This is the alternative

…from the crisis of meaning to a challenge-focused democratic economy

This article was first published as part of OpenDemocracy’s Left Governmentality series

As the free market struggles there is a real need to think about what the alternatives might be. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that “there is no alternative” to market capitalism. This system has generated wealth, but it has done so both by destroying the environment on which it depends, and by creating enormous human misery. As we enter the second decade of a global economic crisis to which no solution is in sight it is time to reconsider what the alternative should look like.

We know that there are a series of Grand Challenges which we must tackle. Climate breakdown threatens the very existence of our society, poverty blights the lives of billions of people, we are running out of antibiotics. We need a way to address these problems. But we must not lose democracy in this. Grand challenges are all-too-often deployed as a way to sideline democracy. What I outline below seeks to align an approach to our economy that aligns grand challenges with a more vigorous democracy to ensure that we use the technology at our disposal to tackle the challenges we must address.

It is particularly important to understand that free market capitalism’s strongest asset was its ability to effectively allocate resources in an information-poor context. Yet the world we live in, and especially our economy are now information rich. The business model of the big Silicon Valley companies, like Google, is entirely based on data for business (“if you’re not paying for it, YOU are the product”). What I propose is a method to turn this understanding of demand into social good, rather than trillion-dollar valued companies.

The failure of technocratic free-market-democracy

In the 1980s a trend emerged: public opinion data began to drive our politics. By having a data-rich approach to designing political programmes, parties could deliver what people wanted. The data was created through extensive polling and focus groups. Each policy or initiative was tested against public opinion to discern what was popular. In the UK, with Tony Blair as leader Philip Gould guided New Labour to massive election victories on the back of this approach. Hand-in-hand with the ideology of New Public Management, this transformed citizens’ relationship with the state, reformulating it around a consumer model. Citizens became mere customers of public services.

These twin-approaches were shaken by the decision to go to war in Iraq. And the combination of polling-led government and New Public Management finally foundered on the rocks of the global economic crisis after 2008. People were happy to be consulted if they thought the government was acting in their interests. Opinion-led technocratic government is only effective for as long as people believe that technocrats can make better decisions than they can. The decision to deregulate global financial markets made people believe technocrats were not capable of the basic technocratic skill – they weren’t very good at making decisions.

The technocratic society comes with a range of symptoms. People are disengaged and feel decisions are taken without them. This makes citizens skeptical about the ability of politics to deliver for people and reckless about the decisions they make when given the opportunity to vote.

We also have a lack of shared social goals. The deference to the market that characterises our society and economy has robbed us of any sense that we could or should approach big social or environmental problems as a society. Since the 1970s there has been a deeply held belief that the market will sort all of our problems out. And that the more elements of our society we financialise the more effective the solutions will be. We know that this is wrong. But what we lack is any structure by which to define and agree on what these shared social goals are.

Participation and deliberation in an economic system

Below I set out both how we can re-engage citizens in the process of making decisions and then how we can use that re-engagement to decide upon and tackle the grand challenges of our era. I draw on concepts around participatory and deliberative democracy and challenge and mission approaches in public policy.

I believe that we can draw these together to build the popular support for an economy that tackles the great challenges of the age, and does so with the efficiency that we associate with war economies.

Our society has changed substantially since the creation of the democratic structures on which we depend, in three key ways.

Firstly, we have substantially better-educated citizens. The 1945 Labour government chose to govern nationalised industries through much more traditional top-down structures because they believed that workers lacked the necessary skills to manage their own places of work. Whether this was true or not, it is definitely the case that today’s demos are very substantially better educated than that of the 1940s.

We also have a society and economy that is marked by substantially more choice and autonomy both in the workplace and in our everyday lives. Our lives are saturated with choice in a way that previous generations would not have recognised. From choice in school meals to the end of the job for life, we spend much more time making choices for ourselves. This extends to the workplace where most workers enjoy much more autonomy than they did 50 years ago.

Finally, we now have tools to disseminate a quantity of information at a speed previously unimaginable. We have the ability to transmit information at unprecedented speed and in unprecedented quantities, allowing decisions to be made in real time across different locations in much more informed ways. From social media to digital tools for deliberation there are methods that allow many more people to be involved in many more ways in understanding public policy.

Consumer culture has created citizens accustomed to a great deal more choice than our ancestors ever enjoyed. This stretches from the variety of produce available in supermarkets, to ‘fast fashion’ and the development of disposable clothes. All require citizens to define their identity through consumer choice. In the workplace, workers are expected to exercise judgement in a way Fordist or Taylorist industry simply did not expect. Even in precarious jobs with zero hours contracts workers are expected to exercise substantial choice and autonomy – reflected in the attempt to make these workers claim ‘self-employment’.

Currently, these developments are being deployed in commercial and organisational contexts but have yet to meaningfully enter our democracy. Many companies have adopted techniques and approaches like Buurtzorg social care cooperatives to use technology to maximise worker autonomy and bring increased productivity and happiness. In almost every workplace decisions are made or communicated electronically. Yet the main reactions from progressives have been either to ignore these changes or to demand a return to top-down technocratic approaches. Both are doomed to failure.

We can measure the success of democratic processes through the ability of people to accept an outcome that wasn’t their preferred option – what political scientists call “losers consent”. At a time when the opportunity to empower citizens has never been greater, we need urgently to understand how we can harness these developments to deliver social change.

There are a number of approaches in this area that can help to deliver a more democratic society. Michael Albert and others have codified this approach as participatory economics, which forms a basis for building a popular economy. The Participatory Budgeting and Planning approaches that are becoming more popular having been piloted by Brazilian radicals are important tools for making outcomes more popular. In Ireland, Citizens’ Assemblies have allowed two very well contested referendums on contentious issues (equal marriage and abortion) which enjoyed almost universal losers’ consent. Minipublics, citizens’ juries and a vast array of other deliberative and participatory tools are now available.

What is important, though, is not which tools we use. We need to get better, more practised and more comfortable with making decisions. Too often democracy is seen as divisive, scary and difficult. In reality, the alternative is totalitarianism. And perhaps the most important way we can change this situation is to develop methods that allow people to be heard through the process. That way we can facilitate losers’ consent, and build systems that generate confidence through decision making. Democracy has always meant decision making by the people. The attempt to redefine it has led us to where we are. We need to claim back the original meaning of democracy. We need to allow people to make decisions again.

Challenges and missions

However, we should not just use these tools within our existing systems: we need to find new ways to create shared societal goals. There is a move to creating and defining “Grand Challenges” that could act in this way. Some of these are based on the Sustainable Development Goals, some are set up by wealthy individuals, and some are set out by governments.

Instead of the aim of government being to grow the economy, it should be to address these challenges. The priority given to challenges and how they are defined can be agreed through deliberative processes. From the ageing society and climate breakdown to the role of humans in a world pervaded by data and automation, it is clear that the market cannot deliver the solutions we need. Instead, we should use deliberative processes to set out the priorities and resources needed to solve these problems.

For all that business leaders espouse free-market ideology, few businesses use these competitive processes internally. Indeed Sears (the American supermarket operator) tried, and has since gone into administration. The free market’s great advantage is that it is able to allocate resources in low-information contexts more effectively. But most businesses are high-information contexts, and our economy is now information-rich. We can use participatory and deliberative techniques to decide on what the challenges are, then use our information-rich economies to solve those challenges.

Mariana Mazzucato sets out how most private sector innovation is, in fact, the outcome of public sector research and development. In her dazzling book “The Entrepreneurial State”, she explains that even the highpoints of capitalist achievement, like the iPhone, are almost entirely based on public research. Public research gave us the touchscreen, mobile network technology and global positioning system technology that makes the iPhone a useful device.

She goes on to argue that the state can benefit from this investment through the creation of missions. I argue that these missions and the Grand Challenges with which they fit should be decided and defined through the deliberative processes I describe above.

The crucial aim of this process should be to create missions that are specific enough to create the change they seek, but also general enough to allow people to develop innovative solutions. The solution to eradicating poverty might be a universal basic income, or it might be universal basic services or a mixture of both. Or it may be a solution we have not yet developed. The challenge should allow for both testing of the options we understand and for new options.

Once we have decided on a Challenge, like addressing climate breakdown, it can form a focus for participation. At a stroke, we can overcome the silos and barriers dividing public and voluntary or private sectors. We can begin to unleash human ingenuity in the service of these Challenges. They can be broken down into missions that allow people to contribute. To take an example in the climate breakdown challenge: this might be broken down into categories from zero-carbon transport or decarbonising domestic heating systems. This opens the way for institutional, individual and government action towards these missions.

These Challenges could come from a number of sources. They might be drawn down from the Sustainable Development Goals, or from national structures like the Scottish National Performance Framework. Most importantly there should be a process by which citizens can trigger a Grand Challenge. This could be through a citizen’s initiative or official petition like the existing EU or Number 10 petition sites. It could also be through interventions by social partners (like Trade Unions or Professional Bodies) or elected representatives. At a continental or global level, this could be generated by national or sub-national governments.

To give a worked example, we might want to address the Grand Challenge of Climate Breakdown. This might be triggered by citizens, governments or social partners. It would then be broken down into missions. These might focus on reducing carbon emissions through energy, land use, transport, heat, construction or other major causes of greenhouse gasses. They could then prompt economy-wide action to reduce the use of internal combustion engines or to rewild for carbon reduction, or any of the other ideas that we haven’t yet pressed into action.

Because there has been citizen leadership and will be citizen involvement it creates a situation like a war economy. War economies are remarkable for their increased productivity and innovation. The advances in aeroplane and rocket technology during the Second World War are good examples of how war economies can create innovation. They are also very effective at prioritising investment for activities to tackle challenges. War is, of course, incredibly destructive, but creating an economic paradigm that replicates the mission-focus of a war economy with a less destructive alternative offers the benefits without the costs.

Citizen involvement should not be limited to the definition or prioritisation of challenges. Involving people in the development of policy through research, citizen science and social science, action research, crowdsourcing data and other mechanisms should complement the processes of definition and prioritisation. By increasing citizen involvement we can help broaden understanding of how decisions are made. This will strengthen public faith in those decisions and the processes and structures that supported their development.

Utilising the unprecedented wealth of information that saturates our world will make the free market look like a very blunt tool. Dealing with the real challenges of our age will reengage citizens in politics. And if we can focus our efforts on addressing challenges like climate breakdown we can secure a future for our society.

This will replace the current technocratic new public management methods with deliberative techniques designed to build public priorities into the policy process. It is the most effective way to chart a way forward that avoids the tyranny of the free market. It moves our collective decision making away from the market, and towards decision making on the basis of popular will.

It means we can begin to address popular alienation with the political process, through building out democratic processes into areas that have become dominated by the market. We can also build public expertise in decision making, creating better policy. But this goes well beyond policy, it is about creating ways to work together so we can create a better world.

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Rural Transport: Planes, Trains and Automobiles transformed

This provocation was written for Snook.

In “The Village” — the BBC drama by Peter Moffat, starring Maxine Peake, the modern age is ushered in by the arrival of a bus for the first time to the eponymous village in the Derbyshire Dales. My own grandmother cycled everywhere in rural south Armagh, on the Irish border, including a gasp-inducing 2-mile cycle whilst in labour — hours before giving birth to my mother. For many rural areas, transport has never really worked. For those who could afford cars, it might have been ok in the 1990s before the huge increases in insurance costs. But for those who can’t drive — and that’s both young people and many older people who didn’t learn — it excludes them from access to health and educational opportunities, jobs and society more broadly.

We have never created the rural equivalent of Mass public transport systems. As transport became more available to the working classes in cities, most people outside cities did not have access to that sort of transport. And when we came to design rural transport systems they were often done on urban models. All too often rural transport was designed by people with little experience of living in rural areas. This meant that as urban communities enjoyed growing connectivity, many areas outside our cities were left behind. The volume of passengers was never enough to sustain regular bus services, and sharing lifts went out of fashion in the 1980s, amid growing individualism and fear of crime.

We are now at a turning point. The rural bus is becoming endangered, and at the same time technology is changing how we move around. That creates the opportunity to replace a system that has worked for the few, but failed the many. Snook is interested in making sure that we put design principles at the heart of these changes, and that technology becomes a solution to the existing problems, rather than adding to those problems. We want to take an asset-based approach that knits existing social relationships with new technology to build an infrastructure that is a techno-socio-physical hybrid. That is, a new way of rural living that builds on existing connections to harness technology and overcome transport problems.

There are approaches like “Mobility as a Service”, which sees transport, not in traditional infrastructure terms (road building, buying new vehicles), but rather as a way of allowing people to do everyday things they need to do. By getting to work, educational institutions and health providers it helps people to be a part of society, and that’s what Mobility as a Service is all about. Improved accessible transport services can help us reduce isolation and loneliness. This is an important shift in focus and should inform how we adopt new technology. It starts with identifying where people need to travel and identifying how that need can be met. This is particularly important as it will allow us to build inclusive transport systems that accommodate people who can’t drive a private car — because of age, disability, or wealth. We need to replace dysfunctional transport systems with transit that works for all.

Here are four speculative scenarios that might transform rural transport, we are keen to work with you to help make these possibilities realities, delivered through human centred design:

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Platform-based lift sharing

The first shift that could happen is the development of an online or app-based platform for lift sharing. This would allow people to share journeys they are planning to take, or were taking, and they can pick people up on the way. This could also allow for mileage to be recompensed — this is in contrast to the Uber model of replacing taxi drivers. It’s about creating an exchange economy, rather than turning over existing jobs to big corporations.

This is both eminently doable, and something that is closely aligned with existing apps like Uber. The real question is — why hasn’t it happened yet?

That might be because the money behind Uber is massive, and no ‘not for profit’ provider has the marketing budget to embed itself in people’s travel habits.

However, by using behavioural science and working with big institutional partners we could get a platform to scale. By bringing together all the public agencies working in an area like Dumfries and Galloway, or one of the national parks, we could align commuting data and allow drivers to share their travel information with others. This could create the basis for a working rural version of demand-responsive transport. By mapping routes and getting public sector workers to explore whether they could offer a lift, we could begin to build a culture of lift sharing again.

This could also help people with picking up prescriptions, groceries and other helpful acts. The overspill benefits may include stronger relationships and better connections, with more reciprocity. We may see the emergence of shared electric minibuses doing shorter commutes that are no longer being served by buses. This looks like a 21st-century reinvention of the bus.

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Big technological shifts in electric vehicles and automation

We seem to be on the brink of a transformation in engine technology and automation. While it seems that full automation may be some way away, there’s a real chance that the task of driving will become much simpler over the coming years. Especially in the UK, the opportunities for energy generation in rural areas will also create opportunities.The Isle of Unst in Orkney has created a hydrogen economy making zero-emission transport the norm both by car and (soon) ferry, using surplus renewable energy. When there is more energy than is needed to power the island, it is used to create hydrogen, which then provides zero carbon transport. As renewable prices plunge this will become a more frequent approach — especially in wind and wave-rich rural areas.

The emergence of electric bikes and scooters with substantial ranges — often of over 20 miles, also gives us the opportunity to think through how we can do that tricky last mile of transport or even the sort of journey my grandmother did every day! At a lower price, and less maintenance than a car, and with very low running costs, these products may be transformational for rural areas. Bike sharing like the Santander sponsored scheme in London might make sense with electric bikes in rural areas.

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Changes in work make transport less necessary

We know that work is changing rapidly. Working from home is becoming more common. There are more co-working spaces, and an increasing list of tasks can be undertaken remotely. That’s mostly the case for what are (or were) office jobs, but it may become more widespread as small scale manufacturing using digital looms and 3D printers becomes more prevalent. This will create a repair economy, where fixing broken items becomes more common. The repair economy may be further facilitated through open-sourcing of plans for physical objects.

We won’t have to get in a car to get furniture, or a new fridge, we could get them manufactured locally. This will relocate jobs and reduce travel miles.

In some, cases drones will replace delivery journeys, and there may be an interesting reshaping of the nature of some rural journeys. There is the possibility of a ‘just in time’delivery approach (using drones to deploy parts as they’re needed) developing in rural areas, which will accelerate the move to small-scale local manufacturing. It’s possible that rural mail deliveries will be carried out by drone in the very near future. This will lead to the development of distributed manufacturing, much of which will be in rural areas.

Office jobs will be transformed by advances in teleconferencing, incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality. Co-working spaces will replace the office as the normal place for office jobs. Meetings will happen in salons where full interaction with colleagues in other locations will happen through virtual reality. 5G mobile phone technology and broadband rollout will need to keep pace with this, and that will be a vital pressure point for government and service providers.

If you don’t have to get in a car or bus to go to a manufacturing job, if you are going to a local coworking space for your office job, then your need for transport reduces substantially. This aligns with some of the Scottish Government’s Manufacturing Action Plan to grow smart manufacturing through optimising supply chains.

Rural transport will be best transformed by the human-centred adoption of technology

We know that technology will disrupt transport as we know it. We also know that if we don’t make the change in transport human-centred, it will fail to meet the needs of rural communities. That’s why design is so important. We need to use design principles to make sure that technology solves the vital problems facing us. By identifying where it’s is necessary, shifting the incentives for different types of transport and matching supply to demand; we can create inclusive rural transport. And that will help to end depopulation and keep vibrant communities in rural areas. If we get it right, the advantages enjoyed by rural areas may make them the preferred spaces to live.

If you’re interested in discussing how we can prepare for more effective use of new technology get in touch. I’m really keen to work with others to make sure we put people at the heart of adoption of new transport technologies.

You can visit the Snook website here: Snook. Illustrations by Isabella Bunnell.

If the free market is so great why don’t you go and live there?

Anyone advocating alternatives to free-market capitalism will soon find themselves challenged to back their beliefs by moving to a socialist country. When I was younger it was East Germany, I think it’s now North Korea. “If socialism is so great, why don’t you go and live in East Germany” articulates two things, firstly the failure of actually existing 20th century ‘socialism’, and the perceived hypocrisy of those advocating alternatives to the free market as a way of organising society.

But interestingly those who argue for the free market as a the way of organising society are strikingly reluctant to run their own businesses in these ways. When they do try to run companies on the principles of the free market, they fail.

This is exacerbated by the erasure of ways of talking about the world that aren’t about the free market. When we discuss how the world could work in different ways we have no vocabulary at either conceptual or linguistic level to describe alternatives to the free market.

But the fascinating thing about the free market is that it isn’t really the guiding principle of any of the big organisations whose leaders are its greatest cheerleaders. Almost every big corporation operates through information-rich planning processes.

Most don’t operate internal free markets, because they’re wasteful, inhibit innovation and promote damaging competition. In almost every circumstance they’ve been tried they result in gaming the system, rather than improved results.

It used to be the case that our economy was incredibly information-poor. When Chile tried economic planning in the 1970s they used telex in a fascinating experiment called Cybersyn. It didn’t really work.

But information technology is totally unrecognisable today, and could easily be deployed in developing economic plans in a way that was unimaginable in the 1970s. In fact, it’s this form of ‘information capitalism’ that made Google a trillion dollar company.

Sears, the US supermarket company, is probably the most notable corporate attempt at internal free markets. Sears filed for bankruptcy last year.

Yet we continue to use the free market as the sole guiding principle for our society. Time to think again.

On doing referendums well – the way forward for Brexit?

For historical reasons we need not go into, Ireland requires agreement through a referendum every time the government signs a treaty. In 2008 Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. The Lisbon Treaty was a complex arrangement that changed the nature of the EU in a number of subtle ways. The referendum campaign was a farce. The then Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, admitted he hadn’t read the Treaty.

In the vote there was a narrow (53%-47%) victory for the “No” side. Which was embarrassing, and resulted in a second referendum (which resulted in a clear victory for the Yes side).

When Irish Labour became junior coalition partners in 2011, they wanted to change the constitution to create equal marriage. In a country that had been hostile to gay rights until the mid-1990s this was seen as difficult and controversial. A change to the constitution required a referendum, which was an even greater barrier than existed in other countries.

More out of fear than optimism the conservative Fine Gael-led government allowed the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly, which drew a roughly geographically and demographically balanced section of the Irish citizenry. These 100 people were charged with considering how equal marriage could be implemented.

The result was a national conversation about the changes that led to an extremely successful referendum. And successful not just because the right decision was reached. Successful because it received almost complete “losers’ consent” – those who lost haven’t sought to undermine the result.

Ireland isn’t good at referendums because its political culture is better than the UK’s. Ireland has simply worked out how to have a good referendum. We should learn from them.

A similar Citizens’ Assembly led to the legalisation of abortion last year in another referendum. And again there was almost universal losers’ consent.

The reason this works is that it allows thorough consideration of the proposal at hand, that isn’t susceptible to the sort of misunderstandings that so often dog public debate. And the creation of a consensus around the way forward offered by the Citizens’ Assembly paves the way for a successful referendum.

So now may be the time to have a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (like the one already undertaken by UCL Constitution Unit. It should be on a statutory footing and should consider the various ways forward, suggesting 2 or 3 to be put to a referendum (or preferendum) that might just gain the losers’ consent we need to get out of this mess.

Planning better communities

A version of this blog first appeared on the Snook website:

I come from Ireland. Irish villages used to grow laterally. When the time came to build a house, the builder would go to the last house in the village and throw his hat. He would build his house where his hat landed. The result is sprawl: fine in the 19th century. A real problem now. It’s not good for transport, and with larger populations, it results in people living too far from shops and facilities to make strong communities. It creates huge problems for health services and for delivering amenities like electricity, water and sewage.

Our planning system exists to avoid this problem but it’s not without its problems. On the one hand, there is the need to provide housing, shops and services for communities. On the other hand, there are people whose communities are under threat from those developments.

The town and country planning system in the UK dates from the 1940s, when communities gained the right to determine how land was used. Community interest was represented through local authorities, who ran a process through which people or companies could be granted or denied permission to build on land. The system involves zoning for different uses such as industry, commerce, or residential, but each development needs planning permission.

The planning system often tended toward elite control, with grand plans being created by city fathers (because they were, almost without fail – men) and foisted on communities. During the 1960s and 1970s resistance grew to this approach. People – who were better educated than ever before, and who wanted more choice – made sure that the plans suited them and their communities. However this has gridlocked the system and made planning confrontational. For some organisations, the planning system lies at the heart of all that is wrong, to the extent that they believe sorting it out would solve all our problems.

Planning the future

This system was great in it’s time, but it’s time has now passed, and we have the opportunity to create something much better.

By necessity, the planning system we have is one that is adversarial and we should create something based on the principles of co-design. We need to put communities at the heart of the process and changes in technology will make this much easier.

Organisations like Snook have been working with Hackney Council to build on the work that Future Cities Catapult have been doing on transforming the planning system. Separately, the Scottish Government is running a process that harnesses technology and participation to make planning better. We believe now is the time to make this work, building on the foundation of a new planning system, with data informing community-led decisions.

We’ve moved from a world where people needed information brought to them to make decisions. Those city fathers were the possessors of enormous accumulated knowledge that allowed them to make decisions. But that has now changed. We’re now in a world where the information is mostly out there already. The internet was designed to keep communications alive in the event of a nuclear war. It distributes information to protect it. But this has a huge additional benefit: it means we can all access that information.

Over the past 10 years, networked approaches to information in public services have begun to emerge. These include crowdsourcing information and citizen science. This is good but still isn’t at the heart of how public services work. Leading businesses in the private sector have data at the core of their operations. We need to identify new ways to harness the data that we now have access to, to deliver better public services, and we need to increase the role for communities in those services.

So what does this look like?

We should replace the current planning system that sets developers and communities at loggerheads with one that co-designs with our communities.

Imagine a community event where we use inclusive design and participatory processes to identify what a community actually needs. Add to this skills in urban design, throw in some Minecraft experts, and we could have a process where the community sets out what it wants to see, then commissions the facilities that are needed. The process can be based on the best data and modelling available. It will transform the adversarial system we have into a creative system. The time spent on opposing developments could be spent on co-designing communities of the future.

Furthermore, using machine learning and artificial intelligence can help develop proposed developments. Having all planning data on open standards might allow us to create 3D models of our cities, and an opportunity to understand rural service needs. We could create dynamic plans in which the greatest effort is devoted to making the important decisions, not making the models. We could deploy augmented reality and virtual reality to help people understand what is being proposed. There are digital tools that allow better and more inclusive consultation.

Snook wants to develop our role in planning and community participation. This means creating a community of designers committed to human-centred design. We want people to have the right tools to challenge or contribute to the the processes that shape their environment.

These processes need to be open to everyone. They need to be truly participatory. That means we want to improve the information that supports policy and how policy is subsequently developed. Organisations like Snook are asking the question: could local development plans be fluid, responding to live data, population needs, emerging trends and unexpected events? What would it be like if urban data could be used to create a dynamic framework. An approach that allows for policy at the local level which is responsive and connected to community needs as they arise?

Technology creates the opportunity for human involvement to be focused on the highest value decisions. It offers us the opportunity to codesign the cities of the future. It allows us to better understand where to site housing, shops and other facilities.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to reforming the planning process gives us a real opportunity. However we need to think deeply and creatively about how we can make design something that we do together – that helps to create better communities for us all.

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?”

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.