Monday 31 July 2023

Over-centralised Britain

 The UK's division of government powers and functions between the centre and local government has for decades been recognised as a major source of our inefficiency.  Germany, where the massive powers  reserved to the Lander have long been one of the reasons for its economic pre-eminence, is seen as the example to follow.  France, despite its Napoleonic inheritance, has followed suit and devolved considerable  powers to its regional governments and town councils. 

Yet in Britain, despite the example  of the late Victorian municipalities, and their impressive gas, sewage systems, concert halls and waterworks etc.,  the flow has been and continues to be, in the opposite direction

.Examples range from the serious reduction  of local government fund-raising powers by Margaret Thatcher's "rate capping" measures in the 1980s to  the trivialities which have emerged in recent weeks.

The Liberal Democrat-led South Cambridgeshire District Council decided to let its staff operate on a four-day week.  No, said Whitehall: you can't do that. Sundry local councils have tried to make parts of their built-up environment safer and cleaner by establishing Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN's) and imposing 20mph speed limits. Rishi Sunak scents a possible electoral advantage in becoming the "motorists' friend" and is looking for ways to stop them.

And it's not just the Tories.  London's Labour mayor, Sadiq Kahn, seeks to improve London's air quality by extending the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) from which the more polluting vehicles  are discouraged from entering by the imposition of an additional tax.  Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer hasn't the power to stop him, but urges him to "reflect."  (Starmer does appear to have the power to veto candidates for election of whom he doesn't approve, not least the current directly elected North of Tyne mayor.)

What is desperately needed is a root and branch reform of our constitution, with powers beyond national defence, foreign policy, maintenance of the currency, the rule of law, basic liberties and human rights, and redistribution of taxation income  from the richer to the poorer areas, taken away from Westminster and Whitehall and entrenched  in national parliaments, regional assemblies and local councils.  

The political climate is light years away from contemplating something on these lines at the moment.  But if Labour forms the government after the next election without the need for Liberal Democrat and/or Nationalist and/or Green support, we shall simply get the mixture as before: probably only one term of the system run skewed more kindly towards to the "have-nots" (but not if they have more than two children) followed by yet another two of the Tories with it skewed towards the haves.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Then, now, and where next?


From Giles Wilkes, Ashes to ashes, The New European , July 6-12, 2023.


“By many modern measures, the early 1980s was a rubbish time to be  a British citizen. Hooliganisms (sic) and rioting  were rife.  Teen pregnancy was high and still rising,  homophobia and racism were common.  Crime had increased all the way through the post-war period.  Everywhere reeked of tobacco and car engines spewed lead.   Deaths on the road were much higher  -  drunk diving was more prevalent  and set belts did not become compulsory until 1983.  Inner city blight was a real problem  ( a worse one I would say , than the sky high rents we suffer from today.)

Were it a question of  who enjoyed the better lives, I would never swap the 1980s for today .  I like music streaming, social liberalism and the internet, have no problem with high immigration, and really hate tobacco smoke, unemployment and casual racism “

I take issue with some of this.  The 1980s don’t seem to me to be all that long ago - I’d be more interested in contrasting today with the 50s (when we still had still had birching and hanging, same-sex relationships were illegal, children born outside wedlock were stigmatized as bastards).  And I don’t remember crime being all that much worse in the 80s.  But the contrast does warn us to be careful of thinking that the past was all that  golden..  In so many areas life is better: we have progressed, even if there is still a long way to go.

Later in the article Wilks admits that “. . .in one crucial regard I would pick the 1980s over the 2020s.  Britain was once a place  that could imagine progress and drive towards it.”  I agree.  Any trace of optimism has been replaced by cynicism.  We have lost confidence not just in our parties but also in our political system.

Further social progress in particular  is under attack by the right’s  clever use of their PR machine to describe any advance as “woke.”  This was cleverly illustrated in the “Doonsbury” strip cartoon in last Friday’s Guardian (14th July) in which a media reporter, questioning a right-wing politician who parries all questions with “Woke!” defines  “woke”   as “being alert to discrimination and injustice.”    Does that mean, asks the cartoon, that they’re in favour of discrimination and injustice?  A good response, I think, and one we should use.



A refreshingly accurate picture of the UK’s true place in the world is given by this “blurb” which appeared in my in-box this week to advertise the New Statesman.

“George Eaton, our senior editor, has interviewed David Edgerton, a historian whe key work – The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (2018) – has currency in today’s Labour Party. Britain, he argues, has little hope of being in the front rank of nations any longer, and should stop acting as though it is. The horizons of our politicians need lowering, and focusing on “a politics of modesty and a politics of improvement”. HL

“We had a lot of talk not just about ‘Global Britain’ but about a ‘science superpower’, a real sense that the UK is not just a special nation by virtue of its history but that it is stuffed full of entrepreneurs. What’s happening now is a reaction to some of that; all of those promises have revealed themselves to be essentially false.”

For Edgerton, the danger of a melodramatic account of British failure is that it leads to deluded dreams of British rebirth. “It is an intellectually fatal position to take. Behind declinism is an appalling top-dog-ism: if we get it right we can regain our proper place in the world.

“The UK accounts for 2 per cent of global manufacturing and 2 per cent of global R&D. You’re not a science superpower if you do 2 per cent… You can’t go around claiming that in seven years’ time the UK is going to be a climate leader or a leader in green tech, it just doesn’t make sense.”

 I couldn’t agree more, and Labour in this regard is almost as guilty as the Tories.  Let’s stop pretending, cut out all references to “world leading” and just aim for modest competence.


Friday 14 July 2023

Huw - what a surprise!



For most of the past week our media, both print and broadcast, our politicians, and, I suspect, most of the public have obsessed (there’s no other word) over the case of the “as yet unidentified” BBC presenter and the alleged £35 000 he paid a young man for “explicit” pictures of himself.  None of those involved have come out with reputations unblemished.

The allegations, carefully crafted to suggest something illegal as well as immoral and inappropriate, first appeared in the “Sun” newspaper, which for years boosted its circulation by exhibiting (fairly) explicit pictures (upper, not lower) of teenage girls which made its “Page 3” famous. 

The ”Sun” is, of course, owned by the Rupert Murdoch News Corp empire, which also owns, among many other media outlets,   commercial television stations  such as Sky New and Fox News.  It is well known that News Corp would like to get their hands on hands on  the large slice of the British and international airwaves occupied by the publicly-owned BBC.  So any damage to  its reputation is to their advantage, and will encourage their friends in the Tory party to help then gain a chunk of the BBC’s share of the market.  (Market being,  perhaps, a key word in their lexicon).

For months Tory party spokespersons have been jumping into the media to assure us that, in a world endangered by climate change, inflation, a land war in Europe, a migrant crisis and Lord only knows what else,ex-Prime Minister Johnson’s activities around ”Partygate” are really quite a trivial matter. We should forget about them, move  on  and let the government get on with its real job of tacking these oh-so serous  threats.  

 Suddenly this urge for  a sense of proportion has been thrown out of the window and senior government spokespersons have crowded the news outlets with indignant protestations that the BBC has “serious questions to answer” and its governance, performance and funding are in need of an overhaul.  The “British People,” and not least “the Licence Payer” deserve better.

 Astonishingly, senior Labour spokespersons have joined in on the similar lines.  Have they not the sense to realise that, apart from a minority of the print press,  the BBC is the best media friend they have, despite its overcompensation in favour of climate deniers, hide-bound free-marketeers and other extremists in a search for “balance”?

I suspect it is in order to avoid accusations of partiality that the BBC has overcompensated by giving disproportionate airtime  to this issue, for fear of accusations of playing it down.

As the week progressed questions began to be raised as to what exactly was the great wrong that the still unidentified presenter had perpetrated.   A curious anomaly in British law emerged.  Whilst it is perfectly legal  to have actual sex with a “child” over the age of 16, the “age of consent,” it is not legal to have “explicit pictures” of him or her until he  or she is 18, the age of adulthood.  The “child” in the case is now 20,  so at what age were the pictures taken?  The “Sun” quickly backtracked on its insinuation that a “serious criminal act” had taken place.  The police now say that “nothing criminal” had happened. 

I have no evidence for this (I’ve been retired from teaching and daily contact with adolescents for 20 years) but from what I read in the papers I gather that young people routinely exchange “explicit pictures” of each-other as part of the development of “relationships”, as indeed do adults, and the results of their artistry often turn up in the courts as “revenge porn.”  Perhaps the law needs revising.

Now Huw Edwards has been revealed as the “prominent BBC presenter” (I am amazed: I had assumed it would be someone from Radio 1 or Radio 5 live) a whole lot  of moral and ethical questions arise: the exploitation of a “vulnerable” young person by an older and powerful person; (would it have been as “voyeuristic” had the young person been a girl?);  were slightly older men starting their careers in the BBC and hoping for advancement, also approached; to what extent  is anybody‘s legal activity outside their employment a matter for their employer;  (It is in living memory that a teacher in Batley was reprimanded by a school’s governors  for eating an ice-cream publicly whilst walking along  Commercial Street); the invasion of privacy, both of Edwards himself, who is known to have mental health problems, his family, and the young man, who is now apparently a drug addict.

The one somewhat happier turn of events is that the “serious questions to answer” are now directed at the “Sun,” rather than the BBC.

 The final puzzle to me is what on earth is it that tempts a mature and successful man, at the top of his profession (heir to Richard and then David Dimbleby in interpreting the  British State at its  seminal moments), apparently happily married with five grown-up children, and whose salary nudges half a million pounds a year, doing messing about on dating apps and other innovations better suited to the young, in order to scratch, so it seems, some sexual itch.  Clearly it seems, sex is a great leveller which can tempt us all, from the over-adventurous teenager to the sagest of adults (bishops, princes of the blood, business tycoons, stars of stage, screen and radio) into behaviour  which would have been best avoided.

My final comment concerns the language used to discuss the issue. Although the young person at the centre of it is clearly male, and there’s just one of him (so far?), both the print and broadcast media refer to him with non-gender pronouns: “their” and “them”  rather than “his” and “him.”.  I admit that the “he/she” and “his/her” construction which is necessary when the gender is in doubt is clumsy. . But why use it what the individual is clearly a man or a woman?

 I am sorry to see this  catching on because it causes  my reading or listening to “stumble”  - something which good prose should avoid.  Would it not be better to “invent” some new pronoun? 

The OUP should run a competition. I suggest “shis” and “thir” for starters.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

NHS Anniversary

Today we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the National Health Service, a key part of the Welfare State which we are led to believe was created by the post-war Labour government.


As the historian David Edgerton points out in his refreshingly different history, “The Rise and Fall of the British Nation," (Penguin 2019), the innovatory  character of this period is somewhat exaggerated. 

“. . .in the 1930s there already was  an elaborate system of welfare* for the [British] working class (that is about 80 per cent of the population) : all was ready for Sir William Beveridge [Liberal] to rationalize , and ‘by the legislation of 1945-8 the gaps were filled, the walls finished  and a roof put over all’” (pp 236/7).


This 75th “birthday “ is seen by one and all as a time to take stock, assess the adequacy of its present performance, and suggest how it might be modified from a “national treasure" from the past to a service adequate for the future in which communications, medical technology, longevity and, indeed, expectations, are very different from the world of the 1940s.

One of the founding principles of the NHS is that it should be “free at the point of use.”  Last week a survey was published which claimed that the majority of people expected charges for its services to e imposed in the near future.    This seems an odd thing to start worrying about now.  Charges for spectacles, dentures and prescriptions were imposed within four years of the Service’s foundation,  (although for the majority of people, including children and the elderly, prescriptions are still free.)  So charges for other services, such as doctors’ appointments, hospital “hotel” costs, would simply be an extension of the existing system.  Indeed  dental services for most  are already largely privatised, and there are substantial charges even for those of us lucky enough to still be treated by an NHS dentist.  This trend is, in my view, in urgent need of reversal.

For many years the UK has trained insufficient doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners for domestic use.  Given that our medial, dentistry  and   nursing schools are still ”world class” we should be training a surplus for “export” to less developed countries.  Instead we have done the opposite, and “poached” staff from other countries, some of them the poorest,  desperately short of their own practitioners.  This is immoral and should be reversed.

Both doctors, now including consultants as well as “junior” ones, and nurses have been holding strikes for some time or are about to.  The headline demand is for more pay and is certainly justified for nurses.  For doctors I’m not so sure.  The “screw” of a consultant is said to be over £120 000 a year, which seem a lot to me, and something for the "juniors" to look forward to.  However, what is critical is their working conditions.  Because of shortages all medical staff are working under considerable pressure and leaving the profession in droves, which make a mockery of attempts to increase the training of replacements.  Our government claims to believe in ”market forces.”  Measures, including both pay and conditions, need to be taken so that those attracted to the service stay in it.**

Along with the pressures of overwork are the frustrations arising from inadequate buildings and outdated and malfunctioning technology.  These areas have been starved of funds for years and particularly since the post 2010 “austerity.”  Government spokespersons talk glibly of reforms of organisation, which they presume to be cost-free.  Maybe, but costly updating of capital is essential.

There are strong calls, including from Sir Tony Blair, our former Labour prime minister, for an expansion of the private sector to help plug the gaps.  It is  a credible supposition that the NHS has been deliberately starved of funds by the Conservatives, in order to facilitate this trend.  There is little doubt that the likes of American hedge funds are salivating to get their hands on greater chunks of the service.  I believe this should be resisted.

 International comparisons of health outcomes show that the UK is about average  in the pantheon of rich developed countries.  We are certainly not the “best in the world “ or “ the envy of the world.  This modest showing is not entirely the responsibility of the NHS.  Health outcomes are also determined by the quality of housing, diet (Mediterranean being much healthier than pie and chips), education, opportunities and equality.

 So what should we do?

Certainly the structure of the NHS may need reform.  My own view is that  rather than a “national” service, responsibility should be devolved to  democratically controlled regions.  A post-code “ lottery” does not worry me, provided that priorities are democratically determined.  Whatever reforms are suggested should be generated by experienced practitioners and patients, not by managers and certainly not by politicians.

We should put more resources into prevention – public health.

We need to integrate care services into the mix.

We need to reverse privatisation.

We need to pay more in taxes to finance a health service  fit for the next 75 years.


* This pre- war welfare provision included medical services.  I can't find the details via Google, but most families belonged to a "Panel," some form of insurance related to employment, in which access to doctors was either free or  for a token payment. The "cover" included hospital treatment.  After a road accident in 1944 I spent a month in the local hospital and as far as I know my parents didn't pay a penny.  The 20% whom Edgerton admits missed out were probably those where no-one in the family was in employment; probably single women and widows.  The post war government filled these gaps. 

** A similar situation exist in teaching, where more that one in ten new teachers quit in their first year, and more than a third within their first six years.