Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Strangely strange, but oddly normal

"Oh I could wreck my brain
Trying to explain
Where it is I think that we are heading"

from "Strangely strange but oddly normal" by Doctor Strangely Strange

Another election, another set of shocks to add to the catalogue of twenty first century politics in Britain. Nearly a week on from polling day & as the dust begins to settle, the possible outcomes arising from the Conservatives latest gamble with the electorate are beginning to emerge. What exactly the presumed Tory/DUP pact will mean for the economy, devolution, security & above all the Brexit negotiation strategy (there is one, right?) is open for debate - & the debates are coming thick & fast.

There has been no lack of prediction, forecasting & claims of prescience - &, as usual, most of it has turned out to be been inaccurate.  But what has been noticeable in its absence throughout the election campaign is an application of foresight or futures thinking - an exploration of scenarios, hypothetical alternatives, wild card situations.  & let's face it, in the period following the 2015 election there have been quite a few wild cards.  Nevertheless, despite some honourable exceptions, few commentators seem willing or able to move beyond applying patterns from the past to the future - fighting the last election, if not the last war.  In the febrile, kaleidoscopic, inconstant politics of this age, it seems there are no fixed points: multiple futures can emerge.

Amongst this flux, the pragmatic politics & delivery of local government continue to stand out.  Throughout the years of austerity, councils have prided themselves on "getting on with the job", even if some have been perilously close to the financial wire on several occasions. If we really are seeing the dawn of the end of austerity, however dim it may be, then local government can  further reinforce its place with cross-party, open & collegiate leadership for local places.  As the early days of the new Metro Mayors have illustrated, visionary & inclusive urban government can transcend the chaos at national level.  Nothing new there, then.

So yes, these are strangely strange days.  But they're also oddly normal.
Here's to the next election.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

At least two cheers for the Elected Mayors

So at last we finally have our six "metro mayors", elected on Thursday & starting their first week in office.  In some ways it seems an age since the first signs of devolution mania gripped the world of wonks (the 1st blog I wrote was in November 2014 in the heady days of "DevoManc").  Since then the fashion for devo has ebbed & flowed, particularly since the EU Referendum result appeared to change everything. However, despite the political shocks of 2016 devo retains its devotees in policy circles, if not the wider populace - although it should be said that the turnout in most of the mayoral elections exceeded (admittedly low) expectations.

& now, as the cliché goes, the hard work begins.  The mayors are now in a crucial phase that could define their periods of office & the future for further devolution.  Establishing a strong vision, clear targets & early results for their mayoralty must be the priority for all of the victors.  But beyond each of the localities, the impact of mayors could be a catalyst for further & greater decentralisation.

As has been noted elsewhere, the success of Conservative candidates has the potential to revive the fervour within central Government lacking since the departure of Osborne & the distancing of Greg Clark. This assumes (& why wouldn't it?) the General Election returns an emboldened Theresa May to Number 10. In particular, Andy Street's success in the West Midlands establishes a Tory figurehead in the most politically & geographically complex Combined Authority, & provides the possibility for a significant alignment of the post-Brexit industrial strategy with a vibrant city region as its testbed. The stakes are high, the challenges are daunting - but the prize of a genuine alternative to centralised power could be at stake.

Alongside reigniting the interest of Whitehall, successful mayoralties can also re-embolden devolutionaries across the country. Beyond the six metro-mayor regions and devo-deal areas such as Cornwall, many potential agreements have fallen apart or been snuffed out. Its difficult to imagine this remaining the case if & when the mayoral effect begins to occur. Adapting & seizing the future prospects for local, place-specific approaches will surely be back on the cards for a variety of areas - be they cities, regions, counties or clusters.  Much of the fall out (& fallings out) following the 2015 deadline for proposals centred on clashes over sovereignty, structure & territory; issues that doubtless remain but may be vanquished by examples of mayoral success. Unity of purpose, rather than unity of governance, could once more be the focus.

I remain a devotee.  As it happens on Thursday & Friday last week (election day & results day) I was honoured to attend a UK City Futures symposium, hearing speakers from across academia, think tanks, local government & beyond discuss the futures of devolution, industrial strategies & localist approaches. Examples such as Newcastle City Futures highlight the potential for local areas to develop collaborative innovation & practical solutions. Many forward thinking cities are engaged in comparable work - the question is how devolution can catalyse similar approaches in other towns, regions & places that in part make up the "forgotten" (or stifled/stuck) parts of the country?  Local futures work, with genuine & comprehensive engagement with place-based scenarios, is essential for this to succeed.  & in time, we can look forward to many more mayors, devolution deals & genuine decentralisation to come.

Friday, 23 December 2016

2016: Beyond laments

It’s that time when reviews of the year appear, looking back over the key events, remembering the successes, regretting missed opportunities and lamenting those who have left us.  God knows there is plenty to think on from 2016, a litany including Trump, Syria, terrorist attacks across Europe, Brexit, Jo Cox, & the seemingly irreversible descent into polarised factions across the political landscape.  Combined with the loss of voices as diverse as Ali, Bowie, Gill, Cohen – it all adds up to a bitter harvest indeed.

2016 is also a year of personal loss for me, with the death of my father in April being a profound & lasting shock.  If possible my dad would, no doubt, have enjoyed celebratory dinners & drinks & the company of those closest to him whilst looking forward to the New Year. But my dad died in April, & so this will be another of the “firsts” that people mention when you lose someone close to you – “the 1st year/ Christmas/ anniversary is the worst”, & so on. & this is the first, & quite possibly the last, time I’ve ever written about something so personal in this blog.

Born in 1940, my dad’s childhood was shaped by two major factors: being a “war baby”, & being a son of Stoke-on-Trent.  I think this heritage always informed his values, his understanding of the toil & hardship that most families working in North Staffordshire’s pots, pits & steelworks gave him the hunger to succeed.  But alongside this grim reality, post-war Stoke was also my dad’s playground, from the terraces of the Victoria Ground to the steep Moorland hills of Brown Edge.  What we’d now call “place”, & that feeling of belonging, was second nature to my dad.  He might have dreamed of escape from the hardship, but never from “the City”.  Always “the City”.  Always proud to be a Potter, but not bound by limitations or insularity.

The post-war years of growth, rebuilding & social ambition also, I think, imbued my dad with a spirit of opportunity & optimism. I don’t mean this is in any Polyanna-ish sense, but more in an implicit commitment to work, aspiration and constructive engagement with wider society – family, community, friends.

This is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip.  The grief, & the process of coming to terms (whatever that means) with a sudden, unexpected loss, is beyond my capabilities of description.  But it seems to include the incredible capacity of the human memory to dredge up long-buried moments of bitterness, disagreements or (in my case) father/teenage son bust ups, & to slap you in the face with them at the most unexpected moment[1]. 

But, & this is crucial for why I wanted to write this blog, the grieving process[2] has forced me to reconsider & reflect on the lessons, or perhaps more accurately (he wasn’t a great one for lectures or life instructions) the principles I absorbed from my dad & how they connect to where I go next, & how I think about the future.

So, first & foremost the “urgent optimism” so brilliantly laid out by Marina Gorbis in her piece The Future as a way of life from July this year, & mirroring what I take from my dad’s life, is the North Star. “It’s up to all of us to imagine and create” our futures, as Gorbis says, & “there are seeds of the great, new, and wondrous being planted every day”. In the wake of the tragedies & setbacks of 2016 some of us it may feel as though everything has broken, & that if 2017 does indeed develop into the “year of betrayal” this sense could snowball. We can succumb to disillusionment or we can summon the will to hope, explore, & renew the future.  & as Alex Massie has pointed out, 2016 may seem to be a year of national & international disasters but when viewed from a longer lens it may be that “the world, despite appearances to the contrary, really is becoming a better place”.  The challenge is how to broaden, deepen & democratise this progress yet further.

Entwined with this is another implicit tenet of my dad’s: the necessity of challenging ideas, opinions, & standpoints. As a child of the 1980s I grew up hearing the miners in my family championing the NUM strike & the opposition to the Thatcher government.  The one dissenting voice was, always, my dad’s.  Some of this was purely contrarian, to provoke a response & challenge sacred cows (& to be fair, everyone involved enjoyed a good row).  But it was also a counterpoint to the dogma of the union leadership[3]: groupthink, & the regurgitation of the party line, no matter what party, was anathema.  Think for yourself, try to see things from different angles, don’t receive wisdom – instead test & understand wisdom.  As a kid hearing these loud debates I couldn’t understand how the high tempers & harsh words would disappear as quickly as they’d arrived, & eventually the talk would return to the more certain ground of Stoke City’s deficiencies.  But the lessons stayed with me.

“Read as widely as you can.  Listen to the “other side”.  Don’t be a conformist.” Good advice it took me a while to assimilate. Some of this relates to a recurring theme of 2016: that of the echo chamber, via social media or elsewhere, & the polarisation of discourse[4].  The actual extent of this trend is open to debate, but in my view it’s apparent that the willingness to engage across viewpoints, to find common ground & consensus is getting rarer.  Constructive challenge or provocation in good spirit is the lifeblood of new ideas.  The refusal to listen to or engage with views you don’t share is its antithesis.  & so the constant “everyone who says x is wrong/evil/stupid/uneducated/out of touch elitist” etc etc etc drains the well of the energy, serendipity, goodwill & collaboration required for concepts to develop & advance.

So urgent optimism, & the enabling futures to be a “massively public endeavour” as Gorbis puts it, is for me the essential lesson to take forward from 2016.  In the last piece I wrote, I set out the concept for Humboldtweb, a new forum & think space for ideas, conversations & projects working towards an understanding of the new landscapes around us.  It’s taking a little while longer to get there than we’d hoped, but we’ll be launching soon. I hope that, in some part at least, this can be a tribute to the memory of my dad & his principles of hope, learning and challenge.

Here’s to the New Year.

The website will be live shortly - in the meantime if you'd like to get involved please get in touch via this blog or via Twitter @futuresinfinite & @wearehumboldt


[1] These episodes, & the sheer absurdity of trying to explain or understand what’s going on during grief, are explored in Helen MacDonald’s “H is for Hawk”, a truly mesmerising book that I kept close to me during the worst times.
[2] A quick aside – there has to be a better phrase than this, surely?

[3] Years later he told me he’d never disagreed with the reasons put forward, just the tactics of the strike.  To paraphrase: “Scargill’s analysis of Thatcher’s intent was correct.  His response was self-defeating”.

[4] Exactly the kind of phrase, btw, that would have my dad’s eyes rolling.