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

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Dear Diary

You wonder why publishers would ever publish anything written by politicians – most recent political memoirs and biographies certainly land up being remaindered. Few politicians seem able to resist the temptation of narcissistic whingeing or settling old scores.  

But a few of the British contingent stand out for the quality of their writing and the insights they bring to their assessment of an historical period.

Dennis Healey held several senior Ministerial positions and gave us a memoir which covered the pre- and post-war years with a rare sensitivity Time of my Life (1989).

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan – living in the times before the 24/7 news cycle - was, remarkably, able to find the time to keep a regular diary (as well as to read extensively). 

Tony Benn was, however, the diarist par excellence – producing no fewer than eleven volumes covering a 50 year career in politics – and developing, in the process, from a mainstream politician to a hate-figure for the mainstream media to a “national treasure” in his retirement.   

Chris Mullin was another, less high-profile Labour figure, whose diaries impress largely because – unlike most politicians – he was thoroughly aware of his unimportance.

Ruth Winstone was the editor if the Benn diaries and has done us all a great service with her book Events, dear Boy, Events – a political diary of Britain from Woolf to Campbell (2012) 

The depths the genre has now reached are evident in the latest set of diaries to be inflicted on us viz In the Thick of It – as narcissistic and nasty bit of writing as I have come across for some time. The life of such people seems to consist of “power lunches” with “high-powered” people and adds to my conviction that if such empty-headed people are occupying the positions of power, we desperately need some of the discipline of the Chinese regime which insists that its politicians are properly trained and then thoroughly assessed and monitored as they progress through the ranks. 

But the ex-Leader of the UK Liberal party Vincent Cable has shown that some politicians are still able to think and write coherently – with his recent book Money and Power – the world leaders who changed economics 2021 epub 

Further Reading






Just Hierarchy – why social hierarchy matters in China and the rest of the world Daniel A Bell and Wang Pei (2020)

Friday, June 25, 2021

Cultural Values, cultural theory and Cultural Wars

Whenever I hear the word “culture” I reach for my gun” is a quip attributed generally to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s intellectual propaganda chief - although it actually comes from a play produced by a minor Nazi for Hitler’s 44th birthday. The martial association is understandable given the nature of “political culture”.

The last post left me aware of a confusion in the use of phrases such as worldview, cultural values and world values – and a compulsion to track down the intellectual sources behind the words. This was no easy task since the field is a rich one – inhabited by specialist academics with jargon and a dense writing style. 

Although the post is short, its complexity is reflected in the fact that it’s taken a full day to compose 

And one of my tables has helped clarify my thoughts – although left questions which will require a proper study of the books I’ve been able to find. This, therefore, should be treated as very much a first attempt 

Term used




Typical referents



collection of quasi- philosophical/religious BELIEFS which seem to give us our respective identities








 A term used by political scientists which can be traced to de Tocqueville but whose modern origin is generally attributed to the 1950s and Gabriel Almond

In the 1940s and 1950s “culture” figured in the work of many American scholars as they tried to understand the challenge of modernisation faced by many societies but was then supplanted by the “rationality” of the economists

Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington took the theme up again in late 1980s – with  Culture Matters – how culture shapes social progress (2000) being a seminal work, criticised for really meaning Western Culture matters

Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Edward

Banfield, Gabriel Almond, SM Lipset



Lawrence Harrison

Samuel Huntington




Clusters of VALUES eg “traditional”, “modern” and “postmodern” which have been used by technocrats to make various types of social intervention

This stream of work began in 1981



political scientists and psychologists particularly Ronald Inglehart




An indeterminate term

social psychologist Geert Hofstede started work in the 1960s with IBM on cultural differences – taken up by Frans Trompenaars

It also figured in the discussions about

“transitology” in the 1990s

Geert Hofstede

Frans Trompenaars

“Cultural theory”

Otherwise known as “grid-group” theory, best summarised here

Anthropologist Mary Douglas first developed the “grid-group” approach which was then taken up by policy analyst Wildavsky and political scientist Thompson

Mary Douglas

Aaron Wildavsky

Michael Thompson


Key Recommended Reading

-       Cultural Evolution – people’s motivations are changing, and reshaping the world; Ronald Inglehart (2018) One of the clearest statements of the third school

-       A World of Three Cultures – honour, achievement and joy; M Basanez (2016) ) a beautifully-written book by a Mexican academic which seems to have exactly the outsider’s take on the subject I need

-       The Central Liberal Truth – how politics can change a culture and save it from itself; Lawrence Harrison (2006) A very clear analysis from a school rather in disgrace at the moment for its continued belief in western progress

-       Developing Cultures - Essays on Cultural Change Lawrence Harrison and Jerome Kagan (2006)

-       Culture Matters – how culture shapes social progress; ed L Harrison and S Huntington (2000) For my money, this is one of the most interesting books – although some of the authors are no longer considered to be politically correct. At least they feel able to say exactly what they feel!

-       Value Change in Global Perspective P Abramson and R Inglehart (1995)

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Mapping values and world views

We need to pay more attention to our mind - and to the different patterns of meaning we create in our efforts to make sense of the world.

In my youth, I was aware of a tripartite division – conservatives, socialists and liberals. Not for me the Manichean approach of insider/outsider or left/right. There was always a third way – be it green or ecological.

 The blog has, of course, had regular posts about cultural values – discussing the work of people such as de Hofstede; Ronald Inglehart; FransTrompenaars; Richard Lewis (of When Cultures Collide fame) and Richard Nesbitt – a body of writing which emphasises the distinctiveness of national values most graphically illustrated in the Inglehart cultural map of the world and best explained in this brochureIt was, of course, multinational companies who funded a lot of this work as they tried to understand how they could weld different nationalities into coherent and effective teams. Those were the days when a body of literature called “path dependency” was raising important questions about how “sticky” cultural values were…viz how difficult national behavioural traits are to change

It was only in 2000, however, that I became aware of the four dimensions of grid-group theory which anthropologist Mary Douglas introduced - consisting of four very different “world views” (what she calls hierarchist, egalitarian, individualist and fatalist) which came to be known as “Cultural Theory”. I came across Mary Douglas’ theory only in 2000, thanks to public admin theorist Chris Hood’s “The Art of the State” which uses her typology brilliantly to help us understand the strengths, weaknesses and risks of these various world views. 

It’s interesting that many people now assume that this exhausts the number of world views. One book-length study compares and contrasts these various models “Way of life theory – the underlying structure of world views, social relations and lifestyles” – a rather disjointed dissertation by Michael Edward Pepperday (2009) an introduction to which is here.

But I’m just learning that I’ve been missing some important perspectives. A Futurist called Andy Hines has just sent me a copy of what is (despite the title) a quite fascinating book he wrote in 2011 - Consumer Shift - how changing values are reshaping the consumer landscape which is actually much more about values and world views than it is about consumers….

This reflects a lot of work which companies had been funding to try to get into the minds of their consumers - but which international charities suddenly realised a decade or so ago could also be used to prise money out of all of us for their (more altruistic) purposes (see below) – a politicisation of which Adam Curtis' documentaries have made us much more aware.

Hines’ book in turn took me to Spiral Dynamics – mastering values, leadership, change; produced by Don Beck and Chris Cowan in 1996 which the link explains was inspired by the work of their teacher - an American psychologist, Clare Graves. Both books have crucial explorations of the very different levels of explanation needed for discussions of behaviour and the values which underpin it. 

And lead into recent books by Jeremy Lent - the earliest of which is “The Patterning Instinct – a cultural history of man’s search for meaning” which 

is filled with details about how the brain works, how patterns of thought arise, how these shared symbols (language, art, religion, science) give rise to cultural metaphors such as “Nature as Machine” and “Conquering Nature,” and how these worldviews in turn lead to historical change. However, different cultures have different metaphors, and it is our culture, according to Lent, western (now global) culture, which is largely to blame for the damaging ways in which our root metaphors have manifested themselves on the planet.

I get the sense that psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists have approached the question of cultural values completely separately and at different times - making few attempts to engage one another in discussion? It's such a critical issue that it's time they reached out to one another.....

Further Reading

-       The Web of Meaning; Jeremy Lent (2021) an important follow up to his 2017 book

-       Britain’s Choice – common ground and divisions in 2020s Britain (More in Common 2020) a detailed picture of the british people and their values these days

-       Cultural Evolution – people’s motivations are changing, and reshaping the world ; Ronald Inglehart (2018) Inglehart, a political scientist, has been at the heart of discussion about cultural values for the past 50 years – and the book and this article summarise that work.

-       The Patterning Instinct; Jeremy Lent (2017) how worldviews develop and can change history

-       Grid, group and grade – challenges in operationalising cultural theory for cross-national research (2014) is a very academic article although its comparative diagrams are instructive

-       A Cultural Theory of Politics” (2011) a short article which shows how the grid-group approach has been used in a range of disciplines

-       Common Cause – the case for working with our cultural values (2010) a useful little manual for charities

-       Finding Frames – new ways to engage the UK public (2010) ditto

-       Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions; Keith Grint (2008) a short very useful article by an academic

-       The Geography of Thought – how westerners and asians think differently and why; Ricard Nesbitt (2003) An American social psychologist gives a thought-provoking book

-       Riding the Waves of Culture – understanding cultural diversity in business; Frans Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner (1997) the Dutchman who took on de Hofstede’s mantle

-       When Cultures Collide – leading across cultures; Richard Lewis (1996) The book which introduced us to the field – and gave us marvellous vignettes of the strange habits of almost all countries of the world   

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The strange British Love Affair with Reform

I had no sooner posted about the need for every country to be critically reviewing its systems of government than the British government came up with proposals for further reform.

It was actually a year ago that the relevant Minister, Michael Gove, first signalled the intention to reform the civil service – but the disastrous performance of the British government (as distinct from the civil service) during the Covid pandemic seems to have persuaded them that, at least for presentational reasons, a rather wider review was necessary. The proposals cover only ten pages (for which parsimony we should be grateful) but seem a bit vague and repetitive to me – with talk of

-       transferring officials out of the capital

-       recruitment system which bring those with different work experience into the system eg from business, local government, voluntary organs  

-       more training for both officials and Ministers

-       establishing more challenging structures to encourage creative thinking and discourage groupthink

-       performance management

-       sharper departmental accountability

-       greater diversity

-       better coordination

-       putting data at the heart of government

-       better use of scientific evidence

Properly to appreciate what’s going on, outsiders need to understand the politics involved.

Michael Gove has been one of the central figures of the Conservative Governments of the past decade – being Minister of Education from 2010-14 when his advisor was the notorious Dominic Cummings who was famously branded by Prime Minister David Cameron a “career psychopath” for his general nastiness and disruptive style.

Cummings then became the Director of the successful Leave Campaign during the Brexit referendum – with Benedict Cumberbatch appropriately taking the role of Cummings in the film “Brexit – the Uncivil War” – but then retired to the sidelines to nurse a rather scholastic blog and a business career.

To everyone’s amazement, Boris Johnson – having won the Prime Ministership (a contest in which Gove had been a major rival) - plucked Dominic Cummings in August 2019 to be his Principal Advisor. Within a few months Cummings was talking of the need for “wierdos and misfits to be at the heart” of the policy-making process – a view fro which I have a lot of sympathy – in fact it’s one I’ve been preaching for some time here. But Cummings is just too abrasive a character to last – and was sacked by Johnson in November last year. 

But hey presto – his philosophy has now become part of the received wisdom of the British Government. The Institute of Government is a fairly recent UK Think-Tank (founded 2008) which has established a good reputation for critical appraisal and has just published its own (short) comment on the government proposals – generally favourable. In what appears a deliberate choreography Cummings had been invited a few weeks earlier to a Parliamentary Select Committee hearing at which he gave evidence for 7 hours about the serious mistakes made by government Ministers – which also attracted favourable comment from the Institute of Government.        

But how come a country famed for its conservatism seems to love reorganisation and reform so much? The link gives access to a timeline detailing the non-stop changes which have affected British civil servants over the past 50 years – many of which have been globally copied – which is part of Martin Stanley’s superb website Understanding the Civil Service

Is this perhaps what Lampadusa meant when he wrote in the famous “The Leopard” that 

“things will have to change in order to remain the same”?

Non-stop organisational reform is not a good idea. Britain’s lack of a Constitution is one of the reasons why British governments are so prone to changing structures. 

We have a cunning plan” they say – 

but, of course, don’t stay around long enough to pick up the pieces afterwards! 

At least, this time the focus seems to be more about changing "culture" rather than structure. So perhaps some lessons have been learned!  

Further Reading/Viewing

Change for the Better? A Life in Reform; (2021) the present version of a draft which presents a distinctive view of the challenge of admin reform in a variety of countries 

Dominic Cummings’ Evidence May 2021 to UK Parliamentary Select Committee – all 7 hours (Youtube)

Government Reimagined (Policy Exchange 2021) The latest UK Think-Tank report on the subject

The UK Civil Service site’s background note on the Policy Exchange report

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Improving our Lot

Let me try to summarise what I have been trying to say in the various posts I’ve written this year about subjects such as good governance, anti-corruption and helping people help themselves…..

-       “Good governance” is an important concept

-       which has suffered from its patronising origins viz wanting to tell others what to do

-       and from the domination of the anti-corruption field by economists and political scientists

-       Most anti-corruption strategies are not worth the paper they are written on. Most AC Boards are sinecures used to hide real misdeeds 

-       Every country needs to take more seriously the question of how government can work better for its citizens

-       It is the sort of subject which could be tackled by a Citizen’s Jury – but only after municipalities have satisfactorily demonstrated the potential of that device.

-       Until that happens, social scientists and others should be cooperating in each country to summarise the various reports on improving the style and machinery of government already produced and to formulate practical propositions which could be used in such initiatives

-       On the basis, however, that only a consensual approach can help break down the high level of distrust which exists everywhere about government. Unilateral, top-down injunctions don’t work

-       Accountability, effective public bodies, rule of law and transparency are not exactly the sort of words and phrases calculated to inspire people

-       The approach to change needs to be “sexier” 

And I’m not sure if “Happiness” is the silver bullet. I’ve just finished reading a little Pelican book “Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics” by Richard Layard (2020) who was New Labour’s Happiness Tsar (clicking the title will give you a good summary by the author). I enjoyed the book – although others were deeply sceptical.

It is NOT one of these self-help books but very much directed at the sort of policy-makers who were persuaded in the early part of the millennium that the measurement of social progress needed to go beyond reliance on growth rates. Joseph Stiglitz has been one of the key figures in this development. Various countries – including Bhutan, New Zealand and Scotland have been sufficiently persuaded to set up special programmes…although “wellbeing” is often the word used rather than “happiness”

One of the interesting features of Layard’s book is that half of it consists of a consideration of how its basic message might be applied by a range of people – including health professionals, teachers, communities, scientists, economists, politicians and public servants. I was sad to see that the section on politicians and public managers contains none of the references I might have expected to see on the good government literature eg Bo Rothstein or Merilee Grindle particularly when the final chapter of Rothstein’s Good Government – the relevance of political science (2012) strongly argues that better government makes people happier

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Good Governance Revisited

“Good governance” may have been in the subtitle of my 1999 “In Transit” book - but it’s a concept of which I’ve been not only sharply critical but downright dismissive.

The idea of a government which works for its people is an important one – so why have I not shown more enthusiasm for it? Surely we all support such things as transparency, rule of law, accountability and effective public bodies – the notions that lie at the heart of “good governance”?? 

My problem initially was that, in the 1990s, these were largely Western ideas (some very recent) which we were imposing on non-Western nations and expecting them to imitate. Furthermore, we ourselves subsequently proved incapable of living up to these high standards – as an important post earlier this year set out.

Indeed the expectations were so utopian that a Harvard Professor proposed instead (in 2002) the principle of Good Enough Governance – which emphasised that staging and prioritising were needed in a process which would take some considerable time. Remember that, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Ralf Dahrendorf had warned that it would take at least a generation for the Rule of Law to become properly embedded and enforced in ex-communist societies.

Thirty years later that’s looking a shade optimistic!

And Merlilee Grindle followed up a few years later with Good Governance Revisited (2005) which is ALMOST the definitive paper for this discussion – particularly with its tables and diagram detailing the variety of issues and stages at stake….  

My reservation stems from the fact that Grindle’s paper focuses on what we used to call the “developing” nations and fails to recognise that the Eastern bloc of new EU member states still don’t have fully legitimised systems of governance – she is, after all, more of a specialist in Latin American systems. Her five-fold typology of government – “collapsed”, “personal rule”, “minimally institutionalised”, “institutionalised, non-competitive states” and “institutionalised, competitive states” – seems a bit crude to me and to need nuancing.

Countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Romania need a category of their own.

For the moment, I offer some generalised comments on the difficulties all countries face in seeking to achieve better government. This, of course, begs the question of how many countries are genuinely seeking to improve their systems

Why progress toward Better Government is difficult

Key Principles

Key Factor

Other explanations



Ivan Krastev argues that the new emphasis on transparency has increased public distrust

Mainstream media is no longer trusted



Globalisation has meant surrender of national powers - and shown political elites to be out of touch


Rule of Law


Various legal scandals have demonstrated judicial incompetence-  and that justice commands a price.

In countries like the USA even the basic issue of political succession is now open to doubt – with Republican voters and reps denying the validity of Biden’s election and Republicans denying black voters their right to vote

judges have been socialised into the elite and find it difficult to challenge their own – and in ex-communist countries belong to networks

Effective pubic institutions

Austerity programmes have weakened the efficacy of state bodies

The traditional notion of civil service independence now questioned

You get the sense that Western authorities are now embarrassed by the naivety they showed in the 1990s for believing that change (in others) was possible; that they have decided to follow Grindle’s advice quite literally ("good enough") at least as far as it is applied to themselves.

The best writing on the subject

-       Cultural explanations of economic failure 2019 A useful critique of our (over)readiness to use the cultural explanation

-       Fighting Systemic Corruption – the indirect strategy Bo Rothstein 2018 a typically thoughtful approach from one of the key (Swedish) analysts of government systems

-       Making Sense of Corruption; Bo Rothstein (2017) one of the clearest expositions

-       Making development work Bo Rothstein 2015 An important report

-       The Cultural Foundations of Economic Failure: A Conceptual Toolkit; Paul Collier (2015) Collier is a development economist who wrote an excellent recent book about capitalism and several important studies on migration.

-       Bringing politics back in; Brian Levy (2013) Brian Levy is another economist – who wrote “Against the Grain”

-       What is Governance? Francis Fukuyama (2013) Fukuyama is a key writer in this field

-       Jobs for the Boys Merilee Grindle (2012) A book in which Grindle analyses the situation in 4 Latin American countries

-       Good Government – the relevance of political science; ed S Holmberg and B Rothstein (2012) A very useful collection of the evidence about how much the quality of government matters – including a final chapter which strongly argues that better government makes people happier.

-       Good Governance - Inflation of an Idea Merilee Grindle 2010