Review: A Woman’s Work, by Harriet Harman

harrietALTHOUGH HARRIET HARMAN never held a front-rank cabinet job, she is probably one of the most influential politicians of recent decades. “I knew exactly what I was coming into Parliament to do,” she writes of her arrival at Westminster following the 1982 Peckham by-election. “I was there for women… we wanted equality, in work and in politics. We wanted childcare, maternity rights, for domestic violence to be taken seriously and for women to play and equal part in political decision making.” Harman has stuck to her agenda for 35 years, with a measure of success that puts most male politicians in the shade.

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British culture: the mainstream is not the whole story

Sandbrook draws some political conclusions as wonky as one of Doctor Who’s early sets. If Britain’s cultural success vindicates Thatcherite individualism, why did most of the figures he celebrates emerge in precisely the kind of “collectivist” society that Thatcher despised?

My review of Dominic Sandbrook’s The Great British Dream Factory has been published in the Winter 2016 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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Labour’s future: more Tony Crosland and less Tony Blair

Labour needs to win back poor voters who think it won’t do enough, and prosperous voters who fear it will do too much and wreck things. The next leader’s biggest battle will be to convince voters that Labour hasn’t just run out of road.

My review of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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A lifetime of self-deception

My review of Tim Milne’s memoir of notorious MI6 double-agent Kim Philby is published in the Spring issue of Public Service Magazine.

Even at school in the 1920s, Kim Philby stood apart. According to this memoir by his schoolfriend and MI6 colleague Tim Milne, the future spy was a “fearless” loner, so secretive that he was never seen going to the lavatory. At cricket, Philby liked to field at deep cover, a remote position ideal for observing the game he loved…

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Because they’re worth it

Don’t be put off by the bowler hat on the cover of Owen Jones’s The Establishment. Top civil servants are barely mentioned. There’s little about aristocrats, only passing references to Oxbridge, and nothing at all about fagging.

For Jones, author of the bestselling Chavs, it’s not the old school tie but ideas that bind the “new Establishment” together: free markets, a minimal state, hyper-individualism and a sense of limitless entitlement. This amounts to a “common mentality which holds that those at the top deserve their power”. If the Establishment had a motto, says Jones, it would be L’Oréal’s slogan: “Because I’m worth it.”

The right-wing blogger “Guido Fawkes” (AKA Paul Staines) calls this what it is: plutocracy. In a slightly creepy, moustache-twirling contribution, he tells Jones that undermining politicians is about undermining democracy itself. “It suits my ideological game plan,” he says. “Democracy always leads to… those who don’t have [taking] from those who do have.”

Fawkes, says Jones, is one of the Establishment “outriders” – people who pose as dissidents while working to shift mainstream thinking towards Establishment ideology. Jones traces their origins back to Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland in 1947, where a group of right-wing thinkers and economists (my distinction is deliberate) met to plot the ideological fightback against post-war social democracy.

Jones’s assault on this ideology is clear, well-argued and passionate, but it’s not clear why he needs to shoehorn it into an awkward, institutional concept like “the Establishment” – especially as trying to pin down who’s in and who’s out causes him so much trouble.

The book abounds with people from Establishment institutions – economists, senior police officers, journalists, even some Tory MPs and bankers – who are critical of this dominant ideology. Often the evidence Jones uses to expose how it has corrupted British public life comes from the same institutions supposedly in its merciless grip. And he can’t decide whether the “libertarian” ideas espoused by many working-class Tories and UKIP supporters constitutes Establishment thinking or not.

For example, Jones says that allegations of left-wing bias are “a way of controlling the BBC”. But that would be unnecessary if the corporation was the “consistent platform for Establishment perspectives” that he describes. In fact, there is plenty on the BBC – comedy, drama and current affairs – which challenges free-market ideology, as well as plenty that doesn’t. Jones’s claims about a uniform BBC political ideology are simply wrong.

Jones is excellent how corporate interests have manipulated the state for their own ends, sucking up lucrative government contracts while simultaneously avoiding tax. His account, for example, of how A4e milked taxpayers for hundreds of millions of pounds, hugely enriching its founder Emma Harrison in the process (staff even nicknamed the firm “All for Emma”), while providing an abysmal service to jobseekers, is devastating even if not exactly news.

Ferocious attacks from Amazon users and some right-wing hacks ludicrously cite Jones’s left-wing politics – and Oxford education – as reasons not to read a left-wing book. But few put up much defence against the facts as he lays them out. More balanced critics point out that what Jones describes is not an establishment but a consensus. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a rotten one. Or that it cannot be changed.

Forgive but don’t forget

The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

The Blunders of our Governments
by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
Oneworld, 470pp, £25

‘To err is human, to forgive, divine,’ wrote Alexander Pope. But we mortals often forget rather than forgive. Even if you lived through all the calamities described in The Blunders of our Governments, you’ll probably still find yourself asking, ‘How the hell did they get away with that?’

Veteran political observers Tony King and Ivor Crewe kick off this analysis of the biggest political cock-ups of the last 30 years with the textbook case. The poll tax was cooked up in splendid isolation by two ambitious junior ministers (William Waldergrave and Kenneth Baker, since you ask). The team never seriously considered alternative policies, ignored implementation problems and seemed deaf to even constructive criticism.

No one has ever successfully introduced a ‘head tax’ in Britain (the last attempt was in Pope’s time, in 1698). This one became a ‘runaway train’ which led to riots on the streets and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

But at least Mrs Thatcher paid the price, and hopefully it will be another 300 years before anyone tries it again. With most blunders, say the authors, the chances of ministers ever being held accountable ‘approach zero’. Worse still, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again.

Often policymakers seem to develop a defensive ‘group-think’ mentality which sees ‘all objections as obstruction’, a tendency made worse by the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation – ‘a dangerous instrument of persuasion’ which encourages group-think, warn the authors.

Then there is ‘cultural and operational disconnect’ – the authors’ polite term for ignorance. The Child Support Agency failed mainly because policymakers just didn’t realise that many absent fathers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay maintenance. Years later, ministers presiding over the individual learning accounts fiasco simply didn’t understand that some people in the training ‘marketplace’ could be dishonest. Fraudsters siphoned off a third of the £290m spent on the project.

These are Pope’s ‘human failings’, and they can affect any large organisation with ambitious plans, private as well as public. In fact, private contractors were at the heart of some our costliest blunders, including the public-private partnership to modernise the London tube, which collapsed in 2007, leaving taxpayers with a bill of at least £20bn (John Prescott and Gordon Brown, since you ask).

But, without completely exonerating officials, King and Crewe largely blame the specific behaviour of British politicians for making blunders much more likely and costly. We pay a high price for our adversarial politics and ‘decisive’ system of government, they say. ‘British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode…even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it.’

Far from being presidential, they argue that British government suffers from a ‘weak, under-organised and understaffed’ centre, a rapidly revolving door of ministers and officials and a chronic lack of accountability. As for parliament, their verdict is brutal: ‘As a legislative assembly…parliament is either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist.’

Although the authors reserve judgement on the Cameron government, the early signs are not good. ‘Omnishambles…is scarcely too strong a word to describe its performance so far,’ they warn. In fact, Cameron’s ‘may turn out to be the most blunder-prone government of modern times’.

Reform is possible, say the authors, but their tone is not optimistic. We’ll have more forgetting – and perhaps forgiving – to do in the years ahead.


A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2013.

Little bangs and big bucks

You know you’ve hit your mid-40s when histories of ‘your’ decade start to fill the bookshelves. Writers are always nostalgic for their youth and thirty years seems about right for a proper historical perspective. I turned 18 at the height of the miners’ strike in 1984 and often feel cheated about being landed with the decade of piano-key ties and Rick Astley rather than the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. But at the time, it seemed like fun, even if I was on the losing side of virtually every political and cultural argument for an entire decade.

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s By Graham Stewart Atlantic Books, 546pp, £25

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
By Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 546pp, £25

We can assume that Graham Stewart, a former Times leader writer and historian of the Tory party, was very much on the winning side. For him, the 80s ‘exploded with a decisive bang’ and settled all those arguments for the next thirty years and beyond. Stewart’s only real reassessment of the legacy of free markets and deregulation is to imply that by not following ‘the Grantham gospel of Thatcher’s faith’ and cutting public spending, it was governments who caused the great crash of 2008.

Although Margaret Thatcher dominates the pages, she never really materialises in flesh and blood from the web of supportive clichés that Stewart weaves around her. Indeed, it’s hard to see how his Thatcher could arouse ‘the attraction and repulsion’ he says defined people’s attitudes in the 80s. She just seems so damn reasonable, at least until the end, when ‘experience was making her careless’ and her cabinet ‘were tiring of her brusqueness and rudeness’.

What Bang! really lacks – for want of a better word – is ‘bang’. Assembled almost exclusively from newspaper clippings, published memoirs (mainly those of Conservative politicians) and statistics, Stewart provides a crisp commentary on the key events and arguments without ever getting under the skin of the times. There are none of the interviews with people caught up in the big events which made Andy Beckett’s history of the 70s, When the Lights Went Out, the instant classic of the genre. Sometimes you wonder if Stewart wrote Bang! barricaded in his Buckingham University office, with the internet down, the phone off the hook and oblivious to anything that’s happened in the last five years.

This weakness is most glaring with Stewart’s chapter on the miner’s strike. While few would dispute that at the end of the dispute the miners were ‘a beaten army marching towards oblivion’, Stewart doesn’t talk to any of the miners or police officers involved, and doesn’t even seem to have visited any pit communities. Shorn of human context, this just makes the miners look silly and the dispute childish. Similarly, with the 1986 Wapping print dispute, Stewart pompously asserts that ‘the printers were protesting to ensure their industry continued to use outdated technology and inefficient practices’. In the words of the book’s heroine: No, no, no! Most were protesting because they feared losing their jobs and a way of life they treasured. To fail even to try to understand that is to fail as a social historian. Social history needs people and in Bang! the people seem to have been expunged from their own decade.

If you lived through the 80s, Bang! could make you wonder if you were really there. If you didn’t, you could end up wondering what all the fuss was about.

A version of this review was published in public service magazine, spring 2013.