Five steps towards Utopia

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I’ve just finished Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, a practical guide to creating a better world using some pretty radical policy ideas. As the phrase goes, it’s available from all good bookshops. I did my bit for the small trader and got mine from Cogito Books in Hexham, Northumberland. It’s a brilliant piece of  writing, full of ‘stand-out’ ideas and facts, here’s five of the best.

There’s never been a better time to be alive

We live in a time of plenty that earlier generations of humans could scarcely imagine, in fact people in Medieval times talked of a utopia called Cockaigne which sounds uncannily like life in the modern developed world. Extreme poverty has dropped from 84 per cent in 1820 to 44 per cent in 1981 to just under 10 per cent today. Levels of malnutrition, child mortality, disease and crime are plummeting. Put simply, human beings are better educated, more equal, happier, healthier and safer than ever before.

Everything you think you know about poverty is probably wrong

Think the poor are feckless or just a bit dumb? In fact there’s psychological research that poverty and the stress it brings reduces mental ‘bandwidth’. So how do you solve the stress of poverty? Why not take the money worries out of the equation and give the poor free money with no strings attached? This sounds like a recipe for disaster but evidence from around the world shows this is a surprisingly effective way to turn people’s lives around and, given the terrible cost to public services caused by poverty and deprivation, it may even be a wise investment. It also gets rid of a whole benefits ‘industry’ which tries to sort out the deserving from the undeserving at great expense. 

The strange tale of how free money for all almost happened – thanks to Tricky Dicky

Richard Nixon, one of the most loathed and controversial US presidents of modern times, almost bought in a Universal Basic Income. Yes, Tricky Dicky himself championed one of the great progressive policies of our time. In 1969 he wanted to implement a law that would guarantee every family in the States a sum equivalent to $10,000 a year and almost got it on the statute books. However, and I’m not making this up, he changed his mind after a briefing which wrongly interpreted findings from an experiment with Universal Basic Income in Berkshire in the late 18th century.

Open the Borders, help the poor.

The most radical idea in Utopia for Realists isn’t Universal Basic Income – which incidentally is now being trialled in Finland and Canada – it is to get rid of national borders. This sounds politically impossible, but it’s an interesting point that passports and hard borders in Europe only became widespread after World War One. The world is open to free flows of goods and services but not the people needed to buy and sell them. Bregman argues that if you allowed people to flow without visas, checks and passports it would make the whole world twice as rich and make a huge difference to people in developing nations.

Ideas can (still) change the world

Bregman says there is a shortage of ideas around at the moment, particularly on the left who do little but respond to the march of the free market right. As he argues in his final call to action, you can dismiss ideas as unachievable but things once decried as unrealistic from universal healthcare to recycling to the minimum wage have now become part of the political mainstream. Utopia is achievable, and we’ve made great strides particularly in the last 30 years. All we have to do is to organise ourselves and be unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible.

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Why is Everyone so *&*$£ing Angry?

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Is it just me, or is everyone getting angrier?

They certainly seem to be particularly furious on Twitter where our own version of the US Culture Wars appears to be taking place.

Take the Oxfam/Save the Children scandal which, depending on your world view, is either evidence of a media conspiracy to cut foreign aid or proof of the moral bankruptcy of liberal values.

Let’s be clear, the alleged use of prostitutes by some people in the aid industry is abhorrent and deserves thorough investigation. It’s a shocking betrayal of what those people were sent out – sometimes at taxpayer’s expense – to do.

But in the land of Twitter the Oxfam scandal became a political and ideological football with facts and reasoning in pretty short supply. There was a lot of heat, but not much light.

The quality of debate isn’t helped by the conspiracy theorists either. After The Times published the original allegations, I began to see tweets claiming the entire story was timed to undermine the Government’s under-pressure commitment to the Foreign Aid Budget and was also an act of revenge for Oxfam’s strident stance on global inequality.

Some even claimed that Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg, an unlikely puppet master of world affairs, was responsible since he’d handed in a petition on foreign aid just days earlier.

Meanwhile, as these scandals are prone to do, it got much worse as charity subscriptions were cancelled, global ambassadors resigned and a phalanx of bosses appeared shame-facedly in front of MPs to proffer one million apologies.

And then the scandal spread to other charities, for example Save the Children, where it ultimately resulted in the resignation of Brendan Cox, widow of murdered MP Jo Cox, from the board of several charities connected to his late wife.

I had no idea that Mr Cox was such a divisive figure until I read the Tweets following his resignation. It turns out that to some on Twitter he is not a grieving widow, but an enemy of the state and a disgusting virtue signaler who deserves everything he gets.

News that he had admitted inappropriate behaviour was treated with undisguised glee by some.

The trouble with all this anger is that we ultimately forget about the most important thing, the people whose lives have been affected.

The culture wars use events, often those that involve abused women or dead children, as mere props for a wider battle. It’s symptomatic of our times, but won’t lead to a sensible or measured debate about the issues we face.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press.

The politics of The Crown

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The post war political classes get a bit of a battering in The Crown, Netflix’s eye-wateringly expensive, beautifully written, dramatisation of the reign of our current Queen.

None of 1950-1964 crop of Prime Ministers come out of The Crown particularly well. By the end of Season 2 the Queen has lost patience, referring to them as a ‘confederacy of quitters’ – baffled by their failed attempts to deal with events.

In Season One, Churchill – back for a second term between 1951-1955 – is portrayed as old, ill  and psychologically flawed, obsessed by past triumps in foreign policy while the country cries out for a strong domestic leader. Former PM Attlee, by now in opposition, appears as a dull administrator – fitting Churchill’s withering description of him as a ‘modest man with much to be modest about’.

In Season Two, an ambitious and arrogant Anthony Eden makes a huge political misjudgement on Suez, lies to parliament – and the Queen – and, rather than deal with the mess decides to disappear to Jamaica to recover from illness.

His successor, Harold Macmillan, is portrayed as a slippery cuckolded bore who loses the appetite for power in the wake of the Profumu Affair and appears to exaggerate medical advice so he can step down. As you can imagine, The Queen is less than impressed.

Of course, we’ll never know exactly what the Queen thought of and said to the men who occupied Number Ten during the early years of her reign, but you could forgive her for being a trifle disappointed with the quality of her leaders.

And, you can’t imagine that she’s going to be overly impressed with several of those waiting in the wings as there’s more self-inflicted political disasters to come. I can’t wait to see whether a forthcoming season explores the alleged tensions between The Queen and Margaret Thatcher.

But to be fair, other people – including members of her own family – also badly disappoint, failing to demonstrate the loyalty and sense of duty that she excels in. Again, this has to be a theme over coming seasons.

But if there’s a message in the first two seasons of The Crown, it is that the world is changing fast and in ways that no-one in the British establishment, elected or not, really understands or can deal with.

By the time we get to the early 1960s, the Queen is a spectator to Britain’s immediate post war decline but can do little about it. Not much fun when you are Head of State.

Seasons One and Two of The Crown are available to stream on Netflix now.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

2017 – that was the year that wasn’t…

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Never predict anything, particularly in sport and politics. Back in January I had a go and got some stuff right, but a lot more stuff wrong. My original post is here.

Things I got right.

Merkel stays on – Merkel did hang on in Germany, although at the time of writing she’s going through some pretty tricky negotiations to stay in the job.

Crossings continue – Not so much fresh as continuing under the media radar. Thousands are still risking their lives crossing from North Africa to Europe, 3,000 have died since January in the Mediterranean. Recently migrants have been attempting to negotiate the Alps in midwinter in trainers.

Yellows in peril – I predicted the Lib Dems wouldn’t go anywhere, and it came to pass. The combination of a new leader and a strong anti-Brexit stance has not paid dividends in the polls. They appear to be treading water. For now, we are back to a two-party system in English politics.

Austerity stinks – the prediction I’m most proud of. Corbyn changed the game on this. The Conservatives lost the narrative and Corbyn showed there is a vocal and engaged portion of the electorate who endorse and champion higher public spending.

North Korea – Easy to forecast but it became more of a flashpoint throughout the year as the two leaders sabre-rattled dangerously. No-one could have predicted the name calling though. Rocket man?

Celtic tops – I got this right and wrong. The Hoops won the SPL by roughly 20 zillion points but this did not spark much introspection north of the border or any serious talk of them joining the Premier League.

Things I got wrong

Over and out for Fillon – The overwhelming favourite did not become President of France. A combination of a bright young challenger and his own finance scandals consigned him to the political dustbin. In fact, he ended the year by exiting from politics completely.

Italian instability – Only a few things are certain in life – death, taxes and a new Italian Government every year or so. However, I was wrong again. It’s been a quiet year by Italian political standards and the next election is scheduled for 2018. I won’t be predicting that one.

May in May – Well, that was a surprise. It turned out she did go for a poll, but in June not May, and it all went swimmingly…

Corbyn the untouchable – Contrary to what I predicted, Labour lost the Cumbrian seat of Copeland but it didn’t make any difference to Corbyn or his Teflon leadership. Events later in the year would cement his authority within the party.

Trumped by Trump – Mind-blowingly wrong. I predicted that Trump would tone it down on the international stage and might seek to roll back on domestic promises. The exact opposite happened.

And meanwhile, in sport – England’s women did reach the semi-final of the Women’s European Football Championships, but they were expected to do better. I also confidently predicted another Andy Murray major and in a tournament he hadn’t won before. Unfortunately, he got a hip injury and never competed at his best this year.

A Very English Scandal

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There are several jaw dropping moments in A Very English Scandal, John Preston’s grimly addictive tale of the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal leader put on trial for conspiracy to murder.

There’s the time Thorpe – an established public figure and leadership hopeful – takes new lover Norman Scott to meet his formidable mother, tells her the handsome young man is a television cameraman, and after a supper of boiled eggs, buggers him in the guest room.

There’s the moment in 1968 when Thorpe, now leader of the third party of British politics, is so tired of endless letters and demands for cash from his unstable ex-lover that he suggests ‘getting rid’ of Scott, comparing killing him to ‘shooting a sick dog’.

And there’s the bungled murder attempt itself, when Scott and his Great Dane are driven out to Dartmoor on a rainy night by the world’s worst hired assassin.

Somehow Thorpe and his associates managed to keep a lid on his affair with Scott for more than a decade, helped by a sympathetic British establishment and a party leadership that believed Thorpe’s lies.

The lengths Thorpe went to seem beyond comprehension now, but it is worth remembering that when his affair with Scott began in 1961 homosexuality was illegal. Thorpe would have been jailed and his political career ruined had anyone found out.

And this is a classic tale of how one lie can lead to many others. Thorpe ended up deceiving fellow Liberals, effectively paying the inept hit man through party funds, themselves supplied by wealthy foreign donors.

A Very English Scandal reads like a comic novel at times, but don’t laugh too much. It features serial bungling and bizarre deceptions carried out by a cast of characters that could have come straight from an Ealing Comedy, but it is also a tale of Thorpe’s sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult in a darker, less tolerant Britain.

A Very English Scandal, by John Preston, is published in paperback by Penguin.

The End of Politics?

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Remember ‘The End of History’ – Francis Fukuyama’s bold claim 25 years ago that the end of the Cold War meant ideology was over and history as we know it would effectively stop?

I wonder sometimes whether we’re reaching The End of Politics.

Certainly, we appear to be witnessing a breakdown in traditional party loyalty and discipline. Open internal warfare over everything from Brexit to sexual harassment now appears to be the norm. The traditional tribes of British and American politics have never been so disunited.

In every election from Austria to Australia it seems insurgents are on the rise, overturning traditional political orthodoxy.

But maybe politics and democracy is just the latest facet of human existence to find itself disrupted by technology and innovation.

After all, across the world, lots of other venerable institutions have seen their business models and ways of operating transformed over the last decade.

The news we read, the taxis we hail, the TV we watch, the work we do – all are changing at a dizzying pace. Industries that fail to adapt – newspapers being a classic example, almost 200 have closed in the UK since 2005 – struggle and then enter a swift decline.

And the pace of change appears to be accelerating. for example, telephone chatbots are already being trialed by the NHS to diagnose illness and by 2021 Ford has said it will be manufacturing and selling driverless vehicles.

Meanwhile, Westminster politicians sit surrounded by men in tights and wigs in a mock gothic building with labyrinthine rules completely out of touch with modern life.

Should we really be surprised if UK party politics and democratic institutions find themselves on the post millennial critical list?

The signs are already there. for example, the rise of En Marche from zero to political heavyweights in France within two years or the Russian clickbait farms that allegedly sowed enough discord to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

In the UK, Labour pours vast resource into a successful social media operation which is credited with helping it to win the youth vote at the last election and e-petitions have shown their potential to garner headlines and change policy.

The disruption is definitely happening, and parts of the body politic are starting to react and adapt.

However, as the current sexual harassment scandal demonstrates, other aspects of our political system are hopelessly out of step with modern life.

Will someone please tell me, for example, why MPs appear not to be subject to the workplace rules and guidance that govern every other workplace in the United Kingdom?

The truth is we probably are at the End of Politics as we know it. Like many other global institutions, it is changing and, sometimes, struggling to remain relevant.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

Reflections on Conservatives and ‘speechgate’

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What. A. Disaster

This wasn’t a car crash, but a six-lane pile up on the Autobahn. A calamitious, pity-inducing, toe-curling, never-to-be-forgotten political moment.

Theresa May managed to deliver not a speech, but a metaphor for her own political career and the state of her party.

At one point, while she struggled on, the stage actually started to fall apart behind her. This stuff is lightyears beyond current political satire.

And on top of that, between the coughing and the pranking, the content wasn’t up to much.  Housing is the great issue of our age, vital for the party’s long term survival and key to beating a grim demographic forecast, but all the PM could do was announce a bit more money that local authorities could bid for.  I mean, was that really the best they could come up with?

It all underlined the fact that there is a crippling crisis of confidence in this party.

Time and again I heard delegates calling for new ideas, a narrative, a direction. They decried the fact that the Conservatives were endlessly reacting to Labour not producing bold, innovative visions of where the country needed to be.

It was a good fringe, full of interesting ideas and debate – but that intellectual energy showed no sign of getting anywhere near conference stage where it was a case of the same old, same old.

Ruth Davidson had lost patience by day two, telling a fringe that the party needed to ‘man up’ and take the fight to the left. However, most of the delegates and ministers I met just looked a bit scared.

Even the young Conservatives, usually the epitome of self confidence, hesitated to move out of the secure zone and clustered together in groups for safety, intimated perhaps by a hostile Northern urban environment.

There was booze, there is always booze, but in the Midland at midnight on Tuesday looked like the last days of the Roman empire, not a party at ease with itself.

No-one, absolutely no-one I met seemed to have any belief in Vicar’s daughter and I left on Tuesday, before speech gate.

A new leader won’t improve Conservative fortunes. What’s really needed is some ideas and some fighting spirit, both glaringly absent in Manchester.