Out-foxed by Murdoch

Murdoch’s takeover of the Times all those years ago and his intrusion as an outsider into British politics has worried many of us for a long time. The paper is good in parts, very good, but we have to be ever-watchful for the hand of Murdoch.

Its coverage of Copenhagen was one egregious occasion when it was visible in the Times’s inexpicable drift in its main reporting into the doubters’ camp. Nothing overt, just a predisposition, which meant we couldn’t trust what the paper said.

The US healthcare bill is another example. Obama gets it through Congress. There’s a very pro-bill Times leader, but on the news pages we find a commentary from an unreconstructed Republican, ex-leader of the Senate. Good to have some balance one might argue – but it was the only US-sourced commentary in the paper. The rest of the reporting was UK-originated. The Fox line in the USA we can be sure is virulently anti-bill.

And then there’s Tory education policy here in the UK.

There’s a basic contradiction between Michael Gove’s desire to impose a more traditional curriculum and the freedom he’s keen to give parents to set up and run their own schools. Parents are unlikely to be queuing up to launch new schools teaching a traditional curriculum. A few may, but most will go off in unpredictable directions. The Times in a recent leader belatedly realised this, but it feebly soft-pedalled the contradiction. ‘First traditional reform [curriculum]’, then ‘radical change [organisation]’: ‘If Mr Gove becomes Secretary of State …it seems an easy life is not on the agenda.’

What price a serious critique?

The Times set itself up as The Thunderer two centuries ago. I think ‘wimp’ or ‘toady’ might be better, as The Thunderer finds itself emasculated by its owner’s party preferences.

Why We Hate Politics (Colin Hay)

A brief mention, courtesy of my daughter, of Colin Hay and his book Why We Hate Politics.He traces the rise of political disenchantment across a range of democracies. Unsurprisingly he finds that institutional apathy has been replaced  by a wide range of political and social activity which isn’t tied into the old hierarchies.

I’ve only seen his book in summary and I’m assuming he examines some of the issues that arise from this. With the demise of the great ideologies, communism, socialism, fascism, we no longer vest in the state all our hopes and expectations. Capitalism thrives, but it’s unshackled liberal capitalism that’s in vogue. Without the expectation that we can be lifted up by a hand that’s beyond and greater than ourselves, we’ve lost a sense of where we fit in the political system. We don’t want the state interfering, but we do want it providing, a very hard balance for politicians to strike. 

Out of this Hay conjures and  defends ‘a broad and inclusive conception of politics and the political that is far less formal, less state-centric and less narrowly governmental than in most conventional accounts’.

How Hay suggests power is devolved down to different levels I don’t know, but one comment struck me. ‘The political realities we witness are shaped decisively by the assumptions about human nature that we project onto political actors.’

We see good in many areas of our local lives. With an endless diet of negative news we see evil in the grander scheme of things.

We can see politicians either as champions of the local at a national level, or just by the process of elevation transformed into a self-serving coterie. Events of recent years have firmly rooted politics and politicians in the latter camp. More often that not without justification, but it seems that it’s what we expect, so it’s what we think we get. And just in case there’s any doubt in our minds, there’s the press to reinforce this view many times over.

Occam’s razor blunted

There are many definitions of Occam’s razor, but two strike me.

–       “pluritas non est ponenda sine necessitate”, or “nature likes things as simple as possible.”

–       the principle that entities should not be multiplied needlessly; the simplest of two competing theories is to be preferred

The one is a law of nature, the other a principle.


The human tendency to multiply, to diversify, to spin off, to find other points of view, to tear down and rebuild, to endlessly theorise, to generate endless legislation… It’s all distracting, self-justifying, time-consuming, and does a good job filling in that awkward time between birth and death.

The second definition keeps its focus narrow, avoids the every day. It tidies Occam and his razor away into a philosophical or scientific sphere, where I know it does a good job.

The first, the original definition, is Occam’s. Nature takes the simple route. It’s a principle that should apply to the wider world, to everyday life, but such is the crazy untameable force of the human mind that nature doesn’t stand a chance.

Occam got it right. We need to step back, tame our minds, and be more a part of nature, recognise its slower pace, focus on the way it does things simply.

Occam is due for a revival.

We just don’t care anymore

Are we loyal to anything anymore?

Loyalty… initially it was all about scale. The oldest loyalties were to family and community, with feudal lords and monarchs demanding homage, military service and more, but all remained personal. God was the ultimate loyalty, felt more or less personally.

In our modern world we’ve meticulously taken out each one…

Family: from extended to nuclear to co-habitation and quick divorces.

Community: local identity undermined, as towns and cities became amorphous and suburban, and central squeezes local

Central government: the pride in and loyalty to a new-style representative government that first took root in the 16th century now undermined at every turn by a scornful and unregulated media

God: out there, in his heaven, expected to interfere to save us from natural catastrophes, rejected if he doesn’t.

 Moving on:

It’s down to us at each level to redefine our loyalties, and build on what we have and not join all those willing to tear it down, with nothing to put in its place.

As for God, he isn’t out there to judge us or for us to judge him. He’s within us, beyond any notions of self, a place equally well-known to Buddhists, where we can find compassion, and joy, if we’d only allow ourselves to explore. There is a transforming power that could work in society if we’d only let it.

We sometimes drift in this blog a little too far from zen politics. This takes us back to basics. Community isn’t just about adjustments to the way we behave to each other, fascinating though the work of behavioural economists is. It may be open to adjustments or nudges by government to help us behave better toward each other, and make our lives, our schools or communities better places. But ultimately it’s about what lies within us, and how we care about everyone, family, stranger or the furthest flung foreigner.

It’s not so difficult, but it does require we open our eyes to the possibility, and there isn’t even a semblance of that happening in ordinary secular society out there.

Just who has the power?

We’re losing that civic sense we once had, or we’ve lost it already. Now we look to elected mayors to bring a sense of identity to a city or town, as Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have done to London. But it’s personality-based, not institutional. In the 80s civic power and identity was devolved down from the GLC to the London councils, but a reduction of funds from the centre, very limited power to raise money locally, and a government policy of taking away power and loading up responsibility has undermined local authority as well. Back in the 19th century money poured into local government coffers and great town halls and other civic buildings graced the skyline just as churches had done in a previous age. There was a surge of confidence which led also to a resurgence of church building, picking up on that same Gothic style. God and mammon worked well together. All that confidence has gone now. If you have any new civic buildings they’re leased back, not owned.  (God is leased back too, but that’s another story.) Central government has done a pretty efficient job in arrogating power to itself, and local government has to live off a diet of criticism, never praise. Who’s fault is it that social work is in crisis – underfunded councils, who have all the time to prioritise, or central government which underfunds?

In Victorian times local councils and the new capitalism out of the industrial revolution lived side by side. Now power is either devolved down, as with education, or up, as with funding. Who would be a councillor? Think back to the great civic leaders like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham. They’re gone forever, unless central government finds some humility and devolves down.

Central government may have thought itself as above the local funding crisis, always pointing the finger, blaming, arguing for its own financial probity, and the failings of others. But then came the credit crisis, eroding central government authority.  Then the debacle over MPs pay eroded parliament’s authority. Local government is scorned at worse, a matter of indifference at best for most of us. The Tories argue the answer to the authority vacuum is to encourage local initiatives, below local council level, and give local people power and responsibility, but much of the problem lies not with local government as such, but rather an undermining of its authority and financial base, so that it’s impossible for it to function properly. 

Once local initiatives of the kind Cameron espouses either fail to work or never get started, as they assuredly will, then it should be local authority that reasserts itself, as the necessary and logical intermediate tier. But no, as night follows day power will be clawed back by the centre. It will take courage of a kind that none of the political parties have displayed to give power and resources back to local authorities and restore a proper balance between central and local power. As for local initiatives I’m not disparaging those for a second but they will need support and they’ll need to co-ordinate, to become part of a wider structure – and that should be one tier up, local authorities, not a government department or quango.

Death of the Hummer

GM has announced the death of the over-sized gas-guzzling Hummer.  I’d like to think America is en route to a new awareness that big isn’t beautiful, but there’s little sign of it. They’ve never liked big government or big finance, but as long as Wall St was an American symbol they accepted it. Now tea parties want to scupper Wall St as well as Washington, and if they get their chance they’ll get a nasty shock. Investment funds will dry up, federal subsidies disappear, and demand and imports with it will collapse.  What backwoods USA has to face up to is that it’s now part of the wider world for good or ill. Best to engage, stay in not drop out, tame the Federal tiger, avoid throwing their prosperity to the four winds. They won’t of course. They’ll still want big and best and live in their own Fox-fed cocoon. So it’s down to Washington and Wall St to find solutions. What both need is an unspectacular getting-on-with-the-business quiet period, nothing fancy, limited healthcare legislation, no more than that, let the temperature ease down, and tempers, and maybe there’ll be less polarisation, the Republicans won’t be pulled so hard in a backwoods direction, against their own better judgement, and we can all (not just the US) focus on the slow and steady, on getting balance into the US and other national economies, and balance into the world economy, not least righting the absurd trade imbalances between the West and China.  We’re all in this, not just America.

David Cameron’s Big Society – bright ideas, or real substance?

My starting-point here is David Cameron’s Big Society lecture (Hugo Young lecture, November 09) and David Willett’s article, The Spirit of Cooperation, in the March edition of Prospect. Cameron’s was an impressive lecture (though one wonders just how many speechwriters were involved)  He talks passionately of redistributing power from the state to the individual, of community involvement and action. 

‘This, then, is our new role for the state.  Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal. It must help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems.’

The agencies he sees as carrying this through are three: social entrepreneurs, running successful social programmes, community action, and ‘the majority of the population’. The big society demands mass engagement: a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.  At the heart of bringing about this engagement are social norms, ‘how other people behave’. He quotes academics who argue that with the right prompting or ‘nudge’ governments can effect a whole culture change.

David Willetts’s article explores a philosophical basis for this, highlighting the benefits of mutual cooperation, reciprocity  ‘in everyone’s self-interest’, and building and maintaining reputation.  ‘Small face-to-face groups are particularly good at generating these sorts of behaviour.’  We’re talking of reconciling freedom and opportunity with the equally important need for belonging and commitment.

We’re back with notions of a social contract based on enlightened self-interest, a bottom-up small-state approach pitched against a top-down big state. In Cameron’s Britain instead of a big state we will have a big society.  The aim has to be to design social institutions, not pass laws to change behaviour.

Family has a key role (picked up in Willetts’ new book). ‘The good news is that early experience of strong reciprocity in nuclear families seems to reinforce a belief in universal values and laws.’ Strong families care for elderly parents as well as children, and Willetts argues that ‘strengthening these inter-generational clinks can be a powerful way of rebuilding social capital too.’ Behaviour learnt within the family is replicated in wider society.


So much of this agree with. My own experience of family life, school governing bodies, coaching cricket – and indeed working life – confirms for me the importance of community, working with not against each other, with the new being valued by the old, children by parents, staff by managers, players by coaches.

The problem is that I don’t see how Cameron’s politics are really likely to cause any significant change.  Parents setting up new schools has little to do with community action, much to do with one or two strong and opinionated individuals. Most forms of community action require strong leadership, and there are many examples of that in society as it is now. There may be more in Cameron’s Britain, or maybe not. Hearing George Osborne, on Five Live recently, trying to justify local cooperatives which might run local care units or even primary schools, was embarrassing. I fear they are ideas without substance.

I also think arguments about a broken society are deeply irresponsible, as most commentators agree. (Though, not surprisingly, the Murdoch-controlled Times.) We’ve had the press gleefully undermining the political class, and we now have the opposition arguing that our social fabric has collapsed. (Ask most people if their own corner of society is broken and they’ll say no.) From that level of disillusionment it will take a lot of ‘belonging and commitment’ to compensate, and if Willetts and Cameron are looking to a new improved family life to provide that, they will have a long wait.

Their plans for local government involve devolving down to communities, all worthy ideas, but incoherent, and requiring a change of attitude toward society that the sense of disillusionment that much of their political day-to-day, as opposed to philosophical talk, engenders, works directly against.  I don’t think the Tory rank and file have a clue about what belonging, commitment and community would involve for them. For Cameron’s immediate circle, of course they do. But Cameron knows that it’s not great society talk that will get him elected, but doing down Labour, and with ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson running his PR machine not surprisingly it’s pretty nasty.

I just don’t believe the ground-level community engine that’s needed to drive the big society is there now, or will ever be. Talk of well-designed social institutions will never get us there. Social institutions are by their nature imperfect. They need, I’m afraid, legislative force to underpin them.

One other consideration: who designs these well-designed institutions? There’s much talk, encouraged by behavioural economists and the like, of ‘nudging’ behaviour. If friends of your friends smoke you’re more likely to smoke, and vice versa. See the reference to social norms and ‘how other people behave’ above. You can see how Cameron’s recent re-conversion to tax breaks for married couples fits in. Strengthen marriage, strengthen the family and cross-generational links. Build up a sense of belonging.

Again, I can see the sense in this. But such changes are normally generated from below, by broader social influences, not by tax breaks and wise words. The press could have a major role to play, not so much by promoting community, but by cutting out the sense of social breakdown they so love to promote. Bad news always trumps good news.  As long as the press continues to play its current games I’m pessimistic about any significant social change.  We know, for example, how doubtful the hard right backers of the Telegraph and Mail are about David Cameron. They won’t give him much time before they’re sniping.

Don’t think I’m arguing here for a continuation of Blair/Brown over-manipulation of society, too much centralisation of power, intolerance of dissent, micro-management, legislation, too many directives.  I too want communities to have a greater freedom, but I don’t expect too much of them.

As I argued in an earlier blog what we need is balance, respect for institutions at all levels, be it community, local and national, and understanding that at every level there are good people, now as then, and will be. We need to encourage the empowering of local people and communities that is already happening now, but also recognise that responsible local and national government is the right way to interpret, balance and direct local aspirations.  


To give a little more substance to my argument, let’s take Michael Gove’s much-discussed school reforms as an example. He’s proposing a major programme of new schools, and that means major changes to teaching and curriculum, new buildings, new pay and conditions for staff, and significant local disruption as other schools locally adjust to a new well-financed kid on the block.  (The jury is out of course regarding whether it’s the academy format or the additional money pumped in that really drives improved performance in academies.) Just maybe we’ll all be swept along by sense of exciting change, and we’ll not be phased by the apparent chaos around us, but I doubt it.

How long will we have to wait before these reforms bed down, and we can enjoy the brave new world of community and cooperation we’re promised? Will the reforms really be about community, or much more about committed and opinionated individuals driving change of their choice? All this talk of community: new schools are intended to provide freedom of choice, and we’re likely to find children travelling further from their local community, undermining rather than fostering the sense of community encouraged by genuinely local schools. How long will it be before government intervenes to put education back  on a more structured path?


Finally, at another level, while I find all Willetts’ talk of reciprocity and reputation as key drivers of social behaviour fascinating, and I like his focus on family, he like almost everyone else in politics seems to be frightened of the words ‘care’ and ‘compassion’. There’s no mention of a moral basis for society, no mention of Christian or any other morality. Have we a chance without it? I’m not certain we do.

Willetts’ social contract is based on enlightened self-interest, and that indeed has been the basis of modern political theory. But there’s also been a moral consensus underpinning developing democratic societies, and that has been the cement holding society together. These days there’s much outrage, but little sense of a wider morality. We may develop communitarian instincts within the family. But we have few external standards of reference. It’s evident from public debate and press agitation just how lost we are without those standards.

That’s why this blog is called Zenpolitics. There’s an understanding of human nature that we have instinctively and that we’re scared to own up to in private life, let alone public life.  If I’d called this Jesuspolitics I’d have even fewer readers than I have now. Zen at least is cool. But the message of both is similar – how  damaging the pursuit of our own self-interest can be, how much we benefit by putting others ahead of ourselves.

I’m a realist. A moral world won’t happen, nor should it, given the way morality can be twisted, though I’d like at least to see a sense of compassion much more firmly rooted in our society. How that can be achieved is another subject, only touched on here. But without it the new big society communitarian utopia just hasn’t got a chance.