I have been reading David Cannadine's new survey of 19th century Britain, the first I've read since A Level History half a century ago. 19th century Britain doesn't seem to have changed much, but of course I have: we see things differently now. These were the things that struck me this time round – and they are relevant to the perpetual struggle, especially in the epoch of Brexit, to define our future by reference to our past.
1. Britain's economic dominance came earlier than one thinks - and it was astounding
During the early 19th century Britain became the first, and for a while, the only industrial power on Earth, that is, with widespread use of steam-powered machinery. The drivers behind this were various. Technological innovation, of course: but also the agricultural revolution of the late 18th century, the rapid population growth that it sustained (the population rose 50% between 1750 and 1800 and then doubled again by 1850) , a world trading empire (by 1815, an astonishing 1 in 5 of the world population were within the British dominions), backed by global naval supremacy and the first global capital market in the City (overseas investment increased five fold from 1800 to 1850). Nor were goods and capital the only exports: in the 1850s over 2 million Britons (including many starved Irish) emigrated, mostly to North America and the Antipodes, founding an Anglophonia that persist today.
The bare figures of Britain's economic dominance by mid-century are astounding. Britain produced half the world's coal, half the world's iron, consumed half the world's cotton. Britain had more miles of railway than France and what would later become Germany together. Per capita GDP was two-thirds bigger than in what would later become Germany. Britain accounted for nearly two thirds of the worlds shipping. London was the biggest city on Earth.
As I suspect is often the case, we reached our apogee almost before we fully realised it.
2. But it didn't last long, and by 1890 we were on the defensive
The technological innovation of the early industrial revolution occurred first here. But other countries soon caught up in volume – the USA surpassed us in steel production in the 1890s, Germany by 1900. By 1914 we were producing half as much steel as Germany – and a quarter as much as the USA. By the 1890s voices were heard urging that protectionism replace our national religion of free trade – sure sign, then as now, of a country on the defensive. More seriously still, other countries seemed more adept at subsequent waves of technological innovation: the car and the air plane were developed in Germany and the USA respectively. Britain continued to do well in pure science: but other countries were pulling ahead in applied science. Thus began the long, sad story of our amateurism, under-investment in skills and failure to apply new technology, which persist to this today (1).
3. 'Imperialism' came late in the century and seemed a bit irrational, even then
It is striking attitudes to 'empire' changed during the century. In the first half, the focus was on trade, not land. Indeed, successive Foreign Secretaries struggled to prevent local enthusiasts from conquering bits of the world on their own account (not easy, before the global telegraph network). Thus Napier in Sindh, Raffles in Singapore, Ellenborough in China, Dalhousie in Burma. In London, such adventures were often seen as regrettable, merely adding to administrative and military expense. In 1829, the entire staff of the Foreign Office was 28 – including a Turkish interpreter (2). Britain was a great naval power, but kept its land army small.
But as the century progressed, enlargement of Imperial dominion became an end in itself, reinforced by the fear that other burgeoning imperial powers would grab the bits still vacant, or even threaten existing British possessions – Russia in India and Afghanistan, later the French and Germans in Africa. In 1876, Victoria may have become 'Empress of India' in part out of pique at the crowning of a German Emperor. By the end of the century, 'the Empire' was a source of pride, but also of great anxiety, for example the threat of defeat at the hands of Boer guerillas. In 1902 Britain was obliged to agree joint Anglo-Japanese naval supremacy in the East, to see off the German and French naval threats. The Empire had become an encumbrance we could not afford to defend. Thus, our imperial decline began very early, as was felt imminent as early as 1900 (3).
4. What we did in Ireland was an atrocity
By 1800 Scotland and Wales were docile junior partners in 'Great Britain'. Ireland was another matter (4). A profoundly Catholic people had never made sense as part of a profoundly Protestant nation - always alien, always suspect, always repressed, rising with French help against the British Crown in the Revolutionary Wars. The Dublin Parliament was suppressed in 1801. Granted, the penal laws, which stopped Catholics even practising their religion and excluded them from society in many ways, were gradually relaxed from the late 18th century onwards, but always slowly, and against staunch opposition in Britain. 'Coercion Acts', a generic title for Acts to suppress basic liberties and rights in Ireland, were passed again and again throughout the century. Britain held Ireland by force.
Arguably the most important event in the domestic history of the United Kingdom in the 19th century was the Great Famine. The immediate cause was potato blight: but absentee landlords, rapid population growth, a history of Catholic landlessness, brutal mass evictions and and protectionism were all contributory factors. There was charitable help from England, and the whole world. But Government aid was inadequate: the official in charge, Charles Trevelyan, limited aid because it offended his belief in laissez faire: and because "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated . . . the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of ...the people ". In fact, there was no 'famine', strictly speaking: there was always surplus food in Ireland: and English absentee landlords continued to export it in huge amounts throughout the 'Famine' (4). Not 'famine' but human-contrived starvation (5).
A million men, women and children starved to death or died of disease induced by starvation. A million, in the richest country on Earth. Another million were forced to emigrate. England's very own Holomodor. Is it any surprise that the century ended with Irish terrorism, forerunner of bitter civil war in the next century, the terrorism of our own times, and the still unresolved issue of a partitioned Ireland?
5. Enterprise made Britain wealthy; State intervention made it civilised
Britain in the early 19th century would strike us now as essentially Third World, especially in the newly industrialized cities which just grew up higgledy piggledy around the new factories. Stinking open sewers and middens in the street, no safe water supply, the streets dark at night, no police, rampant theft and robbery. In 1858, the Thames stank so of untreated sewage that Parliament had to be hung with heavy curtains soaked in lime chloride. Workers were housed in over-crowded, shambolic, disease-ridden slums, and kept going on massive qualities of gin. Drinking shops and brothels abounded. Many children had no education, and worked incredibly long hours in dangerous factories and mines that killed or maimed them. Cholera, typhus and dysentery was rife. Life expectancy in the 1840s was very short indeed: in Manchester, just 28 years, in Liverpool, 27, less for the poor. Cannadine concludes that in industrialised towns, the 1840s were the worst for life expectancy since the Black Death!
By the end of the century Britain was recognisable as a civilised country. Much of that change was down to State intervention and regulation and public services. Factories Acts limited the hours children could work , made factories safer, and established an Inspectorate to check compliance. Education Acts ensured children got some education, at public expense, in publicly run schools. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act made food safer. Licensing Acts limited opening hours, protected the young, repressed public drunkenness (and prevented the adulteration of beer). The Artisan Dwellings Act enabled local authorities to clear slums and build safe public housing. The Municipal Corporations Act replaced corrupt and ramshackled local corporations of the 18th century and created the structure of proud, well funded local government that did so much for Victorian Britain: built proud Town Halls, libraries, schools and public housing, and supplied safe water, sewage. education, street lighting and police.
Studying the past often tells us more about ourselves, now, than about them, then.
I am struck now by how unthinking, unquestioning I was at 17. Despite the best education, I did not worry much about what 'Empire' actually meant. I was happy in the warm bath of British Providentialism – well not warm, by then tepid, but still not cold enough to force me to get out of – the idea that History with a capital H has a special destiny marked out for Britain and 'meant' Britain to rule large chunks of the world. I just thought of Imperialism as something we did, and thank God were better at than everyone else, and that by and large we did good. I was clever but stupid.
Now, of course, I see that attacking other peoples and occupying their country is wrong, and cannot be excused by doing some good along the way. Yet I am not one who thinks that by measuring the past against today's values, we can simply dismiss as 'wrong' the bits that do not measure up. For no epoch fully measures up to those values – including the present itself, needless to say. And what sense does it make to condemn, say, the civilisation of 5th century Greece because it was founded on slavery? Should Rome have stayed within its city boundaries and forsworn all conquests? What possible sense can history make if read in that way? And I admit to being further perplexed by the fact that my grandfather was a British official in imperial India, where he built the railways that made 'India' and ran them safely and sternly combatted endemic corruption. He was no Nazi, for me to be ashamed of. In short, I am less sure than ever what to make of our imperial past. That probably counts as progress.
I am also struck afresh by the delusion of modern British nostalgia. Our relative decline industrially and economically dates back a century and half. By 1940, we could not afford to fight the War, could not make half the equipment we needed, could not make at all some of the technology we invented, and so we relied utterly on American money, industry and technology. To see Boris Johnson wax lyrical about British know-how and Victorian entrepreneurialism and what a great trading nation we are and the spirit of 1940, 'we stand alone' etc is to stare unbelievingly at an idiot about to step off a cliff while loudly boasting how well he can fly. It is the sort of hubris that must be punished. Perhaps, in a sense, the British now 'need' the self knowledge of defeat that the French and Germans got in spades in WW2. But that would we be capable of using that knowledge? I suspect we will just hate foreigners even more.
The main lesson from this book is surely the one that I believe all history teaches us: the futility and wrong headedness of looking back to some imagined Golden Age as the model for what we should do now, today. There was no settled, unchanging Golden Age. The past, when it was being lived, was never secure, there was always uncertainty, anxiety: invasion scares in the 1800s, rural unrest and violence in the 1820, the threat of violent urban revolution in the 1840s, fear that extending the franchise would destabilise Britain, and later, violent resistance and terrorism in Ireland (and by the Irish in England), mass immigration from Eastern Europe, the Empire under threat from foreign powers, the threat to British naval supremacy from Germany, industrial unrest and radicalism at home.
The challenges of the present are different, to which the past cannot hold pre-prepared answers, and which can only be tackled by working out our own salvation afresh now, as best we can, based on what we value, how we think we should live, in short, what we would like our future history to be.
1. Wonderfully analysed in Corelli Barnett's coruscating 'Pride and fall' sequence
2. Today, 14, 000
3. Kipling's 'Recessional', published in 1897, captures that mood:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
4. The language of statehood makes this clear. Ireland was not part of 'Great Britain' but of 'the United Kingdom', as is still the case with Northern Ireland.
5. It has been asserted that in the worst year of the Famine, Ireland exported about 4 million litres of butter to England: http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/irish.pdf
6. Shaw, 'Man and superman':
Malone: Me father died of starvation in Ireland in the black 47. Maybe you've heard of it.
Violet: The Famine?
Malone: No, the starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine.
Last week's BBC 'File on 4' programme posed the question: 'Britain's squalid prisons: who's to blame?' [That should of course have read 'England and Wales'. It would indeed have been illuminating to include Scotland, where these services have not been outsourced.] The answer illustrated a perennial truth of outsourcing: that behind failure (or success) by outsourcers often lies failure (or success) by the customer.
Contracting for FM services is hardly rocket science. The UK has the most developed FM services market in the world. Many organisations, public and private, outsource FM – including the BBC and the Guardian – and it's not hard to see why. If your business , say, journalism, you have no expertise in running FM directly - and no wish to. A specialist firm is likely to be both cheaper and better than building your own in house service. Margins in the sector are extremely tight so you aren't paying a lot extra to buy it in.
Agreed, there are special circumstances in the peculiar world of prisons: as the programme pointed out, some problems need fixing right away, others (broken windows, showers) have different consequences in prisons than in the outside world. But such things can be written into contracts.
Both the Amey and Carillion contracts were disastrous since the start. 'File on 4' had meticulously trawled through reports by Independent Monitoring Boards (local people who provide an external presence in each prison) and found complaint after complaint. Among the worst cases was Liverpool prison. I read this passage in the Chief Inspector's report with incredulity, shame and anger:
I found a prisoner who had complex mental health needs being held in a cell that had no furniture other than a bed. The windows of both the cell and the toilet recess were broken, the light fitting in his toilet was broken with wires exposed, the lavatory was filthy and appeared to be blocked, his sink was leaking and the cell was dark and damp. Extraordinarily, this man had apparently been held in this condition for some weeks (1)
The Justice Committee rightly gave Michael Spurr a hard time on this report at their hearing on 24 January. It looked a career-shortening session.
Why did it all go so wrong? It's pretty clear:
the costs of maintenance and services were not clearly understood by the business and consequently planning assumptions have not held true. The contract is therefore underfunded and the declared efficiency savings reduced. Financial risk within the contract can be attributed to four main areas: asset verification, asset condition, service verification and variable costs. Actions have been taken within each area that are ongoing but to date have ensured clarity on financial risk and have allowed negotiated settlements to be reached that reflect true contractual costs. Appropriate governance has been put in place that now ensures that variable costs are accurately reported and justified and that claims are assured by the Contract Management team.
MoJ concluded that the mistakes it made in contracting
may impact on service provision and declared efficiency savings (2)
So, to be clear: MoJ knew, before Carillion collapsed, that its mistakes in contracting were likely causes of unacceptably poor service. That must, I think, raise the possibility that the contractors have some legal redress against MoJ in respect of incorrect information given in the contracting process.
I note also that both companies were subject to huge financial penalties for poor performance: in Carllion's case, £4m in 18 months. Interestingly, the fines against Carillion, levied month after month, stopped suddenly in June 2017. Was this the point at which MoJ realised its own miscalculations were the root cause of the contractors problems? Did MoJ then increase increase its payments to contractors, to make good the errors in contracting? Have the companies not some legal remedy, since the fines might arguably have been in some measure caused by MoJ's incompetence in contracting on an unsound basis?
There is a lot of murkiness about the figures. Remember, MoJ said the contracts would cost £80m a year, so against about £105m for the in house operation. But a recent PQ discloses that that is the price only for fixed costs and excluded indexation and 'variable works' (3). So we don't know what the all-up cost was expected to be - or actually is. Did MoJ simply forget about variable costs? MoJ now say the £115m cost reductions will be achieved. But will any cost reduction be achieved? If not, why not? Or are MoJ asserting that their previous in house team can beat the prices of any commercial FM operator?
Would slightly higher bids have worked? Well, as it happens, we have an example. Before these contracts were let, MoJ had let FM contracts for 2 London prisons to another company, MITIE. Those prices were between the rock bottom prices bid by Amey and Carillion, which have proved unsustainable, and MoJs own internal costs. And that contract is still operating reasonably well.
The programme highlighted the way the bureaucracy of the contract created problems. Previously, if the guys turned up to do some work in a cell and a nearby cell needed fixing too, they fixed that as well. Now, they must go away while the customer raises another order form, sends it to the contratcor's management and that then goes down to the guys again but by that time they are somewhere else.
What happens now? Since we now know, and MoJ has admitted, that the contract was underfunded, one must expect the cost of the service to increase. It will be interesting to see by how much. Would such an increase brings the price close to the bid by MITIE, which we now know was deliverable, but rejected in favour of too cheap bids?
'File of 4' raised one other matter, which is an impact on staff, not prisoners. Two long serving works staff at Liverpool prison, transferred to Amey when the contract started, spotted that Amey's 'efficiency' of requiring staff members to do work in a cell alone, rather than in twos, created a potential security risk through theft of tools while staff were up ladders etc – and that for 'tools', read 'weapons'. They went to see the Governor, who had previously been their Governor, to raise the issue. Amey then sacked them for 'bringing the company into disrepute'. You couldn't really make it up, could you? But the men surely have a cast iron defence. I mean, how could anyone bring Amey more into disrepute than it already is?
There is much about this scandal that is still concealed from the public, and from Parliament:
What is so disturbing about this scandal is that these should have been about the most straightforward contracts you could think of. Hundreds of FM contracts are let every year. Yet MoJ found them too difficult. Same with the tagging contracts, which MoJ had been letting for 20 years without trouble, but which fell apart a few years ago in a series of botched procurements that have cost the tax payer millions (4). Same with the contracts for rehabilitation of short term prisoners, which in the opinion of the auditors, were so bad they might as well never have been let – and which did not require the contractor to achieve anything in the real world, but merely to produce bits of paper (5). Not to mention the (much more ambitious) botched probation contracts which have almost destroyed a service which MoJ itself reported was functioning well in 2010, and so placed the public at additional risk (6). Or the audit of MoJ procurement published as far back as which revealed a Department with massive, systemic weaknesses in every aspect of procurement (7).
MoJ have been 'learning lessons' of successive procurement disasters and promising to improve performance for too many years now. And not just procurement – prisons, probation, courts, sentencing policy, wherever you look, MoJ is failing. It is in fact a failed Department, like a failed school, or failed hospital, or even a failed prison. Thing is, when a school or hospital fails, Whitehall removes the top management and takes it over. But when Whitehall fails, as MoJ so clearly has, who takes that over?
In a move which has delighted penal reformers, faced with a prison system in crisis – inhumane overcrowding, rising violence and self harm, union unrest – the Government has at long last decided to implement an ambitious and radical strategy for prison reform to address the fundamental problems of the prison system, defying criticisms from the Right-wing press that it is 'soft on crime'.
The programme comprises:
These reforms were announced by the new Minister of Justice in recent weeks.
This article is about France. Come on, whatever did you think?
"The government knew of a plan that could have retrieved more than £360m from Carillion.....but the Cabinet Office, responsible for oversight of government contractors, did not apply any pressure on Carillion’s directors to adopt the proposals" (Guardian, today).
Don't you just love that word: 'oversight'?
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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