Saturday, 26 February 2011
So the blog has been a bit episodic recently... Pressures of in-semester teaching and of rushing around the country talking to groups of other academics, which has been invigorating but exhausting.
One thing that has become clearer over the last couple of weeks, during which I've spoken at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (above) and at Keele University, is the indistinct nature of the boundaries between 'citizen' and 'consumer'.
The LSHTM conference, Health rights in global historical perspective, saw a series of historians of medicine reflect on the ragged edges between the state and society. Jane Seymour of UCL made clear how rhetorics of health and the state were changing in the early twentieth century under the stresses of New Liberalism and what we used to call 'the rise of labour'. Gayle Davis of Edinburgh was revealing about Scottish doctors, lawyers, administrators and their different relations with the IVF in the 1950s and 1960s. Linda Bryder from the University of Auckland gave a really sensitive and revealing paper about women's rights and maternity care in twentieth century New Zealand.
What these papers had in common - and what my own efforts at the LSHTM and at Keele tried to give voice to as well - is that the line between what is for 'the state', and what is for 'the people', 'the market' or for charities is an ever-shifting one. Even services provided by the Government change all the
That set me thinking about Jesse Norman's The Big Society and Phillip Blond's Red Tory, both influential books on the blue side of the Coalition, and both under my eye at the moment as I try to finish the conclusion to my next book.
Blond's is infinitely the better work - both because it's full of concrete ideas, and (more importantly as regards the state and society) he's clear that this line will continue to move even in the new and 'red Tory' future. Norman is much less clear about this, and seems to think that the decentralisation agenda, giving power 'away' to co-ops and local authorities for instance, will always flow in one direction.
I don't think it'll be like that. The tide will flow back one day, the direction of the flood changed by scandal, policy contradictions and probably a couple of catastrophic failures due to lack of auditing or direction from the centre. It's important to say that as a historian who's very sceptical indeed about post-war 'planning', which basically promised more than it could achieve.
But one day historians will look at Blond and Norman and say, 'ah, that was the "Cameron moment", the neo-libertarian moment, before...' And then they'll talk about the future, still unknown to us, that changed it all again.
We need historians to understand that. It's a job, I suppose.
Monday, 21 February 2011
...Now, where was I? Ah yes, government policies that won't work. Not necessarily because they're misguided: that's an argument for a different blog in a way. But because they're hasty, not particularly well thought-through, and just plain crazy. Every government has a few of them: the nonsensical and unworkable Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 is usually cited as the paradigmatic example.
But there's something else that historians and public policy experts can bring to the table when talking about contemporary issues: an awareness of when similar designs went wrong in the past, and exactly how and why.
I think Iain Duncan Smith's 'Universal Credit' proposals fall into exactly this camp.
It's not necessarily a bad idea to make work pay. At present most people on welfare have to pay absolutely absorbitant amounts of Income Tax and National Insurance on their income as they move off state benefits. It's hardly an encouragement to get a job. Labour's answer to this was Tax Credits - relatively generous Income Tax allowances if you were on low pay, had children, etc. etc. There's some evidence that this was moderately effective on making the labour market function more effectively.
The Universal Credit is an attempt to roll everything in all the existing welfare pots into one - and to do this for each household, rather than each individual or couple, to see if the cash can't be provided more effectively. Now there's a lot of problems here - for instance, if you've got any savings, you're likely to lose out, as you'll lose lots of benefits. How is this supposed to reward enterprise, initiative and thrift? More importantly, where are all these jobs going to come from as we move 'from welfare to work' while unemployment peaks at over three million? MPs have recently raked Duncan Smith over the coals about this.
But the main delivery problem is just scale. The following statement from the Government should strike fear in the heart of all those who remember procurement disasters of the past, like ID cards:
We envisage an integrated IT system to manage all claims, and a single payment system to apply a withdrawal rate and pay the correct entitlement. These would not be entirely new systems and could be built on our existing IT and capabilities.
Oh dear. This is known (and deprecated) in management studies jargon as 'hierachical' change - quite the opposite of what the Coalition is attempting in other spheres, e.g. Higher Education and local government (don't worry, we'll come back to those in other posts). It has the benefit of simplicity, clarity and clear lines of responsibility. Its weakness? It's prone, like charismatic leadership, to 'cataclysmic failure' or, more likely, unintended consequences and unexpected outcomes as objective trade-offs become more complex.
Two examples: the Wilson Government tried to 'claw back' some of the cuts to Family Allowances during 1968 and 1969, constructing a means of directing some of the money saved to 'the poorest'. They wanted to construct a 'family income database' to do so. They failed when the Central Statistical Office told them it just wasn't possible.
Second example: the Heath Government of 1970-74 wanted to build a 'negative income tax' that would have meant a perfectly smooth move from receiving benefits to earning, adding on Income Tax as you earned more. The result? As I'm sure you'll have guessed by now, the computer project ran into the sands and the whole thing was scrapped.
The 'big brain' approach of previous governments didn't work. This is quite likely to crash and burn as well.
Tuesday, 15 February 2011
A great deal of the discussion about university tuition fees in England has been around the emotive issue of whether they are right - morally right, that is, given that many argue much higher costs will deter students from non-traditional backgrounds and shift the burden of costs from a well-off generation to a poorer one.
Less attention has been paid to the problem of whether the system will actually work - whether it will pay for our universities to continue teaching and researching at the same relatively high quality level they do now.
The problem here is that the new system bids fair to completely bankrupt the Exchequer, while delivering very few quality or efficiency gains. It's a slow-motion car crash - a system that won't work and can't work.
There are at least four reasons for this:
1. The Treasury has assumed very high and rising graduate salaries, going up by 4.47% every year. They have rarely touched such dizzying heights, even in the booms of the 1980s and 1990s. If that figure sinks down to four per cent, or even three per cent, the whole scheme's sunk. This at a time when the system will probably expand, due to the dropping of the 'cap in detail' on each institution's numbers - so the relatively value of a degree will sink.
2. Universities will charge much higher fees than the Government expected. Some newer universities, such as Staffordshire, are indicating that they might stick near to the £6,000 that the Government thinks of as the 'normal' level. But even here, Staffs' Vice-Chancellor has said that some courses may well cost more. Much higher up the traditional pecking order, Cambridge (above) is well advanced in its plans to charge the maximum £9,000. The whole Russell Group will probably follow suit, along with the 1994 Group of universities. Most other HE institutions will probably charge an average of £8,000 or so rather than the average of £7,500 the Treasury has been modelling. As Mike Baker has pointed out, what's the point of differentiating on price when the gap is £3,000 over three years for graduates being charged £27,000? Who will pay back very similar amounts of their later salaries anyway? It's pointless. Universities also won't want to look like they are offering 'cheap' courses. Higher Education is a 'Giffen' or 'positional' good - something that evokes demand the more it costs, not less. Already there is anecdotal evidence of student consultations bringing back the clear message: 'charge us more'.
3. Undergraduates attending from low-income EU countries will pay very little back. No-one pays anything until they earn £21,000. If you go back and work in Estonia - or perhaps, in the fulness of time, Turkey - you are unlikely to earn much over that amount. Ever. So the UK Treasury will be paying all your fees when they're written off after thirty years.
4. The Government will not be able to 'claw back' most of the cash hemmorraghing out of the system. Nick Clegg threatened Vice-Chancellors recently with some form of 'claw back' of teaching money. When he was told that there isn't going to be any teaching money, he switched tack to say 'well, we'll take some of your research money off you then'. Some VCs apparently laughed in his face. On the EU students front, few member governments will do much to help the UK Exchequer in its increasingly desperate bids to recover funds from ex-students, even those who've gone back to work in relatively rich countries. So the money will dribble away out of the many, many holes in the system.
The Government says it has £3.6bn a year to spend, down from a peak of something like £9bn three years ago. I reckon the above means it'll be spending much more like £6-7bn. Saving £2-3bn a year has never felt so painful.
The whole thing will have to be completely redrawn within a few years. Presumably this will happen early in the next Parliament, when there's either a majority Conservative government or a coalition of a rather different hue in power. The present administration won't be able to admit that the whole thing's been a terrible botch-up without immense damage to its reputation.
This might well be the stage at which Oxford, Cambridge and some other Russell Group universities decide to go it alone, saying to government: 'you're not giving us any money, but you are loading on demands. We're off'. Then we really will have a two-tier system.
That's enough of the Nostradamus for now...
Monday, 14 February 2011
One of the most worrying elements of politicians these days - from all parties - is that they lack a sense of history.
Tony Blair talked about rights and responsibilities, and Gordon Brown about 'Britishness', as if those subjects were fresh off the page. No-one, of course, had ever thought about any of this - not Ralf Dahrendorf, William Beveridge, Anthony Crosland or Leonard Hobhouse. I could pick any number of other names out of the air. Adam Smith? Who's he?
This government's about as good (or bad) at this as any other. Hence the recent musings about loosening rights at work, for instance by increasing the period people need to work for an employer before they receive protection against unfair dismissal or poor treatment. It's not so much that this will make the coming 'shake-out' easier - although it will - but rather the images and discourses pressed into use to justify this questionable policy.
Ministers talk of 'flexibility', 'change', 'dynamism', 'taking the weight off employers' backs' and 'allowing the market to work'.
Actually, as the history of employment law in the UK shows, the effects can be the opposite. David Cameron is said to take Harold Macmillan as his political hero. They're both apparent centrists who went to Eton, after all. But Macmillan understood, as Cameron sometimes does not, how recession and depression can work. His government introduced the 1963 Contracts of Employment Act forcing businesses to provide written contracts, pay on time, keep to their end of the bargain, provide a notice period, etc. etc. It was also during that period of Conservative government that many of our more effective and more modern health and safety legislation was enshrined in statute.
Why did the Conservatives do this? Because they knew it was efficient.
Encouraging protectoin at work makes people happier and more satisfied, and encourages them to work more efficiently, for agreed goals. But we can leave these modern - and often Scandinavian - insights to one side for the moment and just point out that the more people are offered redundancy pay and periods of gardening leave, the more likely they are to move from declining or failing companies, and the more likely they are to wait for a job that fits their skills before diving into a new post.
Even for relatively liberal economists, it's a no-brainer.
It's all of a piece with coalition policy which is, as Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer pointed out on Sunday, decided between two parties rather than thinking about how the public will receive those ideas - let alone how they'll work out in practice.
Hence the slow-motion car crash of tuition fees, mangled and despised even before they reach the implentation stage. But more of that anon...
Wednesday, 9 February 2011
One thing that was missed in all the torrents of comment about David Cameron's speech on 'multiculturalism' was this: it just wasn't very good.
Now one can debate the pros and cons of this issue until one is blue in the face - watching the actual speech on YouTube might be a start. Some Conservatives are trying to grapple with some of the most difficult issues that face a modern society - pressing metaphors and similes, and just about everything to hand, into use. But what I noticed, as a stick-in-the-mud academic, was that it was (how shall one put this?) a bit shoddy.
The Prime Minister is in what Americans call the 'bully pulpit' - or in Barack Obama's case, after the recent shootings in Tuscon, the 'Angel's pulpit', trying to draw the nation together with words. Heads of state and government can sometimes heal or inspire with words more than deeds. If you don't want to think of Churchill's stirring oratory in 1940-42, one can get down into 'normal' politics and read John Major's words about the death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994. 'An opponent, but not an enemy' still rings in my ears at least.
The Prime Minister's speech didn't do very well by these standards. As Sunny Hundal points out over on Liberal Conspiracy, it sought to say that 'extremist groups' wouldn't be funded by the UK government (they aren't now, by the way), and it posited a world in which we should act against 'hate speech' in the defence of civil liberties (a non-sequitur if ever there was one). As Gladstone once put, the strongest bulwark of freedom is the breasts of free men.
A truly 'muscular liberal' such as Gladstone would simply have shook his head sadly at this effort. It might have been toughtful - in patches it was - but in the end it was a bit of an intellectual non-event.
Before anyone gets too arrogant about this (academics least of all) it's worth wondering why this might be. In fact, I think it's obvious that since 1945 the work of government and the demands on our leaders have grown exponentially, and their human abilities of course have not bounded ahead to keep up. The conclusion of the book I'm completing right now, Governing Post-War Britain, will have much to say on this. Alec Cairncross, Chief Economic Advisor to Her Majesty's Government, compared Whitehall to a 'looney bin' in rather un-PC comments after he'd left the civil service; one of Labour's 1960s 'irregulars', (nor Sir) Samuel Brittan, records in his forthcoming diaries that his overwhelming impression was of tiredness, lack of control, and then chaos.
It's still like that, as the demands rise on our Prime Ministers most of all - Gordon Brown being the prime example of how difficult it now is to lead.
That might help to explain why politics often seems so dumb.
Tuesday, 8 February 2011
Entirely unsurprising news is now just beginning to filter out about the level of fees that England's universities will charge from the start of the academic year 2012-2013. Cambridge University's internal debate has predictably focused on setting the maximum possible fee level (as indeed they probably would have done at say £12,000, or indeed even £15,000 or £17,000 for some subjects). 'International excellence' and the ability to compete in an 'international market' are as ever given as reasons - despite the extremely thin nature of global moves on the parts of either prospective students or staff.
Still, this was all entirely predictable - and was forecast here, as well as across the sector, when the Government finally came up with its nasty dog's dinner of a package late last year.
So is Cambridge's (entirely warranted) assumption
We await this week's news of what access conditions universities will have to meet if they are to charge more than the minimum £6,000 - as almost all will. Cambridge will have been in the loop on this to some extent, so the fees remission of £3,000 and the maintenance bursary of £1,625, and a bit of progress on state school entry, shouldn't be far off the mark that's asked for. Even if you fall short, you will probably only face fines - or at most a 'very nasty letter', Team America, World Police-style.
Here's something else to chew on while you're thinking about that: yet another hole in the plan will be the Treasury subsidy to students from poorer EU countries, who will come to the UK to study but may then earn not much (in UK terms) back in their home countries. That'll leave the taxpayer picking up the bill yet again, as the avings from all this continue to dry up.
None of this is very edifying. It's another policy car-crash in slow motion. But it was so obvious from the start that making this a news item seems a bit surprising.
Monday, 7 February 2011
Big debates rage, inevitably, about how much new technology can change and reshape what's now called 'teaching and learning' in universities.
Needless to say, there are a lot of resources out there on the web - really the entry-level for such debates, because these are often just printed pages available on the screen. We've not really broken through yet to conceptualise how more interactive and exciting technologies will affect learning.
One example that's gone up today shows how we might inch forwards. I teach a course entitled 'Britain and the Sea since 1600', and the BFI on the South Bank (above) has just put up a great big site full of film resources on 'when Britain ruled the world'.
Not only does this project embody a good example of what we jargon-heavy academics call 'outreach' - with film events and talks across the UK - but it shows just how 'intertextual' we might make our essays and presentations. What about embedding a slice of the film in your talk? Quoting from it in your essay?
You'd have had to go there yourself, load the DVD and all that involves, for both cash and time that students may not have. Now, you just sit there and download the films - from documentaries about steelmaking to wartime propaganda films about the U-Boat menace, from Sean Connery talking to you about Clydeside to news footage of the great labour disputes of the 1970s. It's just a great resource.
No doubt I'm being pretty fuddy-duddy about all this even now, given that this is really just an easier way to get at stuff that existed already. But even at this humdrum practical level, it's pretty impressive.
Now there's just the analysis to do...
Saturday, 5 February 2011
News arrives this this week that Lord Wei, the young and dynamic social entrepreneur who helped to set up Teach First, has scaled back his role as the Government's 'Big Society' tsar. Apparently he's off to (a) earn more money, and (b) 'have more of a life'. Fair enough on an individual level. But his personal decision has also sparked off a good deal of schadenfreude on the Left, keen to point out that all the volunteering, helping and social networking that was going to stand in for the welfare state is really at odds with everyday life - as Labour warned during the 2010 General Election.
This comes as Liverpool, one of Europe's most needy cities in terms of 'Big Society' or 'Big Government' - crying out for all sorts of intervention - pulls out of the pilot project. There was an unconvincing attempt by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman, writer of the book which coined the phrase, to justify this on Any Questions last night. He reckoned that it was all to do with the working out of the policy in detail - always difficult after years of public sector micro-management. The idea that councils having to make cuts of up to half their budget over this Parliament might just be walking away was rubbished. Er... Pull the other one.
To be fair to Lord Wei, he's responded to his critics by saying that he's set up a lot of the machinery and can now be 'hands off'. And that Ministers and advisers never imagined everyone volunteering all the time anyway - just charities doing things more efficiently than local government sometimes does.
But it doesn't look good at all for this most interesting, but really most nebulous, of 'Cameroon' ideas. Which is a pity in a way, because all agree (especially Labour, bigging up the 'Third Sector' for years to help push its own ideas) that this is a good concept in principle. Local people, community groups and charities can indeed have a high, visible, caring impact.
Is it in trouble? Yes. Is this inevitable? Well, no. But this is a government that's made such a presentational pig's ear of its Forestry Commission proposals, lost its spin-doctor-in-chief and has managed to get in a big flap about sudden controversies from school milk to school sport.
It's possible - whisper it - that it's not as good at presentation as many people think.
Friday, 4 February 2011
So it does seem as if there's been a tipping point in the opinion polls over the last few weeks, and Labour now does have a lead in the high single figures over the Conservative Party.
So should Ed Miliband (above) start to measure up his curtains for No. 10?
There's a great deal of comment around that actually thinks that Labour should be doing rather better than it is. They're now usually in the low- to mid-40s in the polls, and after probable victories in forthcoming council, Scottish and Welsh elections (and more cuts) they'll move further ahead still. It's hard to imagine how much higher they might go - even Tony Blair in the mid-1990s only hit the low 60s in some opinion polls, and now different methodologies re-apportioning 'don't knows' mean it's hard to hit those heights.
So the talk of Labour doing 'poorly' is probably a bit exaggerated. Of course they'd rather be hitting 50 per cent - but a year after stumbling exhausted out of office, in the midst of a fierce economic crisis, that was always a bit unlikely.
Still, concerns remain about their performance. Their leader's personal ratings, though not catastrophic by any means, are almost always negative. Focus group evidence in southern England - in marginals like Harlow, that they must win if they are ever to return to power - reveals that the party's economic credibility is shot and that, culturally, it is just not seen as 'relevant' to the people of southern England. Most of the people of Harlow will have done fairly well out of Labour's tax and spending policies while in office (Child Benefit, Working Families' Tax Credit etc.) but it's a measure of the party's disconnection with southern voters that they are given little credit. Council by-election results suggest a swing of two per cent to Labour at the moment, so even at a moment when radical neo-liberal policies are doling out pain with little gain, the party would only be the biggest in a hung Parliament.
Lastly, and most concerning for Labour, the mood of economic and social pessimism that prevails at the moment seems to be undermining trust in government and governance as a whole, not rejuvenating people's desire for Keynesian solutions.
The combination of public ambivalence about Labour's leadership, legacy, outlook and abilities is still holding back their ratings. Their numbers are 'soft', as the Americans would say. That's not yet a bar to re-entering office four years from now, but it's a problem. Everything still depends on the outcome of the Chancellor's budgetary gamble, but Opposition isn't just about waiting for things to go - or stay - wrong.
Wednesday, 2 February 2011
While the world's eyes are - totally justifiably - on the ongoing crisis in Egypt, worrying cracks have continued to emerge in the UK government's deficit reduction strategy.
There's no doubt that Britian's budget deficit had to come down, and fairly sharply - though it's also no secret to readers of this blog that your correspondent's preference would have been for the brakes to have been applied with a lot more care, leaving a lot less rubber on the road (let's leave that overstrained metaphor there).
One of the reasons for this, I always thought, was that reducing a budget deficit of nearly 11 per cent of GDP was always going to be extremely tricky and politically - not to mention ethically - problematical within a single Parliament.
And turning back on your plans is worse than never making them in the first place. It would bring the whole structure and credibility of UK macro-economic management into question.
That's what the Institute for Fiscal Studies is warning about today. Although they are in general behind the Chancellor's attempts to reduce the deficit, even they have grave concerns about the practicality of the whole programme. Here's a corker in this respect from page two of the IFS press release:
The current government’s planned cuts to public spending are far greater than those attempted in the 1990s, and achieving these more ambitious spending cuts will be more difficult. In some parts of the public sector – such as in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice – a combination of the depth of the spending cuts and low labour turnover means that a downsizing of the workforce on the scale implied by the Spending Review will be difficult to achieve cost-effectively on the proposed timescale. Overall, with such large downside risks to the public finances, having alternative plans to hand could prove useful.Er - I told you so. I hate to say that - well, actually, I don't - but there you have it.
This idea of a 'Plan B' is, however, absolutely what Chancellor and Prime Minister have refused to countenance, leaving us lashed to the mast of a project that just might now work. It's an extremely worrying prospect. And it need not be like this - all the Government would have to do, perhaps in the coming spring or autumn, would be to say 'ah, inflation and interest rates look a bit higher than thought, the world situation is more uncertain, we'll go a bit easier on you'. That'd make them look statesmanlike - as well as right.
I'd stand by for exactly that outcome if I were you. Which would at least show that Whitehall and Westminster do bow to reality - sometimes.
Tuesday, 1 February 2011
So I'm now well into writing the introduction and conclusion of my new monograph, Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progesss. The (fairly) interesting hypothesis this book will explore is this: that a social democratic age of reform, launched between 1944 and 1948, eventually collapsed under the weight of some of its own inner contradictions. Plenty of people have chronicled the rise of neo-liberalism under a new type of Conservative such as Margaret Thatcher (above). But few have written about this from a governance perspective, drawing in insights from managerial writing and from sociological theories of choice and unintended consequences.
There are plenty of those to pick from. Labour brought in a Land Commission in 1967, to nationalise building land rights and lower land prices: those costs soared. The same government created the Parliamentary Commissioner or Ombudsman, hoping to 'humanize' Whitehall and forge a new link between people and administration. The Ombudsman's caseload groaned for years with complaint and controversy that seemed to bring government further and further into disrepute. The Americans and the British spent years upholding the 'Bretton Woods' system, which pegged their currencies immovably against one another, and to gold. Those currencies weakened and weakened, until the fixed rate system had to be abandoned.
And so on. And on. Now I'm working on integrating all this into the theoretical literature mentioned above. I'm labouring a bit, but I'll get there.
The most important thing to say at this stage is that these paradoxes were and are certainly not limited to the age of Keynesian and social democratic reform. The 'New Public Management' of the 1980s, which hoped to transform governance in a neo-conservative direction, turns out to be just as riddled with these unintended consequences. The work of Christopher Hood at Oxford University is a good pointed to these processes. He has shown how attempts to construct 'neutral' arbiters, such as 'hived off' semi-autonomous Development Corporations, dragged those operations into controversy; how trying to count unmeasurable outputs made them seem fuzzier and fuzzier, rather than more precise; and how massive financial shocks and constraints entrenched so-called 'restrictive practices', rather than dislodging them, as the Thatcherites intended.
So now the question is: are we doomed to unintended consequences? It would seem like a counsel of despair, one familiar from some of the undertones in From Dreams to Disillusionment: Economic and Social Planning in 1960s Britain.
I'll find out and let you know.