Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Cut the ideology – let’s design a passenger driven Railway system.



Virtually every part of a modern economy like Britain's is a public/private partnership. Every private enterprise relies to a greater or lesser extend on publicly provided services. Every public enterprise buys goods and services from the private sector – and many have benefited from “contracting out” – buying in services rather than managing them in house. The latter route can be for a variety of reasons but efficiencies and cost control are the main ones as well as the need to buy professional services which it would be inappropriate to manage within the organisation. Ask any Hospital manager whether he could manage without the private sector – the answer is of course no.

For major and vital public services like the Railways the question is about where you draw the line – you know that the public sector and the private sector have to be involved. That is self-evident. But how do you decide who does what? The tracks and stations are publicly owned and managed via Network Rail. This solution was not the original one (remember “Railtrack”?) but it was soon apparent that these strategic facilities had to be publicly managed and owned. But the trains that run on the tracks and call at the Stations are in the private sector. Sort of! They have to receive subsidies if adequate services are to be provided in some areas and on lines that would not conventionally be profitable. It’s a bit of a mess and it doesn’t work well.

Private sector companies strive to make profits to reward employees and shareholders and to invest in the future. That’s what they do. But every pound of profit that is distributed in dividends rather than invested in capital projects is a pound denied to the future health of the business. Contrast this with the London Underground which makes a profit but, once expenses have been paid, reinvests in the future of the Tube. A good model you might think.

So the Railways suffer from under-investment because of shareholders’ (legitimate of course) demands. In addition, in some cases, they are only viable at all because of subsidies. The Private sector blossoms in conditions of competition. But the Railways are not really competitive except with other modes of transport (Cars and buses and aircraft). Technically the passenger has a choice on some routes but these are rare and frankly not over significant. Most railway services (and virtually all commuter ones) are private sector monopolies. The worst provider model imaginable!

The last thing this subject needs is ideology! Those on the Right who clamoured for privatisation got their comeuppance (sort of) with the ugly demise of Railtrack. But only those who are too young to remember could be unaware that the ideologically nationalised “British Rail” became a very poor service indeed through underinvestment and appalling industrial relations. An ideological soapbox is no place from which to outline what should happen to the railways. Except to say that it must be customer driven – passengers and freight users should call the tune not politicians.

It seems to be that some variant of the London Underground is desirable – an integrated service with fair fares, generally good services and constant reinvestment and upgrading. For the much bigger challenge of the UK’s railway system the example of the Tube is a good one. Let me stress that this does not mean a return to “British Rail” and it may not even mean public ownership. We need to think out of the ideological box and work out a formal long term public/private partnership that puts the customers first. It should also be environmentally driven – especially in relation to fares. The more people who eschew the car and let the train take the strain the better it will be for the environment.

My “Solution” is directional – which is why it is vague. I am not saying “Nationalise the railways” – though as with Network Rail there are no doubt parts of our railway system that should be brought back into the public sector. And where the current train operators do give a good service they should not be punished – though they certainly should not be allowed to generate windfall profits and pay excessive management remuneration. But we must have a more integrated service with a comprehensive, consistent and generic fare structure. There are examples across Europe of national railways that work. Britain should reform massively and seek to match them.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

"Solutions of Hard Left or Hard Right or of "Glorious Isolation" won't work in 2017.

It's 2017. Whatever policies any Government introduces have to reflect the realities of today. They did indeed do things differently in the foreign country that is the past. But to "return" to that past is not just impractical - it is as impossible as it is undesirable. That's why Brexit will eventually collapse - forced away by the sheer illogicality of trying to apply 1950s solutions to 21st Century realities. In an interdependent world you cannot retreat to the isolation of the past. In a post Imperial world you cannot go back to times when Britain ruled the Waves. And in a modern world of mixed economies and the advanced welfare state you cannot go back to the applied ideological socialism of Attlee let alone to some wistful Marxism.  Nor can the ideologies of laisser-faire be universally applied either. Thatcherism is just as impractical in 2017 as is the Clause Four socialism of the post war years.

The mixed economy which is the only game in town for a modern European state (and most others around the world)  has its flexibilities. Judgments need to be made about what the State does, and what is left to the private sector. And judgements need to be made about regulation and accountability as well. But the interdependence of nations requires that decision-making is substantially at a trans-national level. The co-operation that this requires brings ancillary benefits with it - "Jaw Jaw" means the avoidance of "War War" , a not inconsiderable advantage of partnership. And, yes, there is some surrendering of national sovereignty. But that has already happened to a significant degree with the growth of the multinational corporation and with the movement of manufacturing to the East. Decisions are made which fundamentally affect us in corporate boardrooms and in Beijing and Seoul and Manila and it is only in partnership at a European level that we have the power to influence these decisions. 

Finally the complexities of international finance also mean that neither neo-Marxism nor neo-Thatcherism is practical for Britain in 2017. The financial services sectors - especially banking in its various forms - are transnational and this cannot be rolled back, nor will it be. The Banks are not the pariahs that some on the Left say they are - but nor can they be allowed unregulated freedoms as the events of the global Financial crisis of ten years ago showed us. Again only with institutionalised cooperation and supervision can the finance sector be responsible to us all - no country is an island in this and it is preposterous to argue that a Britain alone would cope better than a Britain that continues to be part of the European Union.

The speakers at the rostrums of the Party conferences can continue to spout ideological "solutions" based on their favoured ideologies of Left and Right. They may relish the applause. But as Theresa May is finding, and as Jeremy Corbyn would soon find, reality kicks in. The slogan that actually means something is "Better Together" because in fact it is more than a slogan. It's a non-negotiable reality.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ian Kershaw's "Hitler" - have we heeded the "warning from history"?

Ian Kershaw's "Hitler" is probably the longest book I have ever read. Spread across two volumes and in excess of 700,000 words it covers the life In meticulous detail. And yet never for one moment does it drag. To describe such a book on such a subject as a "page turner" may seem odd. But there are quite frequent moments when a sense of disbelief cuts in and you inwardly say "Surely not?". And you turn the page to see if it is true. It always is. As with most lives there is chance mingled with ambition and design. Hitler nearly died as a child. He could have lost his life in the Great War. His personal ambition could have been - should have been - stifled long before he gained supreme power. Nothing in his early life qualified him for, or pointed him to, his leadership of one of Europe's most cultured and sophisticated nations. And yet it happened. Nothing in Hitler's character and personality suggested that he would be revered and followed in a messianic way. And yet he was. 

All lives, certainly politically significant ones, have to be seen in the context of their times. Of the many human tragedies that resulted from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 nothing was greater than its precipitation of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Prior to the Crash Germany, if not prospering, was at least strongly recovering from the nadir of the post war years. The hyper-inflation was gone. Employment was increasing. Democracy seemed (for the first time in the still young country's history) solid and coalition meant that governance was comparatively stable in the Weimar Republic. These were not conditions in which the political extremes would benefit. Hitler's Nazi Party lingered at well below 10% in most elections and its threat, real a few years earlier, seemed to have subsided. The Communists were equally marginalised. But the Crash changed all that. Hitler polarised opinion but his eventual rise to power had two drivers. First the feeling that conventional politics had failed and something new should be tried. Secondly the view held by many that the real threat was Bolshevism and its local arm the German Communist Party (KPD). Hitler was fervently anti-Bolshevik and this combined with the novelty and promise of his pitch was to propel him to power.

Kershaw's meticulous research means that there is surely little of significance to learn about Hitler that he hasn't revealed. Before he entered politics in the 1920s Hitler had achieved nothing. He had a minor talent as an artist but insufficient for him to enter Art School. He was a drifter without profession or qualification before the Great War. Decommissioned from the Army in 1919 at the age of 30 (with an Iron Cross for bravery in action) he gradually become involved in politics and started to form his personal political credo. This was strongly nationalistic, violently anti-Semitic and strongly opposed to Bolshevism. His personal testament "Mein Kampf " - written when he was in prison for leading an incompetent coup in Bavaria - is an extended rant within which these themes dominate in an almost paranoid, certainly obsessive, way.

Kershaw shows that there were four main factors in Hitler's rise to power. The propitious (for his message) economic circumstances of 1929 and the next few years. The scapegoating - blaming identified targets for Germany's problems. The immense power of Hitler's oratory. And the chilling, but technically brilliant use of propaganda. The "Hitler myth" was created by the speeches and the staging. There was no precedent for such events as the Nuremberg Rallies in modern history and yet, bizarre though they were, they were effective in building the "Hitler brand". The brand had all the classic elements that those of us familiar with brand management will recognise. Powerful imagery, clear messages (the "brand promise"), a "benefit" offer,  slogans, and an effective delivery vehicle (Hitler himself). Brands will, however, only prosper if they deliver the benefits they have promised. In his early years in power Hitler delivered. The peaceful retaking of the Rhineland in 1936 was popular as evidence of Germany's nationalist reemergence after the humiliation of Versailles. And these years (up to the outbreak of war in 1939) also saw economic recovery driven by public sector spending on infrastructure and above all the military. Unemployment virtually disappeared. In parallel with this "progress" went the tightening of totalitarian control and the grotesque victimisation of minorities - especially the Jews. When "Reichskristallnacht" happened in 1938 - an event unthinkable in a democratic state - it was just part of a sequence of increasing institutionalised victimisation and anti-semitism. 

Dictators - and by 1936 Adolf Hitler had become one - cannot rule alone. That he was uniquely evil is arguable - though Kershaw doesn't argue it. Instead this comprehensive biography details how the dictatorial powers he assumed were supported by an entourage and a system which, if not as venal as Hitler himself, was absolutely complicit in implementing his schemes and sustaining him in power. Not only that. The German people as a whole supported the Führer. I say "as a whole" to emphasise that there was resistance - increasingly brave as opponents were eventually simply wiped out of forced away. But in the main Hitler had high levels of popular support. This reached its apogee with the military successes of the first year or two of the War but Hitler's hold on power had been largely unchallenged from the mid 1930s onwards. Crucial to this was the closeness of a few at the top of the Nazi Party. Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Goering,Hess, Speer and the rest provided the support but also the implementation. As did the Army leaders - at least at first from the defeat of Poland, France, Belgium and the rest in the early war years. The scope and scale of the Nazi tyranny was such that a massive infrastructure had to be created to apply it. At all levels - from the regional Gauleiters to the lowly concentration camp guards there had to be compliance and a willingness to implement. And there was. Himmler and co. oversaw all this and Hitler rarely involved himself in the detail. There was also the phenomenon that Kershaw calls  'Working Towards the Führer" the premise of which is that there was a sort of assumed authority and delegation which came from those at all levels taking actions which they knew or assumed Hitler would approve of - even if they actually had no authority or orders to do so. Chillingly the euthanasia of those with mental illness or other handicaps was an example of this - as was much of the detail of the Holocaust.

This is a huge biography but Hitler's personal life remains obscure. His relationships with women, even with Eva Braun, are sketchy largely I think because there is insufficient evidence to draw upon. Some have alleged a homosexual period in Hitler's life but Kershaw does not address this - largely I suspect because there is absolutely no evidence to support it. The personality causes of Hitler's malignancy are also hard to fathom. Was he "mad"? Well by any rational definition of the word the answer is surely that he was? But in fact from a purely clinical and psychoanalytical perspective there is little to support this. And if he was mad were all of those at all levels who implemented his policies mad as well? Obviously not.

With his armies poised to invade Britain in late 1940 Hitler stood on the brink of absolute domination of Western Europe. The military achievement both in its scope and swiftness of results had been extraordinary. Germany clearly had very good Generals and an effective Army. Hitler held back. Kershaw describes clearly how in power Hitler had not wanted conflict with "England" as he called it. Munich was part of this - there was a genuine wish to keep Britain neutral. Hitler admired Britain's Empire - not least because it gave her the "Lebensraum" (essentially geographical territory) which he believed Germany lacked. Hitler's war aims were primarily about lebensraum - along with the determination to break Bolshevism which was, of course, to lead to the invasion of the Soviet Union. With hindsight from the moment that Hitler moved his armies into Russia, the Ukraine and the other soviet republics the war was over. It did not seem so at the time - least of all to Hitler. Once the war started slowly to turn against Germany Hitler turned against his Generals and against Goering whose Luftwaffe he saw as having let him down. The armed forces fought tenaciously and with courage on two fronts. On the Western front, after D-Day, it was only a matter of time - especially with the Americans in the front line. Hitler became increasingly delusional certain that the Allies would start squabbling among themselves, that his new weapons (V1 and V2) would swing the war back his way and that he could still win what had become "Total War". Kershaw focuses in some detail about the breakdown in relations between Hitler and the Generals - something that became more apparent to him after the unsuccessful attempt on his life in 1944 which was led by disaffected Army officers. The horrors of the Eastern Front were such that it was quite clear, had it not been before, that Hitler had a complete disregard for the value of human life. His armies became as much cannon fodder as the German forces had been towards the end of the Great War - ironically because it was in part Hitler's memory of that conflict which drove him on ever after to restore Germany's reputation. National pride was a key driver of all that he did.

The Holocaust is covered with restraint but Ian Kershaw shows its roots in Hitler's malign philosophy and describes how anti-semitism, along with anti-Bolshevism, drove everything that he did. There is an incrementalism to this story which is chilling - not least because we know what it was eventually to lead to. As we have seen Hitler was not hands-on in the detail but of course he knew what was going on and had inspired it. Kershaw made a famous television series about the Nazis called "The Nazis: A Warning from History" and he addresses the same aspect of "warning" in the biography - though without at any time moving away from a strict fact-based interpretation of what happened. The facts are enough. That thousands of ordinary Germans were willing to take part in unparalleled acts of barbarism - and in genocide (and that the military/industrial complex that was the Third Reich functioned to make this possible) is truly frightening. That is the warning. It is true that in a dictatorship the  rule of fear is ever present - people do what they do to survive. "Obeying orders" and keeping their heads down and looking the other way. But it is clear that the majority of the population were complicit (or if not that unwilling to challenge) because they chose to be. 

The compliant population lasted until the War turned against Hitler by which time it was too late. Today we call the phenomenon of ordinary people accepting things that might previously have been anathema to them as "Normalisation". At its most trivial this is the "Well he got the trains to run on time" syndrome where we surrender our previously held assumptions as to what is acceptable behaviour in our leaders because key aspects of life (employment, availability of food and shelter, security) are delivered where they were absent or under threat before. As we have seen Hitler initially delivered. How he did it is subservient to the fact that he did. Ian Kershaw has  described it as follows: 

"Dictatorship emerges where an individual or clique takes over power, usually at a time of crisis, on behalf of and often with the support of the people, and substitutes personal authority for the rule of law"

So the most important "warning from history" is not to normalise - not to accept that  the means justify the ends. Or at least to be wary if the "means" seem inconsistent with our previously established norms. There is no such thing as a "benevolent dictatorship" when the Dictator - Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco - replaces an elective democracy with a totalitarian exercise of power. History teaches us that the "benevolence" doesn't last long. 

Have we all learned from the warning that the Hitler years gave us?

In the 21st Century we may argue that the lessons of Germany in the Hitler years have been learned, that the post-war checks and balances are such that we have taken note of history's "warning". It would be naive and dangerous to assume that this is the case. President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia are both following a not dissimilar path to the early years of the Third Reich (or the years immediately preceding them). Individual liberties have been limited and state power has been used to eliminate opposition. In Donald Trump's America we see overt nationalism backed by propaganda and simplistic sloganising ("Make America Great Again"). One of Hitler's first acts on taking power in 1933 was to withdraw Germany from the "League of Nations". Trump is also contemptuous of international cooperation bodies such as the UN and NATO. And scapegoating is Trump's natural way - Muslims and Mexicans as well as Democrats and Judges. 

The United Kingdom has a strongly nationalist Government and a Prime Minster who wishes to eliminate dissent. The 48% of the voters who voted against the proposal to eschew international cooperation and to leave the European Union are being told by the Prime Minister that they should come in line and by the propagandist pro-Brexit newspapers that support her that those who oppose her are "saboteurs". Theresa May has attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary debate and votes on this issue - though some of our parliamentarians and judiciary have managed to stop the worst excesses of this extreme political dirigisme (bordering on one-party dictatorship). The pro-Brexit vote was delivered by nationalist rhetoric (about "Sovereignty") and by a xenophobic anti-foreigner and (above all) anti-immigrant pitch. May's calling of an early General Election is clearly based on her wish further to entrench the power of her increasingly nationalistic one-Party state. This also extends to withdrawal from such bodies as the European Court of Human Rights

That democracy is under threat today in countries that previously had entrenched it is not in doubt - and this should be a warning. That some elected politicians, once they secure power, exercise it undemocratically is there for all to see. That scapegoats are sought and victimised has uncomfortable parallels with the past. That dissent is not allowed is also increasingly common. And that propaganda - usually delivered by compliant Media owners from "Fox News" to "The Sun", the "Daily Mail" and the rest - is insidiously employed to reinforce the governing hegemony is surely not in question. 

After the Wall Street crash Germany plunged into darkness. Millions of dead and fifteen long years later she emerged, and was utterly determined to heed the warning from history that the Hitler years had been. The United Nations and institutions of international justice and political and economic partnership in Europe facilitated that progress. But others seem not to have heeded the warning in the same way - at least rectify. The nationalist and isolationist path on which America and Britain are launched is certainly as foolish as it is anachronistic. It could also be catastrophic. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My 100,000th Tweet !

I have just sent my 100,000th Tweet. As I first tweeted in May 2010 this means that there has been an average of 40 tweets (and retweets) from me per day. Assuming that the tweets are on average 20 words in length my tweets amount to 2 million words. This is more that “War and Peace”, the Bible and “Lord of the Rings” together. Not a bad output in just over six and a half years!

I could see that anyone unfamiliar with Twitter might find this all a bit mad! “How do you have the time?” Well the answer is that if each of my tweets takes me thirty seconds that is only twenty minutes a day. I scan Twitter quite regularly and follow links from it a lot. That, for me, is Twitter’s most valuable role. I believe that I am better informed by using Twitter as a gateway to other online sources. I tend to be “on Twitter” in “Down time” – especially on a train or at an airport. I would accept, though, that I read a bit less because I take part in social media. I still read a lot, but not as much as the pre-Twitter days.

I also meet people on Twitter and feel that I know them. Of my nearly 3800 followers I feel quite close to at least a couple of hundred few of whom I’ve actually met. There is a camaraderie there which is very pleasing. Over the last few months I have stopped following people whose views are antipathetic to mine (with one or two exceptions). This is quite controversial but I take the view that following 1900 people (as I do) is probably too many anyway and why should my timeline be cluttered with people I fundamentally disagree with?

I am fairly open on social media. I use my real name and with a couple of clicks anyone can find my full contact details. This has caused no problems at all and I see no reason to operate behind a pseudonym.I get little spam and trolls avoid me mostly. I dont block people just because they disagree with me but I do if they are rude or exceptrionally stupid! I don't follow and often block Eggs.

So onwards to the next 100,000 ! And thanks to my followers and those I follow for making Twitter worthwhile for me.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

How the Daily Mail makes our green and pleasant land into a moral refuse tip

I could have chosen a hundred or more (many more) tabloid  front pages to make my point. Which is that thanks to those who finance and deliver this sort of illiberal, slanted, narrow, selfish garbage we have declined visibly as a nation.Not just from the fact that our citizens in large numbers read this stuff. But because it is far worse these days than it used to be and it has far greater effect.

The disaster of Brexit was in strong part a consequence of lies and biased half-truths spread by the tabloids. Every day there was a new edition and a new front page. 

That most of the headlines and the stories were patently untrue, as in the example above, became habitual. And that they appealed to prejudice hardly needs to be stated. There is a strong anti-EU Islamaphobia in Britain. Even though the EU has almost nothing to do with Islam and there are very few Muslims in Britain here as a consequence of the EU's "Freedom of Movement" rules. (British Muslims are, of course, overwhelmingly of New Commonwealth origins (from Pakistan and Bangladesh etc.) A week or so before the EU Referendum  a man in Teddington High Street said within my hearing that he would be voting "Leave" because there are "too many ****** Muslims here already". There was a similar interview on Charlie Brooker's BBC look back on 2016. The canard that Turkey was going to join the EU and that, as the Daily Mail put it "1.5m Turks were coming to Britain" was an influence in the Referendum outcome. Think about this for a minute. Something that was patently untrue. Something that was promoted by the tabloid press. Something that was openly bigoted and biased. Something that appealed to prejudice and to xenophobia. That (maybe crucially) led to Britain quitting the European Union.

The British Government has its policy decided by public opinion and that public opinion is substantially influenced by the tabloids. "Freedom of Movement" within the EU is characterised as "Immigration" by the tabloids and for a British Government (or Opposition) to be seen as supporting immigration is the kiss of death. (The fact that the indivisible “Four Freedoms” - the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people - have been overwhelmingly positive for Britain as with the rest of the EU member nations is ignored because one of the freedoms is seen as "immigration").

So our Government policy is being driven by lies and prejudice, by ignorance and bigotry. Few politicians have the balls to stand up for the Four Freedoms and those that do – Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, Tim Farron and a few others – become tabloid targets. And all of us, including these courageously honest people, become the targets of the Mail and the rest:

Back to today’s Mail front page at the top of this Blog. This is classic stuff. The Hard Right is against Britain’s admirable Overseas Aid policies. So they invent and idea that if we cut Aid we could rescue the NHS (Does this sound familiar?). Its utter offensive nonsense of course but it will be believed. Again.  And there you have an example of how low we have sunk. Ignorant. Selfish. Nationalist. Xenophobic. Brutal. Not all of us of course. Probably nor even a majority of us. But sufficient of us to change this green and pleasant land into a refuse tip. And that hurts.


Friday, January 06, 2017

The threat of Fascism

The above was about Trump and the USA. But closer to home it rings alarm bells. 

(1)  Brexit is an overtly Nationalist proposition which turns its back on internationalism and predicates "Taking back control". The proposal to withdraw from the "European Court of Human Rights" is equally Nationalist as are the planned restrictions on Freedom of Movement and many other plans of the May Government.

(2) See (1)

(3) The European Union as a body and our current) 27 partners along with EU citizens working in Britain are among the many scapegoats of the current Government stance.

(4) The military is given a sentimental gloss , both retrospective and current, way above its real status as a Defence Force.

(5) The  glass ceiling is still in place and the Right has no plans to make significant change to the roles and rewards of women.

(6) Elements of the Mass Media are firmly under control of the Government/Media. The Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Express are under Right Wing control and considerable untrammelled power still exists despite Leveson. Some would argue that the BBC tows the Government line too often.

(7) The genuine threats from terrorism have brought bombastic rhetoric and threats of restrictions to liberty.

(8) The Prime Minister has played the God card more than once and she is clearly of the "We are a Christian country" mind-set. Some on the Right are calling for more social conservatism.

(9) There are continued paeans to capitalism from many on the Right and the Business sectors are being rewarded by the promise of less regulation and  more freedoms.

(10) There is an overt and determined anti-Union rhetoric and action underway.

(11) Intellectuals are condemned by senior Conservatives who decry experts and expertise. The Arts is characterised as "Luvvie" and its public funding is being severely cut.

(12) The swing to harsher prison sentences and punishment rather than helping criminals not to re-offend is the norm.

(13) The Honours Lists and the appointment of cronies to sinecures continue unabated under Theresa May.

(14) No plans to reform a not fit for purpose electoral system exist and the "EU Referendum" is held up as an example of democracy at work - which it certainly was not.