will tell you); it involves outbreaks of sheer rage that are as remarkable for their intensity as they are notable for the relatively small numbers through which the wildfires run.

There are, of course, off-the-peg answers to why this type of thinking has become entrenched. Some writers look to social media, which does seem to focus the anger of deeply connected networks on specific targets. That’s a bit of a reach. There’s quite a bit of evidence that social media actually makes you more likely to change your mind, not least in the UK’s 2017 General Election. And who needs social media when you have Clunky Old Media, in the shape of TV presenter Eamon Holmes, to spread your conspiracy theories for you? You shouldn't just generalise about How Twitter Makes People Mad when The Washington Post and CNN put up stories about the Wuhan lab that some people think might just have caused all this.

Other analysts begin their own journey down the rabbit hole with the psychology of political rage itself (we've tried at our hands at this in the past), always easier to direct and channel against a single hated antagonist. Pop psychologists and psephologists alike have prodded and poked the supposedly very angry older white male until there isn’t much left to dissect. Coffee shops in Iowa and pubs in Hull have never been so full of notetakers. Yes, the psychology of older voters in ‘left behind’ places is interesting, and can be critical in electoral systems privileging their views: but this isn’t the full story either.

Deeper trends can also be detected – and they certainly have not been manipulated by any one actor. The Big McGuffin is, first and foremost, a comforting heuristic in a world of noise. It springs out of the politics of confusion, sometimes deliberate confusion - not so much of rage as head-spinning dislocation. The postmodern restlessness of the developed world in the twenty-first century can often be experienced as sheer chaos: so many screens, so many streams, so many voices, that Fake News is just one facet of the jittery, frameless, boundless hyperreal.

That was a feature of the Edwardian world, too, when time appeared to many observers to be ‘speeding up’ – now an exponential line that seems so steep that many citizens yearn to place their phones in a box and lock them away. But if you’re not going to place your phone beyond reach, what better way to escape the great gusher of events than pretending to yourself that it all has one particular source?

Our late (or perhaps post-) capitalist societies of course celebrate the individual. Thatcherite economics dictate that you yourself must pull yourself up by your bootstraps alone, rather than living and coping within groups that accept and validate their shared understandings. The last forty years have seen an inconsistent but overall absolutely clear demerging of risk – in terms of the benefits you’re entitled to, within the rules that govern your contracts of work, encoded in the value of your shrinking pension (or lack of one). Why should that not be paralleled by a kind of demerging of threat, that sees each citizen faced not by structures and systems that are hard to grasp, but by the malevolence of a personalised opponent?

There’s a genre effect in play here, too, which first began as one example of that kaleidoscopic imaginary, and which is now probably exerting its own feedback effects. The storytelling importance of the Big Bad can now be observed in every onscreen drama’s serial or box set. The Doctor must come to understand the true (and self-referential) nature of the Bad Wolf. The Netflix Daredevil would be as nothing without the mesmeric Wilson Fisk. Don’t you want to know who ‘H’ is in Line of Duty? It is a cultural phenomenon designed to keep you watching, but which predisposes people to look for the shadow behind the curtain.

The obverse of this insistence on the personal-as-political is our search for leadership. You can see this in the huge regard for President Obama in liberal circles, and the fierce adherence to President Trump among much of his base: Trump still has an average approval rating of just over 44 per cent (a low-40s rating has been pretty constant throughout this Presidency), even after his disastrous attempt to downplay the coronavirus crisis.

If one thinks of voters faced with a sequence of chaotic or cold contracts between themselves and the world, a politics of a thousand cable channels and the call centre, this search for the warm, the personal, the charismatic, becomes more understandable.

This trend, too, gives itself over to a strange kind of antonym. Just as the disintegration of old groups and the constant coalescing of new ones can create a personal sense of threat to mirror our singular sense of self, so our yearning for a leader casting heat and light has as its other face our fear of anti-heroes acting as the agents of hidden forces. Hope and fear interact. Some inside the European Left see the hand of Israel everywhere. Some among the fiercest Trump activists believe that he pretended to be in league with Russia to recruit Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller into an anti-paedophile drive.

Political ideas are not just governed by formal ‘politics’ as we have come to understand them: the affairs of parliaments, politicians and civil servants. They are shaped, also, in the way that we think about ourselves – in our case, by the deluge of data, our individualistic self-image, new modes of entertainment and our attendant craving for something or someone better.

The Big McGuffin isn’t really out there. China probably didn’t mean to hurt you. 5G isn’t going to kill you. But the reasons why some of us think like this are full of clues to who we have become.