Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Times Higher Award

To my amazement, I won the Times Higher Education Supplement's Young Academic Author of the Year Award last week. Here is a picture of me with Gerard Kelly (left), editor of the THES, and Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Churchill's parents' sex life: a footnote

In an article in the Daily Telegraph Andrew Roberts discusses a new book by Celia and John Lee called Winston and Jack: The Churchill Brothers. Roberts suggests that Lady Randolph Churchill is unlikely to have been pregnant at the time of her wedding, as between then and Winston Churchill’s birth there were only 230 days, i.e. just ‘one day short of the 33 weeks of normal pregnancy’. However, the period between conception and birth is usually calculated at 266 days / 38 weeks. This doubtless explains why the announcement in The Times ran: ‘On the 30th Nov, at Blenheim Palace, the Lady RANDOLPH CHURCHILL, prematurely, of a son.’ Of course none of this proves that Lord and Lady Randolph had sex before marriage (and what does it matter if they did?) but the question must remain open.

Friday, 5 October 2007

The business of rejection

Here's an amusing article by Rachel Toor on the business of publishers' rejection letters (she used to write them). I've had a few in my time. Acceptance letters are not always the unadulterated bliss you might expect either. If it says, we'd love to publish your book provided you supply us with camera-ready copy, think very, very hard before accepting the acceptance. CRC means getting the text into a state ready for the printer yourself - i.e. doing most of the publisher's work for them. And in the time it takes you could probably write another book.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Radical Conduct: How Sir Hugh Roberton created the 'People's Choir' and overcame a BBC wartime ban

During the early year of World War II, the BBC found itself at odds with Winston Churchill’s government over the issue of freedom of expression. This was not because the government objected to the Corporation’s news reporting, or because of any plans to broadcast the 1940s equivalent of Jerry Springer – The Opera. Rather, controversy blew up because the BBC itself had silenced the famous Glasgow Orpheus Choir, on account of the pacifist convictions of its founder and conductor. The man in question was Sir Hugh S. Roberton, known as ‘the Red Knight of Clydeside’, and the ban became a cause célèbre. When questions were asked in the House of Commons, Churchill weighed in decisively on Roberton’s side. ‘I see no reason to suppose that the holding of pacifist views would make him play flat’, he said.

For Roberton, music and radical politics were inextricably intertwined. One obituarist described him as ‘a man of an agile mind, a facile pen, and a caustic tongue; gifts which can be dangerous when turned in the direction of impulsive politics.’ The writer went on to suggest that ‘Music saved him from a possible misdirection of his energies.’ But this showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the man’s career. For Roberton – ex-undertaker, musical autodidact and inspirational choirmaster – music was not an alternative to political struggle, but was in itself a means of social progress. As he put it in 1913, a few years after forming the Orpheus: ‘Our mission is to illumine and enkindle. … We stand with the flower of our art held high in flaming protest against all that is false, against inanity, sordidness, affectation, pride, greed, misery, poverty, wantonness, ignorance, snobbishness, insincerity – against everything that tends to keep humanity from the consummation of a high ideal’. Roberton’s belief in leftwing causes was not a distraction from the pursuit of his gifts, but stood at the heart of his musical commitment.

Roberton was born in 1874 in Glasgow, the third child of a family of six. Not much is known about his early life, but according to his brief entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he learnt hundreds of folk songs from his mother, Mary, who was an enthusiastic singer although she had no formal training. He demonstrated exceptional musical skills at an early age. When he was ten years old, he conducted a group of children. Everything he learned about music he taught himself, as he picked up experience singing in and directing church choirs. Later opinion judged that he had a genius for conducting, ‘since he evoked from his fingers the feeling for the natural expression of every song.’ He was also to become a prolific composer, writing around three hundred pieces (his best known is All in the April Evening). He was not immediately able to use his talent professionally, though. His father, James Roberton, was an undertaker, and Hugh was trained in the family business. In 1895 he took up the post of general manager of the Glasgow Tramway and Omnibus Company’s funeral department. It does not seem unreasonable to fancy that he may have felt about this the same way that H.G. Wells’s hero Mr. Polly felt about his apprenticeship in hosiery and gentlemen’s outfitting: ‘At times, indeed, he urged himself to a spurious curiosity about that trade, but presently something more congenial came along and checked the effort.’

Roberton’s opportunity to do something more congenial on a full-time basis came along in 1901. In that year, he applied, for the second time, for the Conductorship of the Toynbee House choir. (When he had applied the previous year the letter inviting him to interview went astray; but the post had become vacant again.) He got the job. The establishment at 25 Rottenrow, Glasgow, had been set up by a group of social reformers eager to imitate the example of Toynbee Hall in London. They had the idea of founding their own club for workingmen. Its choir had around forty members, and met in the club’s basement. At his first rehearsal, Roberton found the singing very rough and ready. But afterwards the group’s Secretary, Tom McDougall, declared to him ‘This is going to be a great Choir’. Roberton could not work out the grounds for this excitement, but McDougall was to be proved right.

The basement room soon became a hive of activity, as the choir practiced intensively, in an atmosphere of evangelical fervour. At times, Roberton’s acerbic nature made itself felt. One night, when he had at last got the choir to perform a particular phrase as he wanted it, the singers showed their delight. He later recalled: ‘I told them not to preen themselves, reminding them that dogs and cats and parrots and fleas and elephants could be taught to do things.’ One man, who objected to being compared to an elephant, left in a huff. But the methods paid off. In December 1903, the choir made its public breakthrough, bringing down the house at the City’s East End Exhibition. Then, in 1906, the group broke free of what it saw as the restrictive influence of the Toynbee club. In January of that year a members’ revolt led to the choir declaring its independence. Roberton suggested the name ‘Orpheus’, after the mythical poet and musician. In this new situation, the conductor’s conviction that music could contribute to the moral reformation of society remained constant. The ‘lawless individualism’, of the Scottish musical scene as he then perceived it was to be replaced with discipline, coordination and control. The workers who joined his choir, Roberton argued years later, ‘had discovered a loyalty, an abiding something to which they could dedicate themselves, and through that dedication, found expression for the gold that was in them.’

The choir’s repertoire was not overtly political. It focused on glees and other part-songs, and on simple arrangements of folk songs. However, the Edwardian era was a heady time for the young British Labour movement, and for the fledgling Independent Labour Party (ILP). Nowhere was its radicalism more pronounced than on Clydeside. Roberton, who acted as a Liberal Party agent in 1900, did not join the ILP himself until 1914. But he was sympathetic to it and played host to Ramsay MacDonald (who in due course was to become the first Labour Prime Minister) on the frequent occasions he addressed ILP meetings in Glasgow. Roberton became one of MacDonald’s few close friends. Moreover, in artistic terms, as Keith Middlemas notes in his book The Clydesiders, ‘Probably the finest flowering of the movement was the Orpheus Choir’.

The choir also gained national prominence. In 1945, Roberton recounted how, thirty-seven years before, the enthusiastic Tom McDougall secured its first London booking, after a ‘dictatorial interview’ with the Secretary of the Sunday League, which organised regular public concerts.
SECRETARY: ‘But we don’t want choirs; they’re of no interest to the public.’
McDOUGALL: ‘But you haven’t heard the Orpheus!’
McDOUGALL: ‘Then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Believe me, it is quite different, and it does interest the public.’
The Secretary relented, and the positive reviews of the concert led to the Orpheus taking on a tour of Britain. It spawned many imitators; and, by the 1920s, the fame of the ‘People’s Choir’ had spread abroad.

Roberton married in 1895 and again in 1909, and had a total of nine children. One of his sons later recalled growing up in a home where you could expect to find James Maxton, Keir Hardie and other visiting Scottish socialists arguing about over breakfast about the great issues of the day. The Great War further radicalised Roberton’s politics. At first, although no jingo, he supported the war effort. He wrote in The Lute, the choir’s monthly magazine, that ‘We want the British arms to succeed because we want our brothers everywhere to realise a greater freedom, and a greater freedom means greater art and greater life.’ But he stuck by MacDonald, who was vilified and hounded because of his opposition to the war. (MacDonald was subject to police surveillance, and when he came to stay with Roberton a bobby watched outside.) And soon, he too became a pacifist. By 1916 he had concluded, ‘War and art is an impossible combination’. In his view, war was ‘an insidious poison’ that brutalised people without them being conscious of it. This was why the work of the Orpheus was so important: ‘It holds aloft a torch-flame of beauty that the people may “open their eyes” and see, amid the darkness some light. When they see “a great light”, they will make short shrift of war makers.’ This was a utopian vision, but the pursuit of it led to some practical good. The Orpheus did concerts for soldiers in both world wars. Having witnessed a performance one military surgeon said that ‘never till then had he realised the healing power of music.’

By 1924, MacDonald had achieved political rehabilitation and reached the premiership. This brought Roberton and the Orpheus further into public prominence, when they performed at 10 Downing Street in April of that year, in the presence of the Duke and the Duchess of York (the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth). A royal command performance at Balmoral followed two years later. There was a tour of Canada and the USA, where the Choir found a warm welcome, although Roberton found the audiences were not ‘educated up’ to ‘the type of work we present’. This remark indicated, perhaps, an excessive earnestness on his part. This was reflected in the choir’s performances. Some British reviewers felt that, in spite of the Orpheus’s technical virtuosity, it had almost too much discipline, leading to a lack of musical spontaneity. The often melancholic nature of the repertoire also came in for criticism. One critic wrote: ‘Mr. Roberton’s crusading spirit has as its obverse a touch of that self-conscious pity which is the wrong kind of sentimentalism.’ Some might say that this comment could be applied to his politics as much as to his music.

That, perhaps, would be an unfair to a man who undoubtedly did much through his art to promote community and active citizenship. There is a perception that, during the interwar years, radio, gramophone, and the Americanization of the music industry made Britain a nation of listeners rather than performers. Although the Orpheus made regular broadcasts, the fact that its members were ordinary people challenges that idea. They were, it should also be noted, out for more than enjoyment. Duncan Hall, author of a book on the labour movement and music, writes that although for many on the left music was just ‘a pleasant change from politics’, it was also thought useful as ‘a weapon in the struggle.’ E. Rosslyn Mitchell was a Glasgow solicitor who sang in the Choir until, defeating the former Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, he became a Labour MP. Years later, he wrote to Roberton that ‘the Orpheus to me is a way of life, a life itself. It is philosophy, religion, politics, culture set to music.’

In 1929, MacDonald became Prime Minister for the second time, and in 1931 Roberton was knighted at his behest. In August of that year the Labour Party hit a crisis that was to tear it apart. In the face of a run on sterling, the cabinet split over whether or not to cut unemployment pay as part of a package of measures to restore financial confidence. MacDonald, who supported the cut, handed in the Labour government’s resignation, only to accept a commission from the King to form a ‘National Government’ in alliance with Liberals and Conservatives. Many socialists accused him of betrayal, and he was expelled from the Labour Party. Roberton stuck by him, however. ‘I should have written earlier but I was not sitting on the fence’, he told his old comrade, a few days after the formation of the National Government. ‘I wish you to know that we trust you absolutely.’ Remarkably, Roberton also managed to stay on good terms with his old ILP comrades. Towards the end of MacDonald’s life, after he had stepped down as Prime Minister, he invited him to a party, to which he persuaded some reluctant ILPers to attend. Although the idea was kindly meant, the result was inevitably awkward. When MacDonald died in 1937, the Orpheus sang at his graveside, heads bowed.

By the time of World War II, Roberton’s choir was an established national institution. It broadcast regularly on the BBC. But Roberton soon noticed a changed attitude on the part of the Corporation. There was, he later recalled, ‘a definite reluctance about arranging broadcasts.’ In April 1940, the Orpheus’s annual London concerts ‘were passed over for the first time since the early days of broadcasting.’ And the choir was not asked to broadcast to the troops. Roberton took the matter up, and towards the end of 1940 was invited to talk the issue over at a meeting of the BBC’s Glasgow HQ. The regional director told him ‘that by order of the Board of Governors, no person known publicly to hold pacifist views on the war would be allowed to broadcast’ but that if he had, by any chance, changed his views on the war ‘the matter could be there and then reopened.’ Roberton was outraged. He had not changed his views, he replied, which were his own business and which the majority of the Orpheus’s members did not even share. ‘I deprecated strongly this attempted interference with the liberty of the subject.’ He added that the Board’s attitude was ‘dictatorial and unjust’ and that he was ‘prepared to carry the matter to the bar of public judgement.’

The Corporation was subjected to a storm of public and press protest. Its justification for its actions was that ‘The B.B.C. does not in time of war invite to the microphone anyone publicly known to be opposed to the national war effort.’ The Manchester Guardian, coming down on Roberton’s side, argued that this principle was open to criticism. A pacifist thinker could not easily be asked to speak to a nation at war, it opined, ‘because his work is to persuade people to his views.’ But, ‘if a pacifist doctor offers his services to the state they can be accepted because his work is relieving the sick’. Such work was unaffected by the doctor’s opinions, and, the paper suggested, the same logic applied to musicians: ‘Sir Hugh Roberton, in spite of being a pacifist, was offering something valuable to the “national war effort”.’ The Glasgow Evening News reached a similar conclusion, in rhyme: ‘though his views invite disaster, he’s quite a decent wee choirmaster.’

In March 1941, forty members of parliament tabled a motion objecting to ‘political discrimination’ when state organizations gave employment. Neil Maclean MP raised Roberton’s case directly with the Prime Minister. Churchill gave his response – that he did not see why a man’s views should affect his musicianship, and that he would endeavour to make the BBC governors ‘play up’. By April, though, the ban had still not been lifted. Roberton appealed to Churchill’s former colleague David Lloyd George. The ex-Prime Minister wrote back: ‘It is a scandal. I will once again get into touch with those concerned and see whether the thing cannot be put right.’ This proved unnecessary, though, because another MP, G.R. Strauss, put in a further question to Churchill. His response was that he had now received an assurance from the governors that the ban on the choir had definitely been removed. The battle was over, and the Orpheus broadcast again in June. Its warm relationship with the BBC was in due course restored. ‘We have every reason to be proud of our success’, Roberton wrote. ‘Not only have we justified our position, which from the beginning was unassailable, we have established once and for all the principle of no political discrimination in matters of art.’

In the post-war years, the choir’s success continued unabated. Roberton’s radicalism was undimmed. In 1946, he gave the funeral oration for James Maxton, the fiery ILP leader who, like him, had opposed the war. He described him as ‘a good man, a just man, a true man and a man without malice.’ Giving the speech, Roberton wrote afterwards, was ‘the greatest trial and the greatest honour of my life.’ He himself was growing old, and came to feel that he was no longer able to give the Orpheus the energetic leadership it needed. In 1950 he took the tough decision to disband the choir while it was still at the height of its achievement. Appropriately, its final event, a Ceilidh in tribute to Roberton, was held at the Festival Hall, an emblem of Attlee’s Britain, a few weeks before the fall of the Labour government in 1951. Roberton’s last political act was to sign a letter to The Times, jointly with Vera Brittain, Donald Soper and others, opposing the new government’s support for German rearmament – an important issue in the Cold War. In October 1952, he died in Glasgow at the age of 78.

His musical ideals survived him. The ‘Phoenix Choir’ was born out of the ashes of the Orpheus and remains a Glasgow institution to this day. But this is not his only legacy. He deserves, of course, to be credited as a champion of free expression in time of war. Today, when civil liberties are increasingly challenged in the name of security, his principled stand is worth commemorating. He also should be given credit for his broader vision. His pacifist and socialist opinions may be thought unrealistic. But without his sense of mission he could never have built his community of singers, brightening not only their lives but also the lives of others. Radical conduct, in both music and politics, is dependent on the ability to dream.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Keynes and consistency

Michael Skapinker (FT Magazine, 25/26 August) has suggested that Keynes never made the remark popularly attributed to him on the subject of consistency ('When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?'). Perhaps not, but he did make a number of analagous remarks, for example in a speech to the Fabian Society on 21 February 1940. 'I am a highly teachable person', he said. 'I learn from criticism and before now have laid myself open to the reproof that my second thoughts are are often better then my first thoughts - which is an indication, some people think, of a dangerous instability of character'.

Keynes may have been inspired by an observation Lord Macmillan made when interrogating him in front of his committee on financial questions in 1930. 'The scientific person is never inconsistent;' Macmillan said, 'he merely progresses by changing his views; but in the political world you lay yourself open to the charge of inconsistency.' To this Keynes replied: 'And also it makes one hesitate to express one's views.'

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Do centipedes bite?

This passage about the Crimean War from Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) made me laugh a lot. Time-wasting with new technology is clearly not an exclusively contemporary phenomenon.
"[...] Lord Raglan died--worn out, somepeople said, by work and anxiety. He was succeeded by an excellent red-nosed old gentleman, General Simpson, whom nobody has ever heard of, and who took Sebastopol. But Lord Panmure's relations with him were hardly more satisfactory than his relations with Lord Raglan; for, while Lord Raglan had been too independent, poor General Simpson erred in the opposite direction, perpetually asked advice, suffered from lumbago, doubted (his nose growing redder and redder daily) whether he was fit for his post, and, by alternate mails, sent in and withdrew his resignation. Then, too, both the General and the Minister suffered acutely from that distressingly useful new invention, the electric telegraph. On one occasion General Simpson felt obliged actually to expostulate. 'I think, my Lord,' he wrote,'that some telegraphic messages reach us that cannot be sent under due authority, and are perhaps unknown to you, although under the protection of your Lordship's name. For instance, I was called up last night, a dragoon having come express with a telegraphic message in these words, "Lord Panmure to General Simpson--Captain Jarvis has been bitten by ac entipede. How is he now?"' General Simpson might have put up with this, though to be sure it did seem 'rather too trifling an affair to call for a dragoon to ride a couple of miles in the dark that he may knock up the Commander of the Army out of the very small allowance of sleep permitted; but what was really more than he could bear was to find 'upon sending in the morning another mounted dragoon to inquire after Captain Jarvis, four miles off, that he never has been bitten at all, but has had a boil, from which he is fast recovering'. "

Friday, 3 August 2007

The Consultation Conundrum

This piece was commissioned from me in 2004, but in the end was never published. I think it retains some relevance.

In the early days of the 1997 Labour government, Paddy Ashdown, the then leader the Liberal Democrats, raised the question of whether Tony Blair was ‘a pluralist’ or ‘a control freak’. The instinct of many people today, as indeed then, would be to say that there was no question about it: for example, the BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones called his 2001 book on New Labour’s media operations The Control Freaks. Yet, alongside New Labour’s well known manipulative tendencies, sits an apparently genuine commitment to subsidiarity, localism and devolution. The tension was encapsulated in the fact that the creation of elected assemblies for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the introduction of ‘executive mayors’ for big cities, were paralleled by ham-fisted attempts to prevent Rhodri Morgan and Ken Livingstone becoming First Minister of Wales and Mayor of London respectively. The contradictory thinking that lies behind it is summed up in a remark made by Hazel Blears MP in a recent Fabian Society pamphlet: ‘Our choice is between giving people control over their lives, or failing to deliver the transformation we want.’[i] Of course, if you give people control over their own lives, they may opt for a transformation other than the one that ‘we want’, or, indeed, for no transformation at all. This is the Consultation Conundrum.

In fairness, leading members of the current government are aware that New Labour has often strayed too far in the direction of ‘control freakery’, and that that, paradoxically, has often damaged its ability to get what it wants. Peter Hain MP, a minister who often acts as a kind of licensed critic of his own boss, observed in March 2004 that rows over tuition fees could have been won earlier if trade unions, backbenchers and the party had been properly consulted. As neither this policy nor the proposal on foundation hospitals had been through the party’s formal policy-making process, he suggested, ‘however compelling the case made by ministers, the policies seemed to party members to have dropped out of the clear blue sky.’[ii] Tony Blair himself has also acknowledged an important aspect of the conundrum, and suggests a means of addressing it:

'I readily accept that there may be tension between guaranteed national standards, the machinery to underpin and enforce them, and the freedom necessary for local autonomy and diversity to flourish. … Hence our intention to extend “earned autonomy”: a right for the successful who are achieving good standards to manage their affairs and innovate with greater freedom from central oversight and red tape. Foundation hospitals, and the reduced Ofsted obligations on highly rated schools, are examples of this.'[iii]

A cynical reading of the two men’s remarks would suggest that Hain views consultation simply as a means of easing the passage of policies that have already been decided, and that Blair’s ‘earned autonomy’ amounts merely to the freedom to comply with Whitehall’s demands off one’s own bat. A more generous interpretation might on the one hand applaud New Labour for having recognised its dilemma, and some of its own past failings, and, on the other, remark that, as yet, the Consultation Conundrum remains in place. I want here to substantiate this latter interpretation with reference to my own recent experience of standing for election as a governor of a Foundation Hospital Trust.

The government argued, when proposing the creation of Foundation Trusts, that local staff and communities had too often felt disempowered by top-down control in the NHS. Lack of local accountability had, it was suggested, prevented services being properly attuned to the needs of local communities. The need, therefore, was to establish a health service ‘where standards are national but control is local.’[iv] The Foundation Trust policy led to fears that local autonomy would lead to inequitable provision of the kind that Labour had traditionally condemned. A different worry, and perhaps a more realistic one, was that the promised freedoms would turn out to be illusory. In the words of Ray Robinson, professor of health policy at the LSE: ‘Those who believe that there is a case for greater separation of local healthcare provision from central control are inevitably confronted with an NHS legacy of centralised command and control that has proved stubbornly resistant to change. Despite claims to the contrary, the emphasis on national standards and accountability set out in [the government document] Delivering the NHS Plan suggests that this is still an important part of the ministerial mindset.’[v] The local democracy that was supposed to play an important part in health service provision would thus be likely to prove a dead letter.

In Cambridge, an important test of the reality of local control was provided by the consultation process, conducted from September to November 2003, regarding the Addenbrooke’s NHS Trust’s proposed application for Foundation status. After all, it might have turned out that local people did not want a Foundation Trust in the first place. Would an unwilling public have their freedoms thrust upon them? I attended one of a series of public meetings, at which comments on the proposed appliaction were solicited. I expressed concerned at the suggested governance mechanism for the Foundation. Foundation Trust members – the people who elect Governors – are in effect self-selecting, raising the running the risk with intense, but unrepresentative, views.[vi] I was told that this was inherent in the Health and Social Care Bill (which at this point had not yet been passed, and was therefore still subject to amendment.) I subsequently took the point up with my MP, and wrote to the Cambridge Evening News about the issue[vii] – for what it was worth. The second point I raised – after the meeting, in fact – was about the consultation document circulated by Addenbrooke’s itself. My objection here was not to the ten questions that were asked. These included ‘Do you agree with the proposed membership area?’ and ‘Do you agree with the proposed eligibility criteria for staff membership?’ and were, in themselves, perfectly reasonable. What I found outrageous was that there was no explicit question along the lines ‘Do you approve of the decision to seek Foundation Trust status?’ Without this, it seemed to me, the exercise was virtually pointless.

I was not, however, prepared for the bizarre nature of the response I received to my emailed protest. This came from the Foundation Trust Project Manager, who wrote as follows:

'We did not pose an explicit question about opposition or support to the decision to seek Foundation Trust status in the consultation document for two reasons.
First, the decision to see[k] NHS Foundation Trust status has not yet been made, as it is subject to public consultation. Second, we were keen to provide detail on our proposals as well as the broader question of support or opposition.'[viii]

If there was sense or logic here I was unable to see it. Perhaps, though, the aim was simply to enrage me to the point where I became more actively involved in trying to determine the future of NHS provision in my local area. If so, the plan worked. For the first time in my life, I went to my MP’s surgery, and she kindly agreed to take up my concerns. Her efforts brought back a bland response from Malcolm Stamp, Chief Executive of Addenbrooke’s: ‘We would welcome any further comments from Mr Toye and have noted his concern that we do not ask a direct question regarding support for our application to become an NHS Foundation Trust as part of the public consultation process.’[ix] At this stage I determined to stand for election as a Governor myself, in order to press my viewpoint. I was not, as it happens, opposed to the application for Foundation status. I had, however, become convinced that the ‘consultation’ was largely a sham, and that Trust was determined to press ahead with the application come what may.[x]

It was easy enough to put myself up for election. (Another first – I had never stood for public office before.) Knowing what to do so as best to maximise my chances of winning was a different matter. The Development Director of the Socialist Health Association observes that there have been a number of difficulties with the election processes used by hospitals:

'One was the requirement that candidates needed to be backed by other members, when they had no way of knowing who the other members were. Another was that most [including Addenbrooke’s] limited the material that candidates could submit about themselves to 100 words. That did not give them the opportunity to do much more than say where they lived and how old they were.'[xi]

In addition to this (at least in the case of Addenbrooke’s), the Department of Health guidelines to candidates were distributed only at a very late stage. As far as one could gather, this was because they had only just been written. Not knowing what was allowed and what was not - I took virtually no steps to drum up support. Not that I claim this made much difference to the final outcome (I lost).

My mistake may have been to eschew, in my manifesto, the rather bland and at times somewhat sycophantic tone adopted by the successful candidates. (‘I am passionate about a strong and efficient Addenbrooke’s NHS Trust’, they wrote, or ‘We are all extremely lucky to have a hospital with such an excellent reputation as our local hospital.’) Instead I went for the jugular. I quote all 100 words of my manifesto:

'I was born in Cambridge in 1973, and work at Homerton College. I attended a public consultation meeting about Addenbrookes’s decision to seek Foundation status. The "consultation" questionnaire issued did not contain an explicit question about whether or not Foundation status should be applied for. I e-mailed the Trust asking why not; I was told this was because "the decision to seek NHS Foundation Status has not yet been made, as it is subject to public consultation." This struck me as such nonsense that I determined to stand as a governor to ensure that future consultations are carried out properly.

Either in spite or because of my approach I secured over 200 votes; the seven successful candidates in the public constituency[xii] received a minimum of 700 votes each.

In a recent article in the British Medical Journal, Professor Rudolf Klein offered a stinging indictment of the Foundation Trust system:

'The rhetoric of ownership by and accountability to local people assumes that local people do indeed want to be involved in running the NHS. Results of the first round of elections to the boards of governors, responsible for the operations of the new trusts, show that this is an overoptimistic assumption. For many of the aspiring trusts the challenge has been how to overcome apathy.'

He cites the case of Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, where only 541 local people (or well under 1% of the population) chose the 17 governors. He argues that ‘Only in the case of specialist hospitals is there evidence that foundation trusts can mobilise a large and active constituency.’[xiii] Much as I agree with many of Klein’s criticisms of the new governance system, I would say, on the basis of my own experience, that the apathy he describes is by no means universal. The Addenbrooke’s Foundation Trust claims over 16,000 members. The ‘Meet the Candidates’ event I attended was packed; I can hardly imagine a ‘Meet your local council candidates’ event would have been so well attended. The Cambridge area may be unusual; or it may be that Addenbrooke’s efforts at attracting members have been more intense than those of other Trusts, in which case it is to be commended. At any rate, there are encouraging signs of life.

Nevertheless, whether or not Foundation Trusts can achieve democratic legitimacy remains to be seen. This partly depends on whether or not the powers of the governors turn out to be meaningful, which in turn depends on how far ministers are in practice prepared to tolerate genuinely independent initiatives by the new bodies. What will happen when the aspiration towards ‘giving people control over their lives’ conflicts with the desire to ‘deliver the transformation we want’? I would by no means argue that the desires of ‘local people’ should always take precedence, when to permit this would damage, directly or indirectly, the competing interests of another group of ‘local people’ elsewhere. Centralism is not always inappropriate.[xiv]

In 1937, Douglas Jay, a future Labour minister, made a remark that later became notorious: ‘in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.’[xv] What has generally been overlooked, though, is that Jay was presenting these cases as exceptions to a general (and at that time unusual) socialist defence of consumer freedom.[xvi] It may well be that there are in fact many aspects of health, nutrition and education that are best left to individual choice rather than to Whitehall. But Jay’s comment may well point to one possible solution to the Consultation Conundrum: ministers should distinguish more clearly between what are, and what are not, legitimate areas for public consultation, and proceed accordingly. In any event, let them be clear that consultations, when they take place, must not simply be aimed at cloaking in phoney legitimacy decisions that have already been taken. Otherwise, ‘earned autonomy’ will merely be ‘democratic centralism’ under a new name.

[i] Hazel Blears, Communities in Control, Fabian Society, June 2003.
[ii] Peter Hain, ‘Reclaim the party’, The Guardian, 10 March, 2004; Peter Hain, The Future Party, Catalyst, 2004.
[iii] Tony Blair, The Courage of Our Convictions, Fabian Society, 2002.
[iv] Department of Health, A Guide to NHS Foundation Trusts, Dec. 2002, pp. 3-4.
[v] Ray Robinson, ‘NHS foundation trusts: greater autonomy may prove illusory’, British Medical Journal 2002; 325: pp. 506-507.
[vi] Rudolf Klein, ‘Governance for NHS foundation trusts’, British Medical Journal, 2003, 326: pp. 174-175.
[vii] Cambridge Evening News, 29 September 2003.
[viii] Email from Frances Harper to the author, 30 September 2003.
[ix] Malcolm Stamp to Anne Campbell, 24 October 2003.
[x] By its own account, Addenbrooke’s distributed the consultation document to over 2,000 organisations and individuals. There were 52 ‘formal responses’. In spite of the fact that no direct question on support or opposition for the application was asked, there were 24 comments of general support for Addenbrooke’s becoming a Foundation Trust, and 18 opposing the concept of Foundation Trusts. Addenbrooke’s does claim to have made some (relatively minor) adjustments to its application as a result of the consultation process. See http://www.addenbrookes.org.uk/resources/pdf/foundation/consult_feedback.pdf (consulted 8 June 2004).
[xi] Comment by Martin Rathfelder, 4 June 2004, http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/eletters/328/7452/1332 (consulted 8 June 2004)
[xii] Governors stand in one of three constituencies: Public, Patient, or Staff. I was standing in the Public Constituency, and everything that I have said relates to this part of the election. In addition to the seven Public Governors, Addenbrooke’s has eight Patient Governors, and four Staff Governors, as well as ten Partner Governors (representing, for example, local Primary Care Trusts). There is also a Chairperson, who is not a governor.
[xiii] Rudolf Klein, ‘The first wave of NHS foundation trusts’, British Medical Journal, 2004, 328: p. 1332.
[xiv] See David Walker, In praise of centralism: a critique of the new localism, Catalyst, 2002.
[xv] Douglas Jay, The Socialist Case, Faber and Faber, 1937, p. 317.
[xvi] For a full discussion, see Richard Toye, ‘The “gentleman in Whitehall” reconsidered: the evolution of Douglas Jay’s views on economic planning and consumer choice, 1937-1947’, Labour History Review, Vol. 67 no. 2, (Aug. 2002), pp. 185-202.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Laurence Picken

This obituary of Laurence Picken caught my eye, in part because he was my father's tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, but mainly because of Picken's spectacular career change from Zoology to Musicology, in which he was equally successful.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Lloyd George on film

Here's an interesting film of Lloyd George's first visit to Chequers in 1921. And here's another one, from inside 10 Downing Street, made shortly after Andrew Bonar Law (a.k.a. 'The Unknown Prime Minister) succeeded Lloyd George in 1922.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Iraq: history matters

The diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, makes compelling reading. The details of everyday life are as harrowing as you would expect. The diary also raises important issues about the relationship between sound archival practice and good governance:

There is no awareness whatsoever even among the political class [in Iraq] about the importance of archives to the political and legal systems, and most importantly to the current political process. Since late 2003, I have been trying very hard to raise, what can be termed as "archival awareness" among the politicians, the journalists and the ordinary people through the mass media and direct contact. (Entry for 5 April 2007).

Without adequate preservation of records, there can be no proper accountability.

The political master eclipsed by his shadow

The Prime Minister left office amidst allegations of war-mongering and with his name tainted by an honours scandal – yet, given his domestic achievements and electoral record, he must have felt that his reputation would continue to overshadow that of the moody, ambitious and unloved colleague who longed to succeed him. Yet today Lloyd George is all but forgotten, whereas Churchill is widely seen as the epitome of courage and statesmanship. Could it turn out to be the same with Blair and Brown?

The parallels between the two pairs of men are intriguing. Churchill joined the Liberal party in 1904, and this marked the start of his political partnership – and rivalry – with Lloyd George. In spite of frequent bitter disagreements in private they presented to the outside world a picture of an idealised political friendship in which, much as they might differ on matters of policy, their affection for one another never wavered. It was a politically useful myth. Blair and Brown, of course, have attempted something similar. Blair has described Brown as ‘a personal friend for 20 years and the best chancellor this country has ever had’; Brown calls Blair ‘a great guy’ for whom he has ‘an enormous amount of respect’. They have not, however, succeeded in persuading the public of this in the way that Churchill and Lloyd George did.

Much of the explanation for this lies in the way the media has treated the relationship. In 1913-14, Lloyd George (as Chancellor) and Churchill (as First Lord of the Admiralty) fell out over the issue of naval expenditure. At first, Lloyd George thought he had struck a New Labour-style bargain with his colleague - ‘He has agreed to support my land policy with which he is not in sympathy, and I have agreed to give him more money for the Navy’ – but the agreement broke down. Soon, he was claiming that Churchill had ‘acted disgracefully’ and that he was guilty of ‘gross negligence and extravagance’. He told all this to the press magnate George Riddell, who wrote it down in his diary – but not in his newspapers. By contrast, Blair’s private criticisms of Brown, and vice versa, have not stayed private long. Yet even Lloyd George and Churchill did not have things all their own way. ‘On fundamental issues the two Ministers are in complete antagonism’, observed the Daily Mail, that bugbear of radicalism, in 1914.

Lloyd George and Churchill even had their own version of the ‘Granita’ deal – that is to say, a deal which one of them thought existed and the other didn’t. Before World War One, Churchill offered strong support to Lloyd George during the Marconi scandal, in which the latter was accused of financial impropriety. When, in 1915, Churchill was himself in political trouble he felt that Lloyd George did not repay the favour: ‘notwithstanding how I stood by him in Marconi days, he did nothing to help me. […] He never hesitates to sacrifice a friend if he stands in the way of his game.’ It is no secret that Brown has likewise entertained resentment against Blair for failing to fulfil what he believed was a commitment to hand over the premiership at an early stage. He, like Churchill, has perhaps been guilty of ignoring the political realities that override personal factors in such cases.

The parallels between Lloyd George and Blair appear strong. In office, both combined personal charm and rhetorical skill with reforming ambition, but appeared to many to be ideologically rootless. Lloyd George was a Liberal Prime Minister governing in coalition with Conservatives; Blair often seemed like a Liberal Prime Minister governing in coalition with Labour. The Brown-Churchill comparison may – at the moment - seem far less obvious. But Sir Andrew Turnbull – the ex-civil servant who denounced Brown’s ‘Stalinist ruthlessness’ – might feel some sympathy for Sir Francis Hopwood, an official who, in 1907, complained of Churchill’s ‘restless energy’, ‘lack or moral perception’ and habits of intrigue. For many years, Churchill was widely seen as unreliable, self-centred and incapable of listening. There were even those who – prior to 1940 – thought his speeches empty and bombastic in spite of their brilliance.

We should not, of course, overstate the similarities. When Lloyd George resigned in 1922 Churchill was in no position to succeed him. He had to wait another eighteen years before he got the keys to No. 10. And it is certainly to be hoped that, if Brown does become Prime Minister, this can be achieved without the Germans first invading Norway. But it may well be that in time Brown’s star will outshine Blair’s as Churchill’s now does that of Lloyd George. That will depend, in part, on their respective abilities to write their own versions of events into the history books. Reputations may be fickle, but they are not random.
This article was first published in the Times Higher Education Supplement on 11 May 2007.