WHY ANY DECISION IS BETTER THAN NONE AT ALL

First published in the Scotsman 3 August 2012

 

When Niccolò Machiavelli, in 1513, needed to get out of early retirement and find a government job he didn’t write out his CV for possible employers. Instead he wrote a book.  Then he sent “The Prince”, with a grovelling covering letter, to Lorenzo di Medici in Florence. ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’ was a ruthless autocratic prince of great wealth and power and our Niccolo, as any good civil servant should, wrote how such a Prince could maintain and increase his power. It has two really good things about it. It is written in shockingly plain language about the real politik of renaissance Italy. It is also commendably short.  Magnificent Lorenzo probably wasn’t a great reader.

But Niccolò doesn’t deserve to be called ‘machiavellian’.  His best book is much longer and, so, today rarely read.  “The Discourses on Livy” is about republicanism and the beginnings of democracy. It is pertinent, learned and often witty.  Politicians today should read it.

Our Prime Minister, for instance, the best public relations expert we’ve had in government for a long time, might benefit from Machiavelli’s rendering of the Roman praetor Annius’s view on government.  “It seems to me of the utmost importance….”, he said, “that you should consider what is to be done rather than what is to be said. It will be easy, when you have arrived at a decision, to accommodate words to acts.”

And more than just David Cameron would learn from Machiavelli’s description of how tiny Syracuse just couldn’t make up its mind whether to ally with Rome or Carthage during their great war. There was delay and indecision. It was clear this would bring first isolation and then destruction by one or both of those big powers “whereas, should they arrive at a decision, whatever way it went, they might expect good to come from it.”  In other words – any decision you make is better than no decision at all.

If the wise Machiavelli is right – why do our politicians today so often plump for no decision?  Is it dangerous dithering or ‘masterful inactivity’?

There are plenty of reasons.  Let’s take a few from today.  Reason one for preferring ‘no decision’ is that, as in poor Syracuse, or in our own coalition government, there are strong influential people pushing in opposite directions. The LibDems want us to ally closely with the European Union, many Tories want to strike out for independence; so there’s talk, but no action. Then there’s welfare, the health service, the House of Lords, green energy.  When opposing forces on different sides of the argument are strong enough to cause problems if the decision goes against them, the ‘long grass’ of no decision is luscious and tempting.  Bad for the country, probably, but holding on to political power is more important.

Reason two for preferring ‘no decision’ is carefully considered and strategic – don’t do much, don’t upset people, don’t divert attention, steady as she goes.  Our SNP Scottish Government is really good at this.  In government for five years, with almost all the domestic powers of any nation state at their fingertips, full of complaint about how Scotland has been held back from being all it could be – they’ve done what? Letting the Lockerbie bomber out of jail and trying to end football violence. But for the SNP this is the right path. By not doing much, no one’s upset and the big to-do list is still there to do ‘if only we could govern ourselves’.  Bad for the country, probably, but achieving their one political aim is more important.

Reason three I saw for myself in local government.  Every decision you make hurts someone. Approve a late-night kebab shop licence and the shopkeeper and weary customers are pleased, but the neighbours upstairs, fearful of noise and fumes, are hurt.  Approve a planning application for new homes and the builders and first-time buyers are pleased, but neighbours looking out over what once was green fields are hurt.  The political problem is people just pocket and forget about the good things as being the proper course of events.  The hurt they hang on to and turn into resentment. Because of this I’ve seen councillors turn down a good planning application because the neighbours, voters all, would be pleased and the eventual blame would rest with a civil servant who would, rightly, in the end of the day approve the application on appeal.  Bad for local democracy, but gaining party votes is more important.

Reason four is surprising.  Sometimes politicians actually think making decisions is not their job. For the LibDem councillors leading Edinburgh Council before the last election, making decisions on running the city, or sorting out the tram fiasco, was for the Council officials, not politicians elected like them by the people. The Prime Minister said something similar after a government minister got too cosy with the Murdoch TV empire. Even though press and media ownership affects the health of our democracy, he thought it could be decided by an unaccountable official, not ministers.  Bad for our democracy, but keeping clean hands is more important.

All those are sad, but understandable in their way.  The really dangerous reason why politicians don’t make decisions is fear of their own leadership – an uncertainty about what they believe and an inability to chart the way ahead. This is really worrying. When David Cameron was asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister and replied “because I think I’d be rather good at it” rather than saying what he wanted for the country, we should all have trembled a little. And Scottish Labour now looks like it might drift to the same place. A party that knows for sure it has to change, that has said it must, and yet has shown little sign yet of doing so, despite the eagerness of members and electorate for it to speak with a loud and fresh voice about what it sees as the way ahead, could well run into more problems.

All need to heed the words of Liverpool poet Roger McGough:

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

THROW AWAY BLANKET BAN ON GREEN BELT

 

First published in ‘the Scotsman’  6 July 2012

 

Linus van Pelt needs his blue security blanket. Desperately.  It makes him feel better.  No matter how much Snoopy tries to steal it or Lucy pleads with him to abandon it and grow up, he hangs on tight.  As Linus explains (in ‘A Boy named Charlie Brown’) “This blanket is a necessity – it keeps me from cracking up. It may be regarded as a spiritual tourniquet. Without it, I’d be nothing, a ship without a rudder.”

Which is how we feel about our ‘green belt’. We hang on to it. Like a blue blanket it helps us not to grow up.

With the new Strategic Development Plan for Edinburgh and South East Scotland (SESPlan) soon to hit the streets, it’s time to take a sceptical look at our continuous green belt. I think it’s even time to throw that security blanket away.

Before the uproar begins let me be plain.  I’m in favour of green.  I want to protect our public green spaces and improve our access to them. I abhor the carpet-bombing of the countryside with pattern-book housing estates that look as though they come from somewhere that isn’t here. I just don’t think a continuously encircling green belt around our cities and towns helps us with all that.

Though we may choose to ignore the fact, most of us now live in what was once a green belt of sorts around an older part of our town or city.  Probably it wasn’t the strictly designated ‘green belt’ we have today, just neighbouring fields, but mouthful by mouthful over the years those fields have been eaten up by the city.  We still do it, even out of the statutory ‘green belt’, nibbling a bite here or a morsel there, providing homes for people to live and places for people to work.  But that’s not the whole story.  Those land nibbles don’t provide for everyone.  As SESPlan will say, ‘Greater Edinburgh’ now stretches from Leven, past Bathgate, beyond Galashiels to Eyemouth – we’ve played leapfrog over the green belt, spread our homes over green farm land miles away and, as part of getting back into the city, constructed huge dual carriageway roads and soon-to-be-two road bridges.

Now this isn’t a simple problem.

Difficult and complex issues face those who plan our future. First, as we all know, there are simply not enough homes of the right kind at an affordable price for all of us – especially those with growing lives and young families.  The average age for first time buyers is creeping up to the late thirties and even then many rely on the ‘bank of mum and dad’. We need to build homes. Second, we spend too much of our time and money just commuting to work or going to school or getting what we need. The trains are hardly taking the strain, roads always fill up, cancer-causing diesel lorries cover more miles than ever, delivering and picking up.  We need to travel less. Third, with all that moving about the fumes create air pollution, water pollution, climate change.  We need to pollute less.  Fourth, our population hasn’t increased much, but the space we all take up has, we’ve spread not grown. Serving and connecting all those new settlements over such a large area needs big public spending on new infrastructure – new bridges, new roads, new trams, new railways, new sewers, new water supplies, and more.  We find it hard to afford all that public investment.

These problems have taken a logarithmic leap since the time the green belt was invented.  It’s a different world. But, as Linus asks, “How can you solve ‘new math’ problems with an ‘old math’ mind?” We hang on to the old mindset of continuous green belt like a security blanket, hoping its going to do some good. Then, by nibbling at it and leapfrogging it, we’ve actually made it part of the problem.  We need a change of mind. Some ‘new math’.

Have you been to the green belt lately?  I have.  Plenty of fine open green fields fenced in with no public access and almost all optioned by developers hoping for the next ‘nibble’.  And chunks of waste ground with nettles and rusting sheds, again optioned, where the developer argument is that it’s hardly worth keeping anyway.  It’s not the ‘public green space’ nirvana of the blue blanket brigade.

So – what to do.  What is a ‘new math’ mind?  How do we build more homes, travel less, especially by car, pollute less and find the public money for infrastructure?  And at the same time give more people more access to protected green space?

Try this simple experiment.  Lay your palm flat on the table with fingers closed.  That’s roughly how we grow our urban areas now – solidly continuous with only the people at the edge enjoying the green.  Then open your fingers.  Access to the green wedges between your fingers is so much longer.

That ‘finger plan’ describes Copenhagen, a city that in 60 years of operating its plan has moved from one of Europe’s poorest to one of its most prosperous. Protected green wedges add huge amenity to densely-built communities along finger bones of mass public transport.  No continuous green belt here, but more access to green space than we enjoy.  Sufficient housing, but, as more people live near public transport ‘bones’, fewer people drive to work, and cause less pollution. What’s more, a plan like this brings long-term possibilities to raise infrastructure finance from the land values created by development certainties.  A green belt with fingers through it.

Something similar was written in Edinburgh’s “Vision for Capital Growth” six years ago. It found much favour, was in line with the law and encouraged by Scottish Government planning policy. It’s still city policy.

But the comforting pull of our security blanket is so strong that when SESPlan appears I think I’m going to be disappointed. As so often in our country, the “old math mind” will have its way.  Poor Linus.

MAKING MUSIC OF POLITICS

Published in ‘the Scotsman’ 8 June 2012

 

Yo-Yo Ma is one of the world’s great cello players. He’s at the top of his profession because, although he is incredibly expert, he doesn’t worry too much about making mistakes.  “If you are only worried about making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing,” he says. “You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.” (from J Lehrer Imagine)

Same with politics. The point of political leadership is to make people feel something, to rouse their imaginations, to dig deep into stories and values that matter to the nation.  Feelings are what change peoples behaviour – including voting. That’s why the appointment of Jon Cruddas to Labour’s front bench in Westminster is to be welcomed.

Neal Lawson, who has worked closely with Jon Cruddas in the left-of-centre Compass group, says: “Jon has a grasp of an emotive, some would say romantic, human sense of politics – not a dry, arid, mechanical approach.  So why give him a dry policy thing? Because he will make it come alive. He will give some kind of narrative and framework on which we can eventually hang dusty policy.”  He knows that policy is not about ‘to-do’ lists for this or that department of government. Policy is about people’s places and stories; a light on the hill.

It’s a tough job and one that really needs doing. If the credibility of policy on the political right, the neo-liberal policy dominant for the past 40 years, has now been destroyed by the biggest economic crash since the end of the nineteenth century, so has policy on the political left. The left in the UK and throughout Europe are being proved right about the failings of austerity, but all are searching for the way to create and talk about the alternatives that will resonate both with economic reality and the feelings people have about their lives.  The policies that do emerge will have to be illustrations of a deeper and real story about our country and our people.

The left in Scotland has an equal challenge.  Devolution, thirteen years old now, and established with great expectations it would engender a better life for Scottish people, has failed to live up to those expectations.  Not because the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have sufficient powers – it does.  But because our MSPs simply continue to do in Scotland the same things in the same way they’d been done previously through Westminster – and they didn’t work well then. They are trying to do the wrong things better. So we still have the worst health in Europe, near the worst education, lots of poverty and some dismal places to live.  Those dashed expectations are the reason why the dangerous notion of complete separation from the rest of the UK has become more attractive, even though, in reality,  like Ireland and Greece, it would mean real power over the big things that matter sitting, uncontrolled, with rich and powerful neighbours, not with us.

So the left in Scotland has a big policy job to do.  But is it learning the lessons of Yo-Yo Ma?  Am I the only one to suspect that many MSPs worry too much about making small mistakes and miss the point of political talk which is to make people feel something?  That there is too much worrying about details of their ‘to-do’ lists of policy as if they’re almost in government? That there is too much attachment to a parliamentary view of the world and sitting behind the walls of their opposition ‘briefs’? That sometimes the right people don’t get into the right jobs because of worries about small differences in policy or outlook (a.k.a their “mistakes”)?

Detailed policy certainly can be important. But perhaps not now.  A ‘safe pair of hands’ is always valuable, saving face or holding to a line sometimes necessary and watching your, or a colleague’s, back an occasional requisite for survival.  But perhaps now is the time to tolerate mistakes, which largely go unnoticed anyway, and concentrate on making the people feel something, which is always noticed.

I moved to Scotland from London as an adult over 40 years ago. I’ve contributed to public life and the common good over those years.  A (native) friend once said to me my blood runs tartan by now. But I have family in England as well as here and I really don’t want to live in another country from them, which is what Alex Salmond offers me, turning my grandsons into foreigners. There must be many that feel the same as me and that needs given voice.  I know for sure, in a time of great uncertainty in our world, a time when the forces of money are so big that we need strong democratic powers to oppose them,  it’s the height of folly for Scotland to think it’s right to turn its back on England, Wales and Northern Ireland and attempt to row against that storm on its own. And I want that said with louder voices than mine.

And I want those voices to speak of everyday things too. I have a friend who once had important work in public service; but poor health lost her the job and for years she’s stayed at home. I read what medical experts told us just a few days ago, something my friend well knows, that our Health Service has for so long been so concentrated on fixing sick people in hospital that it fails to help people at home with chronic conditions get back to be part of the world again.  What those experts want, and what I know we really need, is a transformed health service that is local, close to home, helping us all be healthy, preventing sickness and disease, not simply waiting for people to turn up in super-expensive hospitals sagging under the weight of ill-health caused by alcohol, smoking and the wrong food. I want us to stop trying to do the wrong things, better – and start doing the right things.

I need our politicians, with a loud voice, to imagine that future with me, to delve into the deeper story of our country and people, to make me feel that politics is not just about avoiding mistakes. That talking politics is like making music.

THE PEOPLE – NOT THE STATE

First published in the Scotsman May 2012

 

Thirteen years ago this week the first MSPs arrived in the new Scottish Parliament.  I’m not sure we can yet list many big achievements.  The Parliament’s budget doubled in the first ten years but, comparing ourselves then and now and with counterparts across Europe, we find our democracy is weaker and our public services still failing deliver the outcomes we need. We see election turn-outs down again. We see our people suffering some of the worst health in Europe and worse than average schooling. We see the places we build and live in called ‘mediocre’ even by the Scottish Government’s own economic advisers.  For the first few years you can put that paucity of achievement down, understandably, to parliament and ministers finding their feet.  Now it’s because SNP ministers, with full control of parliament, are dragging their feet.

And that’s understandable too. As nationalists seeking statehood for Scotland, they want to demonstrate that the Scottish Parliament, part of the UK but with almost the same powers over its domestic policy as those of any sovereign state, is inadequate and incapable of improving the lot of the Scottish people.

Thus, with not much else to talk about, the debate, as they want, is all about the boundaries of power of the Scottish state.  If not about independence, it’s about devo-max or devo-plus (and maybe devo-less will appear soon!).  So the main political action from ministers is about getting more power out from the UK government or pulling more power in from Scottish local government.

It’s all about the state, not the people.  We’re having the wrong constitutional debate. It’s time we started talking about the people, not the state.

Although to be fair, that’s what our political thinkers, from the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the left to Reform Scotland on the right and the all-party Centre for Scottish Public Policy, have been doing for a while now, though largely ignored by parliamentarians and public. Read what they all have to say and see, from everything we know from ourselves and from around the world, that our people’s well-being grows when power is local.  Turn that on its head and we can surely say that when power is concentrated in the state, our top-heavy and well-funded Scottish state, our well-being shrinks.  The big question they pose is – how can the communities and people up and down Scotland take control from the state and into their own hands?

That’s where the real constitutional debate needs to be.  Around a radical constitutional option that puts Scotland back into the hands of its people. To coin a word: devo-local.  If politics is to be about people, this devo-local, and not the statist notion of independence, is the next step onwards from that historic devolutionary change thirteen years ago.  It is what Scottish Labour, true to its values and roots, ought to be talking about.

Defining that vision of a locally-devolved Scotland is enough to fuel months of debate, as it should.  But the guiding principle is this.  That all public service provision should be devolved to the local,  except those specifically reserved to Scottish central government.   The same ‘reserved powers’ principle is embedded in the Act which set up our new Scottish Parliament and itself reflects the principle of subsidiarity upon which governance in most of the rest of Europe is based.

That principle means placing powers to govern public services into the hands of the people who use and rely upon them and placing the powers to shape the economy and environment of a place into the hands of the people who live and work there. It means local NHS services being governed, provided and audited locally. It means education, from nursery through to college, being governed and provided according to local needs and direction. It means local roads and transport and regeneration being funded and determined locally.  And it must mean a far greater proportion of taxation to do all that being set and raised locally, leading even to different taxes in different places.  A shocking thought in Scotland; commonplace throughout Europe where people seem to do very well by it.

It is shocking to us because our local government, while judged ‘efficient’ in management, is broken in reputation, denuded of powers and lacking in democratic accountability and support. It’s why most last week asked themselves – why vote?  In much of Europe it is local elections, not parliamentary elections, where turnout is highest. In Scotland, exacerbated by the foolish voting system we endured again last week, we see voter turn-out down and competition to be elected at yet another low point, lower than anywhere else in Europe.

“Devo-local” is twin track.  It will be steady, not a big bang. But alongside wholesale transfer of money and powers from the central state to the local, there needs to be an almighty democratic reform of the way in which we do local politics and local government.  In effect, we need a new constitutional settlement within Scotland. We need a local democracy which is by law independent of Scottish ministers and which in its day-to-day operation, and not just in a once-in-five-years vote, answers to local people not national ‘targets’. That means strong and competent local councils and, to some (but not me), directly-elected mayors or provosts.  It also means devolution from the council to neighbourhood bodies, themselves elected, which govern the more local places in which people live.  More elected local ‘politicians’?  Of course – we have far, far fewer people elected from our communities to govern ourselves than any other European country. Electing our neighbours to help govern the place we live is a cornerstone of change.

It’s time to set out a new – relevant – vision for Scotland’s people with a different kind of constitutional settlement.  Not more power for the state within new borders.  But more day-to-day power for our cities, towns, communities and families together to make their own communal decisions for their own lives.