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

Thursday, September 10, 2020

So Isst die Welt – und must nicht so sein*

 Warning; this post will appeal only to those with an interest in the strange byways one’s life often takes

I like books which give a sense of the personality behind famous works. My field is that of “social intervention” – which covers people’s efforts to improve social conditions. And books about the lives of key social scientists - such as development economists – are of particular interest.

I do, of course, have a bit of a love-hate relationship to social science but I have a soft spot for the giants of political science - who were few and far between in the first half of the Century but have mushroomed since then…..

Comparative European Politics – the story of a Profession; ed Hans Daalder (1997) is one of my favourite books of this sort. It gives 27 prominent European political scientists the opportunity to sketch the personal choices and friendships they made in the post-war period as they came together in the early days of what has become a strong European network

Learning about Politics - in time and space; Richard Rose (2014) is a superbly-written life memoir by a younger member of that group (still going strong at 87) – covering the choices he made. I remember him well from my Scottish days where he was a bit of a maverick figure with an interest in the North Ireland quagmire - moving on in later years to cover "policy transfer and learning" and Eastern Europe developments. For me it’s a fascinating book - written in the simple (if not elegant) style which characterises all his work - as befits someone who was, in his early life in the US, a journalist.

In that same spirit I want to explore the byways which have led to my current passion (fixation) for public administration…..

“Change” is a word that has had me salivating for half a century. According to poet Philip Larkin, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963…” – at roughly the same time my generation began to chafe under the “tradition” so well described in David Kynaston’s social history series on post-war Britain which started with Austerity Britain and Modernity Britain 1957-1962.

The notion of “modernization” (as set out in a famous series of “What’s wrong with Britain” books published by the Penguin Press in the 60s) was a highly seductive for my generation - ….

I had just graduated from University when a Labour Government came to power in 1964 – after 13 years of Conservative rule and headed to London, initially for a post-graduate course in political sociology but, after a few months, switched to research work with a government “Manpower” unit.

But I had a practical bent and had always been interested in regional development and politics and the writings of Labour and leftist intellectuals such as Tony Crosland and John Mackintosh. The latter had been a tutor of mine whom I met subsequently in parliament to discuss his take on local government reorganisation and devolution – Crosland the author of the definitive The Future of Socialism (1956) whom I had hosted when he visited local party HQ in my home town…..

Fifty years ago, graduates like me didn’t need inviting to get involved in politics – we had role models and change was in the air….The older generation patently needed replacing, we thought, and we were the ones to do it.

The need for reform of our institutions (and the power structures they sustained) became a dominant theme in my life when, in 1968, I found myself representing the east end of a shipbuilding town.

I had eagerly absorbed the writing which was coming from American progressive academics (such as Warren Bennis and Amitai Etzioni) about the new possibilities offered by the social sciences; and listened spellbound on the family radio to the 1970 Reith Lectures on “Change and Industrial Society” by Donald Schon – subsequently issued as the book “Beyond the Stable State”. In it, he coined the phrase “Dynamic conservatism” and went on to talk about government as a learning system and to ask what can we know about social change.

From that moment I was hooked on the importance of organisations (particularly public) and of institutional reform……In those days there was little talk of management (!) and only a few Peter Drucker books…..    

Toffler’s Future Shock came the very next year (1971) by which time I had started to proselytize the “need for change” in papers which bore such titles as “Radical Reform of municipal management” and “From corporate planning to community action”…..

 Having got myself elected, I needed a project – and community action supplied it. I may not have been involved in the student action of 68 but I was affected by the challenge to authority it represented and by the sudden fashion for participation.

The electors of the east end of the town I represented lived and worked next to the shipyards which had supplied the town’s livelihood for the previous century. But employment was increasingly precarious – and the housing conditions poor.

So I was soon leading neighbourhood action and encouraging self-help activities in the education and leisure fields….

And within 3 years I had managerial responsibility (of a sort) – supplying the political leadership for a new Social Work agency which had been set up by the reforming Labour government of 1964-70.  

That’s where I learned about the importance of social interventions and gained a wider reputation - which stood me in good stead when a massive new Regional Council was set up in 1974 covering half of Scotland. I not only became one of the 103 politicians elected to manage it (and its 100,000 teachers, engineers, social workers etc) but one of what was called the “Gang of Four” to lead it….

I still had academic aspirations, however, as is clear from this paper I wrote in 1977 on Community Development – its political and administrative challenge which was indeed reprinted in a UK book "Readings in Community Work” ed by Henderson, Paul and Thomas (1981)

*“This is the how world is (the spelling of the word is a pun denoting “eating”) - and must not be” (Brecht)


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