Although as the designated member of the Downing Street inner circle I once held what was arguably the most senior political strategy position in the UK – I suspect I’m not actually very good at it. On the one hand, I tend to be too rational, focussed on the head and not enough on the emotions. On the other, I am too idealistic, tending to confuse what I wish would engage the public with what actually does.
A couple of weekends ago, for example, a worried advisor to the Better Together campaign team asked me (in a personal capacity, of course) what I would do in their shoes. My advice was to abandon loud aggressive campaigning entirely and go unplugged: Stop making threats and holding rallies and instead get everyone to start having conversations with ordinary people. Let voters see Alistair Darling or David Cameron having an hour long conversation with a group of Glaswegian mothers in a cafe. This will make your campaign more human and humble but also imply your confidence that if only people would really talk through the issues they would share your conclusions. As we know, the ‘no’ campaign did precisely the opposite – cranking up the promises, the threats and the volume – and won a surprisingly resounding victory.
So in describing the kind of speeches I would like to hear over the next three weeks from the Party leaders I recognise that what I want is probably not how they should maximise their impact. What I want is a world view.
In a few days I am speaking to the Board of a charity. Reading their documentation they have a vision, they have a list of values and they have an approach. This is what we expect to hear from the leaders’ speeches; some kind of rhetorical vision of a resurgent Britain of happy successful people, a statement of their and their party’s political values (although these will almost certainly be hard to distinguish from one leader to another) and then a list of policies which are supposed both to symbolise those values and win votes.
The difference between this and a world view is subtle but important. A world view might start with a values statement – the ideal which inspires us – but at its core is an analysis of the future: given long term trends in society what possibilities could exist in terms of the attainment of our ideals? The world view thus connects emotion and intellect by connecting timeless values to the concrete possibilities of the future.
But the future will not simply happen, it will have to be created. The next stage of the world view is to explore the barriers to the inspiring possibilities just described. Having held out a tantalising account of possibility the audience is warned that this future could be denied. This then leads to the final element of world view – the promise and the call to action; what is it we must do to remove these barriers and seize the opportunities the future could hold?
Thus the world view conforms to the classic three part narrative structure that we watch over and again in TV drama and films – the set up (our values and the future context), the crisis (the barriers that stand in the way) and the resolution (our plan).
This is the structure for the RSA’s set of ideas: ‘The Power to Create’ which I outlined in my annual lecture and which will be available in a highly condensed, animated form tomorrow. The speech was twenty five minutes long but it turns out that less than four minutes is perfectly adequate to get across the core narrative. And this may be the reason why we won’t hear world views from conference platforms.
The narrative structure of the world view means that it is relatively easy to scale but quite hard to dismantle. But the primary purpose of a conference speech is to be the source for extracts for the mass media (the speeches are judged more than anything else on what is repeated on the evening’s news bulletins). A world view is like a story or a play – it is held together (or not) by its essential structure whatever its length. A conference speech is more like the performance of a football team – we will judge it by its highlights (and low points) even though – as anyone who has seen a match they have attended on Match of the Day can attest – these extracts may not actually reflect the whole performance.
Strong narrative structures are more meaningful, memorable and inspiring than slogans, assertions and detached pieces of rhetoric. If our leaders offered us such a narrative we would have something to engage with and something to argue about. Sadly, the combination of our unwillingness to invest the time in listening, the media’s unwillingness to engage us in depth and the politicians’ unwillingness to take risks means we will over the next three weeks hear some jokes, some attacks, and lots and lots of promises but probably nothing that amounts to a world view.
(Postscript after Ed Miliband’s speech: I didn’t watch, but the transcript reads more like a pop medly than a unified narrative. It has tonally distinct sections cut across with overlapping themes (life is tough, the Coaliton is to blame, togetherness is the answer and Labour has a plan). Some of the policy areas are welcome to RSA ears – on the self employed, devolving power and vocational education for example and, from everything I hear, the other Parties will have little choice but to follow Labour in promising more for the NHS. Having said which, however well intentioned, some of the pledges smacked of the top down over engineering that is so often counter productive in policy making.
There was one paragraph that set my pulse racing. Here it is:
‘the ethic of the 20th century was hierarchy, order, planning and control, rewarding the talents of just a few, then the ethic of the 21st century is co-operation, everybody playing their part, sharing the rewards and using the talents of all. Together. It’s time we ran the country like we know it can be run’
Sadly, this big idea wasn’t developed leaving the togetherness theme to feel merely rhetorical, albeit clearly heartfelt.
Generally in this blog I have avoided complaining about the impact of austerity. I largely accept the inevitability of the overall scale of cuts. I find the third sector’s favourite sport of semi-competitive shroud waving not only unedifying but counter-productive. In more and more places and services, the cuts really are impacting now but the public has, I fear, become jaded by years of hearing stories of doom and alarm. Indeed some sectors have managed to cope pretty well. In heritage, for example, local cuts have actually been accompanied by an aggregate growth of activity as organisations have been forced to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.
But for some reason when I read about what is happening in our prisons my capacity for a measured response disappears. I’ll try to explain why that is, but first the evidence of our prison crisis. There is more detail to be found here, here and here but in essence the picture is this: prisoner numbers are up, overcrowding is up, self-harm and violence are up, the number of failing prisons is up, while the number of prison officers is down, along with educational, therapeutic or rehabilitative programmes. For more and more prisoners – many of them serving short sentences for non-violent offences – their sentence means being locked up in a small shared cell all day, only to be let out briefly into a violent and dangerous prison environment.
So far public opinion remains unmoved. The minister, unsurprisingly, says there is no crisis. The opposition, equally unsurprisingly, thinks there are many more vote winning examples of austerity to highlight – leaving the Observer and the Guardian to rail against, well, what we all expect bleeding heart liberals to rail against. Penal reform organisations like the Howard League do their best but they were complaining about prisons being inhumane and counter-productive even before the cuts impacted.
This is part of what makes me so despairing about what our prisons have become. In our work over several years the RSA has walked a difficult and sometimes rather lonely line arguing that prison can work, but only if we take education, personal development and rehabilitation seriously. Our impressive Transitions project (which is in urgent need of funds) has explored in great depth and in very practical terms with prisoners, prison officers, and a wide variety of local stakeholders in the Humber region what a rounded human capital approach to rehabilitation – starting on day one of a sentence – could mean.
Whilst I won’t blame the cuts on Coalition indifference, in the case of prisons there seems to be an abdication of all responsibility. In particular, there has been no attempt to stem the flow of prisoners into prison. It seems ministers would rather tolerate rising prison death rates, the collapse of meaningful rehabilitation and the ever present risk of riot than face hostile tabloid headlines if they called for fewer custodial sentences. Yet when it comes to public safety, surely releasing prisoners who have been traumatised and brutalised by prison is a greater threat than giving a few more non-violent offenders community sentences?
The author’s statement that “you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners” may sound like a cliché but it is one on we should reflect right now. Prisoners have been judged for their crimes but their punishment should be a loss of freedom not hopelessness, fear and squalor. On Dostoyevsky’s criterion it is ourselves we should be judging harshly.
As my colleague Adam Lent has argued, whether the result is disaster or near death experience for the UK the way the Scottish referendum campaign has unfolded is the most powerful indication yet of the enfeeblement of the Westminster political elite. Other consequential possibilities for humiliation loom large, including a strong showing for UKIP at the next General Election and a vote to leave the European Union. Whatever the virtues of Scottish independence, Mr Farage and national sovereignty there is no doubt each cause benefits hugely from our loss of faith in an establishment which has in one form or another held sway since the emergence of modern Parliamentary democracy in the mid nineteenth century.
People are angry about other people, about their own lives and about the state of their country. After first blaming each other the politicians promise to address the causes of our anger but virtually no one – including, one strongly suspects, themselves – believes a word of it. It is human to focus on the personalities but vital that we interpret the legitimacy crisis as more than a unfortunate coming together of events and poor leadership.
Think of it this way. For the overwhelming majority of human beings for nearly all of our evolution from nomads to particle physicists three conditions applied. First, we only knew much about, or engaged with, people much like ourselves. Those unlike us were assumed to be enemies or curiosities. Second, we lived under conditions of scarcity with relatively simple material expectations and needs. Third, we accepted and generally deferred to relatively fixed hierarchies of power and prestige based on religion, bloodline or more latterly class.
Since the Enlightenment, with occasional backtracks and by-ways, the West has been accelerating ever faster away from the conditions in which our social character and deep culture developed. Things cannot be reversed. Nor should they be because the progressive future involves transcending these conditions to reach a higher stage of human flourishing. This is the stage of cosmopolitan citizens inhabiting a cosmopolitan world. It is stage in which individual aspiration is focussed on the things that make life most enjoyable and fulfilling; friendship, generosity, autonomy, creativity. This is the stage where we govern ourselves identifying, discussing and solving problems together naturally and continuously in ways in which we only now occasionally do in the very best or very worst of circumstances.
But we now inhabit a disorientating and dark twilight world. Forced to live among strangers and in a shrinking world but not knowing how to understand, empathise and collaborate with those different to ourselves. Obsessed with an individualistic and materialistic account of success and achievement and then either finding it we can’t attain it or – almost as bad – that it is meaningless when we do. Unwilling to be governed but not yet willing or able to govern ourselves.
(Note that that each of these transitions concerns broadly one of the three main forms of social power; respectively solidarity, individual aspiration and authority. Each of the three cylinders which pump the engine of progress is cracked. This is why rich, technologically advanced, reasonably well educated societies seem unable to solve many of their biggest challenges; for example, tackling inequality, responding to population ageing, facing up to climate change.)
If this all seems too big and too abstract it can be brought back to topical concerns. The first painful transition from tribalism to cosmopolitanism is reflected in wars of religion and identity, the upsurge of anti-immigrant feeling or the inability of international governance to cope with international problems. The second, from scarcity to post materialism, is reflected in rage about living standards, in massive personal debt and in the various ailments of affluence. And the third, from tradition and deference to self-government in our current contempt for our leaders, only surpassed by the incoherence of our collective aspirations (as Ben Page from IPSOS Mori famously put it ‘the British people know what they want. It is very clear: American tax rates and Swedish public services’).
Thus the immediate crisis is a shallow and dispiriting manifestation of a shift which is more profound and difficult but which, hard though it is to believe, contains the possibility of a leap forward for humanity. Of course, huge generalisations are involved in this chronology: the future is already out there and the past clings on like burnt fat on a frying pan.
What then is to be done? First, progressives – however critical they are of the present – must never forget their belief in progress. Whilst the big picture still leaves lots of scope for debate about what to do next, we must keep always in view the vision of the cosmopolitan, post materialist, self-governing future. Indeed we should work harder to describe a practical utopia; what such a world might look and feel like.
Second, while the steps to transition will, in the main, be taken by us not for us, right now we need leadership like rarely before: Leaders who can confront us with the truth of the current crisis and inspire us with the possibility of transformative progress. Instead we have futile and dishonest promises to slash immigration, to extricate ourselves from global interdependency, cut taxes or energy bills, restore trust to politics by electing this career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party not that career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party. The sight of the Clegg, Miliband and Cameron postponing their enmities, defying convention and marching on Scotland shows both that it is possible to act differently and that it takes an emergency for political leaders to accept the need to question their stock responses.
When we as individuals face personal crisis, our first response may be to do differently but our eventual realisation may be the need to be differently. Trapped by our decaying democratic systems and the disastrous idea that politics is analogous to retail consumerism, our political elite run in circles trying to discover what they can do to address our rage. Instead we must encourage them to link social transformation to personal transformation by questioning deeply the very idea of what it is to be a leader – a creative leader - in these troubled times.
In some recent posts I have explored new ways of thinking about the pursuit of social change. I have also questioned the centrality in pursuing such change normally accorded by politicians and their advisors to traditional policy making.
There is no shortage of examples of unsuccessful policy making but there are many fewer of alternative approaches that have achieved success at any kind of scale. This is hardly surprising given that so many of our assumptions and systems are based on the existing paradigm. So when an ambitious example of a different method comes along it is worth noting and praising.
Today sees the launch by a coalition of organisations of Read on. Get on an initiative with the aim that by 2025 every child is reading well by the age of eleven. In the launch document Save the Children (which brought the coalition together) make a powerful, well-researched case for this to be a priority for social progress and justice. Reading well is a building block crucial to children’s personal development, educational attainment and life chances, yet one in four children do not read well at eleven, a figure that rises to two in five for poorer groups. The problem is particularly acute among white working class boys. Shamefully for the England, Romania is the only European country with a bigger socio-economic attainment gap in childhood reading.
Few would argue with the goal of every child reading well at eleven by 2025, but the most interesting aspect of this initiative is its method: it has many of the elements laid out by the exponents of the collective impact approach which is making much ground in the US.
First, there is a clear and inspiring mission which Save the Children has developed with a powerful and board based coalition: Among many others, the campaign is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Teach First, publisher Harper Collins and the children’s communication charity ICAN.
Second, each partner to the Read on.Get on coalition has agreed a shared set of measurable targets and metrics on the road to delivering their mission. There are important milestones to be reached along the way to 2025 but if the initiative starts to fail there will be no way to hide that failure.
Third, and most important, the campaign is about mobilising civil society not depending primarily on the policy makers’ tool kit of new regulations, Government programmes or budget lines. As the launch document says:
‘We cannot afford to fall into the trap of thinking all children will read well simply as a result of decisions by Whitehall based policy makers….While Government has an essential and necessary role to play, so do we all’
The initiative’s plan contains actions for parents (especially fathers), volunteers, school leaders and teachers, businesses and local partnerships of schools. Rather than more money or legislation Government is asked to play its part through leading and convening. The freshness of this approach is well captured by the words of Russell Hobby the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers:
‘We ask a lot of schools. There is no end of standards, requirements, demands and expectations. What is different about this campaign is that schools are asking a lot of themselves. This is not a Government imposed target. This is the teaching profession working with parents and civil society to set our own aspirations’.
The other key aspects of the collective impact approach concern implementation; maintaining clear roles for the partners and good communication between them, and the need for a ‘backbone’ organisation to maintain critical mass at the heart of the effort. Whether these elements come together only time will tell.
Will it work? It is much harder for the collective impact methodology to succeed at the national level especially when so much to depends on local institutions and communities. Ultimately, unlike the linear predictability of the policy makers’ imaginary world, the exponents of collective impact accept uncertainty, knowing that everything depends on the hit and miss of building and maintaining civic momentum. The fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma may be a great example of ‘beyond policy’ leadership but when other US mayors tried to emulate him they fell flat on their chubby faces.
The Read on.Get on. coalition wants every major political party to sign up. If they do – and I hope they will – I hope they also notice they are being asked to play a supportive leadership role not a top down managerial one. If so this commendable initiative might just help our political class generally start thinking more realistically and progressively about social change.
Many years ago a phrase used by a friend stuck in my mind: Interrupting my attempt to criticise some aspect of his beliefs, he asked why we should waste time on ‘an already conversation’. Ever since, from time to time, I have spotted this habit of diminishing our lives by replaying in our thoughts, statements and interactions conversations we have already had with outcomes we already know.
Two recent examples concern my radio series Agree to Differ – which ended on Wednesady - while a third is currently headline news.
It has been encouraging to receive constructive feedback on the programme, but until earlier this week nobody had told me about the dismissive review by that doyen of radio critics, Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph. Here is what she said:
We say we long for reasoned exchange, cases set out clearly so we can make up our own minds. Yet when we get such a programme, as with Radio 4’s new series Agree to Differ (Radio 4, Wednesday, repeated Saturday) it just seems dull….. This journey didn’t go far. Snore score: four.
How terribly unfair! I have about thirty tweets, emails, blog comments from people who found the programme interesting, not to mention the kind things my friend and family said. As usual critics don’t care what the audience think, they are too busy grinding their various axes.
It was as this narrative was feverishly gripping me that a small very annoying voice said ‘listen to yourself; just like everyone who has a bad review’. I tried to shut it out but the voice went on to suggest that perhaps the programme was of interest only to a particular section of motivated listeners (including people loyal to me). Then – worst thought of all – wasn’t it true there had been some longueurs in the first episode from which we tried to learn lessons for the others?
Such moments of insight are not common for me. Generally I conform to the position outlined by Jeff Goldblum’s character in conversation with Tom Berenger’s character in the film The Big Chill:
Goldblum: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalisations. They’re more important than sex.
Berenger: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Goldblum: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalisation?
The good thing about interrupting an already conversation with myself was that I didn’t spurt out my indignation to friends only to see that awful moment when people’s mouths are saying ‘oh yes, I so agree’ while their eyes are saying ‘when will this poor deluded fool finally shut up’.
Anyway, we did learn from the first episode and I am confident that few people who listen to the final programme on ‘who should own Jerusalem’ will find it dull. Indeed you will hear me trying – with occasional success - to persuade my guests to abandon their already conversation.
In inviting a pro-Israeli rabbi and a Palestinian performance poet to agree what they disagree about, I try to make the conversation move somewhere new and interesting. But despite my entreaties the protagonists keep not only asserting the rightness of their own cause but seeking to rubbish the position of their opponent.
Then on Wednesday I listened to the summary on the Today programme of yesterday’s Parliamentary debate about the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Yvette Copper used it as an opportunity to expose the failings of the system of Police and Crime Commissioners while Theresa May used it as an opportunity to attack the culture and performance of the local Labour Party.
Once again the Commons proves itself the academy of already conversations.
I wonder does anyone in Labour’s senior ranks hear a little voice in their heads. This might interrupts their narrative directing blame onto local individuals and the Government to say this:
‘What happened in Rotherham was extreme but in essence the combination of local authority incompetence, political cowardice and self-interest is typical of what has happened for decades in so many Labour rotten boroughs and is still happening in some. We must use this as an opportunity to examine ourselves as a Party and commit to destroying once and for all the culture that breeds such inhumanity and irresponsibility’.
This week, for the RSA Journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Theodore Zeldin, philosopher, historian and author, amongst many other works, of a wonderful book ‘Conversation – How Talk can Change our Lives’. He makes the point that for conversations to be powerful for us and for the world we inhabit we must enter them with the hope and expectation that we will emerge with our view of the world in some way altered: In other words the reverse of the intent of an already conversation.
The RSA’s new idea ‘The Power to Create’ argues that the potential now exists (but is not yet fulfilled) for every citizen to be the author of their own lives. A responsibility we have in pursuing the creative life is to resist the lure of already conversations with ourselves, with our friends and, perhaps most of all, with our competitors and opponents.
This isn’t easy. We could do with some high profile role models to show us the way: Which is a subtle but important reason why the general quality of our political and media discourse continues to impoverish our lives.