Some speculation…

In March 2020, UK office workers embarked on an unplanned and unprecedented experiment in home working. During 2020, home working rates were three times higher than before the pandemic; and four times higher for people employed in London. The experiment went pretty well, all things considered. The tech generally worked, even if the novelty of video meetings from cramped bedrooms quickly wore off, and productivity seems to have been sustained – at least in the short term.

A bigger and more complex experiment lies ahead. What will happen to ‘office jobs’ in the future, and what implications will this have for workers, for careers, for places – particularly places such as city centres?

This rather long article is an attempt to work through my thoughts on these questions, so is necessarily speculative (and at least in part inevitably wrong).

All in or all out?

Unlike the mandatory and largely uniform experiment of lockdown, the next experiment will see a variety of models, driven by shifting and varying patterns of government regulation, the needs and cultures of different industry sectors, and employer and worker preferences. With the exception of a few banks who still seem to be playing by Wall Street rules (“Lunch is for wimps” etc), it doesn’t look like many employers are ready to demand all staff are back in the office full time.

This would have felt like a regressive step even before the pandemic; home-working rates have been creeping up over the past ten years, encouraged by employers’ focus on ‘agility’, better technology for communication (and surveillance), and strengthened rights to work flexibly. Now that working habits and norms have caught up with the technology, reverting to the ‘nine to five’ presenteeism seems self-defeating as well as unfair – particularly for people looking after children (predominantly women) who would find themselves squeezed once again by childcare timetables.

At the other end of the spectrum, fully remote working coped during the crisis, but can this be sustained? Many workers felt that they were drawing down the reserves of social capital they had built with colleagues. Increases in task productivity are offset by more difficult team productivity. Online tools may help smooth collaboration and learning, particularly for younger ‘digital native’ workers, but in my last workplace, these were the very workers who wanted to be back in the office – to escape from parents and cramped flatshares, and to meet up with colleagues and peers.

Working away from the office may also make it harder for younger employees to learn the trick of the trade – how to behave in meetings, how to give and receive criticism, how to make a pitch, how to manage a difficult client – or for new employees to get to grips with all the unspoken aspects of corporate culture. All these can no doubt be taught formally, but for most of us they have been learned informally, even osmotically – by watching, listening and modelling.

Hybridities – beginning of a great adventure?

So, while most office workers are still at home, it is ‘hybrid working’ that is expected to dominate in the future, with people spending two or three days in the office and the rest working from home (or another remote workspace).

This could be entirely unstructured, allowing considerable discretion as to where and when employees work, and already is in many workplaces. But wider adoption could pose problems. First, most workers would choose to work from home on Mondays and Fridays, and in the office mid-week. If this approach was widely adopted it could lead to a sharp drop in demand for city centre services but would make it hard for firms to cut costs by reducing floorspace. Perhaps more seriously, it would risk reinstating a divide between those who were willing and able to be in the office more (principally men without caring responsibilities), and those who worked from home more (often women with caring responsibilities). The former have tended to do better in terms of career progression, even when the latter are more productive.

If these and other advantages are sustained, you could quite easily see a tipping point, as workers find it easier to collaborate, but also to compete, by being in the office. Hybrid working could remain permitted in theory, but become increasingly rare in practice,

Alternatively, management could decide who came in on which days. But this isn’t problem free either. Do you bring whole teams in together, or do you mix them up? Do shift patterns change so everybody gets some Mondays and Fridays at home? Can online tools work as well for informal as well as formal collaboration, when some people are in the office and others are at home? Is it really fair to force workers – particularly those for whom home working is difficult – to stay away?

But – to step back for a moment – why do we go into an office at all? We office worker types risk not only thinking everyone else is an office worker, but also that everybody’s office job is like our own. In fact, ‘office jobs’ contain multitudes – from conceptualising, designing and selling products, to talking to clients and collaborators, to analysing data, writing reports and coding, to monitoring service delivery, to managing staff, to maligning management and gossiping about Love Island. In varying proportions, even highly-skilled ‘knowledge economy’ jobs involve ‘relational’ work (essentially talking to other people) and more task-focused ‘programmable’ work.

There are some jobs dominated by ‘programmable’ work that can be carried out almost entirely autonomously, they are a minority. (And as a recent report argued such ‘work anywhere’ jobs can as easily move overseas as they can move out of UK city centres.) For the rest of us, adapting our workflows so that we can concentrate more ‘programmable’ work into days away from the office may require the type of flexibility that is hard to align with a structured approach to hybrid working.

In the short-term, therefore, I think we will see a period of experimentation. Different firms will try out different models of office, hybrid and remote working, testing out their impact on staff morale, retention and productivity. In an increasingly fluid labour market, you could see some employers targeting packages at younger workers, and some offering a deal that better suits people with children. It could be quite tumultuous.

But my hunch is that office and remote working models will begin to dominate in the medium term, because they have a coherence and support a common culture with which hybrid models struggle. Firms will reach tipping points where almost everyone is in all week, or almost nobody is; one of those will become the dominant model for particular firms or whole sectors, and decisions on leases and employment terms will reflect that. Neither model will be entirely pure: office-based jobs will probably allow more flexible working than before the pandemic, and remote-working employers will still bring staff together for structured collaboration sessions. But my guess is that working patterns will be 90:10 rather than 60:40.

Cities and centres – inertia counts

So, what does this all mean for our cities, and for London in particular? I suspect there are three scenarios: decline, dispersal and doubling down. Cities could see their centres decline in absolute and relative terms, losing jobs and population – particularly wealthier people, who can afford choice and are less tied to lower-paid service sector jobs. This would be disastrous in economic and environmental terms, as car-dependent sprawl spread through the countryside, and the problems of poverty and dereliction increased in cities. However, while there are some signs of ‘de-urbanisation’ in recent UK population figures, this feels the least likely option, not only because of the continuing appetite for some office working discussed above, but also because of the polutical risks involved in allowing this to happen.

A less dramatic variant would be dispersed patterns of working in and around core cities – perhaps realising the ‘fifteen-minute city’ vision that has caught the imagination of many city planners. I can see this taking hold, particularly for some sectors and some job types. More ‘relational’ jobs (consulting and advisory services, advertising, publishing) may stay in the city, benefitting from all the visible and invisible spillovers of agglomeration, while more ‘programmable’ jobs (coders, technicians, web designers) move out (or, as mentioned earlier, maybe even go offshore).

A recent OECD report suggested corporations would seek to relocate offices out of city centres. But how much would an employer gain by moving out of a city such as London (or Birmingham, or Manchester) with highly developed radial public transport systems and ecosystems of business services. Moving from London to Colchester, Crawley or Cranfield would inconvenience many more workers than it would help, at a time when businesses follow talent rather than vice versa. Inertia has an impact. So I suspect that most firms that retain office-based working will remain in city centres, and that the savings to be made from reducing footprints will be limited – though you can expect tenants to negotiate hard when leases come up.

There is still a longer-term question: will new start-ups see the value in city centre offices, or will they naturally adopt a more dispersed business model? Designing in dispersed working from the outset makes a lot more sense than trying to retrofit corporate structures, processes and cultures. But there’s a paradox here. The young people who work in such businesses are also the young people who are drawn to cities for the richness of professional and personal opportunity, for culture and recreation, and often to be with their peer group after university. If dispersed working is adopted by a new generation of firms, it may be dispersal within rather than dispersal from big cities.

The ‘doubling down’ scenario, where city centre working intensifies, seems the least likely at first glance. The co-incidence of a pandemic and technological change has created both a driver and an enabler for more dispersed working. But in the long-term, policy will make a difference and policy should be favouring urban growth (despite the electoral politics of ‘levelling up’).

We know that cities are more efficient than sprawl in terms of their carbon impact, and we know that government policy is refocusing new housing into cities, after a flirtation with more dispersed settlement. We can also expect business travel by air to decline, as carbon targets bite. All of these factors suggest that economic growth may concentrate in a few densely-mixed urban centres, well connected by lower carbon transport, rather than being spread through a network of offices within a country or a global region. The role of these cities and of offices within them will change – with extended commuting patterns, less generic retail, and offices that are platforms for collaboration and meeting rather than for routine administration – but they have successfully changed before.

The UK’s cities have borne the brunt of the health and economic harms arising from a pandemic. They will face the steepest road to recovery, and some may struggle to get back on their feet. But over time, I think our sociable natures will combine with the continuing strength of agglomeration, the inertia of infrastructure and the growing urgency of climate action, to enable cities to bounce back. It will be a choppy few years. Businesses need to be ready to experiment and adapt, without betting the house prematurely on any particular model. Governments need to respond with the policies and investments to make this recovery economically dynamic, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

Selling cities by the pound

Originally posted on Centre for London blog 26 June 2015

The Cole Commission on UK Exports has published its report at a time when the Government’s target of achieving £1 trillion in exports by 2020 seems as distant as ever, with export levels stalled at around half that value, and a widening trade gap.

The Commission, originally set up by the Labour Party, recommends some sensible streamlining, including a new cabinet committee and the merger of UK Trade and Investment and UK Export Finance, and also recommend a more locally tailored ‘one stop shop’ service for small businesses wanting to expand through exporting, delivered through chambers of commerce.

But they seem to miss a trick in ignoring the potential role for the UK’s cities. Indeed, the report hardly seems aware of the gradual programme of negotiated devolution overseen by this government and the coalition, nor of the active role being played by cities like Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and London in pushing exports promotion at a metropolitan level.

These cities have been learning from the experience of their US competitors (and potential partners). Research by the Brookings Institution, as part of a join initiative with JPMorgan, identified that the 100 largest US cities accounted for 75 per cent of exports of goods and services, and that export growth accounted for 50 per cent of their output growth following the 2008 recession.

Centre for London worked with JPMorgan and Brookings to review London’s exports strategy (our report Trading Places was published in November), and convened a meeting with the UK’s ten core cities to discuss how cities could play a more active role, using city-to-city partnerships, sharing experience with US cities with the same economic profile, and working locally to create the business environment that international trade requires.

We found huge enthusiasm for more active engagement among city governments, but also some frustration. Statistics don’t allow the detailed breakdown of data (especially on service sector exports) that would allow cities to identify priorities, set targets and monitor performance. Performance targets for UKTI don’t reflect the diverse make up of different local economies. And the task of planning for export growth is not within the remits of local authorities or local enterprise partnerships.

With continuing austerity, the UK’s cities are facing huge challenges, but are also rediscovering the civic entrepreneurialism that created many of our great city centres, and which can recreate thriving economies. Cities will never supplant the international infrastructure of embassies and trade missions, but they should become partners, not just bystanders, as we seek to regain our eminence in global trade.

Come bouncing back

Boris Johnson will be banging the drum for the capital with his accustomed panache as he visits Boston and New York this week. That’s not surprising: London has a great story to tell.
But, while we are quick to celebrate London’s gravity-defying recovery from the last recession, we still do not fully understand it. At an LSE London lecture last week, Professor of Human Geography Ian Gordon sought to redress the balance by asking why the capital did not just survive the 2007 financial crash; in its wake, it actually thrived.

It’s a multi-billion dollar question, not least because London looked pretty vulnerable as the crisis unfolded. Unlike previous recessions, which had hit the Midlands and north harder, the early 1990s recession had its greatest impact in London, reflecting a shift from manufacturing to “speculation” (broadly-defined, to include housing and stock markets as well as knowledge-intensive activity).

A lot of people (including Gordon, and me) expected the years after 2007 to be a re-run, or worse. Instead, between 2007 and 2013, employment in five central London boroughs rose by 23 per cent, a faster annual growth rate than in the period running up to the crash, though unemployment rose across London, and job number recovery rates in the rest of the capital remained at much the same level as the rest of the UK.

Gordon reflected on whether there were structural features of London\’s economy that helped it survive. He also asked whether there were policy biases in terms of public and private investment and cutbacks, and whether the programmes of economic intervention (bail-outs, guarantees and quantitative easing) had features that favoured London.

The first two factors certainly contributed something. Structurally, the devaluation of the pound by 25 per cent between 2007 and 2009 could have helped tourism and investment (more on this below). What’s more, businesses fought to retain skilled workers , who are disproportionately located in London. And London’s economy was well-equipped to continue to supply luxury goods to rich individuals whose wealth was relatively unaffected by financial vicissitudes (the “plutonomy model”, named after the CitiGroup reports of the mid-2000s).

There were also policy biases towards London. The 2012 Olympics and Crossrail were big capital projects sponsored by government, which boosted the ability of London construction services firms to sell their skills overseas. There is some evidence that firms headquartered in London were quicker to lay off branch office than head office personnel, too.

But these factors shrink in significance, Gordon argued, compared to the sheer weight of financial intervention. He cited Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England in valuing the guarantees given to banks as equivalent to a subsidy of £100bn in 2009 alone (through their reductions in the cost of borrowing).

Meanwhile, quantitative easing was designed to divert nervous money away from safe bonds into more risky and productive investments – but, coupled with low interest rates, it encouraged a surge in equity prices. (Some went to emerging markets in search of even higher returns.) The FTSE 100 index rose from a low of less than 4,000 in 2009 to nearly 7,000 today – around the level of its 2008 high – delivering great returns for many investors.

But the job growth in the five boroughs studied (City of London, Westminster, Islington, Tower Hamlets and Hackney) was not restricted to financial services. It was also in property, real estate and engineering, tourism, hotels and restaurants, public services, and creative and digital businesses.

Some of the growth in professional property and engineering activity can be attributed to the big capital projects, and the confidence that London’s 2012 success created. Growth in creative and digital businesses includes not only Tech City (about which Gordon was sceptical), but also IT support to increasingly tech-driven financial services. Finally, a buoyant stock market does much to help the higher end of the restaurant business: witness the profusion of £100 per head openings around the hedge-y hotspots of Mayfair.

Going beyond Gordon’s careful analysis, it’s also worth asking what part London’s booming property market played. The devaluation of the pound did little to boost tourism in the short term (visitor numbers did not return to their 2007 levels until 2012); but it did make London a safe haven for overseas investment.

Much of this investment went into property, and particularly the prime central London market, where 60 per cent of purchases by value were by overseas buyers in 2007-11. And after a brief slowdown in 2008, prices recovered fast, rising by 45 per cent across central London by 2013.

But, unlike prices, transaction volumes remained stubbornly low; they fell by about 40 per cent in 2007, and have remained pretty low ever since. In other words, buyers\’ money was flooding in, but sellers weren\’t responding; the market has failed to regain its pre-crash liquidity.

Investors wanting to increase their exposure, or to invest gains made in the stock market, had limited options for new purchases. So many chose to extend or dig down, creating catacombs of wealth in London’s most desirable streets – and contributing to the growth in employment in construction, engineering and allied trades.

So, the recovery in London’s economy, or at least in job numbers, has been focused on a very small area of the city. Perhaps more significantly, it could be seen as based on the wealth of a fairly small section of the population, and their spending habits, from underground cinemas to Michelin-starred restaurants.

This influx and expansion of wealth in central London may or may not be a good thing in itself – it has generated employment for a lot of Londoners, but its impact on property prices and the cost of living has stretched far beyond central London. And we shouldn’t become complacent about what it means for the future.

Gordon suggests that, just as this unique set of circumstances cushioned London in the downturn, they are also amplifying a speculative upswing. Central London may not have escaped the recession by means of our extraordinary civic virtue and vigour, by the discovery of some magic formula that has “abolished boom and bust” (remember that?).

Rather, he suggests, it may have prospered through a happy co-incidence of circumstances that has papered over the cracks. A change in interest rates, or exchange rates, or a crash in property prices could also have amplified impacts – equally and oppositely.

How London’s economy will fare longer term is a matter for crystal ball-gazing, not secure prediction. But we owe it to ourselves to reflect more rationally and systematically on whether London has achieved such apparently gravity-defying success through luck or good judgement. Those answers may be helpful if – when the tables turn.

Now the Party\’s over

Party conferences have always been an acquired taste, but this year\’s (even without the McBride and Farrage sideshows) have seemed particularly remote from reality, alien rituals conducted by an alien species.  But is this just the latest chapter in the slow decline of mass party membership, or is something else at play?

The Guardian\’s John Harris, former chronicler of BritPop and historian of new Labour, has been worrying for some months at how the Conservative Party has lost touch with mainstream conservatism, continuing to promulgate the neoliberal nostrums of open markets and free trade, deaf to a crescendo of grumbling from its once core vote.  Outside the capital, in \’Alarm Clock Britain\’ (or whichever new-minted de haut en bas descriptor the narrative-mongers have come up with), Harris finds that open markets and globalisation are not viewed as paragons of efficiency and creators of wealth, but as destroyers of jobs and harbingers of instability.

Harris\’s argument was echoed in Aditya Chakraborty\’s analysis of falling party membership (and the takeover of the Conservative Party by financiers), and in the Guardian\’s reportage from Aldi in Worcester, the front line of this new class war, where shoppers proclaimed themselves either terminally disillusioned with all politics, or tending towards UKIP.

My reading habits are admittedly partial, but I don\’t think this us just a left argument:  Peter Oborne\’s broadsides at the metropolitan political class are aiming at the same territory. The politicians at their press conferences look increasingly like medieval clerics debating transubstantiation, while the peasants ponder plague and turnips.  The detachment goes beyond silly shibboleths about who knows the price of a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a litre of superstrength cider, or whatever 21st Century staple politicians have to pretend that they buy.

Once you start to look for it, you can see this rancorous detachment everywhere.  You can see it in the \’below the lines\’ comments in newspapers.  These may invite provocateurs, trolls and other people with nothing better to do with their time, but there is a toxic undercurrent of resentment too.  Sometimes expressed through racism or xenophobia, but sometimes simply presenting as a profound hostility to the political class, and an establishment that is seen as interested only in feathering its own nests.

The sense of alienation is polymorphous, and perhaps hard to analyse clearly, but it\’s harder still to see where it is going.  The crowds are not out on the streets in the UK, and the protests of the Occupy movement never went far beyond St Paul\’s Churchyard, so will disgruntled citizens flock to marginalised parties of the left and right that diverge from the shared internationalist outlook of the mainstream parties, as Seumas Milne has suggested? Will unrest and violence erupt, maybe targeted at immigarnts and other easy targets as it has been in Greece?  Or is a more profound change underway?  It seems almost absurd to pose the question, but is Disgusted of Droitwich a British manifestation of the discontent that erupted in Taksim and Tahrir?

Writing in the latest LRB, David Runciman argues that the oil shocks and decaying industrial capitalism of the 1970s gave birth to what we now call neoliberalism, though it was years if not decades before the baby was named or its moment of birth identified.  Flip forward 35 years, and ask whether the crisis of the past five years is a blip in the narrative of neoliberalism triumphant, or the beginning of something new.  If the latter, pace Yeats (it is National Poetry Day tomorrow, after all), \”what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?\”

Gilded palaces

If there are two things I dislike with a moderate but consistent intensity, they are shopping malls and crowds.  So it was against all sorts of better judgement that I visited Westfield Stratford this evening.

As we walked through the thronged corridors of shops clad in gleaming marble, shiny glass and fashionably-distressed copper, my companion observed that the crowds really looked and sounded like East London – loud, ethnically mixed, not particularly well-heeled.

This reminded me of a middle-aged man I watched being interviewed when the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished in 2007.  When the building opened in the 1940s, the interviewee was growing up in South London, and vividly remembered his first visit to the venue: he could not believe that someone like him was not only allowed but encouraged to visit somewhere with this thickness of carpet, this richness of marble, this elegance of balustrade.

In many ways Westfield Stratford, the apotheosis of 21st century consumer capitalism, is the polar opposite of the Royal Festival Hall, with its high-minded aspirations towards \’culture for the masses\’.  But the buildings share something too: like the Festival Hall, Westfield Stratford isn\’t a dumbed-down version of something else.  It doesn\’t fob local people off with cheap finishes and \’value\’ retail outlets, but gives them as good a high-end shopping mall that it would build anywhere else.

There are plenty of criticisms to level at malls – their gaudy promotion of consumerist fantasy, their impact on neighbouring shops, their introverted street systems and privatised public space – and Westfield Stratford will probably be accused of many of these. But it doesn\’t patronise, or pander to presumed poverty of aspiration.  It deserves credit for that.

Control

My understanding of life as a poor teenager on an inner city housing estate is about as sophisticated as the Downing Street cat\’s take on politics: I can see it, where I live and where I work, but my analysis is superficial at best. Nonetheless, a few days after riots in London, thoughts and analyses race through my head, as the muttering backbeat of commentary – both banal and insightful – grows in volume. So, here\’s what I think today.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson told the Today Programme, \”Over 20 or 30 years we have got into a situation where young people have a massive sense of entitlement.\” Leaving aside trite scoffs about his own Eton-educated sense of entitlement, he\’s on to something here. A sense of entitlement and benefit dependency are a reality for many poor people today, but the deeper tragedy is when this becomes the only reality.

From where I stand (and my limited perspective may be part of the problem), this world of entitlement and dependency looks pretty bleak – alienated from the sense of self-worth that work can generate, with weak family and social networks (apart from the toxic ties of gang culture), in grim environments illuminated only by the iconography of consumption. Russell Brand, writing in yesterday\’s Guardian, was typically eloquent: \”The only light in their lives comes from these luminous corporate messages. No wonder they have their fucking hoods up.\”

Benefits and precarious rights are the only stake that this class has in society. Should it surprise us that threats to these residual rights are regarded as an assault? Should we wonder that any fleeting opportunities to seize control and to share in consumer culture are embraced? We\’d like to think that education and employment initiatives can create those opportunities. For the lucky few they do, but that path looks increasingly steep, rocky and uncertain.

If you take a left perspective – and it\’s increasingly hard to find any others that make sense – you start to wonder what the role of the benefits system actually is. In the era when the spectre of communism was seen as a real threat to burgeoning capitalism, was social security used, like \’liquid cosh\’ in an old people\’s home, to pacify the masses and prevent them from rising up to seize control of a system that loaded the dice against them?

Perhaps the road to this week\’s riots is a long one, leading back through the last forty years, as working class culture wilted in a post-industrial economy, as the soviet regime faltered and fell, and as capitalism\’s leash was loosened by successive governments. The demented bout of speculation that ensued took the system to the brink of collapse, but the banks were bailed out, like rich kids in magistrates\’ courts, while welfare spending tightened and jobs became fewer and fewer – \’socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor\’. Seen through this lens, it is not the riots that are remarkable, but the fact that peace was not breached far earlier.

In this uncertain state of crisis, the dependency relationship created by benefits may be one of the few ties that continue to bind the poor to the rest of society. The irony of the current situation may be that, by cutting benefits across the board (let alone withdrawing them from those involved in rioting), the Government may be undermining one of the few bulwarks that continue to defend a decadent and discredited capitalism.

The man who waters the workers\’ benefits?

My copy of PCS View, my trade union\’s magazine, arrived through the door on Wednesday, promising to \”fight the cuts\” before they had even been announced, and condemning the Government for \”making ordinary people pay for the economic crisis\”.

All fair enough, I thought, and directed the magazine towards my recycling bin, together with the assorted flyers and leaflets that accompanied it. Then I stopped and looked at some of these. Most were offering financial services of one sort or another. For example, PCS+, directly affiliated to the union, was offering life insurance. For a mere £12.60 per month, I would receive a payout of £7,500 on my death, or a cashback of £3,301 if I survived till I was 70. Great, except that for the same premium Aviva would insure my life for £75,000 – 10 times the value! – and the cashback would actually represent £1,000 less than had been paid in, even ignoring inflation. \”For many people\”, the blurb read, \”an unexpected death could mean financial disaster.\” Especially if coupled with life insurance from PCS+.

Scottish Friendly were also advertising their services, and in particular their 15-year MoneyBuilder plan – essentially a \’with profits\’ savings plan, like those wonderful Equitable Life schemes. For an initial investment of £10 per month, rising to £20 per month by year 6, you would receive a guaranteed lump sum of £2,959 after 15 years – only a few hundred pounds less than your total investment of £3,240. A four per cent annual growth rate, which seems pretty optimistic in these times, might even earn you all your money back (though inflation would have significantly reduced its value while Scottish Friendly sat on it).

And I thought that trade unions were meant to fight against the exploitation of workers, not to collude in it.

In the mouth a desert

As global capitalism staggers back towards the abyss, there is a rich seam of irony in the fact that Dubai is the source of the latest barrowload of bad debt.

Dubai is a statelet with a very old-fashioned view of debt. Dickensian even. Bouncing cheques is a criminal matter there, and anecdotes are legion about newly-unemployed expats who scarper to the airport, and leave their cars with the keys in the ignition, to avoid ending up behind bars as their over-leveraged lifestyles unravel.

Meanwhile, on Nakheel\’s website, you wouldn\’t be able to see anything was wrong. Headlines focus on golf tournaments not debt defaults. The sangfroid of Drake playing bowls as the Spanish Armada approached, or the lunacy of Nero fiddling as Rome collapsed in flames?

Sign of the times

Like the first cuckoo, frogspawn or daffodil, dire warnings of anarchists hijacking peaceful anti-capitalist protests seem to come round earlier each year.

This year\’s star turn is one Alessio Lunghi, who is alleged to be proposing \’black bloc\’ tactics (whereby protestors dress identically to avoid identification) for the G20 Summit at the end of this month.

So far, so business as usual What is interesting this year is that, at the time of writing, these pernicious anarchists and their proposals to seize the ill-gotten gains of the capitalist system, appear to be getting a fair degree of support from on-line commentators in the Evening Standard (not known to be a house journal for the global resistance movement).

The main debate seems to be whether precipitating state repression and perhaps revolution through these tactics is appropriate, not whether the call to \’RECLAIM THE MONEY, storm the banks and send them packing\’ is right or wrong in itself.

World gone wrong

There are all sorts of reasons why I haven\’t typed anything here for a few weeks. One reason is that I try to write with some basic level of insight or understanding, and things are falling apart in the global system at such a dizzying pace that is hard to see what is happening, let alone make any sense of it all.

There\’s something else too. Every time I start typing something about the shrill and intolerant outrage that seems to dominate debate at the moment, I realise I am sounding like a Daily Mail writer, protesting about \’political correctness gone mad\’. And this is not a good sound. If you sleep with a dog you get fleas, true, but sometimes that\’s the only place to sleep.

This week has been particularly rich in its craziness. Jonathon Ross making jokes about sex with old people (and the grand-daughters of old people) was merely a warm-up act to Gollygate. Now, Carol Thatcher does not seem like the sort of person I\’d like as a neighbour. I can only cringe as I imagine her crass and self-righteous air of martyrdom as she refused to \’kowtow to political correctness\’, by apologising for her singularly oafish and offensive remarks. But this can\’t make it right to ban her from the airwaves.

Jeremy Clarkson is another person that I wouldn\’t want to spend much time with (though Top Gear is a guilty pleasure), but it is hard to see how referring to Gordon Brown as a \’one-eyed Scottish idiot\’ is so offensive to all partially-sighted people, let alone an entire nation, unless they are embarassed to be associated with the Prime Minister.

This fractious and factitious culture of complaint (to borrow the title of Robert Hughes\’ prescient book) is reducing a once-great institution to a punch-drunk pulp, incapable of distinguishing morality from manufactured outrage, or helping the hungry from helping Hamas. To mangle another Yeats line, the BBC lacks all conviction; its viewers are full of passionate intensity.

We are all going to hell in a handcart (as I believe is the the traditional closing sentence of such rants).