Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Goodhart, Powellism and immigration

I have to admit to sympathy for some of David Goodhart's thoughts on diversity. I agree that we need to make common cause with our neighbours if we are to sustain a welfare state in which all have a stake, and I agree that we risk the bases for common cause if we elevate the totem of diversity to a celebration of essential difference rather than commonality.

I think that this is a valuable thesis, and one that needs careful consideration, so I was disappointed, back in 2004, to see the debate Goodhart started descend into an unholy slanging match between those who used his arguments as a convenient stick to beat the multiculturalism, and those for whom multiculturalism became a convenient stick to beat those who you could exclude from debate by labelling them racist. What could have been an illuminating and valuable debate became a childish spat between diametrically opposed contestants, egged on by a partisan and irresponsible media. Any value in the debate was, sadly, as good as lost.

Goodhart is nothing if not persistent, and has waded back into the debate, carefully crafting an argument but using language designed to provoke a reaction.

"Labour has", he tells us, "shed its naive universalism and accepted the harsh-sounding but obvious truth that for citizenship to be meaningful, it must exclude as well as include."

The response was predictable. Compass's Jonathan Rutherford directly compared Goodhart to Enoch Powell. If you ignore Rutherford's ludicrous rhetorical comparison he does raise some important criticisms of Goodhart's argument. Goodhart is too easily co-opted by those who wish to ensure that debates around immigration, citizenship and Britishness are framed in divisive, reactionary or racist tones.

That this happens is down to the central failing of Goodhart's thesis. Goodhart is right (and Rutherford underplays) the shared culture that overcome economic and social tensions to be able to support the growth of welfare provision in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is right to identify that this was largely national in character, and that globalisation, mass immigration do militate against the conditions which sustained welfare states. He fails, though, to effectively articulate what are the elements of a shared culture, a shared identity, which can provide the commonality that underpins successful, cohesive societies, and the welfare states that support them.

Where Goodhart fails to suggest a way ahead. Without offering viable means to sustain common culture and a consequent sense of a common wealth he risks accusations of conservatism and also playing into the hands of racists. Of course, it is not incumbent upon Goodhart to offer these alternatives - he is not a politician. But he does need to acknowledge this element within his thinking lest he cedes ground to those he is wrongly accused of being the acceptable face of.

For my part, I do think that different cultures can co-exist within nation states and that these societies can support shared values and state welfare institutions. Most human cultures ethics and morals aren't that far apart really, but we do need , as Goodhart notes, to guard against fractured societies of mutually incomprehensible groups where notions of common interest become difficult to sustain. The Left may not like it, but the nation state has proved, and will prove, a powerful way in which the common interest can be secured. It can be progressive too.

The challenge is to frame national identity and citizenship which diverse groups and communities can share and which take account of the world we inhabit now, which are not internationally belligerent, and which are as far as possible embedded in international agreements relating to universal human rights.

Britishness is ripe for transformation into such a project. There are huge risks in Britain fracturing into its constituent parts and leaving us all diminished. That Goodhart fails to look forward and to consider what Britishness might mean ensures that he cannot provide a solution to the valid problems he outlines. It also ensures that he gives succour to those with whom progressives disagree, and he gives ammunition to those who wish to reduce this valuable debate to the level of the lowest common denominator.

Derby match

My tickets for the Bristol versus Bath game at Ashton Gate on Sunday have arrived. I've only seen Bristol play once this season, and last year for the first time since 1990 I missed the derby with Bath altogether.

Bath have stumbled a little of late, and have been shaken by some star names leaving. Bristol, on the other hand, are beginning to play well, beating Gloucester and putting in a creditable performance against Wasps.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Public service. Why bother?

I am sick of my job. I am a happy person, with good friends, a wonderful family, health, (relative) prosperity, interests, etc., but I am sick of my job.

For a decade I have been a bureaucrat. Firstly, in local government, and latterly in a national agency. I went into public service for all the high minded reasons of the right thinking 21 year old - and also because I had never given proper thought to what I wanted to do.

So, in the last ten years, what have I learnt?
  • I've learnt that unless you have the professional autonomy of a doctor, or the career advancement potential of a senior civil servant, that job satisfaction is at the whim of those senior to you, or risks being stymied by the system you work in.
  • I've learnt that joined up government is a farce, and continually runs up against the egos of ministers and the cowardice of permanent secretaries (I could post more on this, but I'd be sacked).
  • I've learnt that in our overly-centralised state those at the very top have absolutely no idea about the realities of how policy is made and delivered and whom it affects the most.
  • I've learnt that it's not what you know, and it's not even so much who you know - what matters is who you are.
  • I've learnt that the lazy and the incompetent and the naive are effectively carried by the competent and the conscientious.
  • I've learnt that you can't get rid of the lazy, the incompetent and the naive except by restructuring and thus destabilising everything you thought you were trying to achieve.
  • I've learnt to accept that it's not me and I'm just unlucky, and I need to keep this separate from my family life.
  • I've learnt that the public need to demand more.
  • I've learnt that a meeting does not of itself constitute work.
  • I've learnt to be suspicious of public servants who consider themselves the arbiters of the public good.
  • I've learnt to reject facile solutions from Right and Left.
  • I've learnt how ill informed and pig ignorant the media are in this country of the reality of public services.
  • I've learnt how well aware the media are of their power to influence politicians and change public services.

The above smacks of cynicism, but I hope not of pessimism. I would argue passionately for the validity of the points I have made, even if those views are, at root, drawn from my personal disappointment at the state of my career. However, I would argue equally passionately for public service, indeed for bureaucracy.

Sadly, this will have to wait. Currently, public service is giving me a salary and not much else (I'm not even sure the public are getting much from me), so I can't find the energy to stick up for it.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

It just sucks

Time to reconnect. Ten days to go.

London never sleeps, it just sucks
The life out of me
Show some dignity honey

Euston, Paddington, train station please
Make the red lights turn green
My black cab rolls through the neon disease
Endlessly, endlessly
I come alive outside the M25
I won’t drink the poison Thames
I’ll chase the sun out west

Friday, 15 February 2008

Going home

I was born and brought up on the edge of Bristol, where the city runs into the Somerset countryside, and - despite the fact that my family are still there - I've not been back since July last year. My wife's pregnancy and T's birth saw to that.

All that is about to change. We're heading West in a fortnight's time to stay with my parents. T's days so far have been, bar one or two forays across London, spent with Lewisham as his northern boundary and Sydenham as his south. It's certainly made life easy, and I am daunted by the prospect of getting him to Charing Cross, down into the Tube, then out again at Paddington. All of this without even considering what happens if he decides to bawl his eyes out from the second we leave the capital until the instant we step out at Temple Meads.

An adventure it will be, and it won't stop once we get there. I'm arranging for him to meet my school friends in what is still for most of them their local pub, and then there's the big question of whether I squeeze him into Ashton Gate for his first Bristol Rugby match (the derby with Bath). All this, and then we have to do the journey in reverse.

For me, this journey always, and will always, be like going home. We'll be making this trip with T for years to come, but there will be a difference in the way he feels about it. For him, going to the West Country, whether his paternal family are there or not, will always be the trip out, and he'll be on his homeward stretch on the way back to London.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Kevin Rudd's apology

I'm really not trying to trivialise yesterday's events in Canberra, but the following arrived in my inbox today, and raised a chuckle, to say the least.


Kevin Rudd's apology represents a break from previous policies

The Australian government has made a formal apology for the past wrongs caused by successive governments on the British people.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised in parliament to all Britons for ignorant attitudes and prejudices that have "inflicted bad jokes with consequent irritation and boredom on the proud nation to whom we have been unable to admit we owe everything. "

He singled out the myth of the “Lucky Country” which has convinced generations of Australians that they do not actually live in a water and culturally starved desert has given them free reign to view the UK as somehow everything they are not.

The apology, beamed live around the country on TV, was met with incredulity by some Australians for whom “apology” is a very long word.

But some Britons say it should have been accompanied with compensation for their suffering. Campaign groups have pointed out how Australia's whole relationship with the UK has been determined by Mel Gibson's fevered imagination rather than historical fact.

'Indignity and degradation'

In a motion passed unanimously by Australian MPs on Wednesday morning, Mr Rudd acknowledged the "past mistreatment" of the founders of the Commonwealth of Nations, "For the indiginity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry".

Roo up tree

In other news, it has been reported that a Ballarat man has seen a roo up a tree.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Our garden

This is one of my favourite times of the year. It's still cold enough for the sharpness and keenness to reminder you that winter is still in charge if it wants to be. Yet, you can feel the onset of spring as the crocuses, snowdrops and primroses begin to show.

This year our garden has been covered in flowers. This heralds a changing season, and is whole new experience for our baby, T, who was only born in November, and is on the verge of seeing brighter colours and lighter days for the first time. Of course he won't remember it, but in the same way that he loves looking at fairy lights or sitting on top of my head, I hope he enjoys it all the same.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Political expediency

The NHS in Greenwich, Bexley, Bromley and Lewisham is overspending annually by some £21 million. Naturally, it wants to reign this in, and a consultation document called A Picture of Health on how to do this is landing on our doormats soon.

Our local Green Party councillor in Ladywell must be very upset about this, as she has taken the momentous step of setting up a Facebook group. This, it transpires, is a joint venture, between the Greens, the Tories and the Lib Dems.

Excuse me for being a bit suspicious. A couple of years ago this unholy alliance came together to demand that Lewisham get rid of its elected mayor, alleging that the system as currently constituted gave one individual too much power.

Sure, there were flaws in the mayoral innovation, but the anti-mayoral caucaus ignored the glaring fact of systemic executive weakness in English local government and a consequent failure of both leadership and accountability. They offered no real solutions, and it seemed to be no more than an effort to collectively do down an elected representative with whom they disagreed.

And now they've come together to oppose local health plans. This appears even more opportunistic than the last time. Seeing the name of James Cleverly amongst the sainted defenders of the NHS will raise a chuckle in anyone who can remember what the Tories did to our Health Service.

I would be more inclined to believe in the justice of their cause if they actually advanced some arguments against the plans. As it is, the campaigners only offer a few platitudes of the "they're going to shut your local hospital" kind. For all I know, the best way to improve value for money health outcomes may well be to reduce the number of sites from which health care is offered, and this is indeed the argument that the NHS are making. If this is not the case, say so.

I freely admit that I know little of what is on the table, but I tend to begin from the premise that people running public services actually want to deliver for the public. Most of the time they also are in possession of the knowledge and expertise that the rest of us are not. Sadly for the poor voter and taxpayer, we often are not allowed to participate in real debate as we can only see issues through the distorted prism of a media seeking greater market share, and politicians seeking partisan advantage. Hence, I get suspicious when people tell me that something is bad and offer me no real evidence to show why that is so, other than an appeal to my prejudice or instinct.

In this instance, I am even more suspicious because I cannot see any reason for these people to be getting into bed together other than that of political advantage.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


I may be an Englishman, but I will admit to a small part of me that was glad to see Wales win the opening match of the Six Nations on Saturday.

I've always had a slight ambivalence to English rugby thanks to the braying Barboured buffoons at Twickers, and a healthy respect for a Wales team with its roots in the mines, the steelmills, the towns and the valleys - and its heart on its sleeve. I don't like seeing England lose, but I don't feel so bad if we've lost to the Welsh.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Architects don't know best

An online poll is asking residents of UK towns and cities what are features of their locality of which they are most proud. Apparently, 14% of Lewisham's votes have gone to the Catford cat.

Now, I am no fan of this moggy. Catford's great if you like roundabouts, but that's about it - the cat doesn't save it. However, it obviously means something to Catford residents. As it's their community, I'll respect their call on what they see as the defining feature of their bit of south east London.

In recent months I have had a passing involvement with the large scale regeneration of a famously drab and declining midlands town. The council want to raise people's aspirations for themselves and for their place, and have engaged a range of architects and artists to think about how the town and the lives of the people in it could be better.

All well and good, you might think, and I applaud the council's effort to put culture at the heart of what they are trying to do. Yet, there's something about the architects that worries me.

Without a shadow of doubt, architects have been part of the problem. Let's not overstate the case - the collapse of this town's main industry and employer was the main cause of its current woes. But there can be little doubt that the horrendous post war housing estates contributed to the malaise.

The architects I have met freely admit this, and I admire their vision that architecture, public art and design should be part of the solution. The risk is, though, that they repeat their mistake. Their modus operandi is to make aesthetic judgements about what buildings and spaces would be appropriate, rather than actually asking the people who would have to live in them what they would want.

On my visits I have met architects who have bewailed the council's decision to knock down a particular housing estate, despite its horrendous social problems and bewail the pastiche village new build.

If I was being asked to make an aesthetic judgement, I'd probably agree with them. However, my concern is with regeneration, creating places where people want to live. If they want pastiche villages then it may be not be poor taste which can be corrected with a carefully selected piece of public art. It may reflect an aspiration for some idealised view of village life - with its connotations of communities who know and trust each other and who can live, work and play in a pleasant environment.

This, then, is the nub of the issue. Architecture and public art have a role to play, but only if they help to deliver the communities people want to see. It is a conceit to justify leaving a gap between what you give people and what people want by saying that you are seeking to raise their aspirations. People's aspirations are raised by a variety of things, and one of those things is the built environment.

Perhaps we would do better if we raised aspiration by trusting people to make decisions about the environment they wish to live in. If we showed we had confidence in their ability to decide their own futures, then we give people the confidence to articulate what they want in the broadest sense, which may include innovation in art and design - in time. But first you have got to help communities make their own choices, and empower them to make them well. This might mean architects and artists making less calls based upon aesthetic assumptions and more based upon delivering what a community wants to see.

Even if it means giving them a giant fibreglass cat.