Redesigning right to buy to encourage house building

The Heywood Foundation Public Policy Prize has got me thinking about some of the big problems facing our society. The prize is explicitly COVID-19-related, so this issue doesn’t fit there, but this is something I’ve had in my head for a while, so I thought it worth putting into the world.

England has a well-established housing crisis. In 2018, there were over 1 million households on social housing waiting lists in England and Shelter has estimated that over three million additional homes need to be built, in order to meet demand over the coming two decades.

The “Right to Buy” scheme, introduced in 1980, has helped a significant group of council tenants to buy their homes, through offering significant discounts to commercial pricing. It has also proven very popular and (therefore), hard to abolish. However, it has not incentivised councils to increase housing stocks. Instead, between the 1970s and 2010s, local authority house building fell from hundreds of thousands per year to just thousands. This has made it all but impossible to meet England’s housing needs, particularly for people on low income, in turn causing the cost of housing benefit to rise to £22 billion.

In order to address these problems, “Right to Buy” could be redesigned, so that tenants do not have an absolute right to buy their homes after three years, but rather a “Right to Apply”. This would work as follows:

Tenants could apply to buy their council home, with much the same requirements as are currently in place. However, after applying,  they would not immediately be able to complete the purchase. Instead, they would be placed on a waiting list (similar to the existing waiting lists for access to council housing). They would only be able to complete the purchase after the local authority had brought into use new housing, with capacity of at least one additional bedroom, thereby increasing overall housing stock, and modernising it at the same time. Once this requirement was met, the tenant’s property would be released for sale, and the next tenant would move to the top of the list.

For example, if the tenant wanted to buy their two-bed property, the council would need to complete at least three beds worth of property, which could remain part of the local authority housing stock. This could be formed of one three bed property, or a two bed and a one bed, or three single bed properties (or more), dependent on local need and in line with local housing plans. Any single new property could, if sufficiently large, count towards releasing multiple older properties for sale (so that local authorities were not disincentivised from building larger properties where those are needed).

In order to provide the finance necessary, local authorities would need greater powers to borrow money for capital investment. In an era of near-zero interest rates, this would be entirely affordable.

Finally, in order to prevent the build-up of long “Right to Apply” waiting lists, there would be both a “carrot” and a “stick”. The “carrot” is simple – local authorities would be able to retain all receipts for the sale of properties. The “stick” is more complex – a threshold would need to be set for the length of the waiting list, based on prevailing rates of “Right to Buy” sales in the local authority. When the list exceeded that level in any given year, the authority would be fined a certain amount, in proportion to the scale of the threshold breach.

Taken together, these reforms might be realistic, practical in policy terms and achievable in political terms. Maybe.

Cometh the hour…

Cometh the hour…

On 20 January 2021, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States.

The world will breathe a sigh of relief.

And then, Joe Biden will survey the carnage.

The challenges the US faces are manifold. The country is deeply polarised (and has been since before 2016). US alliances are frayed. Institutions (both domestic and international) have been systematically undermined, from the press and government departments, to the UN and the World Health Organisation. Action on climate change has been rolled back, non-proliferation treaties have gone unrenewed. A pandemic has gone unaddressed, leading to over 235,000 deaths to date in the US (the absence of US leadership has also been felt in the global response to COVID-19).

It’s a mess. And it’s up to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to tidy up. Doing so will take much, perhaps all of the Biden Administration’s first term in office.

But if anyone were made for this moment, it’s Joe Biden.

The heart and soul of Joe Biden’s campaign has been decency and character. It’s been about bringing the US together. These are themes Biden has re-emphasised in his acceptance speech. Biden may not be the most charismatic, polished politician, or the most intellectual, but people who meet him attest to his empathy, born from his own personal tragedies, burying his first wife and two of his children. He stops at rallies, not (just) to shake hands and kiss babies, but to understand and help address peoples’ problems. He’s the kind of person who will meet a thirteen-year-old with a speech impediment, and invite him backstage to see the notes he uses to help get through speeches.

Who better to repair the damage of the last four years?

His job will be made all the harder if the Democrats can’t take control of the Senate (which will depend on the outcomes of Georgia’s run-off elections). If Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he will likely attempt to block Biden’s legislative agenda; no Green New Deal, no Medicare buy-in, no new gun control legislation.

McConnell might even go further, and block cabinet or judicial appointments. In President Obama’s final year in office, McConnell blocked not only a Supreme Court appointment but also so many appointments to lower courts that Trump came in to office with over 100 vacancies to fill. Add to that the 6:3 Republican majority in the Supreme Court and Republican control of state legislatures just in time for redistricting, and things look hard for Biden.

The good news is that Biden can do a lot unilaterally, particularly in the international sphere. He can re-join the Paris Climate Agreement (and has already committed to doing so on day one). He can reinvest in international institutions. He can sign treaties and can restore America’s global reputation, simply by being not utterly unsuited to the job.

Domestically, the President has more limited freedom, but can still do a lot. By adhering to democratic norms – and holding others to the same standards – Biden can begin to restore basic system functionality. He can change the national approach to COVID-19, facing up to the severity of the crisis and leading by example (as he has done throughout the campaign).

He can also do a great deal through executive orders, which can direct the actions of government agencies. Trump has made extensive use of executive orders in his four years in office, so Biden could start by simply rescinding those (which he can do without delay). At least one organisation is already campaigning in support of actions that Biden could take on day one to make headway on tackling the climate crisis; if you are in the US, I urge you to support these.

But to go further, Biden will need votes in the Senate. This is set to be a tall order, but he is well placed to at least try to get them.

All presidents since 1976 have served a combined total of less than 8 years in Congress; Biden spent three decades there, working across party lines (plus another eight years as Vice President, wrangling votes for President Obama). He is a consummate deal maker. He knows the both the system and many of the individuals in the system (on both sides of the house). His platform, while co-designed with the left of the Democratic party, is one of consensus. His natural instincts are to collaborate. There is nobody better suited to a world in which the only way to pass legislation is to work with the other guys.

Mitch McConnell’s lasting contribution to US politics has been to all but eliminate cross-party work in the Senate. I’m not sure anyone can revive it. But nobody is better placed to try than Joe Biden.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A good night or a bad one?

If you’d asked most election watchers on Tuesday night their view of the election, the verdict would have been resounding. A disappointment for Democrats. Far short of the blue waved hoped for by the left. Owen Jones has already written the night up as a failure.

But, as is so often the case, the reality is messier and richer, kid

As I write at 10 pm GMT on Friday (5pm ET), Biden and Harris are on the cusp of a historic victory. The race stands at 253 to Biden and Harris, 213 to Tump and Pence (with 270 to win, in case you’ve been living under a rock). The Democratic Party lead is growing in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia, and looks like it will hold in Arizona. Trump will likely take North Carolina and Alaska, which would leave a map looking something like this (with projected states in pale colours):


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

An electoral college victory of 306 to 232 is perfectly solid (indeed, it was Trump’s margin in 2016, based on the state outcomes). Turning Georgia blue would be a particular success. And unlike four years ago, here the popular vote looks set to reflect the final outcome. At the time of writing, Biden has roughly 73 million votes, to Trump’s 70 million – roughly 51% to 49% (excluding third party vote), with Biden’s margin expected to grow [as of Saturday morning, the numbers are 74.5 million to 70.5 million, or 51.4% to 48.6%, and one projection suggests likely final tallies of 82 million to 75 million, or 52.2% to 47.8%]. All this against a system which, thanks to the Electoral College, has a Republican bias.

Now, obviously this race isn’t over yet. Trump could still win, but Biden’s lead is becoming ever more unassailable and the final result will probably be much less close than the last three days of waiting suggested.

But then again…

Like many of you, I’ve been alarmed by the success of Trump. He has increased his vote totals on 2016. States which we thought might turn blue (like Florida), remained decisively red.

This election shows enthusiastic support for Biden in opposition to Trump, but it also shows enthusiastic support for Trump (in opposition to really anyone else). Democrats have lost ground in the house of representatives and in state governments. They have flipped only one senate seat, meaning that the only way to wrest control from the claws of Mitch McConnell will be winning any two of the as yet uncalled Alaska race and the two run-offs expected for Georgia. None of these paths look to likely for the Democrats. North Carolina’s senate seat, while still too close to call definitively, looks likely to remain Republican, along with that state’s votes for presidency

All told, it is hardly the repudiation of Trump we’d hope for, is it?

Well, let’s look at the forecasts.

The final FiveThirtyEight forecast (which is based on a weighted average of polls and is generally very reliable) gave the Democrats a 75% chance of retaking the Senate. When all is said and done, they will hold somewhere between 48 and 51 seats, which feels in keeping with a 3 in 4 chance. It’s worth remembering, too, that the Senate benefits less populous states, which tend to lean Republican.

As for the presidency, the polling average had Biden at 53.4%, which is clearly wrong, but not *so* wrong that the actual outcome will be outside the 80% confidence interval of FiveThirtyEight’s model (much the same is true of the electoral college). (State polls look to be less good, but that’s another matter.)

So why does this outcome still feel disappointing?

Partly, the polls made us optimistic, perhaps more so than we ought to have been. But more importantly the world around us feels like a world in which Trump should lose.

And on that metric, we are right.

Look at it this way. It’s rare for presidents not to win re-election. Before COVID-19 hit, I’d have predicted four more years of Trump. After all, his approval rating has hardly changed since 2016, and the economy was fairly decent. Every voter knows Trump is a racist mysogynist. He’d be a fascist if he had the attention span. But they knew this in 2016 as well. It was already baked in.

So, we can and should see removing Donald Trump from office as a major victory. It was only skewed expectations thanks to a small polling error which blinded us to the reality on the ground. You’d expect Trump to win re-election COVID-19 aside – and his mishandling of the pandemic probably have made all the difference.

Winning the Senate as well would have been a bonus, but it wasn’t the most favourable map ever (2022 looks better, with Republicans defending more seats). Plus, the longer a party sits in the White House, and the less popular they become, the easier it is to beat them at other levels (whether in the Senate or in state and local election). The Republicans in effect have had less time to become unpopular. We shouldn’t view failure in the Senate as indicating a great defeat for progressives. Rather, we should revel in the fact that Trump looks set to be a one-term president.

If divided government is the outcome, it will be a disappointment, frustrating Democratic hopes of passing major legislation on climate change, voting rights, gun control, healthcare and much more. Similarly, defeats in states in a year before redistricting will be a hard blow (as it will allow Republicans to one again draw gerrymandered maps which favour them).

But simply reversing Trump’s executive actions will make a world of difference. And if anyone was built for this moment, it’s Joe Biden.

Who *ought* to lead?

Who *ought* to lead?

I listen to a lot of podcasts – mainly about politics, policy and global affairs. One I particularly enjoy is the Ezra Klein Show, in which Vox’s Editor-At-large interviews, well whoever he’s interested in speaking to really, about a whole host of things.

This blog is a copy of an email I recently wrote to Ezra on a key theme in recent discussions he has hosted.


Dear Ezra,

There’s a recurrent theme in several of your recent discussions on the Ezra Klein Show – notably your conversation with Rebeccah Heinrichs on Trump’s foreign policy, and with Matt Yglesias regarding his new book, One Billion Americans – which I think bears greater interrogation than you have so far given it.

Both these conversations, in some form or another centre around how the USA can maintain its position as the pre-eminent power, primarily in the face of a rising China. But neither seem to question whether the US ought to maintain this position. And as a resident of a former super-power (the UK), I think that bears consideration.

Let me kick the tyres on this.

The US reached its global position of dominance by being the only major country which emerged from World War Two with both a functional economy and a (broadly) functional democracy. Of course, this was the era of systematic disenfranchisement of a significant part of the US population – so there were many ways in which the US was not an ideal post-war leader, but were functionally no alternatives.

What, then of the main alternative – Chinese dominance – which is opposed by your guests (of all political stripes)? From an economic perspective, it would be reasonable to argue that China should have a greater role on the world stage. Indeed, you’ve posed the question as to how large that role should be. China accounts for almost 1/5 of the world’s population and has the world’s largest military. It’s clearly a leader in technological and industrial terms. Since 1990, the percentage of China’s population living in poverty has fallen from 66% to less than 1% (according to the World Bank),* and it is even making positive commitments towards tackling climate change.

The trouble, as I and all your panellists know, is that China is fundamentally a bad actor on the world stage. The Chinese political system is deeply anti-democratic and totalitarian. The Human rights of citizens are routinely curtailed, with outright abuses, including ethnic cleansing, purport rated by many. China also continues to make very questionable claims to control of Taiwan and Tibet, as well as numerous other provinces and states. Those of us who believe in human rights, democracy and the international rules based order must be opposed to leadership by such a nation. Chinese leadership is simply not an acceptable option.

Taken together, the fact that the US has maintained a dominant position since World War II, and the unacceptability of Chinese leadership, seems to be used as a tacit justification for maintaining American global hegemony, but it does not appear to be sufficient to me. Crucially, your panellists seem to espouse positions designed to maintain American hegemony, simply for the sake of maintaining American hegemony. The logical corollary of this is that leadership by any other country, no matter how positive, should be opposed.

I would argue that any country should only lead the democratic world if it occupies a position of moral leadership. If it ceases to do so, it is perfectly reasonable that another state should take its place. And right now, it is hard to argue that the US is living up to that standard of moral leadership.

Consider what the US of today looks like. It is a country which is systematically racist, and which has not taken sufficient steps to reckon with the worst of its history. In your conversation with Matt Yglesias, you expressed concern about the possibility of German leadership, because of its record, but I would say, as a reasonably impartial observer, that Germany has grappled more with its darkest history than the US ever has, and is the richer for doing so

Or consider democracy. The US operates a two party system which is at best a relic of a bygone era, and at worst results in minority tyranny. It is also, increasingly, impossible to actually govern the USA for a series of reasons (including, of course the filibuster). The UK’s democracy is dysfunctional, but at least the party which gets a plurality of votes tends to form the government, and is able to govern.

What of human rights? The US is far from above reproach, whether one considers the sorts of mass surveillance programmes revealed by Edward Snowden, the treatment of terrorism suspects (including torture and detention without trial), or the separation of children from their parents by immigration services. In contrast, the EU has embedded human rights into its foundational documents.

Even at a basic level, the citizens of Flint, Michigan, have been unable to access clean, safe drinking water for 6 years. US education systems have utterly failed, to the extent that 63% of young people in a recent survey did not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.** Over a quarter of members of the House of Representatives are climate change deniers.*** I don’t need to rehearse the statistics on the handling of COVID-19.

Trump may be an aberration, or he may not, but what he embodies has much deeper roots.

Now, I am not saying I know who should be the global leader. We could look to Germany or Japan. Perhaps the seat of global leadership should move from the Oval office to Brussels and Strasbourg,. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these possibilities. They simply represent alternatives.

What seems clear to me is that a position of global leadership should be the result of what a state does. A state should be seen as the leader among the community of nations because it chooses to take on a leading role. It is an earned position, to which the US has no greater inherent claim than any other nation.

So if the US wants to retain its role as first among nations, the solution is simple.

The USA needs to get its sh*t together.

*http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/country/CHN
**http://www.claimscon.org/millennial-study/
***https://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/green/news/2019/01/28/172944/climate-deniers-116th-congress/

Lib Dem Conference

I joined the Lib Dems back in spring 2017.

Unlike most recent joiners, Brexit was not my primary driver. Rather, Brexit was symptomatic of a wider failure of democratic and social liberal values, values which I hold dear, and which I saw ebbing away. I had to do something.

Since then, I’ve campaigned for Lib Dems across London, in local and national elections. I’ve delivered leaflets and canvassed. I’ve marches and even stood as a local candidate twice. But it was only last weekend that I attended my first national party conference.

I went into the conference feeling fairly ground down with the party. Jo Swinson’s defeat last December (and the whole election outcome) hit me hard. The leadership election was fractious, and the outcome – a cautious reversion to the political mean – left me dejected. I was fully prepared to channel more of my energies into climate activism (I still am, I’m just seeking the right organisation – ideally something akin to the Sunrise Movement). And an online conference, while more accessible, had the potential to be uninspiring.

But, despite some setbacks, conference was overall really very positive. My friend James has already provided a great summary of some of the policy wins for the radical, progressive wing of our party as well as some of the near misses. Becoming the first major to UK party to adopt UBI is a major achievement, and this can and should shape our platform in years ahead. A clear commitment to federalism will (I hope), help us as we prepare for hugely consequential elections in Wales and Scotland next year, and while we didn’t quite succeed in adopting a policy which decriminalises non-payment of the TV license, we came damn close.

As a first timer, I was pleased to see such a range of issues up for debate, from the current situation in Hong Kong and our response to systemic racism, to local planning arrangements. People spoke clearly, calmly and cogently about the pros and cons of policy, in areas which really matter to me.*

As you might guess, two particular debates stood out for me as the most important issues we face globally. The first as on a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turned out, I wasn’t called to speak during the “green recovery’ motion, which allowed me to join a friends ordination over zoom, but I am reassured that the party takes this challenge seriously, and recognises the moment we are in. (It’s also great to hear our parliamentarians are backing the Climate and Environmental Emergency Bill).

Given the topic of my last blog, it will come as no surprise that I also put my name in to speak on defending the rule of law. I was pleased to be selected, though as I prepared to speak, my pulse was going like a locomotive. This only got worse when I realised I was the only speaker who was not a parliamentarian or a subject expert (for example from Lib Dem Lawyers). As my first speech, I know I rushed, and perhaps some of my points lacked precision, but it was brilliant to hear many of my points echoed by our Lords Spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office!

You can read what my speeches for both motions here.

But my favourite bit of conference actually happened after all the motions were finished and the digital conference programme closed. I was invited to join a zoom call, populated by members of the party pretty much all of whom I already admired and felt I knew, though we had never met in person. Perhaps it would have been better to meet them in a pub by the seaside, but after so many years, it reminded me that this is party built on people – people who share a pretty straightforward set of values. And I am one of them.

Now I must get on with responding to the party’s lamentable strategy consultation.


*The one exception, the blot of ink on the clean copy-book of conference, was the shameful debate on a motion to make the party more accessible to trans and non-binary people, for example by ensuring that conference venues have gender neutral toilet facilities, and providing pronouns on speaker cards. Thanks to a well organised minority of transphobes in the party, this had far to many instances of members’ very existence being questioned, something which was deeply painful and should never be repeated. Thankfully, the party resoundingly passed a clear motion, which included restating the fact that trans men are men, trans women are women and non-binary people are non-binary.

What I (would have) said at conference

Last week, I went to my first national Lib Dem conference. During the weekend, I was able to speak on defending the rule of law, an issue close to my heart. I also put my name in to speak on a motion about a green recovery from COVID-19 (though in the event, I wasn’t selected to speak on that motion).

Here’s what I (would have) said. (You can find the motions, as passed, here.


A Green Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic

In 1990, two years before I was born, the IPCC noted that “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases… resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface.”

Since then, the world has wasted precious time failing to respond to this crisis. That’s why it is so important that this motion reiterates our commitment to frontloading our efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

COVID-19 has radically altered our economy. We may not yet see the whole picture, but businesses are failing. Jobs are being lost. For the people effected, this means suffering & anxiety. But it also means we have a moment in which we can choose what happens next.

Conference, moving to a sustainable economy will require a mass mobilisation of labour and capital, creating higher- and lower-skilled jobs and sharing prosperity right across the UK. Just retrofitting homes in London and the South East won’t be sufficient. Public transport networks which stop at Birmingham will not allow us to change how we travel. Trees can be planted from Cornwall to the Cairngorms. Distributed power sources such as rooftop solar or air-source heat-pumps, will be valuable everywhere.

The UK cannot solve climate change alone. Global transformation is needed. Crucially, investing in green infrastructure in the UK will create a skills base, which can be exported on a mass scale. This will allow us to help other nations to develop sustainably, rather than relying on the very technologies which are already destroying ecosystems around the world.

Conference, there is more that can and should be done to tackle the climate crisis. But we cannot afford to miss this moment to choose our future. I urge you to support the motion, along with its amendments.


Defending the Rule of Law

Thank you conference, for selecting this vital and timely motion for debate.

Seventy-five years ago, the UK played a key role in establishing the international rules-based order, built around core values including human rights and the rule of law. Since then, Liberal Democrats have been staunch defenders of these values, whether opposing illegal war in Iraq, or speaking out against genocide in the Balkans. And it is these values which led me to join the party in 2017.

Now, it seems, threats to human rights and the rule of law begin at home.

Only a year ago, Lady Hale delivered the Supreme Court’s verdict that the Conservative Government’s attempt to prorogue parliament was unlawful. And since then, that same government has been re-elected on a platform which includes the euphemistic commitment to “update” the human rights act.

This alarming commitment fundamentally misses the point of human rights, which are, by definition universal and inalienable. Curtailing the rights of any individual, undermines the entire global edifice. What’s more, the greatest threats to individual human rights come from the arbitrary actions of Governments and their agencies. Tom Bingham, former Senior Law Lord, noted that a state can take action which is in line with domestic legislation, but which nonetheless violates the rule of law. Just look to the streets of Belarus, the US-Mexico border or the camps of Xinjiang. 

“Updating” the Human Rights Act, as the Tories propose, would set the dangerous precedent that the limits of human rights fall within the purview of government, giving cover to authoritarians around the world. It would erode our capacity to hold other nations to account when they ride roughshod over the rights of minorities, weakening the international rules based order. And a “British Bill of Rights”, which the Conservatives have previously proposed, would leave uncertain the status of non-Citizens or stateless individuals. Similar concerns could be raised about the Internal Market Bill currently before parliament, as Wera already has. 

My human rights are the same as those of a Uighur Muslim in a re-education camp; the difference is that the Chinese government has given itself the authority to violate those rights. 

Conference, we must uphold the Rule of Law as something which transcends potentially unjust domestic legislative frameworks. I urge you to support this motion.

Institutional Memory

Institutional Memory

I’ve been thinking about institutions a lot lately.

Institutions aren’t sexy. When they work, they should be uninteresting; seamlessly effective. But they matter. And at the moment, an awfly large number of the institutions we’ve built in this country and around the world seem to be failing. Or rather, we are allowing them to fail, with serious consequences.

Let’s consider the garbage fire that is 2020. A global pandemic, rampant climate change, mass protests against institutional racism around the world, Brexit, Trump. We’ve got our fair share of problems.*

But this isn’t the world we need to have.

Let’s start with the pandemic. Nobody knew exactly how it would happen. Yet many governments saw something like it coming, and all governments should have been able to prepare and mitigate it. It is telling that some of the worst national responses have been seen in nations such as India, Brazil, the UK and the US, where governments have systematically undermined experts, the free press and civil society in order to advance political ends. These are key institutions if we hope to survive in the “anthropocene”, where human action can indelibly shape the world around us.

Take Brexit, Trump and the populist surges of the 2010s. We voted for these, but we did so in systems which are fundamentally flawed. Donald Trump won the US election in 2016, despite getting nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hilary Clinton.** Bexit was a little different, in that for once people’s votes did count, so people took the opportunity to punish a political class which had failed them, and voted for change.

If, over the past 15 years, our electoral systems had valued people’s votes, and made politicians work for their constituents, perhaps the outcome might have been different too.

Structural racism? Create structures which aren’t racist! For example, rebuild police forces, and create new institutions which don’t come armed with guns to address problems caused by addiction, social breakdown or mental illness. If the only tool you have is a gun, you’re going to “solve problems” by shooting people.

Rising inequality? Establish effective regulation and oversight, rather than cutting it.

Governments openly flouting international law? Give the international legal order more teeth. What works at home can work internationally too.

Take the climate crisis. We’ve understood the science of climate change since before I was born.*** Yet neither national nor global action has fully reflected this. In the UK, governments have abdicated their duty to lead a just transition to a sustainable economy. That failure means climate activists are now forced to turn to citizens assemblies to provide the sort of leadership government should. Meanwhile, the UN and other international institions have not had sufficient clout to coorginate a full international support. But they could, if we (the community of nations) agreed to give it to them.

Seventy-five years ago, the picture was not all that different from today. The world had been devasted by wars and economic collapse. The cycle could have continued, with ever more devastation, driven by ever more ungodly technology.

But instead, we did something different. We built institutions. The UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the NHS, the EU. We can do the same again now. Or we can take the other path. We’ve started down it already. And I for one don’t like where its heading.

Edit: Turns out I’ve written about institutions before, here.


* Of course, in many ways the world is getting better – but that doesn’t mean things aren’t bad. And we’ve got a long way to go to build a world which is not just bad but getting better.

** Four other US presidents have lost the poular vote while winning the electoral college, three of them in the 1800s (Bush in 2000 being the forth). Bush lost in 2000 by half a million votes. John Quincy Adams holds the peculiar disctinction of the worst percentage margin, of -10.44%, but he was chosen by the House of Representatives. US politics is weird.

*** The First Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published in 1990, two years before I was born. It noted that “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases… These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface.”

Coronavirus testing – A personal history


On Monday, Rachel was feeling a little off – she had a (non-COVID) illness, which included feeling more fatigued than usual (don’t worry she’s fine now).

But, because we’re part of the KCL Covid-19 Symptom study, Rachel recorded this in the app (on Tuesday), which simply asks whether you feel ‘physically normal’ or ‘not quite right’ before a series of follow-up questions.

Now, KCL want to refine their algorithm, some people who have related symptoms, but who they don’t necessarily think have COVID are being asked to get tests. They sent an email asking Rachel and any other app users in the household (me) to get tests on Wednesday evening, which we didn’t pick up till first thing Thursday morning.

So (Thursday) we went onto the government website and registered for a home testing kit (which is a bit of a faff – you need NHS number, NI number etc for everyone getting tested) – took maybe half an hour. You need to get the antigen test done within the first five days of having symptoms. After that it’s too late. On days 1 to 4, you can get tested at a site or at home, as long as you order the test by 3pm on day 4 – after that, you need to go to a test site. We were warned it may be quicker to visit a regional testing centre, but we don’t have a car, and our nearest walk-though centre would be a ten mile round trip (no public transport or taxis allowed). Imagine doing that with a viral infection often worse than the flu.

An hour later, we received an email reminding us to take our tests, despite them not having despatched them yet.

So we waited. By Thursday lunchtime, we had a confirmation email to tell us our tests had been dispatched.

Then we waited a bit more. By 9.48am, apparently our tests are out for delivery.

However, by Friday afternoon, still no test (although we did have another email reminding us to take them) – Rachel’s illness was all sorted, and if it had been COVID, it would have been getting late for testing.

Around 6pm (well after the last post for the day), Rachel got an email telling her the tests had been delivered. Which was news to us.

So Rachel called the helpline – who couldn’t help – and looked around the block. Apparently Amazon (who distribute the tests) had failed to print our flat number on the package – so it was sitting at number 1. We only discovered this because a neighbour had put up posters telling us where our parcel was. Top marks Amazon.

But at least we had our tests.

By this point, the last post to return the tests was long gone – and you don’t want them sitting in a post-box over-night, so we planned to do them this morning (Saturday). We would then need to put them in our nearest priority post-box (not just any post-box will do, and you can’t take public transport to get there – thankfully we had one just outside our flat), in time for the last post at midday.

Saturday morning rolls around.

At about 10:50, we realise they want you to do the test an hour before the last post (which is at midday). You’re also not supposed to take your test or post it on Sunday, so if we miss the post, we’d have to wait until Monday to do so.

OK, we can do this. Frantic, but doable (the instruction says reckon it will take 15-25 minutes all told).

We go on to the government website to register the tests (should have realised we needed to do that one sooner). We start filling in our details, which includes the order number (in the confirmation email from the government), and the royal mail barcode. The barcodes are slightly confusing, as there is a different barcode on the test equipment (swab vial, envelope etc), and the website isn’t very clear, but we eventually work out which one we need.

And the damn things won’t register.

We tried using the barcode scanner – it says they aren’t correct. We try typing them out. Same problem.

So we call the helpline again.

Now the helpline starts to register our tests for us (very nice lady – one imagines quite long-suffering). For which they need things like our ethnicity, our order numbers, various barcodes, NHS numbers and God knows what else.

Meanwhile I start the actual swab process for mine. Which is… unpleasant. Ten seconds of swabbing your tonsils while saying ahh to expose them and trying not to gag, and the same of rotating the swab an inch up your nose. I can still feel it 45 minutes later. I’d rather not find out how doing that feels when you are actually ill

Finally, all registered, Rachel does her swabbing too, we seal up our swab vials, biohazard envelopes and flatpack boxes, and I get them to the post-box by 11:30.

We just hope the postie hasn’t already been.

All that would have taken 6 days from when symptoms presented (though we had no reason to believe they were COVID symptoms), or three days from when we ordered the test.

After our test has been received by the lab (hopefully on Monday), we can expect results by text and email within 2-4 days. That takes us to Thursday/Friday. By that point, if we had thought we had COVID-19, we would almost have finished our two weeks of isolation. It is also doubtful our tests would have reached the lab in time to be effective, if we had been suspected of having COVID.

Then contract tracers would get to work, identifying people we might have met before we started isolating. Who by that point would have a two week head-start. All told, it doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism about our “world beating” test track and trace system.

In mute witness, stand?

In mute witness, stand?

Five years ago, I remember discussing the #RhodesMustFall campaign at UCT with some friends. I concluded that, personally, I didn’t think statues should be taken down – but that it was not my decision to make, not being someone who had been in any way impacted by the colonial history of Southern Africa or Apartheid.

It is clear to me now that someone like Cecil Rhodes should not be honoured with public statues. I was wrong. And I am sorry.

If you know the name of Cecil Rhodes, it will not be because of his philanthropy (why is why another statue of him stands outside Oriel College Oxford). No, Rhodes’ primary acheivements were; being a British guy who was Prime Minister of a colony, having another colony named after him, and establishing a diamond mining company. That is what he is known for. And sure, he also did some philanthropy, but on balance, the whole rampant imperialism thing is probably the bigger part of his historical significance. The same can be said of Edward Colston. Sure, he did a lot of good for Bristol. But shipping black men, women and children in chains and selling them for profit rather outweighs that.

Now I would not want the sum of anyone’s life to be reduced to the worst thing they have ever done, but I would also not want them to be reduced to only their best achievements, without at least due consideration of their faults.

Having a statue dedicated to you is a big deal – it suggests you are deserving of admiration. And that deserves consideration. I try to be a decent bloke, I work in the third sector, I undertake regular charitable giving (and all without the spoils of Empire). But I don’t get a statue. And I’ve never sold another human for profit.

To be clear, I am not saying these men were 100% bad, nor that anyone involved in Empire should autmoatically be viewed with revulsion. Their views were certainly wrong. But that does not make them necessarily evil – that is a moral judgement which neither I nor anyone else should be making.

But we can and should recognise the harm these men inflicted, and consider whether their statues still belong in our public spaces. That will require a great reassesment of our history. Rhodes and Colston are the easy choices. Gladstone, Churchill, even Millicent Fawcett are more complex choices, but choices we should make.

I think, back in 2015, one of the things which drove my concern was my deep, heart-wrenching sadness at the empty statue niches on medieval buildings. As a historian, I mourn the beauty and the history which was lost in the destruction of the reformation. Thankfully, this is not the 16th Century – we have museums now.

If we leave statues alone, in full view, they go un-noticed or worse, noticed but not understood. They tell us nothing about the past.

If we remove them, they tell us about the people they depict, the people who erected them, and the people removed them. They tell us about our racist, imperialist past, and about our attempts to be anti-racist today.

And that’s surely the right option.

Photo – Edward Colston Empty Pedestal, Caitlin Hobbs, 7 June 2020, Licenced under Creative Commons.