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.

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.

Public services are different

As he left office as Prime Minister, and age ago in June 2007, Tony Blair wrote the following in The Economist:

Public services need to go through the same revolution – professionally, culturally and in organisation – that the private sector has gone through.

It is easy to understand how politicians become frustrated with the leaden ways of so much of the public sector.  And the private sector has indeed been revolutionised in the last two decades.  Recently I’ve experienced this private sector revolution full on.

Somebody has been setting up mobile phone contracts in my name.

The first I heard of this was when a welcome arrived through the mail.  My daily post hasn’t been this exciting for years (well since the last time somebody did this).  Then comes the difficult bit: I have to phone the company to stop the contract.  Since I don’t actually have the phone and the free service line that goes with it, this usually means phoning a premium number and then wading through the various options.  Funnily enough none of the options says “If you want to report a fraudulent transaction press 3” – it’s always “other” at the end of the list; one company only lets you in if you have a PIN – not easy if you didn’t actually set the contract up.  Eventually you speak to somebody with a script, sometimes in India; actually this bit usually works OK: these people are polite and know what to do; only once was I just passed round the office. And there it seems to end; somebody gets a free handset and a few days worth of free calls.  Just another business expense.

It is a huge, horrible impersonal nightmare of systems, procedures, filters and scripts, with the minimum human contact.  The fraudster doesn’t know who I am.  The company allows the fraud because it is worth the expense.  I have to wade through the system to protect myself.  This is the dark side of the private sector revolution of which Tony Blair writes.  The personal element is sucked out and crime lurks in the fringes.  Perhaps Prime Ministers are cocooned from this.

The process is relentless.  I should know, since I used to manage a financial services operation that underwent just such a transformation.  The starting point was a clumsy labour-intensive operation, not easy to manage; the service may have had lots of human interfaces, but you didn’t really know what the staff were doing: not until too late and you had an irate customer.  Then along comes a salesman with a system that helps you control all this and keep proper records.  He or she would be gushing: you would save money, improve the quality and customer satisfaction all at once.  So you implemented these wonderful workflow and customer relationship systems, and indeed you could improve controls and improve quality of service.  But if you wanted to reduce costs as well, then you had to keep the customers away from the workforce and build barriers.  And then came a process called “de-skilling”: using less skilled staff, usually in a location were wages are much lower, and giving them simpler procedures to follow.  And the pressure to reduce costs is absolutely relentless, not least because mostly the public chose lower costs over better service.

Clearly there is a big upside.  The public can consume more and (usually) gets more choice.  No doubt this is what Mr Blair was thinking of.  If everybody is going to get richer, or even just have more leisure, then we must produce more per person.  This is just another way of saying that the personal content in the goods and services we deliver has to be less.  Sweden is often cited as an example of a society that is well off without rampant, exploitative capitalism: but try finding a member of staff at IKEA.  And, we shouldn’t view the past with rose-tinted spectacles: services may have been more personal, but they were often shoddy and high-handed.  Overall we are better off.

But public services are different.

Personal contact, and understanding the user’s individual needs is often of the essence for public services – think of schools, doctors, social workers.  And simply deciding that somebody is too difficult to deal with is not an option.  If people fall off the edge they create even bigger problems.  In fact so many of societies problems are the result of lack of human contact and understanding – think of antisocial behaviour or mental illness.  Public services should be more human not less.  If they were, we’d need them less.

What we need is a complete rethink of public services, not copying blindly from the private sector.

Hello world!

This blog has been long in gestation, so here’s hoping that lives even longer in execution.

It is a platform to express my thoughts on the issues of the day.  My interests are pretty broad, but the idea is to concentrate on politics, with a special interest in the economy and public services.  I’m no expert (a mere BSc in Economics doesn’t get you beyond the lowlife in the economics profession); still less am I an insider, drifting around the outer fringes of the Westminster village.  I hold no public political office.  But I’m a free agent and I will not feel bound to any party line, though I am no political neutral.  And I’ve been around quite a long time, and I’ve done some interesting things (well, I think so) – I think I have some interesting insights to offer.

Another thing I am not, is a journalist.  There’s no particular virtue in being quick off the mark at the expense of insight.  The best insights take time to emerge.

What do I mean by “thinking liberal”?  I’m a political liberal; I want people to be free to take the course they choose and say what they like, so long as they don’t harm others.  I believe that society should organise itself so that as many as possible have the practical freedoms that come with their basic physical and emotional needs being met, and a decent education.  Thinking is a big part of what I’m trying to do.  Emotional reactions and partisan advocacy have their place, but not here.  I want to promote insights and understanding.  I want to find a better way.

And there’s something else.  I want to be constructive.  So much of what passes for comment is negative, telling us what’s wrong with an idea, without trying to put up an alternative.  Of course alternative ideas will usually have flaws – but the only way to find the best ideas is to keep trying.  Which means being brave enough to be wrong.