Thoughts on remembrance, war and humanity

I posted this last year on Facebook but I think it bears repetition on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve always been interested by our fascination, as a society, with the poetry of the First World War. Especially when contrasted with the almost complete anonymity of the Second World War poets. Of whom Hamish Henderson was one of the most significant.

It’s Remembrance Day, so I thought I’d share an extract from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. It was written during, after and about the Allied campaign in North Africa in the Second World War. We all know the war poets of the First World War, few of us know poets of the Second World War.

This extract from the First Elegy does something wonderful and difficult. It values the enemy. Living and dead. For many the Second World War is the archetype of the just war. A war of good against evil. Is it that a just war provides less scope for poetry?

Or is it that we have lost sense of the humanity of our enemies?

Hamish Henderson, Jan 1942 from “End of a Campaign”

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.

There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
or else
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.

There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villany of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?”

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Why we’re talking about the wrong bits of Brexit


We’ve spent a lot of time taking about Brexit and very little time thinking about the causes of Brexit. That’s important because as the withdrawal date draws closer, so the expected benefits will come into focus. I think that whatever happens after March next year risks deeper divisions amongst progressives. And a ride of the hard right.

The reason why the hard right wanted a Brexit referendum was precisely because it would unleash racist forces and divide the left. We need not to fall for that tactic.

This is because Brexit can never solve the problems it was meant to address. There were two major drivers of the Brexit vote: opposition to austerity; and opposition to immigration and the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the UK.

But Brexit isn’t going to end austerity, and it isn’t going to make Britain white again. And no Brexit can be sufficiently Brexity for the Brexit enthusiasts.

I am very concerned that any failure to leave the EU will be a massive recruiting agent for the hard right. They will be able to make the case that democracy doesn’t work, so we should have authoritarianism instead. This is almost certainly what will happen if Brexit is stopped.

But it’s also what will happen if we have a Brexit that doesn’t end austerity, or doesn’t end immigration, or doesn’t create a racially pure Britain. In other words, any actual existing Brexit.

And everyone who understands politics or economics knows ending austerity will be more difficult outside the EU than inside the EU. And it is both impossible and totally wrong to end immigration or revert to the racial mix of the 1950s.

We need to focus on the causes of Brexit and the real solutions to those. We need to change how we make the case on austerity and we need to win the argument for immigration and anti-racism.

There have been effective campaigns against austerity, but the lesson from the Brexit vote is that they need to be clearer about how austerity can be ended. We focused on the problems of austerity, rather than the ways we could end austerity. There’s good evidence that people believe that there is a limited amount of money which had to be allocated by government. It’s, of course, not true. But it makes arguments against the EU (and international aid) very attractive. It is a significant part of what made people believe the notorious ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ lie.

This is not just an expression of regret. We need to change how we do politics so we can avoid Brexit becoming a permanent recruiting agent for the far right.

There has not, on the other hand, been an effective campaign for immigration. And this is what we need to change. The first priority must be to make the moral and economic case for immigration. Immigrants have the right to be here – it’s not just Scotland that is a mongrel nation – and they make our economy and our public services function. We must be on the front foot about immigration and race.

Whether you are in favour of Brexit or not, whether you are campaigning for a People’s Vote or not, addressing the causes of Brexit must be a higher priority. We are at a very dangerous juncture, and we need to ensure that we speak to the concerns that led to the Brexit vote.

It’s time for the participatory society

The world abounds with both opportunities and crises. We live in a time of unparalleled progress – scientific breakthroughs offer to achieve everything from a cure to cancer to self-repairing glass. We are more connected than ever before. We have the opportunity to replace many low quality jobs through automation. And we have more information about the world than in any previous era. But these opportunities are clouded by the rise of political chauvinism and threats ranging from climate change to antimicrobial resistance.

Citizens are more educated than ever before, but we have legacy systems of decision-making. We still vote once every 4 or 5 years, and while governments often consult on what they do, this involves relatively small numbers of people in a meaningful way. For all its achievements, consultation is failing to match the expectations of a demos which expects high levels of inclusion in decision making through the market, and in the workplace. The popularity of participatory budgeting schemes, and other manifestations of participatory politics – such as the Brexit Citizens’ Assembly – hints at the potential for wider deployment of participatory methods. These methods have been taken up by the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government committee to investigate the future of adult social care.

While there are many causes for optimism, we know that, left to trawl the internet for information people may be taken in by ‘fake news’ and conspiracies. But we also know that when people are deliberatively engaged in the process of decision making – through the sorts of participatory techniques that underpin Participatory Budgeting and Citizens’ Assemblies – that those people can properly assess the opportunities and threats, and have access to rational consensus.

When the political theorist Edmund Burke wrote that an MP “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” he did so in a context where most were unable to assess and judge the great issues of state. It is odd that politics and public policy decisions remain so impervious to involvement. This is especially so in a society where basic education is universally available and citizens are continually engaged in judgement and decision-making through much more autonomy in the workplace and regular consumer decision-making. Bringing these skills into public decision-making is not just the right thing to do, it is now a necessity for the survival of a democratic society.

There are a number of areas where this is particularly important. When it comes to harnessing the opportunities of ubiquitous and pervasive data, we urgently need a participatory process that allows a realistic assessment of the risks of government use of data. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has pioneered some of the techniques required in this task (and is considering expanding the discussion to data policy), but this needs to be applied much more widely, and with levels of participation that reflect how widely the effects of any decision will be felt.

We can understand the underlying issue as a failure in the public sphere – where the intersection of public institutions, media and citizens is incapable of synthesising the available information into appropriate courses of action. We have both the tools and the opportunity to move beyond the public sphere and towards a deliberative society. Now is the time to seize this opportunity.

Recent technological developments make this opportunity even more important. The last decade has been marked by a transformative increase in the availability of data. This new data comes in many forms: it is easier to track steps using a phone or personal fitness device than it is to count them yourself. It is easier to count mobile phones passing a turnstyle than employing someone with a clipboard to do the same. It is easier to assess what economic activity there is in an area by web-scraping job adverts than it is to undertake a detailed study. This new data should turn our understanding of the world on its head. Where previously when making a decision we needed to go into the world to actively pursue information, now much of that information is close at hand. While we still need to access it, that is much easier than it once was.

Collective intelligence offers us the opportunity to make human interventions of more value. Instead of expending time and effort measuring what’s happening, devices are doing this for us. We can bring these data sets together to make sense of the world. This can greatly improve decision making.

And improved decision making is becoming ever more important. We all know that there are a variety of serious challenges facing the world today – from antimicrobial resistance to climate change, and on to the aging population. Our cities are struggling to deal with air pollution, and our some are even at risk of running out of water. These challenges are easy to agree to – but often prove difficult to resolve. They work across disciplinary, governmental and other boundaries. The solutions to these problems don’t fit into the silos through which our legacy systems work.

A different way of solving problems comes when we set them out as challenges. A challenge approach works by setting out a problem, such as regulation of urban drone use or managing variable supply in a renewables-based energy network, and inviting researchers, developers and citizens to pitch ideas on how to solve these problems. It can break down disciplinary boundaries and administrative silos, create understanding, investment and ultimately – solutions that we might not otherwise have found.

These challenges could be of direct political contestation – as with abortion rights in Ireland, or they could be more local – on approaches to air pollution in a particular municipality. Or they could be longer-term issues – such as the regulation of artificial intelligence. There will be particularly significant opportunities for bringing arts-led approaches to help understand, represent and interpret the evidence and arguments that are required to involve participants in the citizens assemblies, and to more broadly communicate the work of the Institute. The opportunities to bring music and art into debates about the future will increase the impact of the this approach, and allow alignment with creative imaginings of the future.

In the Republic of Ireland Citizens’ Assemblies have been used to deal with a variety of issues, ranging from equal marriage to abortion. These issues have proved intractable through traditional political structures –- which are marked by self-interested approaches. By bringing together demographically balanced groups that reflect the major views, a resolution emerges.

At the same time, we have more methods for bringing people into decision-making processes. Both online and in-real-life we can build more effective ways of including people. Where social media has connected people much more effectively than ever before, so participatory approaches can make use of digital tools to make better decisions. By better identifying the challenges that people see, and matching this with the many exciting possibilities we can rebuild our public sphere.

These approaches are particularly relevant to institutions of learning. With Universities now measured on their impact (and with this measurement becoming more significant), and seeking new ways to make sure that their research is more relevant to challenges, a new opportunity arises. A process of identifying great global challenges, assessing different approaches to addressing these challenges through participatory methods and using this to inform research guarantees impact. It is a win-win, allowing academics to validate their research, and citizens to be involved in the process of commissioning and design of research.

How could this work in practice?
The opportunity to deliver on a programme of this sort is enhanced by the substantial investment in estate and curriculum that has been delivered through the City Deals for both Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Edinburgh, the rhetoric of ‘challenge’ has already been taken up in the design of the Edinburgh Futures Institute. This adds physical manifestation to an already existing public sphere and creates the conditions to catalyse the move towards a deliberative society and participatory democracy. The University of Edinburgh already has substantial expertise in this area through the work of Oliver Escobar, co-director of What Works Scotland and the Smart Urban Intermediaries programme.

The dominant political approach in any era is manifested in its architecture. The German theorist Jürgen Habermas identified the Palace of Versailles as a bricks-and-mortar example of absolute monarchy. So physically vast and so overpowering as to leave the subjects of the French King in no doubt of who wielded power on behalf of god. We have the opportunity to create a concrete manifestation of the participatory society.

By bringing together a challenges approach with a citizens assembly methodology, we can identify, test and surface the areas where change is needed. When we bring researchers and practitioners together we can begin to address these areas where change is needed. By including citizens at every point we demonstrate that research aligns with popular concerns. The process has impact woven through it and will begin the process of prioritising problems, accounting for social, environmental and economic change, and rebuilding trust in society.

This is not an attempt to replace curiosity-led research, but rather to allow researchers and practitioners to better understand which questions should be addressed, and to – if they choose – direct their research to answering these questions. The approach itself will be open to experimentation, iteration and development. By comparing the effectiveness of different ways of identifying challenges, building participatory techniques and measuring impact we can create learning that can be widely shared.

If the Palace of Versailles was a manifestation of the feudal political order intended to awe subjects into submission through the sheer scale and majesty of the buildings, so the aim of Edinburgh Futures Institute should be to create a deliberative space where citizens can realise a participatory democracy. It can be a built manifestation of the participatory society. And through harnessing the information now available to us, and the insights of citizens, we can create a public sphere worthy of awe.

Local elections: mass movements and agenda for change

Thoughts on the English local election results:

Expectation management and the mass party

Poor expectation management may be the biggest problem for Labour in communicating the results. Since the 1990s brought the era of media-focused campaigning we have become used to parties playing down their chances. This move was based on parties raising much more money from wealthy donors.

Parties could campaign in this way because their campaigns were delivered by paid staff supplemented with small numbers of very committed activists. Those staff and activists didn’t need to be energised by the possibility of big wins.

The need to energise campaigners can leave you with an expectation management problem. But it means that you can run campaigns that don’t rely on big donors, and the corporate capture that so often accompanies the need to do big fundraising.

Much of the current confusion in politics originates in the tensions around this approach. It’s much messier having big campaigns that excite people. But it is a necessary corrective to the sort of elite politics that divides ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ or cynically denies people housing or – maybe worse – cancer treatment to pander to racists.

Turnout and an agenda for radical local government

Local elections are never going to be as easy for mass movement parties, who require big ideas to motivate their voters. The enthusiasm gap will always be bigger for local elections.

These elections took place in a context where there was no national campaign. That makes it more difficult for parties making a big offer. Labour did well in 2017 with polarising policies on issues like student funding and housing. Greens did well in 2015 with issues like rail renationalisation and moving politics to the left. Local elections don’t give scope for that sort of approach so easily.

We need to build strong ideas of what voting for a radical party in local government can achieve. The right can point to lower taxes and the punitive removal of services from the ‘undeserving poor’ as a reason to elect them. Since the era of new municipal socialism in the 1980s, it’s not been clear what a radical council would do. The councils of the 80s made public transport more affordable (Fares Fair), pioneered anti-discrimination on race and sexuality and campaigned on issues like apartheid. We need that spirit back.

Community and Economy: on the success of Highlands and Islands Enterprise

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is a rare beast: an economic development agency that enjoys widespread popular support amongst the population of the area in which it operates. First set up as the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 it has been successful in reversing the economic decline of the Scottish highlands and islands. And not only has it been successful, its success is widely recognised.

This is extremely unusual. Industrial policy is littered with the corpses of long-dead and largely unlamented agencies. From the inward investment approach of the 1980s to the ‘connected economy’ approach of the 2000s, the changing winds of policy have swept away a range of agencies. In Wales industrial development was taken back into the competencies of central government. In England, the Regional Development Agencies were replaced by Local Economic Partnerships that enjoyed substantially less resource.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland the equivalent bodies, Invest NI and Scottish Enterprise survived, but are regularly the subject of political opprobrium. In the run-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the Scottish Government launched an Enterprise and Skills Review in which the intention was strongly signalled that Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise would be merged to form a single body.

The mantra of the Minister needing to be seen to do something is all-too-often merging the unmerged and demerging the merged. So it seemed would be the fate of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. But a groundswell of support for HIE – the “Keep HIE Local” campaign – meant Ministers chose not to merge it with Scottish Enterprise. Indeed, such was the success of HIE that Ministers ended up committing to a new development agency, on the model of HIE, for the south of Scotland.

hie local

So why is HIE so popular? Why did Highlanders fear its abolition so much they campaigned to save it? The answer lies in the unique element of its mission, that gives a pointer as to what successful inclusive innovation might look like. Almost every other economic development agency is tasked with growing businesses, seeking inward investment from transnational businesses and other economy-specific activities like knowledge transfer. HIE does these things too. But it also has a mission to support community development.

It is this twin commitment to economic and community development that has allowed HIE to support the hugely successful transfer of crofting estates into community ownership. It has allowed Highland communities to enjoy the benefits of widespread development of community renewables and it has helped to reverse depopulation and retain communities in many remote and rural areas. So much so that other areas of rural Scotland want a similar agency.

And HIE faces new challenges. Adaptation to climate change and the impact of the data economy and automation will change the way the rural economy works. As will the widespread deployment of drones, which could both threaten the much loved rural postie, but could also facilitate true just in time delivery.

Of course, seeing community and economy as interlinked to the point of indivisibility makes HIE’s job more difficult. But it also seems to be more effective than a separation of community and economy that risks appearing reductive and locating the economy outside the scope of the society in which it functions. HIE shows we can build a successful economy in a way that reduces alienation. And it does so in a way so successful that people are prepared to fight for HIE’s ongoing survival.

Some thoughts on the failure of the Sinn Féin-DUP deal

Here are some brief thoughts on the failure of the Sìnn Fein-DUP deal yesterday. At every stage of this process Sinn Féin have driven the agenda. At every stage the DUP have played into their hands. Sìnn Fein collapsed the Assembly and have set terms for agreement that Unionists would find it very difficult to agree.

1. It is partly a function of the limited devolution allowed in the nations of the UK. The job of any NI Executive would have been the administration of London-imposed austerity. It’s easy to understand why Sinn Féin were unenthusiastic about this.

Theresa May’s call for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ compounded Sìnn Fein’s antipathy to her government. Brexit looks very much like an attempt to reinvigorate exactly the British Imperial sentiments that repel Irish republicans.

2. Brexit brings the prospect of a united Ireland back onto the table in a serious way. There are only 3 solutions to the Irish border problem. Ireland leaving the EU and joining the UK – which (despite the DUP’s fantasies) can’t and won’t happen. Brexit failing – which might happen. And Irish reunification.

With Sinn Féin sensing the possibilities for a united Ireland they hold the whip hand in any negotiation.

This is why they’ve played so hard on marriage equality and the Irish language. The worst they could hope for was a humiliation of the DUP.

3. The imposition of direct rule from Westminster on the north of Ireland will trigger a great deal of pressure on the Irish government to defend minority interests in the north. With a veto over any deal for the UK over Brexit this is a perilous position for unionists.

It seems likely the Irish government will ask for joint authority. With the UK government’s capacity to actually govern deeply impaired by Brexit this may mean a gradual absorption of the north into an Irish political system and demos. This is the republican strategy and gets to a united Ireland without the need for a border poll.

4. This is an almost inevitable outcome of the Northern Irish electorate’s decision to polarise politics. Both unionists and nationalists gambled that they would win the peace – having concluded that they couldn’t win the war.

The era that started with the Civil Rights movement and ended with the power-sharing agreement had no clear winner. Both sides felt they had lost. This meant the political centre was ripped apart. The more moderate Ulster Unionist party and SDLP lost out to the DUP and Sinn Féin. That was a gamble for each side.

It looks like a gamble the unionists have lost.

How hard Brexit will play out

Today’s announcement that the UK will leave the EU Customs Union begins to crystallise the reality that will face us after Brexit.

Of course, there’s a real possibility that the contradictions with the agreement reached over the Irish border and the chaotic approach to Brexit will mean the UK doesn’t leave.

The aim of the right-wing Brexiters has always been to use Brexit to force a total renegotiation of the role of the state. That renegotiation will mean the removal of almost all protections for workers, for the environment and from corporate tyranny. Our society will become one run by a wealthy elite for their own enrichment.

There are other possible Brexit scenarios, but while the Tories remain in power, this will be the reality. Once we move from the ‘Goldilocks period’ of customs union access and an export-competitive currency onto WTO terms to trade with the rest of the world, there will be an immediate crash in our economy. Tariffs on exports will mean UK goods and services are undesirable, the tax receipts from manufacturing the City of London will collapse and there will be a crisis.

It is telling that at a time when UK goods are cheaper than in decades, and with single market access, there has been little rise in manufacturing exports to the rest of the EU.

Because trade deals can’t be negotiated quickly, the period between leaving the single market and having any trade deals in place will be used to asset strip the UK, and put the country in a position where it is desperate for access to other markets. This will mean any trade deal comes with the requirement to meet the lowest possible standards for workers, consumers and the environment.

The response could be a reorientation of the UK economy to meet domestic needs, while trade deals are negotiated. But it is more likely that the response will be the abolition of all working-age benefits, curtailment of pensioner benefits and a fire-sale of the remaining public assets. The NHS will be privatised, and become a fee-charging service. Schools will become a paid-for service, and charging will be introduced for all previously public services.

In order to rebuild the economy, all consumer protections will be removed, Trade Unions will be banned, and all workers rights repealed. The only way the UK will be able to compete internationally will be to remove all vestiges of a civilised society and effectively enslave the population. This is what the right Brexiters have always wanted.

Everyone with access to citizenship of other countries will leave the country.

It’s a nightmare scenario – but a Tory government that has always wanted to immiserate the population, and a scenario that makes this the easiest path, it seems inevitable that this is how Brexit will materialise.