Clocking big tech: the fight to own your data

This is the text of my autumn 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Prospect has been working with a coalition of unions, tech specialists and researchers to develop new approaches to how we take control of our own data.

In July the beta version of one of those ideas – the WeClock app – was launched but soon after Facebook decided to ban the app on its platform. After discussions with the app developers, Facebook has now reversed this decision.

At Prospect, we have long been aware of big data and the need to secure the interests of our members when it comes to all the ways that algorithm-based software can be used at work.

Desktop spying

Indeed, many apps seek to put a ‘spy on our desktop’ – and with more people working from home during the pandemic, the risk increases of employers also wanting to put a ‘spy in our homes’.

Google has invested billions in mapping the world and developing self-driving car technology, because it wants to be in a position to shape our technology choices when it comes to our mobility.

That means knowing where we go, how often we go there and how often (and where) we stop en route. This encroaches into our lives as workers as well as private citizens.

Facebook is not the only example – merely among the most egregious. Earlier this summer, the social media platform pitched that Facebook Workplace, its office collaboration project, would allow employers to control the content of group discussions by banning words such as ‘unionize‘.

It later had to backtrack after complaints by its own employees and the US trade union organisation AFL-CIO.

Knowledge is power

Not least when it comes to the workplace, the data on which our choices are based belongs to us – or should do. Surveillance software undermines that principle and its very existence raises the need for accountability and worker involvement in decision-making about its use. Data needs to become part of our bargaining agenda.

This battleground reveals the rationale for Facebook’s initial decision regarding WeClock: its whole reason for being lies in hoovering up our data about what interests us, analysing that and then packaging it to secure advertising revenues.

Start-ups like WeClock, which enables workers to log their own working hours and overtime to protect themselves from being overworked and underpaid. Crucially it leaves control of the data entirely in users’ hands.

As Christina Colclough, who led the team behind the app, observes, WeClock is a ‘self-tracking privacy-preserving tool we can be proud of’. The more apps opt for such an ethical approach, the more those users will understand what platforms like Facebook and Google operate. And the more people realise the importance of asserting their rights over their data, the more shaky these platforms’ way of operating becomes.

Facebook’s monitoring software, Workplace, is a key tool it can sell to employers facing worker recognition campaigns.

Online activism

I doubt we have heard the last of Facebook Workplace. Lobbyist and employer consultant Rick Berman says the pandemic has encouraged a ‘historic rise in labour activism‘.

He warns that employees worried about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other platforms to share their concerns, giving union organisers greater access to disgruntled workers.

Worker recognition campaigns in the tech giants and elsewhere are certainly growing in the face of increasingly precarious terms and conditions.

In ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, we need to encourage high-trust workplaces where managers are allowed to do their jobs by actively using their own people management skills.

Prospect will continue to articulate the need for better trust, accountability and transparency when it comes to monitoring and surveillance software in the workplace; and for data to become part of the bargaining agenda.

As our workplaces change, our core commitment to empower our members to realise those goals remains steadfast.

A birthday poem (not by me)

Boxing Day saw the birthday of my good friend, Peter, an anniversary I invariably fail to remember until several days later (typically, in fact, round about now). This year, completely in tune with these times, Peter hosted a Skype call for friends and cleverly secured my timely recall of his anniversary by asking me to recite a poem.

After a bit of deliberation and a bit more research, this is what I came up with – it’s a poem written by Angus Dunn, which I found on the Poetry Map of Scotland, which I think captures well the elemental nature of living on these islands (not least just ahead of Storm Bella now, thankfully, blown out here (and which crossed also into Germany) although, this time, we were far from the worst-hit place in the UK). It’s not particularly celebratory for a birthday anniversary, and the ending is bleak, but Mr. Dunn captures some strong reference points to nature and, particularly, to history within his lines:

Uist

There is nothing here,
in all the wide ocean
to stop the wind
that frays the edge of the land.
On the foredune,
dry from the long sunlight and the sea breeze,
sand slips.
In the slack behind the dunes,
the brown bird lies low
in her nest among the grasses:
even here, sand moves, held in nets of buttercup roots.
When the storm comes,
sand flows like water, stings like hail –
air eating the earth –
small white houses
grip the soil of the machair,
one window gleaming all night long
to light the way home –
though some will not return.
Up on the hillside,
thin sheep graze on rocks,
and there the Lady stands
looking past the ocean
out to the furthest West
from where no one of us returns.

No poem is complete without a few footnotes, so here’s a few of my own.

The reference in line 9 to the ‘brown bird’ could be many things but most likely speaks to the corncrake, a migratory bird now few in number and on the UK’s Red List but which migrates to breed here in these islands from its winter home on the Africa savannahs. Here’s one (of the up to four males which can be heard in Aird A’Mhachair across the summer) in calling mode, captured in April 2019 amidst the wind-torn rags of daffodil leaves:

On line 16, the machair is the Gàidhlig word for the fertile, but fragile and shallow, coastal strip on which the wind and seaweed farming practices have, over centuries, dumped fragments of shell on the land, enriching it and making it cultivable. Machair is common to both these islands and the west coast of Ireland – another facet of the shared history between these two places – and is a riot of changing colour in the summer months owing to the profusion of wild flowers (buttercups among them) in uncrofted areas and in gardens.

The references in line 19 and at the conclusion to people not returning home is most likely to the people brutally forced from the land and their homes on these islands (though not without many protest actions taking place) as a part of the socio-economic tragedy of the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of them went west, with the largest numbers settling in Canada in the area around Cape Breton: hence why ‘the Lady’ looks west. Modern research has identified that the source of the wealth of many of the landowners involved was slave-derived – echoing the conditions of travel in which many Highlanders were forced across the Atlantic, with many dying en route and, of those that did make it, arriving destitute. Today, many islanders fear fresh de-population as a result not least of the lack of opportunity stemming from job and skills loss – including among air traffic controllers – and as a result of a distorted housing market forcing out young people. Both – to say nothing of the potential impact of Brexit on the crofting character of the islands – will have a deleterious impact on our communities.

The Lady‘ (on line 22) is a statute set up in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription at the initiative of ‘Father Rocket’ who realised that the coming of the military (these islands occuyping a place of strategic potential during the Cold War) would fundamentally change the lives of islanders. Canon John Morrison’s collection of artefacts, originally housed near to us in Iochdar, is now the basis of the collection of Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, the Kildonan Museum. Here is ‘Our Lady’, captured in 2017 looking west across the machair out to the Atlantic, and beyond:

Happy Birthday, Peter!

NewMusicMondays – 21 December 2020

Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook has been a regular touring feature of the Scottish music scene in December for fifteen years now – and there’s a CD out, too, just celebrating its fifth birthday. Under lockdown, no show was planned for this year but all the regular crew – that’s Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader, Kris Drever, Ian Carr, Kevin McGuire, John McCusker and the essential brass section, alongside ‘Mr. Accordeon’ Phil Cunningham himself – got together in a socially-distanced way earlier this year for a session with the aim of keeping the festive cheer alive. A live audience with whom to bounce off, with camaraderie and interaction to drive the musicians along, is sorely missed (and Aly and Phil’s appearance at our local hall was indeed the last gig I went to pre-lockdown) – but, in compensation, at least you don’t now have to be in Scotland to catch the shows.

From six hours of material, including traditional Christmas carols and religious hymns to their more modern secular and popular variants, they’ve pulled together two one-hour gigs – the first out last Saturday; the second this forthcoming Wednesday – and, at this point, you can watch the second from the comfort of your own living room (front row seat guaranteed, domestic animals permitting) and at the convenience of your own five minute bell for the princely sum of £15 (or £25 for both) – tickets available here. Once you’re in, you can watch either or both as many times as you like up until 27 December (when the mince pies are but a distant memory, the remains of the turkey is destined for curry and the freezer, and the mulled wine is alcoholic only by the faintest of associations).

There’s a songsheet out for you to sing along at home – and you can also practise your Gàidhlig since ‘Silent Night’ is sung in Gàidhlig – as well as a few video teasers and there is also the promise of a new CD, signed copies of which are now available on pre-order. As a wee taster: here is Silent Night from the 2015 album, sung in Gàidhlig, of course:

My second pick this week is Oxford’s Abi Farrell, whose ‘I Will See You Through’ has been out for download/streaming since 23 November ahead of a vinyl release ‘landing early in 2021’. Abi is brand new but solidly in the tradition of soulful voices, while citing influences as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Eva Cassidy and Chaka Khan, and released her debut EP in November 2019. This track was written under lockdown following a chance meeting immediately prior with Nick Corbin, a more established songwriter who’s worked with soul giant producer/remixer/arranger Lack of Afro among others.

‘I Will See You Through’ is a modern Northern Soul mid-tempo classic – think that skipping drum fill (that I am reliably informed is a ‘six-stroke roll (RllrrL) for the sextuplet‘) from the star drummers of Motown’s Funk (or Soul) Brothers (Uriel Jones, I think – though indeed it could be either of Benny Benjamin or Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen); allied to plucked strings recalling the Pointer Sisters (‘Send My Baby Back’), a propulsive beat and psychedelic guitar chords. Layered above all this is Abi’s controlled, but pure and crystal clear, vocal and – inevitably and completely in-style – a lovelorn lyric with a gorgeously tuned middle eight linking back to a theme whose catchiness means that you’ll be humming it for days.

Here, at least, is the good side of streaming in that it does allow up-and-coming musicians to demonstrate that there is an audience for their work as well as to build a following: Abi’s debut EP has amassed 50,000 plays to date although ‘I Will See You Through’ currently needs a bit of help from you. Now to turn that into something which helps to pay the bills – you know what to do, dear reader! – and, in the meantime, it remains a priority task to #Fixstreaming. In addition, Abi has a bandcamp where you can pick up ‘I Will See You Through’ as well as her debut release – and don’t forget the physical product when it comes out, either direct from the artist or via your local record shop.

This is probably the last in the regular #NewMusicMondays posts for a while – though I will be trying to post more often on music in 2021. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of what is now eighteen posts going back to 24 August; and it’s certainly helped keep ‘The Back Room’ going during what has been a busy, and intense, period of work during which I’ve also been working on language editing four books at once (an edited collection on the integration of asylum seekers and refugees into the labour market, out soon at the European Trade Union Institute; a new volume in Christophe Solioz and Wolfgang Petritsch’s ‘Southeast European Integration Perspectives’ series; no. 2 of the 2020 volume of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe in which, uniquely, yours truly also has an article; and a further edited collection for the ETUI, this time on workers and organisation in the platform economy and on which work remains ongoing). And, as always, the end of the year anyway provides a good opportunity to reflect and consider before going afresh into what the New Year might bring.

Lockdown – the spark for this series looking at what musicians are doing to keep music and entertainment going in career-blocking circumstances – will be continuing for a while yet; and for many of us it’s been toughened. For all that this is necessary to keep people safe, the responsibility for having failed to do so thus far, as well as for the raised and then dashed hopes for a ‘normal’ Christmas, remains squarely at the door of this elitist, incompetent and eternally dithering government of clowns. Pictures of lorry queues on the M20, while there is crisis at home, will be this government’s ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vote them out, as soon as we can.

Pending that thought, in the meantime – merry Christmas and happy holidays: and here’s to a better 2021 for all of us, together.

NewMusicMondays – 14 December 2020

One of the things that’s been very different about 2020 is the greater use of virtual meetings, with face-to-face get-togethers being impossible as a result of various Covid-19 restrictions, not to say the closure of many arts venues. Many of us have become familiar with the different proprietary technologies in use, while the Oxford English Dictionary has noted that ‘mute’ and ‘unmute’ have seen ‘significant’ rises in usage this year.

It’s worthwhile noting at the outset that this sort of thing would not have been feasible had there not been significant investment in broadband networks in the past twenty years to put fibre deeper and deeper into the telecoms network.

As we get to the year’s end, Covid-19 has meant a very different approach to annual award ceremonies, with many such events simply being cancelled, a great shame for many awards winners, while others have been re-jigged to be broadcast over the internet. One such event which marks the end of the year for many music fans is the awards given out by Songlines magazine which champions traditional and innovative music from around the world. This year’s ceremony, hosted by broadcaster and musician Cerys Matthews, went out last night and you can catch up with the hour-long presentation via YouTube.

My first choice this week comes indeed from the Songlines ceremony and is by Blick Bassy, who won the ‘Africa’ award for album of the year for 1958 (it’s the first award in the ceremony, 75 seconds into the above link). This album – actually released in 2019 – commemorates the heroes of the liberation struggle in Cameroon and in particular Ruben Um Nyobè (a trade unionist, savagely killed by the French military in 1958). Bassy, who sports some of the most startling eyewear I’ve ever seen, has been making music for quite a while and now lives in rural France, with a smallholding in a village west of Bordeaux; 1958 was written as a means of teaching Cameroonians aspects of their own history that have not featured in history books and to dignify the memory of the leaders of the struggle long denied domestic recognition of their role as a result of generations of political leaders not wanting to upset France. Bassy featured on Cerys’s 6Music show yesterday morning (from 64 minutes, just after Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’); and here he is performing ‘Mpodol’ in front of a small studio audience, as broadcast at the Songlines ceremony although not recorded specially for it. Note Blick’s unique, heartrending voice as well as surprising prompts from trombone and trumpet:

Bassy has a number of tour dates lined up in France for 2021, alongside Les Amazones d’Afriques; 1958 is not on bandcamp, but there is a variety of ways in which you can pick it up via the artist’s own website – or, of course, from a record store near you.

My second pick is a bit of a repeat, as I’ve featured the voice of Kelly Finnigan previously in this series. 24 November saw the release of A Joyful Sound, his Christmas album featuring ten Christmas songs, all self-penned and recorded with a large number of major collaborators on the soul scene, including his own band, the Monophonics, as well as the Dap-Kings and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – a tribute to Finnigan’s increasing presence as one of the scene’s key movers and shakers. Here he is (@8.46) with ‘Just One Kiss’, featuring the mighty Dap-Kings horn section, gentle piano, sleigh bells, 70s psychedelic soul sonics and Kelly’s wonderfully soulful voice:

The link is to a stream of the whole album that Colemine Records, Kelly’s label, have put out to promote the album – so Christmas online get-together parties can have a gorgeously soulful input – but if you prefer something to watch while being moved by the music, here’s a short animation in which the elves in Santa’s factory convert lumps of coal (nicely done!) into a range of Christmas gifts to the sound of another track on the album, ‘Santa’s Watching You’. The limited edition vinyl has already sold out but you can always pick up a properly paid-for streaming copy, or a download, via Finnigan’s bandcamp.

I’ve again got a bonus pick this week which came my way via one of those Twitter promoted ads for the Witherbys Arts Festival, for which 2020 is the debut year, featuring a range of Scottish musicians. Day Two of the event featured the Nevis Ensemble, the youthful and joyful guerilla orchestra bring orchestral and other tunes to the people wherever they are, and it makes it into my lockdown selection of music since their appearance at Eriskay community centre on their 2019 Hebrides tour was one of the last gigs I went to before lockdown. (The above link includes a clip from that actual gig, with the orchestra performing ‘Mairead nan Cuiread’, a waulking song (luadh, in the Gàidhlig, where the rhythm was intended to assist the women as they worked the tweed and echoes of which you can hear in many songs by Runrig).

The clip by the Nevis Ensemble features the orchestra’s horn section – two trumpets, trombone, tuba and horn – in a socially-distanced setting on ‘The Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’); ‘Quintet’ by Michael Kamen (making a contribution to the debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas film); before closing with a medley of Abba tunes. After all, what is any sort of party, Christmas or otherwise, that doesn’t feature an Abba tune or two? And there is definitely no Christmas until the horn section has played.

The Witherbys Arts Festival takes place via YouTube until 18 December.

NewMusicMondays – 7 December 2020

Picking up the threads from last week’s bonus track, the first song this week also has a Scottish theme – and, in celebration of it also being December, this is a Christmas song – certainly heartfelt, if perhaps a little ‘tired and emotional’ lyrics; a strong arrangement and beautiful playing; a tumbler with a halfway-indecent measure of whisky sitting atop the piano (metaphorically speaking); and terrifically supportive, and gently under-stated, backing vocals from the marvellous Karine Polwart. It even has a brass band. Of course it does – it’s a proper Christmas song. Here’s Ross Wilson, from Blue Rose Code, with his own ‘(I Wish You) Peace in Your Heart’:

This is another that came to me via ‘Keep Going Together’, the lockdown blog of Perth’s Horsecross Arts. The blog has been set up to provide daily posts celebrating the music and arts brought to the good folk of Perthshire by Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall as a means of staying connected during shutdown, with the specific intention of creating moments of culture and community for people to share.

The tune was intended to be Day One in an advent calendar featuring some of the many quality artists celebrated by Showcase Scotland Expo – hence the somewhat cheesy intro to the video. This was a great idea even if somewhat under-played ever since: I can’t find any reference to it otherwise on Showcase Scotland Expo’s own website and its YouTube channel is curiously under-subscribed (perhaps as a result of it having absolutely no content). Oh well.

If it stays 1 December for the rest of the month, at least this might give me a bit more time to do my online lockdown shopping – but, if not, this is a warming tune which, joking apart, reminds us of the importance when we are isolated from one another of telling our loved ones that we love them, not least as a way of bringing peace where there are unrested souls.

The second song this week is by East Reading’s own Thomas (Tom these days, it seems, perhaps with a view to the YouTube market) Sanders, formerly of Maiden Erlegh comp and then Pete and The Pirates and still of Teleman, whose ‘Düsseldorf‘ is one of the great tracks of the 2010s. Four years on, Thomas still has that wistful, wonderfully vulnerable, high register voice and ability to write perceptive lyrics, here with words of gentle admonition to his daughter that the world can be a tough place especially if, once we grow into adults, we continue selfishly to regard ourselves as the centre of it.

‘Little Human’ has been out since August, coincident exactly with me starting this series of posts, and it’s taken me a while to get around to it. However, Only Magic, the album from which ‘Little Human’ is the lead single, came out last Friday and you can pick it up directly via Thomas’s bandcamp – including on limited edition tropical pearl vinyl. And if that doesn’t grab you – well, I’ve got plenty more still up my sleeve 😉

Thomas Sanders – and his bands – has long been championed by BBC 6Music’s Marc Riley, on whose show on Thursday last week Thomas played a ‘live’ session (available for another three weeks or so – and hence the reason for getting around to it now). Three tracks for Marc Riley, plus another later on for Gideon Coe, has been a staple of my listening diet for around ten years now and it’s introduced me to a number of terrific acts, Teleman among them alongside others I’ve also featured during this series. It was great to hear Thomas, in a kind of interview in partial replacement of Marc’s informed, engaged and always enthusiastic chats with the bands featured on the show, also reminisce on Thursday about Reading’s live music venue The Rising Sun (RIP).

It’s fair to say that some of the station presenters have fared better than others during lockdown and Marc is clearly sorely missing the opportunity to get to gigs, discover new live music and to chat to bands. However, the sheer dedication of all of them to continue bringing music to us, recording shows in isolation in their spare bedrooms and sheds, is always to be applauded so this week’s post is dedicated to Marc, Gid, Craig Charles, Cerys Matthews, Tom Robinson and all the 6Music presenters and backroom production staff including, indeed, the channel’s social media team. Cheers everyone.

Finally, by special request, and taking us also back to the message in the song at the top of the post, this week’s bonus track is perhaps the earliest example of a track recorded in and for people in lockdown faced with the threat of this virus; and is posted here in celebration of the return last week of fans to football stadiums and, in particular, of a 2-0 win on Saturday for the mighty Royals, keeping us nicely in contention. Come on URZ! Altogether now:

Enjoy!

Book Review: The Nanny State Made Me

I received Stuart Maconie‘s The Nanny State Made Me as a birthday present back in September (thanks, Tracy!) and, of course, it therefore jumped to the top of my reading list not least owing to the title.

Part-autobiography, part-paean to Stuart’s own upbringing and development within the arms of the Welfare State, this was written during 2019 and published, following a revision which took account of the results of the general election (the anniversary of which is of course a year ago next week), in early March. This was, quite clearly, an inauspicious time to be publishing a book about public policy; Covid-19, like the internet, having changed everything.

Following introductory chapters setting out the remarkable immediate post-War timing of the introduction of the Welfare State, and the sustained attacks on it during the Thatcherite years in which we have been living since 1979, each chapter then takes young Stuart through a stage of his life through birth (in 1961, in an NHS hospital), early education and teenage years to the worlds of work and the dole queue, housing, public transport, and BBC and the media; before, eventually, winding up with a few thoughts on getting back what we have lost.

Fans of Maconie’s work (and I am one, as my book-giver clearly also knows!) know what to expect: wry observation drawn from contemporary interviews illustrating his theme; a sprinkling of sharp epigrams drawing attention to the absurd (Maconie continues to have a sharp eye for a well-turned phrase); and a clear and engaging writing style mixing a patient, but quizzically frustrated, tone with occasional righteous anger at the absurdities of modern day living. Describing him as a ‘man of the people’ sounds somewhat pejorative, but Maconie is clearly interested in people and the combination of that and the ability to translate such interest into warm, affectionate writing detailing (or referencing) brief encounters and events, some contemporary, some historic, makes him always worth reading (or listening to, as his BBC 6Music shows also prove).

On top of that, there is also a very touching dedication which says a lot more – about theme and about author – than its 19 words allow; while it commences with a lovely anecdote involving a landmark famous on the London skyline, Tony Benn and an anonymous operative of a long-privatised business. And there is the – by now obligatory – puntastic title whose phrasing is capable of a dual meaning while also being inspired, at a deeper level, by the honourable member for the 18th century.

There is, of course, a lot to be angry about when it comes to what has happened to our public services in this now 40-year experiment of privatisation and liberalisation. The NHS is still – just about, perhaps – hanging together but public transport is a disaster and the nonsensities of trying to introduce competition into the supply of essential services like energy has been, at best, a failure and at worst, a scandalous scheme under which the public has been ripped off with a deliberate view to the enrichment of those few who are already well-off. The current controversy over NHS data contracts being sold to Peter Thiel, the shadowy billionaire behind the Cambridge Analytica data mining operation, and over the cronyism with which this government views its public service obligations during the current crisis, add to the frustration – as well they ought. Some of this is quite familiar – albeit that the decades-long failure to do much if anything about it means that to repeat the message is not, by definition, over-stating it. In particular, it is ground well-trodden in James Meek’s London Review of Books essays collected together in Private Island. Maconie’s quotes from this make me realise that this has also languished, in its 2015 (though still current) edition, too long on my to-read shelf.

What underpins the arena of Maconie’s theme is the growth of inequality in the UK. The post-war welfare state was, ultimately, inspired by the need to deliver a more equal society in which the resources of the state would be invested deliberately and practically to address sources of inequality. Any attack on the welfare state can thus be read quite easily – whatever mealy-mouthed arguments made on behalf of doing so by whichever vested interest is mounting them – as an attempt to undermine the perception of that need and, thereby, the goal of reducing inequality itself. It is clear from a look at the Gini coefficient (a flawed, perhaps, but clear yardstick against which a state’s progress in overcoming, or otherwise, inequality can readily be measured) that the UK has become a much more unequal society in these years. The bulk of that growth occurred the 1980s while little has happened in the last thirty post-Thatcher years to address that: the coefficient has, with some volatility as a result of some of the recent circumstances of our times, bumped around the same level ever since. This includes during Labour governments which, despite the good things that they did do, failed to address the growth in inequalities that the welfare state was set up to deal with and which had risen so sharply during the years of Thatcher:

Indexed series; 1997=100. Break in series in 2001. Source: Office for National Statistics

In this context, the arguments made by leading Brexiteers on the far right of the Tory Party of the opportunity which Brexit gives (and which indeed drove Brexit) to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution‘ need careful attention since they clearly herald a further rise in inequality.

The earlier, more autobiographical chapters of Maconie’s book work rather better than the later ones. In particular, chapter 2 on schooling, in which Maconie’s arguments on behalf of comprehensive education shine with undimmed passion (I write as a grammar school boy who did actually benefit from the social mobility arguments – though of course exceptions don’t prove the rule), is a marvellously sustained piece of writing. The later chapters suffer, in a lengthy section on the BBC by appearing a little defensive (and there’s a lot to defend, I know); as well as in arguments for the nationalisation of the internet appearing a little illiberal (and, also, would you really want a crony appointee of this government in charge of erecting garden walls around your internet? Better to regulate the abuses/abusers, I think – and there are many of both – and to break up the over-mighty and the anti-democratic among the giants of those that have exploited the ‘net. That quite clearly encompasses Amazon, Google and Facebook. For that, of course, we need a stronger hand than ‘global Britain’ alone.)

In particular, I feel he pulls his punches in the final chapter which sets out the ‘how to save it’ mission described on the cover but which is, unfortunately, episodic and indeed a little unformed. There are some useful conversations around the Norwegian example; and the references to the extraordinariness of ordinary, heroic people are timely (even if our essentially conservative nature and belief in sweet moderation means we keep on electing Conservative governments whose wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise proves of apparently perennial value). But, aside from a call to ‘bring the Nanny State back’, just precisely how to do that proves a rather elusive target around which Stuart boxes well but on the practicalities of which he never really lays a glove.

Those farther to the left will identify a possible reason for this; while, as I said at the outset, this also reflects a timing problem of publication and deadlines: Covid-19 has laid bare that the priorities of the governments we elect, in what they choose to do in office, are very much a matter of choice – and especially at a time when interest rates are low enough to mean that borrowing money is not only extremely cheap but actually financially attractive. In this way, the rather public noise over the economic illiteracy of ‘maxing out the credit card’ – Thatcher’s Grantham grocer-shop ‘economics’ written for the 21st century – is a very welcome add to the public debate.

In short, the practicalities behind Maconie’s desire to bring back the Nanny State – kicking out the private sector from the NHS; achieving a comprehensive nature to the education system; restoring democratic power to local councils, not least as regards the building of homes; ending the farce and rip-off pricing of bus and rail privatisation; putting control of energy supply back in the hands of the nation as opposed to abiding by a figleaf of market economics (not least with green, sustainability goals in mind – this week’s collapse of BiFab proves that green jobs need to be worked for); and freeing the BBC from the straitjacket of the much-abused concept of ‘impartiality’ to abide by its Reithian objectives of public entertainment and education – are now more, perhaps oddly, a little visible than they were when he was finalising his draft. Maconie hints – strongly, even – at all this, but is missing a few of the ‘action words’ set out above.

If we can have the vision to develop a Welfare State in the midst of a war; what might we do now to develop that vision to restore it in the middle of a pandemic? If the country is to emerge from its mishandling by the over-promoted bunglers we’ve placed in charge, that manifesto needs to be put in place now. In retrospect therefore, this is something of a missed opportunity for Maconie to be this generation’s Beveridge – but, on the other hand, I might, therefore, look forward to a 2021 edition with a re-written final chapter which identifies the ‘how’ a little more explicitly. If the pandemic has been good for anything, it is at least that it has facilitated the ground for such thinking.