what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse 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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Where is the shared Understanding and Vision?

There must be tens of thousands of books (in the English language) about the global financial crisis and the deeper malaise it revealed but most writers focus on diagnosis and are reluctant to put their name to detailed prescriptions. With the exception, perhaps, of the banking crisis where the many and divergent diagnoses (Howard Davies counted 39) did generally lead to detailed prescriptions – few of which, however, have been implemented.
One further lack, for me, is any serious effort to create a typology which might help create a shared agenda for change. Rather, various kinds of expert give us their particular view - matching their prejudices or those of their putative readers. For example -

·         In the UK, Will Hutton has been giving us a powerful systemic critique of the coherence of neo-liberal thinking and policies since The State We’re In (1995) although his latest - Them and Us  (2010) – was weaker on alternatives and fails to mention a lot of relevant work.
·         Since When Corporations Rule the World (1995) David Korten has, in the US, been critiquing the operation of companies and setting out alternatives – using both books and a website. One of his latest books is Agenda for a new economy - much of which can be accessed at Google Scholar.
·         And Paul Kingsnorth’s One No – many Yeses; a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement gives a marvellous sense of the energy a lot of people are spending fighting global capitalism in a variety of very different ways.

The Guide for the Perplexed which I drafted a couple of years ago did offer (from para 9 onwards) a rather crude initial typology modelled on that of the approach of the capacity development literature which is interested in how to make organisations more “effective” and recognises three levels of work - the individual (micro); the organisation (meso); and the wider system (macro).
Decisions about organisational improvement are taken by those with power in organisations who are reluctant to identify those at the top as the cause of poor performance – so it’s generally the foot-soldiers at the micro level who are to blame and “skill development” and “better training” which is identified as the solution.
But more systemic change for organisations (the meso level) as part of the cut and thrust of competition did become the norm in anglo-saxon countries in the last 50 years, bolstered by the theories of management gurus.

As someone who has spent the last 20 years in contracts to improve the performance of state organisations (local and national) in ex-communist countries, I slowly realised that the key lever for change (at least in such countries) was at the macro level and governed not only by the legal framework establishing the various institutions but by to the informal processes in (and interactions between) political, commercial and legal systems. I’ve written quite a bit about this eg here

The challenge of the global crisis is to mobilise civic power with a coherent agenda which forces appropriate changes in the (national and global) legal frameworks. Political, financial and leaders will, of course, resist such changes. The question is how to put the various pieces together.
What is the sequencing? A unifying agenda? Mobilisation?

What I want to do in this post is to use the framework of the Draft Guide for the Perplexed paper to –
- remind us of the sort of texts which have been urging change over the past 15-20 years
- see if and how such writers have changed their diagnosis, prescriptions and tactics in the light of the crisis of the past five years.

1. Meso Change – the commercial world
·         Paul Hawken published in 2000 an important book Natural Capitalism  which showed the economic benefits which could flow from a variety of ecological products. Ernst von Weizsaecker has long been an eloquent spokesman for this approach see the 2009 Factor Five report for the Club of Rome.
·         Peter Barnes published in 2006 a thoughtful critique and alternative vision - Capitalism 3.0  - based on his entrepreneurial experience. All 200 pages can be downloaded from this internet link.
·         William Davies published a useful booklet Reinventing the Firm (Demos 2009) which suggests some adjustments to corporate legislation on similar lines to Hutton.

2. Meso-change; community enterprise
·         Perhaps the most coherent and readable text, however, comes from an Irish economist Richard Douthwaite whose 2003 book Short Circuit – strengthening local economies for security in an unstable world  is a marvellous combination of analysis and case-studies of successful community initiatives. The opening pages give a particularly powerful visio.
·         Bill McKibben’s writings are also inspirational- eg Deep Economy: Economics as if the World Mattered

3. The system changers
The indefatigable writers on the left are stronger on description than prescription –
-  David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital does try to sketch out a few alternatives.
- Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias which instances the amazing Mondragon cooperatives but is otherwise an incestuous academic scribble.

But the people at the Centre for the advancement of the steady state economy have a well-thought through position – see their report Enough is enough  (CASSE 2010).

I'll keep the "micro" school of thinking (best represented by Robert Quinn) for another post. 
The pity is that there is not enough cross-referencing by the various authors to allow us to extract the commonalities and identify the gaps. Each writer, it seems, has to forge a distinctive slant. Douthwaite is one exception.
One of David Korten’s most recent books suggests that - Leadership for transformation must come, as it always does, from outside the institutions of power. This requires building a powerful social movement based on a shared understanding of the roots of the problem and a shared vision of the path to its resolution.
This definition contains three of the crucial ingredients for the social change on the scale we need –
·                     External pressure
·                     Shared understanding of causes of problem
·                     Shared vision

Friday, June 27, 2014

Round up the Usual Suspects!

One of the questions which nags away at me is why “progressives” don’t spend more time trying to seek a consensus agenda which can halt the downward spiral into which our societies have plunged since the 1970s.
Since the global crisis, it has been obvious (to most) that the economy (if not society) was broken – trouble is that people could not agree what the causes were. Energies ( and time) were wasted in parading "the usual scapegoats".

But there was too ready an assumption that those responsible would be contrite and change their behavior; and/or that governments would enact strong measures (in the style of the Roosevelt New Deal of the 30s). Only slowly did it seem to dawn on people that, far from slamming the brakes on, corporate power and the political class were driving relentlessly on – imbued, it appears, with an ideological fervor for what, rightly or wrongly, we call neo-liberalism. Colin Crouch dealt with this question in 2011 in his The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism - although the book it a bit theoretical. 
Philip Morowski gives a more trenchant (and political) explanation for the survival of the neo-liberal dogma in his Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2013) - arguing that progressives have failed to understand that the neo-liberal rhetoric about the market cloaks a continued build-up of state power (bolstering corporate interests).

The economists have had at least six years to publish their analyses of the process of collapse; to identify the reasons and to suggest measures – both rectifying and preventive. Most serious accounts look at least 15 causes….and the guy was chairman of the British Financial Regulatory body actually produced 39
But, as Morowski argues, the vast bulk of economists adhere to a fallacious doctrine and are incapable of producing relevant prescriptions.
Immediately someone puts his or head above the parapet and suggests concrete actions, they are labelled and dismissed. – whether by those in power or, more discouragingly, by other progressives. This presumably is one reason why such voices are rare.

But there must be other reasons which discourage the mass of discontented people from uniting under a common banner.
Most people are confused; some are just skeptical if not fatalistic; but a significant number of highly educated people are infected, I suspect, by the social disease of individualism which lies, I feel, at the heart of our malaise.

We simply no longer believe in the possibility of effective collective action. And too many of the big names who write the tracts about the global crisis present their analyses and prescriptions with insufficient reference to the efforts of others. They have to market their books – and themselves – and, by that very act, alienate others who could be their comrades in arms. For example, I'm just beginning to look at David Harvey's latest book - Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism - and can see no mention of alternative ways of dealing with the crisis.  

That’s why I suggested that Henry Mintzberg was one of the few people who seemed able to help create such a consensus - a set of minimum requirements. He is a management guru from whom one does not readily expect to hear the message that the world has gone mad. More usually management theorists celebrate the bosses. But Mintzberg (like the discipline’s founder, Peter Drucker) know enough about the real world of business to know when things have got out of hand.

I am not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell but his popularisations have included the important notion of the Tipping Point 
Gladwell suggested (in 2010) that there were three key factors which determine whether an idea or fashion will “tip” into wide-scale popularity - the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
The “Law of the Few” proposes that a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point. 
Gladwell describes these key types as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. (And a maven – in case you didn’t know - is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from the Hebrew, via Yiddish, and means one who understands, based on an accumulation of knowledge).
If individuals representing all three of these groups endorse and advocate a new idea, it is much more likely that it will tip into exponential success. The other 2 concepts are, frankly, not so well dealt with – and  need to go the wider literature of change management and social marketing to get the whole picture.

My point is simply that most writers on the global crisis seem to focus their thoughts and text on the WHAT rather than on the HOW. – the ideas about the causes of and remedies for the crisis rather than the process by which “change for the better” might be managed. 
Of course we are still missing the "shared agenda" - the identification of which requires a "maven-like" character. And then the networkers and the organisers. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Centre Cannot Hold.....

I’m delighted to report – however belatedly – that management guru Henry Mintzberg has duly published his long-awaited pamphlet Rebalancing Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and centre which mounts a strong critique of the direction the Western world has taken in the last 25 years and suggests (but all too briefly) an agenda for change. It is the key part of what is to be a series of pamphlets which he has been encouraged to embark by people like me talking to him as one of the knowledgeable and sane voices in a mad world.

I had contacted him last year after re-reading his 2000 “Management in Government” paper which started 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 things have got badly out of balance in the intervening 15 years!
The push to privatise everything will, he asserted, lead to the same disease of communist societies. His discussion is particularly helpful for the distinctions he draws - first the 4 different roles of customer, client, citizen and subject. Secondly the 4 types of organisations - privately owned, state-owned, “non-owned” (?) and cooperative. Then four models/metaphors of state management - government as machine, network, performance control and normative. In between he explodes 3 basic management myths. I had the full paper on my website but was forced to remove it when someone from Harvard complained…Oddly, however, some of my blogposts still have a link to the paper which must be buried somewhere inside the hidden intestines of the website. My E-mail to him said simply that
This concept of re-balance is crucial and you are one of the few people in a position to try to pull together all the disparate voices which have been searching over the past 5 years for a coherent programme which will attract a strong and active consensus. Few of those who write on this issue bother to deal with the other writing on the matter in the required detail. We need a proper typology; and critique of the literature to justify the specific steps in any ‘better way’ 

I was amazed to get a positive response and a request to allow him to include the comment in his pamphlet. For a sense of his writings see his article on managing quietly and his ten musings on management.

Mintzberg's analysis is one of the best reads on the global crisis - and will get pride of place in the update of the paper I was writing about earlier in the day whose title I am still disposed to make "Draft Guide for the Perplexed"  .
 He also has an interview about the pamphlet here

The heading is, of course, taken from the famous Yeats's poem which also contains these lines-
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

What is to be Done?

Since 2001 I’ve been worrying away at a long essay variously entitled “What is to be Done?”, “Living for Posterity” and “Draft Guide for the Perplexed”
The original note was written around 5 questions (which are in the opening page of the "Living for...".link) relating to the fundamental question of what someone with my experience and resources could and should do to contribute to an improvement (rather than destruction) of the human lot.
That basically involved a quick sketch of global conditions and assessment of the impact of a variety of (the obvious) agencies to those conditions of injustice and powerlessness.

Ten years later, with the global meltdown confirming the grip of neo-liberal theft, I readily confessed not only that I still didn’t have an answer – but (in section 6) that I had whittered away some of my allotted time…

In an update I added that I was struck with the absence of realistic and critical studies of the efficacy of the British governance arrangements at this point in the 21st Century – although most Brits (or rather English) accept that their political system is in a dreadful state.
I have thought long and hard – and can produce only four analyses which might be read with benefit by the concerned and perplexed in that country. Two are 10 years old – the other two 5 years old…..We have, of course, countless academic studies of the operation of the British Parliament, of political parties, of voting systems, of local government, of devolved arrangements, of the civil service, of public management (whether Ministries, core executive, agencies), of the Prime Minister’s Office, of the European dimension etc – and a fair number of these are reasonably up-to-date. But most of it is written for undergraduates – or for other academic specialists who focus on one small part of the complex jigsaw. There is so very little which actually tries to integrate all this and give a convincing answer to the increasing number of citizens who feel that there is no longer any point in voting; that politicians are either corrupt or hopelessly boxed in by global finance and corporate interests.

The four studies I picked out were by a journalist (George Monbiot), a consultant/academic (Chris Foster) and two commissioned by a charitable foundation (Rowntree Trust) – although 2 real academics( Colin Leys and Allyson Pollock) did get honourable mentions.
The question today is whether the last four years has seen any significant additions to our understanding of power in Britain - let alone Europe - and how it might best be challenged. These years have seen the various "Occupy" movements but have they seen a clear agenda for change emerge? 

In a future post, I want to look in particular at the extent to which political scientists have tried to deal with this question…..
For the moment I would have to say that there seems only one serious challenge – that that is the very serious possibility that Scottish voters will vote to break away from the rUK in September. That would set off an earthquake – and who knows what would fall down and be built in its place……

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stalking the Big Beasts

For the past few days, as I’ve commuted between the mountains and the plain, I’ve been considering starting a(nother) series of posts – this time on the lessons I feel I’ve learned during the 45 years I’ve been working on the promotion of democracy and the building of the appropriate institutions, first in Scotland and latterly in Central Europe and Central Asia. This was going to build on various papers I’ve written over the years – not least the draft “Search for the Holy Grail”  But I then came across some recent academic valedictories and realized that there was bigger game to stalk – namely the anglo-saxon political scientists who have shaped how we perceive the political system in the post-war period.

Readers will know that I have always had a problem when I’m asked what I do – even my mother had a problem understanding this after, in 1985, I quit the respectability of academia and became first (for only 5 years) a full-time Regional Politician and then something called a “consultant” working in various countries which, until then, had highly dubious reputations. But her brother had been a famous British academic in political studies (Wilfrid Harrison) so I was allowed my louche inclinations….My focus was more mundane – an idiosyncratic combination of traditional public administration and more radical urban studies.
But, suddenly I was in Central Europe in the early 1990s - nobody had ever lived through a triple transformation (Markets, nations, democracy) ever before. People had been writing profusely about the transition from capitalism to communism – but not the other way around. The collapse of communism was a great shock. Few – except the Poles and Hungarians - were at all prepared for it.
And understanding such systems change requires a vast array of different intellectual disciplines – and sub-disciplines – and who is trained to make sense of them all?

In the 1990s I basically used my experience of Scottish local government (described, for example, in this paper) to draft advice notes to those trying in Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Latvia to decentralize power…..But I understood only too painfully how I lacked a real understanding of the processes of change in those contexts – and did rapid “teach-yourself” exercises in both European systems of local government and in organisational change….
I was also reading what anglo-saxons were writing about both democratization (in The Journal of Democracy) and about public administration reform. And there was so much writing – not least after the Clinton/Gore initiatives and the 1997 New Labour programmes…..
The names of Donald Savoie, B Guy Peters, Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt and Chris Foster became particularly important to me – I grasped their work like a drowning man…..

A paper I drafted and presented to a couple of Annual Conferences of the body which brings together specialists in training and public administration reform in Central Europe tried to summarise a critique I had been developing for a decade - it was called The Long Game - not the LogFrame. 
Those of us who have got involved in these programmes of advising governments in these countries had a real moral challenge. After all, we were daring to advise these countries on how to construct effective public organisations – we were employed by organisations supposed to have the expertise in how to put systems together to ensure that appropriate intervention strategies emerge to deal with the organisational and social problems of these countries. We were supposed to have the knowledge and skills to help develop appropriate knowledge and skills in those in charge of state bodies in these countries!
But how many of us could give positive answers to the following 5 questions? -
·         Do the organisations which pay us practice what they and we preach on the ground about good organisational principles?
·         Does the knowledge and experience we have as individual consultants actually help us identify and implement interventions which fit the context in which we are working?
·         Do we have the skills to make that happen?
·         What are the bodies which employ consultants doing to explore such questions – and to deal with the deficiencies which I dare to suggest would be revealed?
Do any of us have a clue about how to turn kleptocratic regimes into systems that recognise the meaning of public service?  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


In 2011 did a post about identities which recounted how, when I was going through some difficult times, a friend tried to help by encouraging me to explore the various roles I had – father, son, husband, politician, writer, activist etc. I didn’t understand what she was driving at. 
The penny dropped only those few years ago – when I realized that I had become a collector – and could also add the word “explorer” to the list of more conventional epithets such as - lecturer, politician, maverick, leader, writer, consultant, resource person

I was reminded of this earlier this week by a review of a collection of Stefan Zweig’s stories in which Zweig was described as an 
“affluent Austrian citizen, restless wandering Jew, stupendously prolific author, tireless advocate for Pan-European humanism, relentless networker, impeccable host, domestic hysteric, noble pacifist, cheap populist, squeamish sensualist, dog lover, cat hater, book collector, alligator shoe wearer, dandy, depressive, cafe enthusiast, sympathizer with lonely hearts, casual womanizer, man ogler, suspected flasher, convicted fabulist, fawner over the powerful, champion of the powerless, abject coward before the ravages of old age, unblinking stoic before the mysteries of the grave.” And this is only a partial catalogue!!

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Death we prefer not to face…I’ve reached that age where I understand the essayist Joseph Epstein when he wrote the other day that 
I now not only read the obits, but do so before all else in the paper. A good day in the obituaries for me is one in which everyone who has died is above 90; a poor one is one in which everyone listed is younger than I. Henry James remarked that, at the age of 50, someone he knows dies every week. With the increased longevity since James’s time to our own, I’d say the age currently is closer to 70. I cannot say, like James, that someone I know dies every week; someone I know dies every month is closer to it. Sometimes people I know die in clusters of three or four. My friend Edward Shils, who died at 85, used to warn on such occasions, “Be careful, Joseph, the machine-gunner is out.”
I find myself thinking of the dear friends who have died, with foreknowledge that they will soon enough be followed by many more. If one turns out to be long-lived, part of the deal is that of the friends one most cares about more are likely to be dead than alive…….(but he later asserts that, at most, 4 people will really care when he is gone!)
Perfectly natural to think about death, to be befuddled and anxious and even terrified of it, but it would be a mistake to let it spoil your day.Truth is, most of us don’t. We keep our appointments, cherish our small victories, suffer our defeats; if moderately well-balanced, we recognize our true insignificance without letting it interfere with attempting to realize our dreams. If we are serious about our religion and we feel we have lived decent lives, the question of the afterlife will have been settled. For those of us—I include myself here—who do not closely follow the dictates of a religion yet believe in a higher power ruling the universe, we have to seek such wisdom on the subject of death where we can find it….
I have had a good and lucky run, having been born to honorable and intelligent parents in the most interesting country in the world during a period of unrivaled prosperity and vast technological advance. I prefer to think I’ve got the best out of my ability, and have been properly appreciated for what I’ve managed to accomplish. One may regard one’s death as a tragic event, or view it as the ineluctable conclusion to the great good fortune of having been born to begin with. I’m going with the latter.
I don't know why the site had clothed this post in a white shroud! I've tried to get rid of it - but can't!! Que sera, sera! Anyway RSA Blogs chose a similar theme today!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Surprise and Delight

I notice that I’m not reading other blogs as often as I once did. Of course I’ve been busy writing a lot – and also dealing with the pile of books which have arrived over the last couple of months but, somehow, the blogs which used to delight me have palled a bit. There are almost 20 such blogs on my blogroll – as well other, more cultural links – where I can access the thoughts of people such as Craig Murray, Ann Pettifor, Yanis Varoufakis, Matt Taylor, for example, but rarely do. The more intense Boffy ("theory of the crisis" part 103 for god’s sake!!), John Ward and Eva Balogh in Hungarian Spectrum no longer invite me in (how do they keep it up?) – nor do the more academic and technocratic sites – such as Fistful of Euros or Stumbling and Mumbling 

A few still retain their interest – the RSA blogs which come to me almost daily from a variety of people offering insights into aspects of the projects in which they are engaged are always fresh; and European Tribune is also a team effort bringing different angles.

Too many blogs, it seems to me, are ploughing the same furrow over and over again. 
We need more surprise and delight….In the past week, I;ve come across three such delightful blogs – the first, More than Wine, has a passion also for paintings and….motor bikes (with the latter taking up too much space for my liking)
Jost a Mon is a guy with great maverick tastes –  whether for buildings or mores….
But my favourite at the moment is Rio Wang whose raison d’etre completely escapes me but seems to have central European/Spanish/jewish provenance. But just great, eclectic stuff  wherever you go – whether it’s sketches from the  Petrograd revolution; photos of Maramuresphotographs of an early 20th century german photographer or of even more harrowing scenes from Warsaw
One of the posts called Brave Old World does offer a list if you scroll down the page.....

The delights are the painting blogs on my blogroll - and my friend Keith's photography and text about his amazing mountain walks. His snaps capture remote Scottish lochs and superb perspectives from the mountain tops ..... 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Reflections on my years in Kyrgyzstan

The curiously named William and Mary College in the US contacted me today to invite me to take part in a survey about the development of Kyrgyzstan – where I worked as a Team Leader from 2005-2007. 
My first inclination was to decline – not just because of US imperialism (or of the connotations of William and Mary - "King Billy" as he was known in our neck of the woods !) but because of the risk of the attachment being spam. 
But my second thoughts were more generous – and I took the risk. 
The site was genuine - and indeed offered the most interesting (and interactive) internet questionnaire I have ever taken part in. It automatically honed in on my answers to probe them more deeply.....

I had only one small criticism - once the questionnaire software had identified me as a European "Commission" consultant, it then didn't really ask questions about the EC programmes, choosing instead to focus on the other development bodies I had identified in the country - US Aid; World Bank; UNDP and Swiss-Aid.
Presumably the designers assumed that I could not be objective - but I have in fact been very critical of EC programmes - as should be evident from this long paper I drafted for a NISPAcee Conference a few years a back...

And I did volunteer quite a few thoughts about the Kyrgz experience in several extensive papers - also on my website - first on the experience of developing a Roadmap for Local government in the country; then one on Municipal Capacity Building; and a final, shorter one on Building Local Government in a Hostile Climate.
Only the Roadmap was part of my terms of reference - and even that was not quite a normal technical paper; I wrote them because of my commitment.....something in short supply, I have to add sadly, amongst consultants!!

There were few open questions in the questionnaire - I would like to have put on record my appreciation of the open way these other external development organisations worked with one another in Bishkek in that era. And the great support I got from the EC Delegation - and from the German Ambassador....
Not a typical experience in my experience of working in 10 countries!!!

I should also add that the EC commissioned a very full report on the EC experience of decentralisation globally and included KR in the survey. Their report - commissioned by ECDPM - was published in 2007 with the title Decentralisation and Local Governance and is a useful reference......

I was there from 2005-2007. It was the third project in almost a decade I  spent in Central Asia and the Caucusus - and have to say that these years gave me the most professional satisfaction. In 2 of the countries I was working with the Presidential Office - who ruled the country with a tight grip. But in Azerbaijan I was given my head - and managed to turn a hopeless situation around...And in both I was working with people who seemed to appreciate getting a sense of how things worked ( or didn't) in other countries. Consultants were thin on the ground....  

Kyrgyzstan was, of course, more "fluid" with the President in fact escaping to Russia a few weeks after I arrived!  

Caledonian Dreaming?

My readers know that I like a good dissection – I like to see a country stripped of its pretensions.
A book called "Caledonian Dreaming" about the various myths with which the country sustains itself is as good as it gets in that respect…The author, one Gerry Hassan, is one of the few Scots who doesn’t seem to mind being called an intellectual. In fact, just as Bulgaria only seems to have one intellectual (Ivan Krastev) so Scotland has Gerry. The book doesn’t really seem to take a position on the burning issue – although I understand he is a “for” rather than “agin”. He certainly doesn’t mince his words -
 ‘Scotland is not a fully-fledged political democracy. It has never had a democratic moment which has brought its elites to account, defined public institutions and seen the people as a historic collective agency of change.’

For many in the Yes campaign, it is the dysfunctional nature of British democracy and politics, and in particular the democratic deficit (whereby Scotland, more definitely on the left, is currently, and seems likely to be increasingly governed by parties it did not elect) which is the driver for independence.
 In my 20s, I was angry about that power structure which, of course, was evident in the shipbuilding town I grew up in. I read avidly the early New Left Books – such as “Conviction” and critical material about “exclusion” which was coming from the Community Development Programme of the 1970s. I did my own bit about encouraging community activism – and actually wrote a small book in the late 1970s with a title “The Search for Democracy” which has echoes with Hassan’s sub-title - “the quest for a different Scotland”.
Although I voted (ultimately) in 1979 “for” a Scottish Parliament, I did write (in my contribution to the famous Red Paper on Scotland) that the discussion of the time was a “distraction” from more important issues. The caution of my Labour colleagues on the local and then Regional Councils I served for 22 years until 1990 was evident – their subservience, with honourable exceptions, to the power of their professional advisers transparent….

Hassan is ruthless in his critique….
despite all its radical and outsider roots, Labour was never a party of democratisation of British institutions but rather of using them for progressive ends.The central instrument of change in this was the British state, which was seen as neutral and benign.’
But only one pillar of state is elected, the House of Commons. The unelected House of Lords (the largest upper house anywhere in the world), the monarchy, the proliferation of quangos and public bodies, the outsourced state and its “myriad contractors”, the City of London, the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories - many of them major tax havens - the security state of NATO, Trident and the military-industrial UK/US alliance, engaging in mass citizen surveillance, “all unelected, all democratically unaccountable, have served to entrench a version of the UK centred on power, privilege and money’

Hassan is keen on the stories we tell about ourselves – and warns about falling into the trap of believing all of our own stories or myths- and he identifies several such myths  which Scots propogate–
·         of egalitarianism
·         of educational opportunity
·         of holding power to account
·         of social democracy
·         of open Scotland.

Much of "Caledonian Dreaming" is a deconstruction of these myths.
  •  We are only slightly less unequal than England in wealth and have the worst health inequalities than Europe, and though egalitarianism is a deeply embedded ideal, this has never been translated into any programme or political will for the redistribution of power and wealth.
  •  Educational inequalities similarly abound, with huge social exclusion of the poorest at every level, even in some of our most cherished institutions.
  •  And though change may have begun with the advent of the Scottish Parliament, we are still largely deferential to those in power in the public sector, the professions, in business and in land ownership, there has been a marked lack of political will to challenge these vested interests and powerful voices.
  •  As for our social democratic credentials, they have primarily been exercised by the middle classes for the middle classes, in a country ‘distorted by seismic inequalities, poverty and exclusion’, in areas for which the blame cannot be simply laid at Westminster’s door. Hassan suggests that Scotland’s social democracy “has offered a legitimising political story of the middle classes to validate their position in the system, and that Labour, the SNP and ‘civic Scotland’ have all played a contributory role in maintaining this”.
At the moment, I would fault only one thing – that he does not sufficiently recognize the efforts of those who struggled in the 1970s to develop, in his words, “a different Scotland”. He is (probably justly) caustic in his dismissal of the fashion in the 1970s for “community education” – but might have mentioned those like Ken Alexander and Geoff Shaw who dared to speak (and act) for a different Scotland. 
Or perhaps he dismisses them as “the great and good”? I met a lot of leftists who took such a dismissive view – and took exception to it. The usual divisive story – “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. Even Lesley Riddoch, in her celebration of community activism, fails to mention the pioneers of community business in Strathclyde in the 1980s…. talk about being whitewashed out of history……

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Scenarios after an independent Scotland?

We’ve hit the hundred-day mark before the Scottish referendum – so I need to discipline myself and get back to that theme. An article in today’s Open Democracy – Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland? has helped me steel my resolve.
 First off, let me say that I’m one of 750,000 Scots living out of Scotland who will not be entitled to vote – and I resent that. Indeed I’m “scunnered” to use a good Scots word. I lived in the country for 48 years; contributed a lot; and yet I'm being allowed to vote. ....
The author of today’s Open Democracy has a name “Kieran Oberman” which sounds as if he is one of the 366,000 expats living in Scotland who will be entitled to vote and wrote a good piece about all this last December - but his article today is one of the few which tries to take the debate outside  the rather narrow confines into which it has been so far restricted eg
If Scottish independence generates a rightward shift in UK politics, then this will affect the rest of world to the extent that UK foreign policy affects the rest of the world. Again, the right should welcome the shift, but the left should be troubled. A UK without Scotland might be even more likely to support US-led wars, even more reluctant to take action on climate change, even more restrictive of immigration, even more hostile to EU efforts on consumer and worker rights, even more eager to back neo-liberal economic policies overseas.

It's fairly obvious that a vote in Scotland for Independence on September 18th would be a pretty fatal blow to the chances of Labour ever winning another election in what we now call “rUK” – the remainder of the UK. A block of 50 odd Scottish Labour votes has been a reassuring boost for Labour leaders for the past few decades (although the Scottish nationalists could bite quite strongly into that in any 2105 General Election). That would confirm the neo-liberal grip on rUK – indeed many would argue that New Labour has never– even after Bliar – made any attempt to shake free from that grip….
That is indeed one of the arguments of those who have, with some reluctance, recently joined the “yes” argument – and who, with others, look to the “Nordic” neighbours for a social democratic vision….
But even if we accept the idea that an independent Scotland would be some kind of Scandinavian-style social democracy (writes Oberman), the role-model argument seems far-fetched. After all, if the rest of the world wanted a Scandinavian role model to inspire it, it already has one: Scandinavia. What need has it of a Scottish imitation? Moreover, no one should underestimate the capacity of large countries to ignore the affairs of smaller neighbours. The UK’s ignorance of the politics in the Republic of Ireland is rivalled only by the US’s ignorance of Canada.

I’m reading Scottish intellectual Gerry Hassan’s “Caledonia Dreaming” whose main themes are sketched by the author in this advance summary in the Scottish Review of Books and he is also a bit dismissive of the Nordic option which does, however, attract my support - as well as that of journalists such as Lesley Riddoch 

But emotional attraction is not enough! The Nordic Option (we used to call it Sandinavian!) is one which – as Hassan rightly emphasized – took almost a century to develop. In the meantime, with the best of intentions, an independent Scotland would be competing with an England even more disposed to compete “in a race to the bottom” on corporate and income tax. What then for our much-vaunted social democratic model?  

Nick's Noises

The last post mentioned Nick Hunt’s book recounting his retracing the footsteps – 78 years on - of the famous traveller Paddy Leigh-Fermour. Of course, as the final part of the trilogy had not appeared in 2011/12 when he was doing his walk, he had to guess the path to take after he crossed the Danube into Bulgaria at Vidin. 
He guessed wrongly and failed to identify one of Paddy’s typical deviations (I prefer “tergiversations”) up, after Sofia, to Veliko Tarnovo and Russe - to Bucharest before he resumed his journey, back from Russe to Varna and the Black Sea. There’s a nice Q and A with Hunt here 
I mentioned the blogs he had occasionally posted during his walk – and came across this soundtrack he had made of some of the sounds he encountered.....
My initial feeling was that the rustling grass, gurgling and flowing water sounds and (too many) Germanic and Austrian pub voices were a wee bit pretentious but but it did grow on me as I listened to (variously) church bells, bird songs, pig grunts, lamb bleats, cock crows and, eventually, at 12 mins, Slovak voices (more strident than I remember); then dog barks, religious chants (nationality unclear); what variously sounded like Hungarian “son-et-lumiere”, bad sexual congress and military horse drill; soft Slavic melodies, bird songs and waterfalls; an urgent call to prayer; and the slow burn of a fire.

At 19.20 mins in, we reached a generous stretch of Romanian gypsy music and at 20.20 the sound of tolling church bells; murmuring voices, barks and cicadas….a trotting horse; strange bell sounds; bird chirping; gurgling of a brook; crackling of a fire/typing (?); a church service; an untuned piano; dripping of water; at 26 mins hysterical (Bulgarian?) laughter; cacophonous car klaxons celebrating a wedding; cicadas; bagpipe music, singing and drunken laughing; a snatch of what is more clearly Bulgarian songs; bells; running water; the swell of what is clearly the Black Sea; more bagpipe music; treading of water; at 34.00 transatlantic English pop in a resort; determined steps; the roll of waves, steps in shingle; an autobahn; and finally, at 37.00 the Turkish muezzin chants. More follows……

All of this sounds like a more prosaic version of one of Paddy’s famous lists…………..

Let the trumpet sound!

My guide/anthology on Romania is now ready – number four on my website - its called “Mapping Romania – notes from an unfinished journey” and can actually be accessed directly on the link embedded in the title
As far as I’m aware, it’s a unique guide and not only for Romania! I’m actually not aware of any other E-book which tries to penetrate a country’s soul (as it were) by giving such immediate access (through hyperlinks – 400 of them) to books, blogs, paintings, music, photographs, for example.
Not that I’m an expert on E-books – in fact, truth be told, I;ve never even looked at one!! Up until now I thought they were just (rather bad) substitutes for the real thing – but I can now see their potential…
To complete the guide in time for my daughter’s arrival I had to leave unread about 30 books which had arrived since I started the work some 4 weeks ago. One of the first I picked up at the weekend was Paddy Leigh-Fermour’s The Broken Road - the last part of the famous trilogy of a walk through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in the early 1930s which was, however, transcribed into two books in the 1970s and 1980s and finished posthumously just a year or so ago. I had waited for the paperback version to be published and eagerly picked it up from Bucharest's English Bookshop in April.
Yesterday I reached his chapter on Bucharest – so moving to see the city and some of the characters he bumps into painted in such a vivid manner 80 years later – but as fresh as he had just written it (which in a sense he had!). By coincidence, the New York Review of Books arrived in my (electronic) mail this very morning and with an article assessing Paddy’s writings as a whole and posing the question whether he is our greatest travel writer.

Overnight I had realised that I had forgotten to put Nick Hunt’s occasional blogposts during his journey following in Paddy’s footprints  into the list of “goodies” which I had given recently as a “taster” for the guide. 
I have noticed, however, that this hyperlink does not appear to be working in the pdf file. My apologies – I clearly need to check them all – and put a final version online – in a few weeks!
In the meantime Nick Hunt’s After the Woods and Water blogposts can be read here. Obviously someone who is walking several thousand kilometres is not hugging a laptop with him but, somehow, he was able to post a few thoughts. Only one, however, in Romania - and that in the Retezat mountain peaks

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The German connection

Almost a month ago I had been so impressed by the opening story of a book devoted to stories of Anglo-German friendships and loves that I used it in a post I called “remembering”With all the work I’ve been doing on the little guide to Romania, it’s only now that I’ve finished what tuned out to be a fascinating book with the intriguing title - Noble Endeavours – the Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories by Miranda Seymour whose blog also gives background on some of their characters as well as explaining what brought her to write the book

I’ve reached the stage of my life when stories about individuals have become more important to me than narratives about historical events. Perhaps the book’s author focuses a tad much for contemporary tastes on the higher social echelons, but the stories she tells of Germans in England and Angles in Germany are nonetheless important – particularly with the appearance of German emigres after the abortive 1848 revolutions. But the most shocking stories appear at the end of the book when it reaches the 1930s and recounts how various Germans and Angles reacted to Hitler. For once the former are the goodies and the latter the baddies – with the various warnings being actively sidelined by the Foreign Office  – including those of British spies with excellent connections

And I was delighted to see Tisa Schulenburg appear in the story. Somewhere in Germany, in 1990, I happened to wander in from the street to an exhibition of wonderful sketches of coalminers. They turned out to be Durham miners in the 1930s and executed by "Tisa" Schulenburg - a very graceful lady in her 80s who was kind enough to chat with me and (a few weeks later) send me reproductions of her work and a couple of her books. I knew nothing about her and discovered her full story only later - as I recounted in a blogpost
"Tisa" Schulenburg's life was by any standard remarkable. Having grown up among the Prussian nobility and witnessed the trauma of Germany's defeat in the Great War, she frequented the salons of Weimar Berlin, shocked her family by marrying a Jewish divorce in the 1930s, fled Nazi Germany for England, worked as an artist with the Durham coal miners, and spent her later years in a convent in the Ruhr.Her experience of the darker moments of the 20th century was reflected in her sculpture and drawing, in which the subject of human suffering and hardship was a constant theme - whether in the form of Nazi terror or the back-breaking grind of manual labour at the coal face.
 When she heard that I was a politician from Strathclyde Region - with its mining traditions in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire - she presented me with a signed portfolio of her 1930s drawings of the NE English miners and their families (some embedded in text) for onward donation to the Scottish miners.She died more than a decade later at the age of 97 – having lived the most amazing life……

I have copies of them - from which these are selections
The two books she sent are the small "Meine Dunklen Brueder" - which recounts her stay in the North-East villages and contains many of the sketches; and the more substantial "Ich Hab's Gewagt - Bildhauerin und Ordensfrau - ein unkonventionelles Leben" - her autobiography which she has signed in large, clear script, with an address sticker for the St Ursula Convent in Dorsten where she was then living.

I prize the books - and will now work my way through her autobiography.....I notice that the second book had run into 8 editions by the time she sent it to me – with the last imprint being in 1990.