what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Generalising about Art

What do wine and paintings have in common? It’s very difficult to write about each! They impact on our senses (palate and nose; eye and brain respectively). Hardly surprising therefore that writing about art and wine produces a lot of nonsense – with adjective heaped upon hyperbolic adjective in an effort to justify the writer’s arbitrary opinions. Books about these subjects, of course, are often very beautiful – but the text rarely keeps pace.
Since I began my serious collecting of Bulgarian realist painters, I’ve bought a fair number of books about art generally and about specific artists (even about collectors and dealers) but have to confess that I have learned very little. The three books on realist painting, for example, taught me only one thing – that the term is a slippery one!
My recent posts on Romanian realist painters of the early part of the 20th century were inspired by 7-8 little second-hand books from the 1970s and 1980s about individual artists which I picked up in Bucharest recently. Charming books – thick paper, great fonts and mounted reproductions (modelled, it seems to me, on the great little Skira books of the 1950s and 1960s) – much easier to read than the 900 pages of Paul Johnson’s Art; a new history which I did however thoroughly enjoy
Simon Schama’s "The Power of Art" may also be a bit unwieldy in its 450 page coffee-table style but does adopt the same useful focus on individual painters rather than style or eras – Caravaggio, Bellini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gough and Picasso. And there is a nice blog which gives good detail on the background to individual paintings - eg some of Van Gogh's
For me, however, the most insightful stuff on painting remains the small book written in the 1970s by John Berger – Ways of Seeing. The link gives the full text. Although I did come across in a Sofia friend's flat a beautiful book about painting in 1920s Bulgaria which struck me as a great way to approach painting - capturing in one country how various painters relate to one another and the changing trends.

My viewings in the last few years of Bulgarian and Romanian art have led me wonder about the extent to which is it possible to generalise about a nation’s painting style. My little booklet on Bulgarian Realists ("Getting to know the Bulgarians through their paintings") gives brief notes about 140 Bulgarian painters – most of whom were born in the last decade the 19th century and before the First World War; I have not been able to find anything striking in Romania from the same period. The 10 great Romanian artists I mentioned in the last two posts were born some 30 years earlier (between the 1860s and 1880s) but seem to have been the last of their line. When Bulgarian landscapes and colours were blooming in their art, their Romanian colleagues were producing (for me) dark and insipid stuff.

If I am right, what is the reason? Romania was, of course, the larger country with a significant bourgeois class and attachments to French culture – Bulgaria more rural with freedom from heavy Ottoman rule going back less than two generations (the Romanian liberation was less significant for them because of the considerable autonomy they had won within the Ottoman Empire). The Bulgarian celebration (in their art of the early 20th century) of their land and peoples perhaps reflected a pride and spirit absent in the more cynical and worldly Romanian bourgeois?
And the paintings in the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches are so much more colourful (indeed sensuous) than in the dull and serious Romanians.
The first painting of Rila Monastery is by Mario Zhekov - the second (in my collection) by an unknown 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two more realist Romanian painters of the early 20th century

Two painters were missing from yesterday’s list of important Romanian painters of the early 20th ;Century – one deliberately, the other because I was not aware of his significance.

I have never been particularly impressed with Theodor Pallady (1871-1956) but his name should be included in any such list.
Pallady was born in Iaşi, but at a young age, his family sent him to Dresden, where he studied engineering at the Dresden University of Technology between 1887 and 1889. At the same time, he studied art and was encouraged to go to Paris where he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux-Arts). In 1892, he worked in the studio of Gustave Moreau, where he had as colleagues Henri MatisseGeorges Rouault, and Albert Marquet.
In 1904, Pallady returned to Romania but maintained close connections with Paris, where he continued to hold many personal exhibitions, up until World War II. He also exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1924, 1940 and 1942. A good website gives some of his paintings.

Stefan Dimitrescu (1886-1933) is a new one for me – and most impressive. Most of Dimitrescu's paintings take inspiration mainly from the life of simple folk, and especially from that of Romanian peasants and miners; they attempt to portray Romanian traditions and way of life, drawing on his encounters with both Byzantine art and the work of Paul Cézanne.
Part of his art (between 1926 and 1933) was inspired by his travels to Dobruja, and have been considered to be the most accomplished synthesis between his craft as a draftsman and his art as a painter.
Born in Moldova into a modest family, he completed his primary and secondary studies in his hometown. In 1902, deciding to follow his passion for music, he left for Iasi, where he took cello classes at the Iaşi Conservatory.
In summer of 1903, Dimitrescu entered the National School of Fine Arts in the city, studying in the same class as Nicolae Tonitza. After graduation, Dimitrescu painted murals for Orthodox churches in Bacău County. Between 1912 and 1913, he studied in Paris, at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, during which time he was attracted to impressionism
Drafted into the army at the start of the Romanian Campaign of World War I, Dimitrescu was profoundly touched by the experience, and began painting tragic pieces that documented the misery brought by the conflict. Like his friend Tonitza, he began exploring social themes, such as the effects of bombardments.
In 1917, along with the painters Camil RessuIosif IserMarius Bunescu, he founded the Art of Romania association in their Iaşi refuge. In 1926, Dimitrescu, with Oscar HanFrancisc Şirato, and Nicolae Tonitza, established Grupul celor patru ("The Group of Four").
He became a teacher at the Iaşi National School of Fine Arts in 1927, and, during the next year, he was named its headmaster (a position he held until his death). Towards the end of his life, Dimitrescu began expanding his palette to cover more somber colors, while exploring compositions in which the background was stripped of details and usually of a dominant white.
Some of his paintings can be seen on this website.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Romanian Realists of the early 20th Century

I’ve been a bit sniffy about the Romanian painting tradition. Compared with the Bulgarian it is certainly less accessible and more elitist – which is a reflection of socio-economic realities here. But it did have some real Masters in the late 19th Century  - starting with the classicist Theodor Aman (1831-91); the renowned impressionist Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907); and his friend, the tragically short-lived Ion Andreescu (1850-82)

The key realist painters who grew up in their shadow in the last part of the 19th century number about ten – with many having passed through the Munich Art Academy which was such an influence on the Bulgarians. Few are well known outside Romania (apart from Luchian) and they cost about ten times their Bulgarian counterparts. For each painter I give a video link.
Nicolae Vermont (1866-1932) had great landscapes; Stefan Luchian (1868-1917) is better known for his still-lives.
Then three of my favourites - Stefan Popescu (1872-1948) a great colourist (the river scene here) who has many North African landscapes;

Camil Ressu (1880-1962) with wonderful peasant scenes ; and Jean Alexandru Steriadi (1881-1956) with a lot of inspiration from the Black Sea (the painting at the top is boats at Braila).

Iosif Iser (1881-1958) was a very colourful artist - who gave us great figurative work ...of racetracks and Ottoman figures.

Nicolae Tonitsa (1886-1940) is well-known for his portraits - and the curious dark eyes of many of his figures.

Samuel Muntzner (1884-1959) is also a favourite - with river or sea generally present in his paintings.

Ciucurencu, Alexandru (1903-1977) had more time under the socialist regime than the others and has another video here

A general video on Romanian painting seems to confirm my belief that the worthwhile painters were born in the latter part of the 19th Century - and that would include the painters from the Nagybany school most of whom were technically Hungarian.
And another article indicates that my own preferences are fairly similar to more professional judgements

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Francophiles, Turkophobes.... and a Kipling poem

The Elephant (second-hand English) bookshop has now at last reopened in its more central location in Shishman St, Sofia. The books are more accessible – although still a few piled high. I emerged last week clutching 5 –one of which was Julian Barnes’ collection of essays on France - Nothing to Declare. He really is a superb writer!
You don't read Barnes to be transported into imaginary realms, or to encounter the struggle and pathos of humanity. You read him, rather, for that superior tone and for his voice; in many ways, his novels are all voice - amused, languorous, insouciant and arch. You read him for his hauteur, his gift of cultivated digression and for his riffs and anecdotes. Above all, you read him as an essayist, one of our best.
Nowadays, any newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than 1,000 words is recognised as an essayist, but the popularity of the column or 'piece' is no more than an example of the cheap popularisation of the essay in a degraded culture. Dr Johnson called the essay an 'irregular, undigested piece'. That is right. The column is too regular, too finished; it's an easily digested piece. But the essay, as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb and EB White, strives for literary permanence. It concerns the search for a personal voice, of the kind that animates the most successful offerings in Barnes's new book of essays about France.
Barnes first visited France in the summer of 1959. He was 13, on holiday with his parents, and was enchanted; he has been returning, at irregular intervals, ever since. France, it seems, is the idealised Other against which he measures all other countries, including England, and finds them, by contrast, a perplexing disappointment. He accepts many of the stereotypes about the French: that they are Cassanovan in sex and Machiavellian in politics; that they are 'relaxed about pleasure' and treat the arts 'as central to life, rather than some add-on, like a set of alloy wheels'.

Books about Turkey never fail to fascinate me and Tim Kelsey’s Dervish – travels to modern Turkey (1996)  was another book in my package. Most books I’ve read on the country are balanced if not positive – but
in vain will the reader search for passages on the splendors of ancient Ephesus, Cappadocia's fairytale landscape, pristine Mediterranean beaches, colorful bazaars or amusing anecdotes about friendly locals. Instead the author of “Dervish” paints an almost dystopian portrait of a country that, just a decade-and-a-half ago, appeared so full of contradictions that social, political and economic meltdown lay just around the corner.
It is, however, a gripping read - focusing on the marginal underside of Turkey - with chapters on transvestites and the minorities struggling for survival in the troubled south-east. It's all a good reminder of how far Turkey has travelled in the past decade. For those wanting a more rounded picture of the country, Hugh Pope recommends his best 5 reads on Turkey

The Sofia-Bucharest drive is one of the most civilised I know – and I know my central European roads! In 1991 I was based in Copenhagen and drove a lot to and from places such as Gdansk (when the first election campaign was underway); Berlin (in which I had an employer in 1992); Prague (where I worked and lived from 1991-93); Budapest (Miskolc and Nyíregyháza 1993-95); Bratislava (and Nitra 1996); and Bucharest.
Friday gave a superb, relaxed drive (despite the heavy snow of the previous days) – initially over the Balkans – arriving Bucharest at 4pm. And Saturday’s visit to the Humanitas and Carterescu bookshops bagged another 5 books – including a lovely poetry compendium (with CD) The Great Modern Poets ed by Michael Schmidt which contained this amazing 1917 critique of ruling elites written by a man usually associated with Victorian Imperialism – Rudolph Kipling
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide--
  Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
  Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
  When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
  By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
  Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors,  and  take  counsel  with  their
  To conform and re-establish each career?
Their lives cannot repay us--their death could not undo--
  The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
  Shell we leave it unabated in its place?
I'm surprised this poem has not been dogging Tony Bliar as he is followed around by those wanting to have him prosecuted for war crimes for the death of so many people in the Iraq invasion and occupation. The poem was written in the aftermath of the British invasion a hundred years ago of...Mesopotamia

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Balkan bites and Russian robberies

I’ve not been in the mood for blogging since a Russian theft, a Bulgarian dog-bite and a Bulgarian eviction last week.
Early Wednesday morning a Russian stole into one of the (Russian) sleeping wagons - which are the only ones now to ply between Bucharest and Sofia (the great old German rolling stock of Bulgarian and Romanian railways have been progressively taken off since 2009) – and stole money from my sleeping partner who was coming for a visit. She woke while he was replacing the purse! With the help of a Bulgarian next door she immediately phoned emergency services - and saw police enter the neighbouring carriage at Pleven station.
 I was initially impressed with the squad of 5 transport police who were waiting for the train as it arrived on Wednesday morning and corralled all the passengers – the Bulgarians are fed up with the frequency and scale of the theft on this line. But she then spent 6 hours at the police station making statements; waiting while the Russians (who had locked themselves in their compartment and came out only when ordered by their Embassy) were being interrogated; and then trying to select the offender from a line-up. 
That was Wednesday. 
Thursday morning I was moving some paintings from the old to the new apartment and was bitten by a stray dog just outside the new place. Fortunately I had a physiotherapy appointment at the Military Hospital an hour later and was therefore able to have an immediate swab and anti-rabies injection. Apparently everyone gets bitten here – Bucharest (despite Brigitte Bardot’s antics) seems to have been able to get the stray dog problem under control by a programme of sterilisation. Here in Sofia there is only talk – no action. 
That was Thursday.
Friday morning came a phone call from my new landlady who had entered my flat without warning or permission and found the cat who adopted us last summer. I had told the Agency to inform her – but they failed. “No cats” she now says –  a soulless, cold and noisy flat and wild dogs have already alienated me and we reach an amicable agreement to part. By the next evening I was ensconced in a much more amenable old flat in the heart of old Sofia (Khan Khrum St) for 270 euros a month!   

The painting is "Patriots" by the powerful Sottish painter - Peter Howson - who has done a series of harrowing paintings from his experience of the Balkan Wars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Disaster facing Romania

A very tragic situation developing for Romania after Sunday’s parliamentary elections there – with the unholy alliance of ex-communists and liberals (???!!) getting 60% of a very low vote (40%) and the party associated with the much-hated and paranoid President Basescu getting only 16%. An Economist article puts the situation very bluntly -
According to the Constitution, Mr Basescu has the right to appoint the next prime minister, following consultations with the party that gained the majority of votes. (Art 103 of the constitutions says "The President of Romania nominates one candidate for the function of Prime Minister, after consulting with the party that has an absolute majority in the Parliament, or if one does not exist from one of the parties present in the parliament".)
The ruling alliance stated they want Mr Ponta to continue as prime minister for another four years( – but they are a coalition not a party). Basescu has repeatedly indicated that even if the ruling alliance gains a majority of votes, he will not nominate Mr Ponta.
Last week, Mr Basescu said he will appoint a prime minister who is pro-European, respects the Constitution and the rule of law and doesn’t have any hidden details on his resume that could make him an easy target for blackmail. Mr Ponta does not appear to fit the bill. The European Union has strongly criticised his government last summer following the cabinet’s attempts to take control of the judiciary and other public institutions. Mr Ponta was also accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis and lying in his CV. He denied all the allegations. 
One of the commentators in the subsequent discussion thread spells out what lies ahead -
Due to a friendly (and highly controversial) Constitutional Court ruling, the interpretation that the president operates under is that he can choose whoever he likes. But it’s clear that the spirit of the law, and of his constitutional role as a neutral arbiter are ignored. He is supposed to consult with the parties and assess which party's candidate has the best chance at forming a parliamentary majority. For the president to name whom he wish is aberrant and un-democratic. Why even consult with the parties if he can nominate whoever he wants? If we want to be technical, the president could even dissolve the parliament after two failed attempts at forming the government based on his nominations. This would mean that Basescu, based on this literal interpretation of the law, could repeated dissolve parliament and force new elections until the parliament (and thus the people) succumbed to his will and backed his nominee.
But alas, let's say the President is within his legal right to nominate as he alone chooses. Is this moral? Is this something that is in line with trans-Atlantic values? Are the people of Romania to be held hostage under the guise of respecting the Rule of Law where on the other hand democratic principles are being trampled? And I'm not even mentioning the issue of legitimacy. 7.6 million Romanians voted this past Sunday. 7.3 million voted for Basescu to be impeached in July. Reflect on this...these numbers are staggering!
However at the end of the day, Basescu has no leverage. If the president wants to be technical in his political fight then so can his opposition. If he doesn't nominate Ponta, the parliament will suspend Basescu again and the interim President will appoint Ponta. Another crisis, lost time, lost money, but ultimately the will of the people will prevail.
Poor Romanians! They face another impeachment of the President; attempts (as in Hungary) to make the Constitutional Court subject to corrupt parliamentarians and all other sorts of constitutional changes if the minority Hungarian party enters the coalition. What is left of Rule of Law is collapsing. And this is the country I'm driving back to in a few days (snow permitting!!)

Two years this time I had a post listing some of my favourite reading of all time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You are where you live

A Samuel Pepys - (or Marcel Proust -) type entry today.
Thanks to a couple of recent moves in my accommodation I’m seeing another side of Sofia. At the weekend I moved a little but further from the centre – trying to keep the rental low since I’m here only for a few months (if that) but would ideally like to keep somewhere to have as a base for my things and for the occasional visit. But I’ve been spoiled in the places I;ve had and just cannot adjust to the soullessness of these cheaper rented places. 
The young woman showing me the various flats told me the impact I had made when I said I needed bookshelves – “no one reads here” she exclaimed “but it does make people respect you!” And the lack of reading certainly shows in the absence, in any of the flats I looked at, of reading lights. I just don’t understand how people can live in places with only overhead lights! And what is advertised as “furnished” often means little more than kitchen facilities (often with dishwasher!), a bed, table and chairs. No cooking utensils, bedsheets, lamps or radio. Fortunately I travel with cooking stuff, don’t need television and had bought a couple of antique carpets for the bare floors – but unfortunately I need storage space for bikes and car parking facilities not too far away. 
So I’ve had to settle (for 300 euros a month) for a rather tawdry and shoddy new build-flat – largely on the basis that it seemed reasonably clean and had the space for my wheels! But I’m not sure how long I can put up with the place. 
I also have a hateful heating system (hot air being blown through air conditioners) simple because the central heating here in Sofia I so expensive. A monopoly supplier has forced more and more people to disconnect – driving the prices for those who remain even higher. So it is much cheaper to have electric heating which you control – particularly if you’re living there intermittently. 
I continue to enjoy walking (and cycling) around Sofia – even in the snow and ice which have graced the streets this week – the small shops and galleries (and cheap and pleasant eating and drinking) invite so (the Elephant second-hand Bookshop with English books has relocated into larger premises in the centre and opens today!) But the cosy small flats in Bucharest and Ploeisti are definitely beginning to beckon. 
Trouble is that I would have to dump the bikes (no storeage or cycling conditions up there) and also some of the paintings! Choices!

I was hoping to add to my little library on Bulgarian art by a visit to the underground second-hand bookshop at the University last week. It did indeed have quite a range of 1960s-1990s books on particular artists – but at extortionate prices for battered and nondescript things of less than 100 pages. The average price was 30 euros. What Bulgarian can afford such prices?
But, just 5 minutes (and hidden) away in a courtyard at Vassil Levski 87, there is a small second-hand bookshop which offers a not dissimilar range at a quarter of those prices. I got a couple of nice little books on the satirist -Stoyan Venev - and the shaper of Bulgarian painting - Jaroslav Vesin

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Press Liberties

The UK prides itself on its liberties – with freedom of speech and of the press being at the top of the list. But whose liberties have these really been? A few billionaires own most of the newspapers and journals - and famous figures (and governments) have been able to get judicial judgements muzzling coverage of certain issues which would be embarrassing to them. But when – thanks to the perseverance of a few people associated with The Guardian newspaper – the scale of phone-tapping by journalists of tabloids (the gutter press) was revealed (as well as questionable police behaviour), the government felt obliged to take the route all governments under pressure take – set up a commission of inquiry. In this case a judicial one. Lord Justice Leveson was asked to investigate and report on the 'culture, practices and ethics of the press'. For 17 months a variety of people (editors, journalists, police, politicians, those affected by press hounding) have appeared as witnesses - in public and under oath - and told their stories.
Such inquiries are a very British thing – it is a sign of firm action but gives the government a breathing space. And the issue can also be defused by writing the terms of reference in ways which exclude dangerous territory and/or by careful appointment of the chairman and members of the inquiry. By the time an inquiry issues its report, the issue may be forgotten. But in this case the public nature of the inquiry – with active television coverage – ensured that the issue remained a riveting one for the public – “did they or didn’t they (lie)??”
The Leveson report on press behaviour and ethics in the UK has just been issued. It’s a good (if long) read (a short version is here) and recommends that the present self-regulatory system of the press which has so patently failed be replaced by one with real teeth to enforce better practices. The judge is quite savage in his comments about the numerous opportunities editors and owners have been given to clean up their act. This, after all, is the seventh report on the subject in 70 years – one a decade! But the Government is resisting the idea of a statutory body with powers of fining. And some reputable people agree with him - Peter Preston, Simon Jenkins and Craig Murray. 
Murray’s post is perhaps the most interesting of the three contributions since he argues that Leveson was answering the wrong question -
British mainstream politicians are still more repulsive and self-seeking than the British mainstream media, and state regulation of the media, however modulated, is not good.
But Leveson was answering the wrong question.
The real problem is the ownership structure of UK mainstream media. Newspapers and broadcasters function as the propaganda tool of vast and intertwined corporate interests, shaping public opinion to the benefit of those corporate interests and ensuring popular support for politicians prepared to be complicit with those interests.
The only answer to this is to break up the corporate structure of the UK mainstream media. The legislative framework to do this is not difficult. What needs to be changed are the criteria. I would propose something like this; no organisation, state or private, should be allowed effective control of more than 20% of the national or regional newspaper market or the television market, or more than 15% of those combined markets.
The extraordinary thing is that Leveson specifically states that plurality issues do fall within his terms of reference, and that he must address them. He then completely fails to address them. At pages 29-30 of the executive summary of his report, he acknowledges that the current situation is unsatisfactory but makes no recommendations for change, only urging “Greater transparency on decision making on mergers”.
Leveson has provided us with the distraction of an argument about a regulatory body to look primarily at invasion of privacy abuse. The important factor for Leveson is not what Cameron or Clegg think of that idea. It is what Murdoch and the media corporations think of it, and the truth is that they could live with it, after huffing and puffing, because it would have zero effect on their financial bottom line.
But what Leveson has totally failed to do – and doubtless never had the slightest intention of doing – was anything that hurts the corporate financial interests. Leveson’s failure seriously to address the question of media ownership and its use in the nexus of commercial and political interests is itself an appalling act of establishment collusion. Very successfully so – in all the “debate” going on about the regulatory body, the media ownership question has completely vanished. Brilliant.
And this post gives some good examples of how the British press is no longer reporting the news
.....The fiasco of hypocrisy played out between Brussels, Berlin and Athens during 2009-11 soon stopped being a story about unbridled banking corruption, Greeks being groomed to lie about debt by Wall Street, and cynical bondholders buying debt purely in the hope of triggering default insurance. Within weeks it turned into Greek Crisis Live, endless meetings, men inside cars being driven about, new dawns being proclaimed, and complete bollocks about Greece being on the road to recovery.
About thirteen months ago, a tale of insanity about braindead German austerity economics and dodgy arms deals with Greeks quietly shifted scenes, and became Will Greece Be Kicked Out of the eurozone. Briefly six months ago, reality surfaced in the shape of respected debt dealers and economists saying Greek debt was unrepayable, and it was an obscenity to pauperise innocent Greek citizens while the bad guys got off scot-free. But within days that was pushed offstage in favour of yet more shuttle diplomacy, more all-night meetings in Brussels, more calls for Greece to face its responsibilities, north European politicians with their own unassailable debt mountains calling for yet more austerity, and a fantasy Fiskalunion being depicted as the Promised Land.
Today, the EU story is very obviously one about the eurozone being doomed, France being hopelessly exposed to Greek debt, Germany et al being hopelessly exposed to Spanish debt, the entire zone’s economy heading for the sewers, Greek politics becoming extreme, and the need for a total rethink on political Union between European nations.
But for the UK press, it has become a surreal saga about David Cameron ‘getting tough’ with Brussels, and his Party Rightists being jolly delighted about that. The media has been gone over with a fine tooth-comb by Justice Leveson in recent months. This bloke has now produced a 2,000 page report – does it really take that amount of verbiage to deal with the issues to hand? – but nowhere in his conclusions does it say that unelected media proprietors avoiding UK taxes wield enormous and unaccountable power to pervert the course of justice, policy, Cabinet responsibility, civic ethics, and our police forces............
Andrew Rawnsley is an astute observer of the processes of (rather than commentator on the substance of) British politics and put the reaction to the report in a very appropriate perspective -
Imagine we were talking about a 16-month, £5m, government-commissioned inquiry into abuses perpetrated by doctors or lawyers or members of the armed forces. Imagine that this inquiry had catalogued repeated illegality, systematic breaches of the profession's codes, the corruption of public officials, the compromising of political integrity and outrageous misconduct that had maimed innocent lives. Imagine that the report had arrived at the verdict that, while this profession mostly "serves the country well", significant elements of it were "exercising unaccountable power".
Imagine the prime minister who had set up that inquiry then responded that it was all very interesting, with much in it to commend, but he was going to park this report on the same dusty shelf that already groans with seven previous inquiries and allow this disgraced bunch one more chance to regulate themselves. We know what would be happening now. The newspapers would be monstering the prime minister as the most feeble creature ever to darken the door of Number 10. But since this is about the newspapers themselves, David Cameron has received some of the most adulatory headlines of his seven years as Tory leader. "Cam backs a free press," cheers the Mirror, for once in full agreement with the Daily Mail, which salutes as "Cameron leads the fight for liberty", and the Daily Telegraph, which hails "Cameron's Stand For Freedom" and the Sun, which stands to "applaud David Cameron's courage in resisting Lord Leveson". The prime minister's staffers are chuckling that he has generated some of his most glowing headlines by rejecting the cornerstone recommendation of his own inquiry.
If you can briefly suspend your cynicism about the whole thing and block your ears to the sound and fury that has accompanied the publication of Leveson, you'll see a fairly broad consensus about what needs to be done. Across the political parties and in much of the press there is considerable agreement that the report's principles are generally sound and many of the proposed remedies are sensible. The stark division is over whether it needs law – "statutory underpinning" in the rather hideous jargon – to put those principles into practice. As the Deputy Prime Minister rightly observed to MPs, it is an argument about "means" rather than "ends". The battle is no less fierce for that. And no less infected with some base motivation, among both politicians and the press, about what best serves their interests. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why is public management so boring?

In the last three years I have apparently written almost 700 posts. The right-hand column indicates the most popular posts – alternately of past 7 or 30 days (less often of all time).
I wish I understood what this tells me about the interests and (internet) behaviour of my readers. And I get frustrated that what I consider good posts are rarely rated in these statistics. Democratic Discontents and A Citizen’s Bible are two good (and linked) examples. In the first (long) post two years ago I argued that, despite the number of publications on different aspects of British politics (many academic), there were extraordinarily few studies which actually dealt with the question of how well (or badly) the country is actually governed. I identified four such critical works - most written some years ago.
The second post (a year ago) was on similar lines but focused this time on the literature of public administration (or management) as its now called. There, of course, is revealed part of the problem - the compartmentalisation of knowledge and the amount of academic scribbling around narrow issues written not for the general public but to embellish academic reputations and careers.
For a proper understanding of how (well or badly) a government system is working you need to look at politicians AND officials and their interaction. Of course, you need to do more - you need to look at the interactions with the wider world - not least commercial and financial.
For those of you who haven't read my second post on the need for a rethink of the public management discipline, here it is again in full -
As both mainstream economics and psychology are undergoing major challenge and rethinks, it is time that the scholastic discipline of public management had this sort of overhaul and public examination.
The only popular book on the subject I can think of was Reinventing Government (1991) by David Osbourne and Ted Gaebler – which was, however, American and did not attempt an overview of the topic but rather proselytised for neo-liberalism.
Economics and psychology, of course, are subjects dear to the heart of everyone – and economists and psychologists figures of both power and ridicule. Poor old public administration and its experts are hardly in the same league! Not only does noone listen to them – the scholars are embarrassed to be caught even writing for a bureaucratic or political audience.
And yet the last two decades have seen ministries and governments everywhere embark on major upheavals of administrative and policy systems – the very stuff of public administration. But the role of the scholars has (unlike the 2 other disciplines) been simply to observe, calibrate and comment. No theory has been developed by scholars equivalent to the power of the "market”, "competitive equilibrium” or "the unconscious” – unless, that is, you count Weber’s "rational-legal bureaucracy” (1890s) or Robert Michels "iron law of oligarchy” (1911). Somehow Lindblom's "disjointed incrementalism" of the 1960s never caught on as a public phrase!
Those behind the marketising prescriptions of New Public Management (NPM) were not from the public admin stable – but rather from Public Choice Economics and from the OECD – and the role of PA scholars has been map its rise and apparent fall and (occasionally) to deflate its pretensions. At its best, this type of commentary and analysis is very useful – few have surpassed Chris Hood’s masterly dissection of NPM 20 years ago. This set out for the first time the basic features of (and arguments for) the disparate elements which had characterised the apparently ad-hoc series of measures seen in the previous 15 years in the UK, New Zealand and Australia – and then suggests that the underlying values of NPM (what he calls the sigma value of efficiency) are simply one of three clusters of administrative values – the other two being concerned with rectitude (theta value) and resilience (lamda value). Table 2 of the paper sets this out in more detail.
The trick (as with life) is to get the appropriate balance between these three. Any attempt to favour one at the expense of the others (NPM) will lead inevitably to reaction and is therefore unstable.
This emphasis on the importance of balance was the focus of a very good (but neglected) paper which Henry Mintzberg published in 2000 (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) about the Management of Government which starts with the assertion that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 but "the balanced model” ie a system in which there was some sort of balance between the power of commerce, the state and the citizen. Patently the balance has swung too far in the intervening 20 years!
Incidentally I see from Mintzbergs (rather disappointing) website that he is working on a book on this theme with the title Rebalancing Society; radical renewal beyond Smith and Marx. Mintzberg is a very sane voice in a mad world – ás is obvious from this article on managing quietly and his ten musings on management.
Hood elaborates on these three sets of values in the book he published at the same time with Michael Jackson - Administrative Argument (sadly out of print) - when he set out 99 (conflicting) proverbs used in organisational change.
In 2007, Russell Ackoff, the US strategic management guru, published a more folksy variant of this proverbs approach – The F Laws of management short version of which can be read here. We desperately need this sort of approach applied to the "reformitis” which has afflicted bureaucrats and politicians in the past 20 years.
One of the few claims I feel able to make with confidence about myself is that I am well-read (see the (admittedly out-of-date annotated bibliography for change agents on my website). But I know of no book written for the concerned citizen which gives a realistic sense BOTH of the forces which constrain political action AND of the possibilities of creating a more decent society.
A book is needed which –
• Is written for the general public
* is not associated with discredited political parties (which, by definition, sell their souls)
• Sets out the thinking which has dominated government practices of the past 20 years; where it has come from; and what results it has had (already well done in academia see the Pal paper on the role of the OECD in marketing the privatisation of government)
• Gives case studies – not of the academic sort but more fire in the belly stuff which comes, for example, from the pen of Kenneth Roy in the great crusading Emag he edits and eg the tale which should be shouted from the rooftops of the collusion of so many public figures with the activities of the cowboys who run privatised companies which are trying to muscle in on (and make profit from) public services.
Perhaps I should try to produce such a book? Various authors have already put in place some of the building blocks – eg Peter du Gay ("Come back bureaucracy"); Chris Pollitt (in The Essential Public Manager); some of the work on public value by Mark Moore and others; even Geoff Mulgan's Good and Bad Power (which, sadly, I found impossible to finish.
The painting is by Stanley Spencer 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What hope for democracy?

The castration of democracy by corporate power has been a recurring theme in my blogs – and I did on one occasion even suggest that the lack of fundamental policy differences between parties made us little different from Communist China
And this time 2 years ago I gave a link to a book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman, without appreciating that its critique of liberal democracy and its apparent inability to challenge corporate interests has the authors arguing in considerable detail for a more authoritarian system of government. Naturally the book has been useful to those denying climate change – allowing them to claim that climate change is a plot by fascist big government.   
M Greer ( as a "peak oil" writer) seems to have been one of the few to subject the book’s argument to a more serious analysis
It’s worth glancing back over the last decade or so to get a sense of the way this book fits into the broader process by which climate change activism ran off the rails. In 2001, despite fierce opposition from business interests and right-wing parties generally, it was very much in the ascendant, and some form of regulation of carbon emissions looked like a done deal. Opposition from the White House and well-funded think tanks notwithstanding, the movement to limit CO2 emissions could have become the sort of juggernaut that extracted the Endangered Species Act and a flurry of other environmental legislation from another conservative Republican administration thirty years earlier. That it did not was, I think, the result primarily of three factors.
The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. Most of the leading figures in the climate change movement are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.
This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.
The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit.
 I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism.
I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a can of tuna and a can opener. The moment the cats smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.
That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.
For a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship of democracy to climate change see here.
And Stephen Holmes - the political scientists who focuses on post-communism - has written a very thoughtful piece on the reasons for the current disillusionment with democracy. It is quite remarkable to find an American writing in these terms -

To understand why citizens today, throughout the world, cannot easily control politicians by democratic means, we need to look at the way in which various extra-electoral forms of dependency of politicians on citizens have recently been eroded. To oversimplify, we can say that the citizen-voter has leverage over ruling groups only when he or she is also a citizen-soldier, a citizen-worker, and a citizen-consumer. The few are willing to share power and wealth with the many only when the many voluntarily cooperate with the few in their war-making and profit-making. When volunteer armies with high-tech weapons replace citizen levies, one of the main motives for elite interest in public welfare is substantially weakened. The flooding of the labour market by a low-cost Chinese workforce has also reduced the interest of the American and European capitalist class in the health and education of American and European workers. Taken together, the disappearance of the citizen-soldier and the diminished status and clout of the citizen-worker have considerably reduced the leverage which the citizen-voter can bring to bear on society's top decision-makers. This erosion has become a total destruction in the case of Russia, where the hydrocarbon bonanza (sold to foreigners) has liberated the ruling elite from citizen-consumers as well. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

The disease of managerialism

One of the reasons I blog is that I see myself very much as “a child of my times”; someone who felt in the early 1960s the power of what economics, sociology and managerialism had to offer the world and therefore switched his university studies from French and German to economics and politics; someone who got into positions of power and influence in government and advanced the mission of managerialism; who now sees not just the mistakes this new belief system have led us into but the unforgiveable hubris and arrogance of the new rationalists of the mid 20th century; and who wants to warn the younger generation of the Faustian bargain our generation struck.
My post a year ago today looked back on the grip social sciences took on our minds in the 1960s
For the past 4 years or so the discipline of economics has been under severe attack – but somehow its more powerful sibling (managerialism) has managed to evade critical popular attention. A year ago today I picked out one book which spilled the beans on the new religion. Its title was A very short,fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations which I view as far more explosive than The Communist Manifesto. I did my best to give a summary -
  • "imagine a world where the thing which dominated it (God; the Party) was written about in one of three ways. One was like a bible, very heavy and orthodox. The second was amusing and readable but didn’t tell you anything you couldn’t think for yourself. The third seemed to say some things you wouldn’t think yourself and suggested flaws in the Bible but you couldn’t understand it because it was so obscurely written. Such is the literature of organisations - in which we live our lives and yet are served by only Textbooks; pop management; and unreadable scholarly books or articles".
  • Writers on organisations belong to one of two schools – those who believe "there exists an observable, objective organisational reality which exists independent of organisation theory (OT). The task of OT is to uncover this reality and discover the laws by which it operates – and perhaps then to predict if not control future events. They tend to favour quantitative research. These are the positivists. Then there is a second camp which denies this scientific view – they might be called constructivists or relativists since, for them, organisational reality is constructed by people in organisations and by organisation theory”.
  • The history of organisation theory you find in textbooks generally starts with the concept of "bureaucracy” as defined by Weber and with that of "scientific management” as set out by FW Taylor - both of whom were active in a 25 year period from the late 1880s to the end of the first world war, one as a (legal) academic in Prussia, the other as an engineer and early consultant in American steel mills in Pennsylvania.
  • Weber was curious about the various motives there have been over history and societies for obedience. Why exactly have we accepted the authority of those with power? His answer gave us a typology of authority we still use today – "traditional", "charismatic" and what he called "rational-legal” which he saw developing in his time. A system of (fair) rules which made arbitrary (privileging) behaviour difficult. But this was an "ideal type” (ie a model) – not necessarily a precise description or prescription. Indeed studies from the mid 1950s showed just how much informal power there was in bureacracies.
  • Taylor worked in an industry where it was normal for workers to organise their own work; and where owners tended to be Presbyterean and workers catholic immigrants. Taylor reckoned there was a lot of slacking going on – and applied a "scientific” approach to devise standards and measures of performance (time and motion) as well as "scientific” selection of workers and a strict separation of workers and managers.
  • This caused strong reactions not only amongst workers but from many owners and only survived thanks to the production needs of the First World War
  • The "evacuation of meaning” from work was intensified by Fordism.
  • the "human resource” approach to management which followed was not the fundamental break which the textbooks portray but rather a cleverer legitimisation of management power – as was the cultural management (and TQM) of the latter part of the 20th century.
  • Although managers call the shots, their organisational fashions always fail – because of unintended effects
  • Business schools do not produce better managers – but rather  breed legitimisation; self-confidence; a shared world-view and a common (mystifying) language
  • One quote perhaps captures the author's (Chris Grey's) argument - 
For all the talk about new paradigms, contemporary organisation theory and management method remain remarkably unchanged from their classical roots….because the underlying philosophy of instrumental rationality and control remains firmly in the ascendant
In the 1970s we had people like Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire exposing the emptiness of the doctrines which sustained the power of education and health systems. We now desperately need people like this to help us tear apart the arbitrary assumptions which sustain the legitimacy of the new priests of technocracy. Daniel Dorling's recent book Injustice - why social inequality persists is exceptional because he tries to identify and then challenge the belief systems which sustain our present inequities.
There are hundreds of thousands of academics receiving public money to teach and research so-called social "sciences" in universities and public institutions. The vast majority of them, whether they realise it or not, have been part of a large brain-washing exercise. A few of them only have broken ranks - not just the economists I have mentioned but those (generally American) sociologists who, for a few years, have been advocating what they call "public sociologies". Michael Burrawoy has been one of the main protagonists. Noone, however, should be under any illusions about the difficulties of making an intellectual challenge on this field of management and organisation studies in which so many brains, reputations and careers are now entrenched

In the same month last year I also traced the history of the critique of economic growth and consumerism.

Finally this important article on Social housing in Scotland which show how even one of the last bastions of social democracy has been infected by the neo-liberalist disease.

The painting is, of course, an Honore Daumier - The Mountebank Musicians

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

wine as medicine

November seems to be the period for testing the Sofia medical systems – this time last year I blogged about an experience with the excellent Military Hospital here which resulted in a diagnosis of excessive uric acid and a savage diet for a month with no wine.
I’ve been suffering for some time from some degeneration of the knee tissue – result probably of rowing, jogging, tennis and badminton over the past 50 years (did I tell you I trained with the Azeri youth badminton team a decade ago??!!). It was in Baku I had my first treatment of the knee with electrodes (20 years earlier I had a guy with a hypnotic medallion massage the knee briefly and cure a pain which physiotherapists had not been able to shift.
Since I came off a Kyrgyzstan mountain/hill climb in 2006 the knees have been weak and no one has been able to give me a decent diagnosis – let alone treatment (despite MRS etc) In April, however, a Sofia specialist ran some doppler and other tests and reckoned it was linked to some spinal weakness – so here I am now having some excellent physiotherapy in the Military Hospital. The Doctor who supervises the treatment gave me on Monday the most thorough and professional examination which I have received in a decade – and has me now undergoing a 10 day course of magnetic, electric and manual treatment. And in a section of the hospital whose walls are adorned with paintings (for sale). Great idea! So hats off to the Bulgarians – not least because we exchange tips about Bulgarian wine as it proceeds.  Pavel Banyia is the place I had been advised to go for the best Spa experience (in the heart of the country) but it was fully booked. Her advice was Hisar - for both the thermal waters and wine (StareSel).

Speaking of which – as I walked back from the Hospital (aided by my antique vanity cane – which is great for smacking badly-parked cars!) I discovered another of the charming regional wine shops which are scattered around Sofia. So far I have come across shops selling Vidin; Magura; Karnovat wines and today I passed I tiny shop which had a huge advertisement about Belogradchik wines (like the first 2 in the North-East). I had driven through the village (Borovitsa) last year but not stopped and decided this time therefore  (blindtaste) to buy 2 litres of a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc mix – for less than 5 euros. Back home, the taste was impeccable!!  
And a lovely little wine shop with quality wines at reasonable prices has opened at the Russian monument on the corner of Makedonski and Skobelev Bvds (although its situated in the latter, its address is the former!). It's the initiative of a young man - and is typical of the attitude and spirit here. It's love of wine which has driven him - not big business connections. I wouldn't find this in Bucharest.
I'm also glad to see that one of the Bulgarian wineries - Light Castle - is supporting Astry Gallery - being one of the sponsors of Vihra's latest annual 30x30 exhibition.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bulgarian Wine - as Culture

Well I certainly learned a lot more about Bulgarian wines over the weekend – both in the biblical sense (experience) and intellectually. Particularly about the more pricey wines I would never normally buy. You can such great quality here for 2/3 euros a litre that I would never pay more than 8 euros a bottle! I discover (through a great little book "Catalogue of Bulgarian Wines 2013" (available for 15 levs probably at branches of Casavino here) that there are at least 97 independent wineries in this small country – each with several brand names with its own range of wines. And 250 of them were available for tasting over the weekend (as this was the elite, this suggest that there are more than 500 different wines in the country!)
I was more disciplined yesterday, perfecting the swill and spit – and, even then, physically not able to taste too many reds because of the semi-revulsion my body has developed to them. One exception was a fascinating anti-oxidant red wine – Alfa Vita – which adds a strong medical tone to its marketing. It certainly was smooth and tasty. The CEO I spoke to (also the driving force behind the local Academy for Wine) was kind enough to give me a bottle in exchange for a copy of my booklet on Bulgarian realist painters! And advised me to drink 50 ml or so for breakfast!! At 5 euros a bottle, it’s just what the doctor ordered!   
One of my goals yesterday was to savour the Roses on offer – I have never been a great fan of these but, as my taste for reds has declined, so the few Roses I have come across have become more interesting. And there is a great choice here!
Two stalls left the greatest impression - Villa Yustina (established only in 2006 and located in a village in the Rhodopes foothills near Plovdiv) by virtue of the enthusiastic and helpful approach of their sales guy Vencislav Lyubenov. And the stall of the well known Katarzyna Estate (located on the Greek/Turkish border) - by virtue of it being the only one whose staff (women) were encouraging feedback from their customers.  
The wine fair was so popular the second day that it was almost impossible to move from stall to stall!
As each visitor left, they were presented with free copies of the (massive glossy) DiVine magazine which sponsored the fair. Intriguingly the cover picture is of champagne bottles in a picture frame – is this a case of the wineries bidding to be included in the European Capital of Culture?

There is a serious argument to be made for eating and wine drinking as a serious cultural pursuit – perhaps the Divine magazine should consider having a few pages on Bulgarian painting (and other cultural material) in each of its future issues?  Interestingly there was a good place on Kurnigradska St (almost at the corner with Vitosha) which offered a heady mix of paintings, wines, books and musical performance. It is now not more - not at least at that address - although a new little gallery has opened in Tsar Samuil St (off Solunska) which mixes wines and aquarelles!!
The aquarelle is - of course - an......Ilyia Beshkov - from the superb 1950s book I bought from Alexander....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The vocabulary of wines

This will be a short post since I am heading out to Part II of a marathon wine-tasting which I alighted upon by accident as I was out cycling yesterday and saw large banners with images of wine bottles hanging from the building of the Central Military Club. Divino was organised for the first time last year by the leading wine magazine, called DiVino. Now comes the second edition. Wineries can participate only if invited, therefore quality is ensured. If you want to learn besides tasting, you can sit in any of the masterclasses or lectures. Bulgarian grape varieties, pearls of Burgundy and many other topics satisfy your thirst for knowledge. If you look hard enough you should see me somewhere in the picture.
It was a glorious way to spend a couple of hours and taste wines I didn’t know about – complete with a little notebook they give you when you pay your 12 levs with all the wines thoughtfully listed (in English no less). There are apparently about 200 wines available – and my notes suggest that I tasted almost 50 of them. Needless to say I have no real memory of this – but if I am to do the event justice I will have to swill and spit a good few of the remaining 150!!
It was nice talking with the various people on the stalls – and also a couple of sommelliers. I was stuck for words to describe the taste – and am basically looking for value for money – stunning taste which does not pall as you drink it for a good price. It is, obviously, the season for wines - so hardly surprising to find a  good articles here on the lexicon of wines.

Another good example of why Sofia is a great place to live!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Privatisation exposed!

Time was when Chile (under General Pinochet) was the test-bed of how far right-wingers could go in destroying a society and country. Now it’s become the turn of England – with its successive neo-liberal Governments pushing privatisation as far as it can go. Not just railway and health services – but now even policing. Thank God for Scottish Devolution which has spared my country from this madness – although, sadly, not the rail privatisation nonsenses which I blogged about a month ago.
"Railways now cost the British taxpayer some three times more (allowing for inflation) than did state ownership and costing the passenger some 4 times more (and greater inconvenience) than equivalent travel in the rest of Europe. It is a marvellous case-study of, variously, policy development (on what evidence was the policy brought in and discussed?); democratic accountability (who wanted it – and has supported it?); civil service management (skill preparation) and neo-liberalism.
It was a mad scheme from the start (in 1993) – totally against basic economic theory (or what remains of it). Rail is a natural monopoly. Services cannot run against one another. So sections of the system are put out for tender by the State for 10-15 year “franchises”. About 2,000 companies are involved in these contracts and sub-contracts – with all the bureaucracy (let alone profit-taking) this involves. And that is before we bring into play the new regulatory systems set up to monitor targets and ensure that the customers and government were not being “taken for a ride” (excuse the pun) by the private monopolies. I do not pretend to understand the complex (and ever-changing) process by which public assets were sold up, franchises awarded and regulatory systems managed. A 2004 paper by Prof Stephen Glaister seems to give a lot of the detail – if you have the patience to follow it all.
The last 13 years have seen a lot of problems – train collisions; bankruptcy of RailTrack; huge rise in complaints – but they are small beer compared with the scandal which has now erupted over the contract for the West Coast line (London to Glasgow) which has just been cancelled due to irregularities (so typical for procurement processes)"
The biggest privatisation disaster was undoubtedly the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), originally unveiled by John Major’s government but massively expanded under New Labour. Under PFI, private contractors pay for construction costs, leasing the finished project to the public sector for up to 30 years. The attraction was a financial con: PFI contracts take borrowing off the Government’s public sector balance sheet. They are expensive, not least because of the costly lawyers and consultants involved in the contracts, and because borrowing is twice as expensive for the private sector as it is for the Government.
The long-term cost to the public purse is shocking. Not long after the last election, it was reported that the NHS would end up paying £65bn to private contractors for hospital building, even though completion cost just £11.3bn. Back in May, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that “the current model of PFI is unsustainable”, because the contracting process was so expensive, and the risk was transferred to the public sector even as investors enjoyed high returns - 22 NHS trusts reportedly face bankruptcy after being saddled with PFI debts.
As the recent failure of G4S to provide security at the Olympics underlined, the “private is best” dogma is kaput. But the era of failed free-market fundamentalism will not end unless Labour rejects its own history of privatisation. A break with the past is not just necessary - it would be popular, too.
Treating hospitals as businesses…. has only got hospitals into trouble as they struggle to transform themselves into commercial enterprises, more interested in their profit margins than in their patients. It is a recipe for disaster to expect hospitals to behave like fast-food chains or clothing stores. Hospitals should be focusing every shred of their attention on improving their services for patients, here, in this country. Hospitals are not businesses; they are places that are funded by us, for us, when we become unwell.
Like the grubby men in string vests and gold sovereign rings who sit outside brothels beckoning gullible tourists, the Government is now attempting to pimp out the NHS to foreigners…..
It’s not the NHS as a product that is revolutionary and worthy of export, it’s the NHS as a concept. The main appeal of the NHS to people around the world is the fact that it is a cheap, effective and equitable way of delivering healthcare. It is the notion of a system that is free at the point of delivery, regardless of ability to pay, that makes it valuable. The great irony of all this is that if we wanted to export the real ethos of the NHS, as opposed to what might be represented by some bland, meaningless logo, then we would be going around encouraging foreign governments to reject market principles and develop a socialised model of healthcare. And this isn’t going to happen.
The reason why the NHS has not been replicated around the world is that attempts to introduce socialised medical models are strangled by corporate interest. Emerging, proto-capitalist economies are rich pickings for the multinationals that are already lining up to take over running their health systems. The idea that the NHS might become one of the circling vultures ready to swoop in before a fair, cheap model of healthcare delivery can be established makes me feel ashamed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Who wants to be The European Capital of Culture - and why??

Bulgaria is one of the few EU member states which has not so far seen one of its cities designated as a European City (since 1999 “Capital”) of Culture - although in 2019 one Bulgarian city will play this role. 10 Bulgarian cities are bidding for the designation – with Sofia’s strong bid facing stiff competition from Plovdiv’s and other well-placed cities such as Varna, Burgas and Veliko Tarnovo. (The photo is, appropriately, of Plovdiv's Roman forum -  the "bread and circus" predecessor of the European Capital of Culture - discovered only in the 1970s when they were digging a road construction)

"I belong to Glasgow"
Glasgow was one of Europe’s first cities to have this title (in 1990) and I was a leading Regional politician during the previous 15 years of regeneration efforts which culminated in this award – and in 1990 I had the great pleasure during the opening ceremonies of a private lunch with Melina Mercouri who, when Greek Minister of Culture, invented the concept.

Historical footnote; I was in my kilt and struck (in those days) quite a fine figure. I got the eye from Melina and was invited to join the small table she had with an attractive Berlin Senator. My (Presbyterian) mother was with me and knew Melina only from her infamous film role as a prostitute. Melina and I (as Socialists) got on like a house on fire but when I back to the table where I had left my Mum in the tender care of a boring Latin scholar and asked if she would like to meet my new friend, she responded tartly - "Certainly not!"
The “Glasgow model” is still talked about in positive terms. See, for example, two slide presentations which compare the Glasgow and Liverpool (2008) experiences here and here

Some basic facts
It is all too easy for municipal leaders to get excited about the prestige of a European award – particularly when its economic impact lies so far in the future by which time it is highly unlikely the leaders will still be around. A note of scepticism is needed. The European Union is very clever with these designations which carry (directly at any rate) very little European funding. Over the 25 years of experience, the average cost of the scheme has been 35 million euros – and only 2% of this has been covered by EC funding! The cost has, of course, ranged from 5-6 million euros of the Bergen and Prague years (2000) to no less than 232 million for Thessalonika’s year in the spotlight (1997) And 99% of the funding of the latter was public. I’ve taken the figures from page 70 of the detailed Palmer report for the EC on the impact of the concept (Palmer, it should be noted was the Director of the Glasgow 1990 project – now with his own International Cultural Consultancy company)

A basic question
So the question for the Bulgarian government and city leaders is how much should they put up – with what sort of hopes for its impact? 
At a time of great austerity, are realistic calculations being made for the running costs of new infrastructure being proposed? 
Most European cities are having difficulties paying the wage and other running costs of existing libraries and swimming pools – let alone having the budget for increased staffing. Maribor (Slovenia) is just finishing its European City of Culture spell – and is already experiencing this problem - with cultural groups being set against one another as a result - and Istanbul(2010) also experienced serious problems
On the other hand the EC has also published its own (positive) spin on the experience of the past 25 years - which looks more at results than processes.

Some experience
The Glasgow authorities made their own positive assessment of impact – 17 years later. But there is another side to the story – which was set out in 2004 in a useful assessment of the Glasgow experience. It did not mince its words
In the narratives deployed by those who advocate city marketing and re-imagining, cities such as Glasgow are all too frequently reified and presented as homogeneous locales of common interests. But ‘Glasgow’ does not ‘do’ things, it is not an agent and it is not ‘Glasgow’ that ‘wins’ or ‘loses’, or that is undergoing a ‘renewal’, but particular (and if recent evidence is anything to go by, fewer) groups of its citizens living in particular parts of the City. The type of strategy adopted in Glasgow – ‘the Glasgow model’ – has contributed to the worsening levels of poverty and deprivation and to the deepening inequalities that characterise the City today. It has done this primarily by constructing Glasgow’s future – and the future for tens of thousands of Glaswegians – as a low paid, workforce grateful from the breadcrumbs from the tables of the entrepreneurs and investors upon which so much effort is spent in attracting and cosseting – and by marginalising and ruling out any alternative strategy based upon large scale public sector investment in sustainable and socially necessary facilities and services. While wishing to avoid any romanticisation of manufacturing employment, it is nonetheless notable that this now accounts for less than 10% of employment in the City (source: OECD, 2002, p. 46).
There appears to have been little effort to secure quality manufacturing employment of a type that might be attractive to many of those out of work and which might offer full-time, sustainable work of a better quality than that on offer in the ‘cappucino’ economy that is now such a pervasive feature of the city centre.
 The paper quotes from a critical 1990 article
. . the Year of Culture has more to do with power politics than culture. It has more to do with millionaire developers than art . . . In 1990, willy-nilly, everything is surrendered, once you join in the enterprise, for above all 1990 makes an unequivocal statement on behalf of corporate wealth.
So that in 1990 it is more a question of art sponsoring big business, promoting the new tourist drive and giving aid and comfort to a shallow ethos of yuppie greed. And for all this of course the people of Glasgow will be made to foot the bill. (McLay, 1990, p. 87)
Lessons - and key elements in any successful approach
If there is one lesson from the 25 years’ experience, it is that the process needs, from the outset, to involve all possible local groups – whether performing, musical, artistic, media, literary, tourist, community, ethnographic, archeological, vinocultural (!!) etc..... It is impossible to get a consensus amongst such groups –whether at strategic or implementations stages. But the effort has to be made – to build up the trust that is needed to have a sustainable and successful result. And cooperation is not easy in southern European countries such as Greece and Italy let alone ex-communist Balkan countries - where cronyism is so rampant and fair selection of contractors and beneficiaries a rare thing.
Key words, however, I would urge on those involved would be trust, transparency, inclusiveness, learning (from the experience of others), realism and modesty (in spending commitments), scepticism (of a lot of the material and claims made on the subject); and distinctiveness (don't copy - recognise and build on your distinctive characteristics).

I am, it should be noted, no great fan of mega-efforts such as Olympics. And I would also advise those involved to spend time looking at the experience not only of the many other cities who have so far been the recipient of this award but of other big events. There are some good overviews (with extensive links) available herehere; and here.

Sofia - so far
Given my various posts on Sofia and its attractions, I obviously feel that Sofia would be a worthy city. for this accolade - not least because so many of its residents seem insufficiently aware of its attractions. The reason the designation was so important to Glasgow (when it was made in 1986 or so) was that it altered the perception of the city - both for outsiders and residents.
Sofia also needs such a boost - and seems already to be going about it in the right way . And I like the contributions which some citizens are already beginning to make to the discussion about what it should be for - in this series on provocateur of the month

From the archives; a good post 3 years ago on "organisational narcissism"!