Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: April, 2014

Brown in Motion

As part of my day job at Policy Scotland we have been hosting and co-badging a series of events about the independence referendum. We are neutral in this endeavour and the objective simply is to put evidence into the debate. We have to that end hosted events by both sides and a series of ‘what if’ scenario debates. We had a lecture by John Swinney, a session by Douglas Alexander, a debate on the currency options were there to be a yes vote, and last night we had Gordon Brown.

The Chancellor of the University, Sir Kenneth Calman, introduced the event and said some nice things about Policy Scotland. Gordon Brown spoke for 45 minutes before taking questions for about a further 25 minutes.

I have seen him speak before. In 1997, as part of the devolution referendum, a series of Labour ministers flush from the landslide election victory came to Hamilton to talk up voting yes for a Scottish Parliament. I remember him being impressive, quite academic and almost scholarly in his speech. But perhaps he also benefited from following a less impressive John Prescott?

Last night he was speaking in the University Charles Wilson lecture theatre – a remodelled church with a steep banking of seating but a place I always like going to for these kinds of events. His name and reputation brought a big crowd, media and a buzz of anticipation for a rare sighting of the former PM. The large audience were generally very warm and supportive. The only heckler of note actually wanted to turn the unionist clock back to the position before 1999.

I thought I might use this post to talk about the rhetorical style he deployed rather than the substantive details, most of which had been widely trailed in the media before and after the talk. He remains an impressive speaker, building his argument and working the crowd hard.

He started in the classical style with three or four jokes. This included quite a good line about Universities and their stressing of integrity and rationality. All the virtues, he noted, that were left behind when he went into a career in politics. He made the usual jokes in favour of the host city he was speaking in at the expense of other cities and Universities.  The lines were well-delivered and often quite funny. He can be a bit ‘clunky’ but somehow it still all works as a package.

I was also very struck by two distinctive features of the presentation. First he had, no teleprompter, notes or aide memoire but rather performed something of a feat of memory including plenty of statistics, stories and historical evidence. Second, rather than stand at a lecturn, he spoke by prowling from one side of the stage to another with a large banner behind him that stated ‘strength, stability, security’. Throughout the evening he was in perpetual motion and this rhythm seemed to be a key to working his way through the structure of his speech.

A further key to the speech was that familiar rhetorical trick of repeating the same phrase again and again till it was independently bouncing around inside your head. How many times did he say ‘pooling and sharing’ fundamental social and economic rights? I think this is a standard part of his speaking style but it was particularly striking.

Like 1997 he drew a lot on the historical record, such as the key role of Tom Johnston during the war promoting the case for a nationalised NHS against the majority of the war coalition cabinet. During the Q&A he argued that there was not anything uniquely or more radical about the Scottish political position relative to others in the UK – but that there is a myth of a Scottish progressive tradition that can be built on.

And those jokes? Some were old but they were still generally effective. Two examples:

A new Chancellor of the Exchequer receives four sealed envelopes from his chief advisor on the grounds that they are only to be opened in consecutive order in times of real crisis. Things eventually do go badly wrong – the first says ‘blame your predecessor’, the second says ‘blame the statistics’, the third says ‘blame the EU’, the fourth says ‘write four letters for your successor’.

Richard Nixon travels to Ghana for its independence celebrations when vice president in 1959. He goes into the crowd and asks everyone he meets how it feels to be free. The third person he asks says ‘how should I know, I come from Alabama’.

In the end, those committed to the opposing sides of the debate will make up their own mind on the merits of the arguments Gordon Brown deployed and I was not surprised to see a wide range of reviews from the media present at the lecture. I am sure people will consider the significance of his intervention and the apparently wider role he appears to be taking in the referendum campaign. However, even if you disagree entirely with his position, we were given the rare opportunity to witness the effective rhetoric of an old-fashioned political speech made by a senior politician who can still unquestionably ‘do the business’.



Notes from a Conference

I am at a housing studies conference in York. This is an annual event, comfortable, and with many familiar faces and old friends. This year’s event has been about housing and value (deliberately multi-dimensional). A lot of tweeting went on throughout (#hsa2014).

Highlights this year were the many high quality papers we heard in workshops from several disciplines including papers on race and class by David Robinson and on policy ‘fictions’ by John Flint. There were two valuable papers on knowledge exchange projects. Ian Wilson from Sheffield Hallam also did a nice paper on the economic impacts of social housing organisations. There was a pantomime villain in the form of a Conservative councillor speaking in a plenary debate who gave as good as he got. Julia Unwin from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did the final plenary paper on the role of housing within welfare – a crumbling but essential pillar. An excellent, at times scary, but also an inspirational way to send us off.

Outside the formal business, we had Steve Wilcox’s blues band playing after the conference dinner. My personal highlights were the new people I met and got to know a bit (including Julian Birch who hitherto had been merely virtual). I also enjoyed a late night walk from the town back to the Heslington campus. And, of course, there is that excellent train journey across to Edinburgh and down the east coast to York. A friend of mine and I have also got into the habit of an early morning run on the middle morning of the conference and that was great, too.

Alex Marsh and I did a paper building on earlier research about the extent to which (and when) housing economics as an academic discipline identified and forecast the GFC, as well as the extent to which the type of work being done subsequently by housing economists has been altered, methods modified and research innovated? This is quickly quite controversial and also touches on fundamental questions of how the academy works and how change or innovation occurs. We had good feedback on a paper that has tried to systematically and chronologically review a large volume of material, most of which was a read through of 10 years of two eminent relevant journals. A lot of the substantive focus looks at fundamentals versus bubbles and the comparison between the problems experienced by macroeconomics as a discipline compared to housing economics. We now have to build on this and turn a rough incomplete draft into something submittable.

I have been coming to these events for many years (my first job entailed that I was the first honorary secretary of the Housing Studies Association in the early 1990s). While housing education is struggling it is patently obvious from meetings like the one this week – that housing research is vibrant and many younger or early career researchers are doing or contemplating conducting exciting and valuable research. This may of course be in part because of the extent of the housing ‘crisis’ that fuels demand for the work. Whatever the sources, the housing research body collective has much to be positive about.

My favourite line from various speaking platforms throughout the meeting came from a seasoned academic musing over a long historical analysis of housing politics. To paraphrase: ‘I have resigned from the Labour Party many times; once I had to rejoin just so I could resign over Iraq’.

Red Road Rage?

It had all been going so well. While there is always a modicum of cynicism about mega events and there have been one or two specific problems in the re-development of the Dalmarnock area (such as a very public refusal to move out by one family), the run-up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games was going smoothly. That was until the decision was taken to blow up five of the six iconic Red Road flats in the north of Glasgow during the opening ceremony.

My immediate reaction was that this was ‘what an odd thing to do’. Organisers said that this was both a commemoration and a reflection of the revival and renewal of the city – but it was all widely viewed as a rather bizarre, even gross form of entertainment. A strange image to send round the world about the city. A second element to the story was the decision to leave one of the remaining six blocks standing since it still had a job to house a proportion of Glasgow’s large asylum seeker/refugee population.

The local communities, politicians, Glaswegians and the arts community launched an effective campaign complete with media support and a 17,000 plus petition of opposition. The Deputy First Minister made the best contribution saying that she still supported the demolition but that it had to be done ‘sensitively’. This conjures up interesting images of somehow less explosive detonations.

The tide was however unstoppable and the decision was finally taken not to do the blow down during the opening ceremony. Since then there has been both a process of damage limitation by one side and further comment by both the victors and a still rather bemused audience (in which I include myself). The official response was that for safety and security reasons (i.e. there might be a protest) it was better not to go ahead.

What are to make of this episode? In the first place it would seem to show a pretty inadequate consultation process – something the protagonists have generally been pretty good at hitherto. Second, a bit like that elapsing time period when the position of a minister becomes untenable and eventually resignation becomes inevitable, there was a real sense that the decision would not hold and they would have to backtrack. Third, as far as I understand it, there is no question that the flats will not be coming down though I do not think anyone is yet suggesting that it should be co-ordinated for the closing ceremony! Fourth and perhaps more positively, it has brought the position of the asylum seekers back however briefly to the foreground of housing and city debates in Glasgow.

A final point. As I have argued in an earlier post – I do not have a problem with demolition per se and think it is a useful solution in certain circumstances, as is often the case in Glasgow and elsewhere but I also recognise that other positive outcomes are possible for the re-use of such buildings – as GHA have shown converting a multi in Ibrox into mid market rent, which is now fully let. There are also refurbished former council multi-storey flats just a stone’s throw from the opening ceremony.

I know there are commentators and academics who are profoundly critical of both the community effects of demolition/clearance (as many of the same people are of the Commonwealth Games project itself). While they had a point to say that the opening ceremony blow down was a mistake and ill-thought through, I think it is not correct to view one stage (the clearance) of a huge and lengthy regeneration programme going on across Glasgow as in some way pathologising the poor and its communities. I have been directly involved in several big regeneration programmes and well remember understandably cynical tenants not believing the promises we were making after previous failures by their former landlord. We knew these things had worked elsewhere and knew we had the resources and expertise to make it work there. It did – but they had to see it for themselves. Simply dismissing the process because of one albeit dramatic destructive bit of symbolism at a point in time in the case of Red Road is a category error. Rather: judge it by its results in terms of homes, community and the like.