Wishing all a busy Christmas

What a time; no time to rest. This is the breathing space to fulfil all those tasks left over; and yet there is time for good company also.

Sitting around the glowing fire, groaning meal swelling bellies and swelling talk,  walnuts handed round; I can still crack them between my palms, the fair sex scurrying and chattering, men talking of old days in uniform, well remembered for the good parts anyway.  (Never mind the memories of waking in ice caking a sodden tent, unforgiving wind and the rats, bold and vicious enemy are the rats, but say nothing of that – not before the ladies, who need not know of anything sordid.) Just recount the heroism, the solidity, the warmth of old times and the warmth of present times, felt more truly in the mellowed years.

We returned from church full of hymns and psalms, shorn of the silly secular season’s songs, making praise point to the astounding gift that began in a little hill town, διοτι ουκ ην αυτοις τοπος εν τω καταλυματι (in the straw, up away from the voracious rats), but which only began there and must move on and take us with him, all the way to a lonely hillside without a city wall. It is the whole ministry of Christ which should be the cause of joy, grasping towards fathoming an answer to the psalmist’s question; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

And so to the evening after Christmas. To say the ladies bring a natural joy to the company is true but unjust, for it is for each man and woman, taking joy in his or her own heart’s companion, equal, complimentary, that makes, for what was it all for if not for this?  For love and friendship, for the Arthurian ideal or Tennyson’s idea of it: “To love one maiden only, cleave to her, And worship her by years of noble deeds, Until they won her; for indeed I knew Of no more subtle master under heaven”

The children have gathered and played, and charmed and showed wisdom beyond their years without the burden of cares we bear. Their joys make their new toys come to life in their hands. This is what we strive for, through however so many  challenges, and triumph in them.

The juice is poured, sweetmeats brought forth for those still with space in their bellies to take them. In the one son-of-man who came for us all, all people are shown to be one, and even if we conclave together as one family or one circle of close friends, barring the door to the wind and the world, here we see the world brought together; we are sipping tea from China or hot chocolate from the realms of New Spain, nibbling biscuits imbued with ginger spices of Arabia and some delicate sweets bought in a paper bag from a small shop in St Petersburg, while the table is decorated with sugar-plumbs in passable imitation of those we pick from our own trees in the autumn. Around this unnecessarily laden table dance the remembrances, the hopes, the fears, the happinesses and the sadnesses of the year and the year to come.

We know the morning is back to work on the tasks left over from the year, but let us for an evening enjoy a moment of rest and quiet exuberance.

A merry Christmas to all.

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Not where to lay his head

With no roof beneath which to lay their heads and a child imminent; a familiar theme of Advent, traditionally remembered  on the third Sunday of Advent. What of those who are not remembered though?

The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

In December as the ice grips, the reminder is more stark of those left outside what most of us find natural – left in what you may observe to be the natural condition of mankind. It is not just those on the street but those insecure, uncertain wanderers on the face of the land. One is begging friends for a sofa to sleep on; one is weeping in a council housing office; one is in the fag-ash reek of a labourers’ dosshouse; one is in a cheap flat and dying of it; one is dulled into selling herself. They must not be forgotten.

Churches then have reminded their congregations of the forgotten and then ask what can be done about it.

They know what they can do about it. We know how to save people from homelessness and  from “continual feare, and danger of violent death”. It is this: look after yourself and your wife or husband; work hard to earn and pay your way; care for  your children and prepare to provide for them when you cannot; teach your children to be self-reliant as you have. That will keep you from that condition and keep your children from it too. Without that, it would not be a few lost souls in the frozen street but the whole generation. Love, work, nurture: looking around the congregation, everyone there could say with justification “all these have I observed from my youth.” Do they need to understand any more?

Dickens had many a sharp observation of those who neglect their own families in pursuit of lofty, charitable goals, the more distant the better. It is not virtue but distraction from the immediate duty to family, because family is the first, primary way to prevent poverty and homelessness. No law howsoever well-intentioned can be so effective.

Therefore, before reformers even think about laws and bureaucracies and taxes, they must realise that the solution (for almost everyone) is what every family knows, and that is the most valuable assistance, which must not be damaged in the rush to help the few who remain unsupported.

For those outside the ‘family commonwealth’, they are vulnerable, and if the state takes on its role as carer for the uncared for, they are a chief concern for this charity, without forgetting those supported by themselves.

The vulnerable then fall to dependency of force, not love.  This dependency is terrible. It may provide comfort for immediate needs, but honest reformers should seek to lift their subjects from dependency also, unless in their minds they want a sub-class of serfs controlled by the state. The state has no love, and little motivation to improve the crumbs they provide.  The lad who died lately in a mildewed apartment was in a housing association provision, not a  flat let by a private landlord who has a motivation to keep his property from moulding away.

It is a noble thing to care for the unfortunate, and in particular for the homeless, and you may ask how things might be improved. However, it is not just the few – the potential number of homeless in this land is sixty-eight million. We are only ever a generation away from  reverting to the Stone Age, in which mankind lived from 95% of our age on Earth, as Syrians have found. To care for those who may be homeless, first realise that your own comfort is unnatural: praise God for these blessings and look after your children so that they are blessed too.

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Trayne Of Thoughts Unguided

This Trayne of Thoughts, or Mentall Discourse, is of two sorts. The first is Unguided, Without Designee, and inconstant; Wherein there is no Passionate Thought, to govern and direct those that follow, to it self, as the end and scope of some desire, or other passion: In which case the thoughts are said to wander, and seem impertinent one to another, as in a Dream.

Such are Commonly the thoughts of men, that are not onely without company, but also without care of any thing; though even then their Thoughts are as busie as at other times, but without harmony; as the sound which a Lute out of tune would yeeld to any man; or in tune, to one that could not play. And yet in this wild ranging of the mind, a man may oft-times perceive the way of it, and the dependance of one thought upon another.

For in a Discourse of our present civill warre, what could seem more impertinent, than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman Penny? Yet the Cohaerence to me was manifest enough. For the Thought of the warre, introduced the Thought of the delivering up the King to his Enemies; The Thought of that, brought in the Thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the Thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason: and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for Thought is quick.


Privatise the Civil Service

Whitehall is hopeless. It has its irreductible purpose, but most of its failure could be reduced by privatising its operations. Bear with me on this one.

It is not ideological but practical. I have seen how things work and do not work on both sides of the fence. I have spent most of my time in commercial, value-creating work. The latter works and innovates because it is a dog-eat-dog world in which you innovate or perish. In the civil service you do not innovate if you can avoid it, because you will be criticised for departing from protocols established for good reason or, which is worse, for taking an unapproved risk. A failure to innovate though is more than a risk: it is a certain failure. Every commercial business knows this.

Work stuck in a Whitehall process is a promise of failure that would not be tolerated for a moment in the business world. Engaging competing private firms to do the work taps into the fervour of constant improvement which marks the private professional sphere. This is the very opposite of Whitehall practice.

A commercial company does not employ in-house all its own professional needs: if it needs an accountant or a solicitor or an architect, it will go to any one of the innumerable firms out there who provide the service. Those independent professional firms are exposed to the best, and worst practice in the market and they shape their own practices accordingly. They need to provide the best service in order to keep their client, and to be tip-top efficient to keep their fees down for the same reason. If they do not keep up and keep their fees down, the client will disinstruct them and find someone better.

Firms vary in their specialities too:  one architect may be good at restaurants but clueless about office buildings, but there is always an office-building specialist to go to; one solicitor may be the best in the game at negotiating leases but no so hot on corporate financing, but there are other firms who can do that.

In the professions, they can see what others are doing, and many professional magazines circulate with recommendations, updates and market intelligence.  Regulation is by consent, and there to ensure qualifications, honesty and professionalism, not to impose uniformity.  All this ensures that in these professions, efficiency is maximised and prices kept below inflation, and that there is always someone who can do anything.

Think of the contrast with the Civil Service: it is a monopoly, with no active motivation to make changes in practice. Improvements and innovations are made on occasion, on the Adam Smith basis of workers innovating to reduce their workload, but this is a passive approach. It has no rivals with which to make comparisons and take lessons: if a Whitehall desk-wallah does look, for example, at the way things are done in Ottawa or Dublin or Melbourne, he might choose to take it as a lesson, but is not compelled to do so to keep his practice going.

Imagine what could be done if instead of a monolithic, nationalised civil service, jobs were put out to professional firms of administrators. The precedents for this are not promising: the Civil Service are hopeless at procurement and squirt contracts at giant accountancy firms without considering their costs or suitability. If instead there were firms specifically qualified to do administrative work, they could compete at high street level, as other professions do. A minister wants a policy considered?  Go to a big firm of administration consultants.  He wants a technical regulation reformed or a new one written? Go to a high street solicitor with that specialisation (and if there are none now, there soon will be).

Even major policies could best be carried through by those with a financial interest in getting them right, rather than those with a personal or career interest in retarding them: how many initiatives trumpeted by ministers in the last 12 years have founded in the corridors or Whitehall through timidity, indolence or bloodymindedness?  Many, many of them. Those which are most ground-breaking or distasteful-but-necessary can be done by outside professionals.

There was a time when the permanent civil service was small. The whole of India was run by a relatively small staff. Bureaucracy though breeds bureaucracy and justifies its own expansion, and builds a protective wall against its own redundancy, ably assisted by politician’s pledges of bribes to the electorate.

Defend the good intent of hardworking civil servants if you will, but the system is inherently bad. We know that our monolithic health service becomes more and more inefficient because there is no need for it to be anything better, while abroad systems of competing hospitals get better. We know that if any business becomes a monopoly it becomes stodgy, wasteful and arrogant. Why assume that administrators would be any different?

It could be different though.  Open the field to nimble, competing professionals finding their own solutions, eager to please to keep the business and eager to achieve fast outcomes at less costs for the same reason, and all those things we complain about in Whitehall will be gone.

The problem is; government is a monopsony, a single buyer, with little interest in efficiency.

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