Reflections on the Isle of Wight

I’m just back from a few days break in the Isle of Wight.  It so happens that the Economist’s Bagehot has just blogged on the subject of the island, which was the lasting point of his print column last week.

The island has a bit of a charming, time-warp feel about it.  But Bagehot points out that its people are ahead of the game in one aspect – realising the implications of the coming parliamentary boundary changes.  Interesting to reflect that it has half the population of the borough of Wandsworth – and yet the latter can’t even support a decent local newspaper.

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Sex offenders

Here is an article I had published yesterday in Lib Dem Voice on the disgraceful behavior of political leaders over the recent Supreme Court ruling.  Things didn’t get any better after I wrote the article on Wednesday, judging by Theresa May and Jack Straw on Today in Parliament.  Lib Dem politicians are just keeping their heads down, it seems.

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Manufactured outrage won’t help elderly patients

John Humphreys was apoplectic when interviewing Ann Abraham on the Today programme.  She has produced a report detailing several cases of appalling treatment of elderly patients in the NHS.  How on earth can these wonderful dedicated NHS staff we keep hearing about allow such abuse?  Ms Abraham did not try to give us any insight into how such things happened, merely echoing Mr Humphreys’s anger.

Not long after the interview there was a rather interesting counterpoint in the sports report.  Garry Richardson was interviewing the trainer of one of the horses killed at Newbury over the weekend, asking him about how he and his staff felt about the whole thing. This was clearly designed to bring on the normal outpourings of emotion that are now the expected face of public grief.  Such a a beautiful horse; a real character; we’re all devastated; we need answers….and so on.  Instead all he got was, more or less, just a bad day at the office and life goes on.

That would be a more helpful attitude in the NHS case.  Whatever Mr Humphreys and Ms Abraham are suggesting, it really isn’t hard to reconcile the dedication of NHS staff to systematic abuse of patients.  It’s what Richard Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called the “SEP field”, which guarantees a cloak of invisibility.  SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem.  Anybody who has worked in a large organisation is familar with the idea of bad things happening while everybody involved is convinced they are doing a highly professional job.

The SEP field arises from the way we organise work, splitting it up into separate bits for which individuals can take responsibility.  We only look at our bit.  Bad things happen between the bits.  The first reaction is to blame management, who are supposed to be making sure the whole thing adds up.  And the quickest and easiest response for management is to make the process yet more complicated by adding in more bits, with checks and controls.  That’s how they tend to behave when people get outraged.  But it doesn’t really help, because the main problem is complexity; nobody wants to take wider responsibility because they don’t understand what’s going on.

This is an old problem, and solutions should be familiar.  You simplify processes, empower staff to act outside their normal remits, and engender team-working attitudes.  Simple but hard.  It means telling people comfortable with their narrow jobs, who think they are doing wonderfully well, that actually they are part of the problem.

But for NHS managers that should be another day at the office.  We, the public, should be encouraging them to be braver.  Instead we stoke up the outrage, and even start suggesting the NHS doesn’t need managers at all.

The NHS needs better leadership at ground level.  We should be demanding it.  Perhaps we should even ask ourselves, as Jeremy Laurance does in the Independent, whether our beloved NHS is capable of ever managing itself properly ever.

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Prisoners’ voting and the European Court

I’m an increasing fan of The Economist’s new Bagehot columnist.  His approach to blog posts is self-confessedly long and unpolished.  But worth bearing with.  His post on the Prisoners’ voting rights and the European Court must be his longest yet.  But wonderful.

Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of giving prisoners the vote, thumbing our noses at the court is the wrong kind of signal to send countries with lest robust judicial systems, like Russia.  Just as the shortcuts we used on the War on Terror have been used by as excuse by countless bad regimes, like Robert Mugabe’s, to bypass due process in their countries.   Moral leadership implies doing things that hurt.  Tony Blair never understood this; the signs aren’t good for Cameron.

At least I can be a little bit proud of the Lib Dems this time.

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Multiculturalism and terrorism

I am an admirer of our PM’s political skills, but like his predecessor, Tony Blair, he has a weakness for half-baked thinking.  We see this in the Big Society.  His speech last Saturday and its critique of “multiculturalism” is another example.

The kerfuffle was predictable.  One example, and the only one I have read in full, is Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s piece in The Independent, headlined “David Cameron’s message is that Muslims are not wanted”.  What to make of it?  I decided to take a drastic step.  I read David Cameron’s speech in full.

The first point to make is that Mr Cameron delivered this speech at a security conference.  Islamic terrorism (and I can find no better words with which to describe this phenomenon), is a clear security threat, whether or not it is the biggest one the country faces, as Mr Cameron claimed.  As a clear threat it is a legitimate topic to make a speech about.  Ms Alibhai-Brown has it entirely back-to-front when she complains that it is an insult to Muslims to talk about Islam in the context of terrorism.  If you are going to talk about security, you have to talk about the specific phenomenon of Islamic terrorism.  Mr Cameron went out of his way to explain he wasn’t talking about Islam itself.  He describes Islamist extremism (from which terrorism stems) as a political phenomenon and not a religious one.

Mr Cameron described the process by which young Muslims become disenchanted with our society, and find identity in the ideology of Islamist extremism.  This creed may be nominally peaceful at first, but they then get drawn into groups that espouse terrorism.  So far, so good; the insight that there is often an intermediate step of hostile but peaceful preachers is an important one.  The trouble starts when Mr Cameron goes on to make a further point: that “multiculturalism” is part of the problem, because, by accepting or even encouraging different communities to live separately, it creates a vacuum of identity.  He advocates stronger engagement to establish a national identity, promoted through “muscular liberalism”.

“Multiculturalism” is a vague word, and no doubt to some it does mean “hands-off” – complete disengagement from different cultural groups by the establishment.  But the term is best understood as the antithesis to “assimilation” – the process by which minority cultures are destroyed so that everybody has the same cultural identity.  Assimilation should have no part as an official ideology in modern British society.  We should celebrate diversity and draw strength from it.  The problem about attacking multiculturalism is that it sends a dog-whistle signal of support to assimilationists and nativists.  It is much better to try and redefine multiculturalism in a more helpful way than to attack it.

Multiculturalism is not incompatible with different cultural groups interacting, finding out about each other – and challenging each other’s values, if this is done according to proper liberal norms.  We should never use it as an excuse just to shrug at the abuse of women and promotion of intolerant attitudes, for example.  If that’s what we are doing then we should stop.  If people want to associate with other members of their cultural group, they should be free to do so; if they form exclusive monocultural communities, we must tolerate it.  But toleration doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticism.  But when we criticise we shouldn’t simply attack the attempt to maintain cultural identity – we should raise specific issues which we think are wrong – such as intolerant attitudes.  Engage, challenge, listen, find common ground, progress.

But the most worrying aspect of Mr Cameron’s speech was that it his attack on multiculturalism, in practice if not in theory, singles out the Muslim community – and here I agree with Ms Alibhai-Brown.  Is he saying the same about Hassidic Jews? Or about the religiously exclusive schools being set up with government support by various groups?  Mr Cameron started by talking about terrorism and he should have stuck to the subject.

In fact, it is pretty unconvincing to suggest that the disaffection of young Muslim men in Britain has much to do with a hands-off attitude by the establishment.  Surely any attempt to promote our liberal values in a more “muscular” way would raise hackles further.  Many Muslims see an apparently amoral and degenerate society, promoting drunkenness and promiscuity; to find all the evidence they need to support this view they need go no further than the Daily Mail.  They are constantly open to slights and humiliations from other communities.  Our entirely muddled involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and confused attitude to the Israel/Palestine problem, adds grist to the mill.  To them this is evidence that we apply our vaunted values selectively.  Challenging their attitudes to women and gays may be necessary, but it has nothing to do with preventing terrorism.

Mr Cameron may be right the government engages some of the wrong Muslim groups under the aegis of preventing terrorism; he inherited a very muddled strategy.  We do need intelligence and support from Muslim communities.  But the way forward is to promote genuine multiculturalism – and not sending implicit messages of support to those with anti-Muslim prejudices.

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