Says Chakrabortty, where did all the North Sea oil money go? Says Thatcher Foundation, well, Fatty Soames wanted to use it for investment, like Tony Benn according to the Civil Service note on the file, and Geoffrey “Dead Sheep” Howe nixed it on the grounds that spending it on investments must needs crowd-out other investments and we’d be no better off. This is a rare example of crowding out applied to not borrowing money. Actually, Howe seems to have been wobbly and all over the place on this, there’s a surprise. So there’s your money.
The catalogue of the Foreign Office’s secret archive at Hanslope Park is available on data.gov.uk and it is as cool as you may have hoped. Literally every mark in here exudes history. It also reminded me of the J.G. Ballard short story The Index, a novella that only exists as its own index. I mean, the very first item is a:
substantial eclectic collection comprising primarily of geographic maps typically with political, economic or strategic emphasis that are mostly printed on translucent paper from A4 up to approximately A0+ in paper size, with diagrams and building floor plans
Maps. Maps. Maps! Quite a bit of it seems to relate to Hanslope Park’s primary function, the centre of the FCO’s world-wide radio network, as originally built for SOE and the distribution of ULTRA decrypts during WW2. Like so:
3 acetate maps depicting FCO local communications – world disposition of HFSSB radio telephone terminal equipment in Africa, Southern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, South America and the Caribbean (drawing number EC 200/1)
Others are just special:
A small collection of files returned from posts on a variety of subjects LIVE OAK; zonal executive instruction No.68 detention of dangerous persons; control of Berlin population in an emergency; Rhodesia secret negotiations; Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas; UK and Ireland security liaison; IRA Cease fire; Dhofar Rebellion; implementation of Allied Control Authority Law No 43 in Berlin production of implements of war; reporting on armed forces; development of nuclear weapons by additional countries up to 1980; flights into the Berlin Control Zone; British intelligence and security exchanges with the German authorities; JIC Germany meetings, papers and correspondence; air operations Operation Nylon; Operation Manoeuvre; UK Defence Policy; Defence review
Really, is there anything in that list that isn’t potentially fascinating? And it gets better.
7; Bethhel and Greenhill and Gladwyn – Russia Committee
Presumably Gladwyn Jebb, wartime SOE official, postwar diplomat and Labour MP?
11. disclosure of information by Col Harrison re WWII ops in Iran;
Speaks for itself.
38. Subhas Chandra Bose; 24. Hess; 25. Australian War Crimes; 26. Nazi War Criminals in Britain; 27. Minister and Massacres – papers relating to the repatriation of Cossacks
You’ve got my full attention.
14. Atomic Blanket
ATOMIC BLANKET. ATOMIC BLANKET. There’s a file on ATOMIC BLANKET.
What about this little fella? This one’s a floppy disk. A floppy disk!
Lonhro; loose papers relating to visits abroad; sensitivity reviewers’ contracts; Robert Maxwell; Iraq and the Gulf; Olympics Bid; Lord Alerdice.
Iraq. The Gulf. Maxwell. Tiny Rowland. The Olympics. All in 720KB. (Presumably that’s the NI good-bloke politician, Alderdice.)
Migration and Visa Department file GV 15022T on the Menacham Begin, former leader of the Jewish Irgun terrorist organisation
Begin’s immigration file.
Drawers contains a few unestablished and established British staff employed by Control Commission of Germany..Marked “Control Commission Index”, believed to be an index of staff employed by the Allied Control Commission (Germany); index cards include names and years of birth, first drawer contains similar but crossed out (deceased?)
Now I demand more noir set in the Attlee-era occupation of Germany. Don’t you? Or do you prefer more sunshine in your cynicism?
Finding aides relating to correspondence and files used by BE Beirut and papers relating to the construction of the Karatchou to Tartus oil pipeline. Some documents in Arabic. Includes a FCO confidential Print titled `a collection of oil agreements and connected documents relating to the Persian Gulf Sheikdoms and the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman’.
This one, included in “Admin Indexes”, makes you snap bolt upright:
papers relating to the kidnapping used in connection with a request under the Code of Practice on Access to Information.
And who could resist:
Colonial photographs including: Cyprus, Suva, Freetown, Mauritius, Sabah, Malaysia, Zanzibar, Gold Coast, East Africa, Gambia, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji, Jamaica, Southern Cameroons, Peking and Hamburg (approx. 70 photographs); Arctic Expedition by Soviet Union (approx. 30 photographs)
They’ve got the land registry of Port-Royal, Jamaica, as it was before the earthquake. Just in case.
Index of Real Estate Transactions before 1692 earthquake, City of Port Royal Jamaica
There is a lot on Germany.
Papers returned by the last British Governor of Spandau Prison after the death of Rudolph Hess and closure of the Prison. Includes documents held as evidence in the Hess theft case and returned by the Prosecutor’s Office in Russian, French and German, photographs of the scene of Hess’s suicide.
The German Holdings of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, New York (including non German holdings held through German subsidiaries, by FO (1945)
Now you’re talking. Weirdly, one item seems to be a substantial library of good German literature.
Plus, the full runs up to 1968 of security intelligence reporting on the remaining colonies, the investigation into the Kenyan foreign minister’s murder, poignant registers of British marriages and deaths in odd ports in South America where nobody goes any more. And this is just what’s in the first 100 records.
It’s not all gems, though.
Papers relating to the annual Regional Learning and Development Conference, the Springboard Women’s Development Programme and related budget and expenditure matters.
Material from Mr Hoon’s Private Office: letter float of outgoing letters and minutes
Erik Lund blogs about the P-51 Mustang and wonders why the British bought so many aircraft from US West Coast companies. Well, he should read back through his own blog and remember that the Liberator worked when Curtiss-San Diego built it and the problems began when Ford tried. But anyway. Lund:
It is a little hard to divine Harry Self’s intent here. March of 1940 was an exceedingly loose time; the British had a preference for making planes in California, for whatever reason. Most importantly, probably, North American was already one of the Air Ministry’s preferred customers, thanks to their Harvard order. The Air Ministry was thoroughly “inside” North American, having intervened to introduce a retractile undercarriage. I am not seeing any sign of an RAF engineer officer’s memoir entitled I Spent World War II in LA Liaising With the Aviation Industry And Getting A Really Good Tan, but there probably wouldn’t be.
Well, I don’t know about the memoir but I can identify the man. About the end of the second week of July 1942, Frank Whittle was somewhere in the LA area after five weeks of technical consultations from GE Schenectady to Curtiss, and the stress is sending him up the walls. It was probably telling a US Navy-sponsored turboprop project at an unnamed plant in the area that they were doing it wrong that brought about a crisis. Whittle is advised to take a couple of weeks’ leave, and heads for a hotel in Santa Monica for “sun, rest, etc.”
Being the chippy autodidact/engineer/test pilot he was, Whittle gets bored and anxious and stir crazy and decides to crack on with more engine development. Enter Group Captain Adams RAF, described as “in charge of the Beverly Hills office of the British Air Commission”, who asks for 24 hours and sends him to a party at the home of one Edward Hillman, Jr, who greets Whittle in his swimming trunks, presses chicken noodle soup on him, encourages him to relax, and spends the rest of the party on the phone. At least some of the phoning is to his wife, June, described as a British dancer, who needs some persuading to show up. Whittle notes that he seemed to be surrounded by film stars, and gets chucked into the swimming pool around 3 am. I read between the lines that June eventually did rock up and she had something to do with it. He stuck around for the next 10 days without remembering much, or at least much that he wanted to put in his memoir. At any rate he cheered up.
Hillman? Well, that’s less obvious than you might think. This guy, who Wikipedia considers interesting because he married Marian Nixon, who then left him for her director in We’re Rich Again. Apparently he picked a father who owned a department store in Chicago, a good decision.
As well as having inherited the controlling stake in the Cunard Line, Inverclyde had himself married a retail heiress, Olivia Sainsbury, before he met her. It certainly puts a special light on the title of We’re Rich Again. His Wikigloss says he left Cunard to the professionals because he had no business sense. Tu parles.
He also got shot with the Scots Guards during the first world war and got gangrene, recovered, and survived the German air strike on the Lancastrian during the second British evacuation from France in 1940. He sounds more interesting than Hillman, a cipher except for his wives, but I reckon June Tripp probably tells us he was also an epic pain.
Which leaves us with the question – who was this Group Captain Adams?
And the book? Well, I have this Pan Giant copy of Whittle’s memoir I basically stole from a backpacker hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand, years ago. They’ve still got my hat, if the earthquake didn’t get them, so we’re quits.
A bit more Chertok. How often do you read a Soviet account of the Cuban missile crisis?
In October 1962, Boris Chertok was, as very often, down at Baikonur site 1 frantically preparing spaceships. Very often, the spacecraft and the launcher would arrive at the vehicle integration facility (MIK) in a semifinished state and the processes of check-out and of just finishing the job were not really separate. They had just had a failed launch, Korolev had gone back to OKB-1, while Chertok stayed on to prepare the next lot of rockets. Launches in the Mars-Venus scientific programme, the Voskhod manned programme, the flight development tests of the R-9 rocket, and the Zenit reconnaissance programme were on the agenda.
Chertok and colleagues were aware of the installation of the R-12 and R-14 IRBMs and the SA-2 air defence system in Cuba; unlike a lot of Korolevians, Chertok had worked on projects outside OKB-1 and knew the people involved.
Ironically, while he was mostly working on the Zenit recce satellite, he had to endure sarcasm from the military personnel at Baikonur who claimed that Wrangel’s design bureau was working for them, delivering the IRBMs, while OKB-1 just worked for TASS by shooting dogs and men into orbit and flags at the Moon. Although the very first Zenit had already been such a success that the Joint GRU intelligence analysts insisted on more flights even before the tests were finished, the Zenits were far too secret to talk about.
Chertok and his colleagues saw them as a personal triumph – once the optical parameters were set by the mass and dimensional limits of the rocket, the quality of the photographic film being a given, the image resolution was directly determined by the pointing accuracy and stability of the control system, which also had to point the solar panels at the Sun and the radio antenna at the Soviet Union.
Censorship meant that not much got out about the developing crisis. Chertok wasn’t important enough to have access to White TASS, the uncensored, classified translations of Western news coverage circulated to VIPs. So, one day in October he drove to the MIK and found that rather than being waved through the gate by the usual policeman who long since recognised him, he was subject to an aggressive vehicle search by armed KGB personnel.
Inside the test site, things got worse. Although the R-7A version of the Semyorka was now an operational ICBM, very few launch sites existed and Baikonur Site 1 was one of them. However, this doesn’t seem to have been taken all that seriously. In practice, this meant that an R-7A stack was parked in the MIK under wraps, next to whatever they were working on, and generally ignored. Chertok doesn’t say whether its 2.4 megaton nuclear warhead was mounted or whether this had to come from a storage site.
This day was different from all other days. The standby nuke was half out of the building, the first time anyone had seen it move. The hunt was on for anyone who could help dismantle the Mars probe on the launch pad and roll out the nuke.
Chertok met the military head of the launch site. The conversation is too good to spoil, although it hinged on the combination of exploring Mars and destroying civilisation; he learned the details, helped out in the panic process of dismantling the Semyorka on the pad and preparing its evil twin, and then joined his colleagues at Korolev’s cottage for their bomb party. He got to prepare the zakuski, joining late as he did.
Due to the German-inspired combination of LOX, alcohol, and kerosene, the maximum holdover time for an R-7A was only a few hours, and it took hours to fuel them. Had the RAF Vulcans hurtled in from the north, Baikonur was toast. This was very much a use-it-or-lose-it system.
After a while, much vodka, contradictory radio broadcasts, eventually someone drove up in a giant cloud of dust and brought the news that the end of the world had been postponed.
I hope no one on the Right quotes George Orwell again, because that would mean they "hated Britain" (Orwell wrote harsher things than RM).
— James Bloodworth (@J_Bloodworth) October 3, 2013
Indeed; I remembered Orwell being very harsh about British complacency, or what looked like it, early in the Second World War or just before it, in terms that were close to the young Ralph Miliband’s. I thought this was in one of the Essays, possibly Socialism and the English Genius, but I couldn’t find it.
This was because it’s actually at the finish of Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, having been thrown out of Barcelona by his own side’s secret police, is heading back to the UK.
And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass this way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from seasickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
He sounds like he’s going to throw up.
I had in my mind an image of someone feeling much the same, looking down from an aircraft, and I realise I’d conflated Orwell’s text with a Battle of Britain memoir (quoted in Richard Hough’s book) in which an RAF pilot evacuated to the UK from France recalled his astonishment at the apparent peace, complacency, and arrogance he saw back in the UK, a few weeks before the bombs. The emotion was probably quite common.
Cold War nuts should follow Mike Kenner’s Twitter feed if they’re not already. His key shtick is getting interesting documents under FOIA and tweeting them bit by bit. This week, he’s got the national war instructions for the police, from 1977, codenamed POLWIN.
This is some pretty bleak stuff, obviously; I can’t imagine instructions on the administration of justice after a nuclear attack issuing from the Regional Commissioner’s office holding out much hope of justice, or indeed being issued in the first place.
But the really interesting thing is how much of the police mobilisation plan in the event of an ultimate existential crisis eventually got implemented.
For example, the familiar PSU (Police Support Unit) serials are a war-book measure in the 1977 instructions, and the to-do list in Section 8 of the instructions includes activating your coach hire contracts and earmarking the vans to move the PSUs out, and this is mentioned in the context of the police mutual-aid plan.
That’s just tactics, but Section 7.4 deals with what was to be done with people whose loyalty was suspected. Once the emergency defence regulations went into force, the Secretary of State would make Restriction Orders on named individuals which would permit him (in 1977 it was Merlyn Rees) to lock them up, assign them to a place of residence, place limits on what possessions they could have, and what employment they might take up.
MI5 would make recommendations to the minister, with the odd exception of IRA suspects, who would be suggested to the minister by the Met Commissioner. The police would put this in effect on the ground, and the instructions provide for very detailed arrangements including five copies (one spare) of an arrest form, specimen blank provided. Suspects placed under arrest would be conveyed to HM Prison, the specific prison to be notified to the Chief Constable with the list of suspects. There, they would be booked in, and provided by the Prison Governor with a copy of the Restriction Order giving reasons for their detention.
I think it is very noticeable that today, in nothing like the circumstances foreseen in POLWIN, we are doing most of this…but we don’t always tell the suspect why! Post-liberal future, how are ya.
Anyway, if you want to dig into the document, the index pages are here and here. (Kenner is also a serious FOIA-ninja; although, in principle, the document had been declassified, police forces had also been told to dispose of their copy rather than send it to the National Archives. Dorset plod apparently forgot.)
Via someone on twatter, Parliament debates telecoms regulation, in 1895. The superficial bit:
there was a great distinction between telephones and such subjects as gas and water. Gas and water were necessaries for every inhabitant of the country; telephones were not and never would be. It was no use trying to persuade themselves that the use of telephones could be enjoyed by the large masses of the people in their daily life. [An hon. MEMBER: "America."]
He did not think his hon. Friend was aware of the fact that in the large towns of America subscribers had to pay £40 to £50 for the service which a subscriber in London obtained for from £10 to £20. He went further and said that in a town like London, or Glasgow, or Belfast, an effective telephone service would be practically impossible if the large majority of the houses were furnished with telephones, so great would be the confusion caused by the increased number of exchanges. He was not stating his own opinion, but that of experts.
You’ve got to love the appeal to nameless experts there, and the general 640K-ness. But there’s more, and as this evening’s unstated theme is turning out to be “blog about why things everybody agrees on don’t get on the ballot”, it’s worth reading on.
For a start, they’re debating the question of whether cities ought to be allowed to run their own networks, a topic which is just as fresh today as it was then. Everyone agrees that a private-sector monopoly is undesirable, but is the answer muni-fibre (well, muni-copper), regulation and a universal-service fund, a nationalised industry, or something else? The minister, Arnold Morley, argues that it’s mostly a national-level or even supranational (he says imperial) infrastructure issue. Glasgow Labour MP A. C. Corbett makes a vigorous case for municipal socialism in telephony as in everything else. Sir J.E. Gorst sketches out the situation, which is almost as much of a mess as UK telecoms policy is now. A good row is fought out about who is responsible.
A. D. Provand, yet another Glasgow MP, invents settlement-free peering 100 years early and points up the difference between peering and termination:
The terminals would operate in this way: If, for example, London had a telephone licence, it could not send a message to Brighton unless Brighton had also an exchange, which would deliver the message free, otherwise the London message would he delivered through the present Company at Brighton, which would charge a terminal for doing so, The effect of that would lie to double the rate between London and Brighton.
And A.C. Corbett basically hits on the solution everybody who’s seriously thought about it prefers: open access to shared civil infrastructure! But why put up with the open access bit when the town hall can run the whole thing?
It had been suggested that where underground telephones were necessary, and where it was impossible for the municipality to entrust the control of the streets to any private corporation working for profit, that the municipality should lay these underground wires and take all the care of them. If the municipality was to lay the wires and take all the care of maintenance, there was no possible reason why the municipality should not take over all the undertaking and derive all the profit to be got from it.
Then again, once you’ve got the rights-of-way and the ducts in the public hand, you can do both, like Singapore’s NBN.
Well, at least we were spared the private sector monopoly…until we got it anyway. It is pretty astonishing, though, when you think of some of the places that have got 150Mbps FTTH networks and some of the places that have already sorted out LTE spectrum, and then of the UK. Agenda-setting is a powerful force.
So I’ve been reading books. Books! One of them being David Edgerton’s Britain’s War Machine, his industrial history of the British Empire in the second world war. This is fascinating, in terms of hardware (especially ships), politics, and also national mythology. Edgerton is very hard on the decline historians, especially and specifically Corelli Barnett, and argues that far from going into the war with a plastic fork, a few Spitfires, and the best of British, the UK was actually by far the richest and strongest combatant and the best prepared for a war that everyone expected would be defined by production, blockade, and air warfare. He is interesting on the surge of industrialisation around the empire, the weirdness of British statistics (did you know that government cargo, i.e. absolutely anything shipped to or from the armed forces, was simply not counted in the import and export numbers?), the challenge of optimising the entire economy to save shipping space, and especially on the politics of expertise. How, for example, did we come to believe that the UK didn’t really do science until, in desperation, it turned to left-wing experts, when the Churchill government probably contained more scientists and engineers than any other before or since and most of them were Tories?
But it left me wanting a book that’s not been written yet. That book is Decline – From Bad to Worse, the History of a Cliche. It strikes me that British politics, especially, is always obsessed by decline, and in ways that show up interesting partisan divides. Show me your narrative of decline, and I’ll show you the inside of your head.
For example, a very common one is that British industry basically sucks and started doing so at some time in the late 19th century because it wasn’t enough like the Germans, and as a result things got gradually worse until the Germans beat us with science, or rather, engineering, in 1940. At this point, there’s a divergence.
There is a narrative of the Left in which the Labour Party enters the government and forces them to reorganise the country on scientific lines, bringing in the experts to fix industry and invent the computer, setting up a welfare state and a public sector bank like the one the Germans had, and deploying state-of-the-art IS/LM diagrams to manage the economy. Depending on which kind of lefty you are, you then argue that sadly, this was never fully put into effect due to Tories, the City, or perhaps the unions, or else you argue that it was fundamentally flawed due to either the Empire or the Americans or some combination of both.
There is an alternative version of this, popularised by Corelli Barnett, that keeps the content and reverses the sign – we need and needed to be more like the Germans, but the obstruction is stupid Tories and then Labour spending all the money on Keynes Plans. I’ve never quite been able to reconcile how Barnett wanted more technical training, R&D and big science, and workplace mitbestimmung, and still loathed Clement Attlee quite so much, but then partisanship is a powerful force.
This has an extreme variant, popular at Cambridge in the 1980s, in which the point is carried further. Not only did we need to be more like the Germans, we needed to be more like the Nazis and indeed to have been their allies. Unsurprisingly this isn’t very popular, but it exists and you wonder about some people. (Fill them in here, in this empty space: )
There is a logical problem with all these, which is that they’re talking about “relative decline” and trying to draw practical or moral consequences for our own behaviour. But the main cause of relative decline is that someone else industrialised, and there’s no way in which being more like the Germans would stop the Germans from being like the Germans.
There is a Tory narrative of decline in which we’ve thrown it all away through moral corruption, of one kind or another. This could be inflation, or socialism, or modernist buildings, or really anything. Skilled practitioners, like Roger Scruton or many successive leader writers in the Times, can detect this in absolutely any field of human action and on absolutely any evidence and come up with the same policy prescriptions.
This one is important because it taps right into the core narrative of decline running through Western culture. Anywhere you go in Europe or anywhere it has ever influenced, you’ll find someone on the right of politics who thinks Things Are Not What They Were. Decline: From Bad to Worse would really be about this.
There is another narrative, which can be on either side of politics, in which decline is pervasive and also just. Rather than simply succumbing to tragic cultural entropy, as above, we are declining because the past was a falsehood, a pyrites age. This is fairly common on the Left with regard to the empire, and on the Right with regard to the era, five minutes before they last got elected, when the streets weren’t full of beggars. Either way, it’s punishment and we deserve it. It’s possible that this represents a Protestant form of decline and the one before a Catholic one.
In practice, decline can be either a reason why We Can’t Have Nice Things, a justification for change (in the hope of reversing it), or a justification for repression (to stop it getting any worse).
Recently, preparing a case study for a client, I was struck by the idea of a “lurking technology”. (The history of technology is the trade secret of IT consulting, or something.) That’s one that isn’t necessarily obviously linked to the end user, has broad influence, and causes changes to happen. You can make a case that Ethernet was such a thing for the media in the 1980s and 1990s – the new colour print machines, the Apple Macs in the layout department, and the faxes and WAN technologies supporting the reporters are all influential in themselves, but they wouldn’t have worked without good local area networking to tie them together. You could say something similar about finance, and taken together, there’s a case that its influence has been mostly evil:-)
But the one I fixed on was distributed version-control. (I thought of Whitworth’s screw-originating machine, but I felt it might be a bit recondite.) It’s easy enough to see that there are a hell of a lot of Linux/Apache/MySQL/programming language beginning with P servers out there, and an absolutely enormous number of Android devices, to say nothing of BSD Unix-based iPhones. And it’s even easier to crack out 800 shiny radical words on the joy of open source.
However, just remember the last time you circulated a document for comment around a dozen people and what a pain in the arse that was. Now scale up to a million lines of code and several hundred contributors distributed around the world, and require that every change be submitted to automated testing, and imagine just how much pain and trouble and time this is going to involve.
The lurking technology that fixes this, and makes it possible, is distributed version control. Like all lurking technologies, very few people really care, a few more master it as part of a trade, and a bigger pool just assume it’s there. Of course, the people who do care over-care and imagine you could just sling the statute book in Github, and of course they are wrong, as a real expert points out here.
So, why did we get here? Back in the mists of time, in the US Bell System, there used to be something called a Business Office, by contrast to a Central Office (i.e. what we call a BT Local Exchange in the UK), whose features and functions were set down in numerous Bell System Practice documents. Basically, it was a site where the phone company took calls from the public, either for its own account or on behalf of a third party. Its practices were defined by Bell System standardisation, and its industrial relations were defined by the agreement between AT&T and the unions, which specified the pay and conditions for the various trades and workplace types inside the monster telco. If something was a Business Office according to the book, the union agreement covering those offices would apply.
In the Reaganite 80s, after the Bell System was broken up, someone realised that it would be possible to get rid of the union rules if they could re-define the site as something else. Not only could they change the rules, but they could move the site physically to a right-to-work state or even outside the USA. This is, it turns out, the origin of the phrase “call centre”.
In the UK, of course, call centres proliferated in parallel with utility privatisation and financial deregulation. A major element in the business case for privatisation was getting rid of all those electricity showrooms and BT local offices and centralising customer service functions into `all centres. At the same time, of course, privatisation created the demand for customer service in that it was suddenly possible to change provider and therefore to generate a shit-load of admin. Banks were keen to get rid of their branches and to serve the hugely expanding credit card market. At another level, IT helpdesks made their appearance.
On the other hand, hard though it is to imagine it now, there was a broader vision of technology that expected it all to be provided centrally – in the cloud, if you will – down phone lines controlled by your favourite telco, or by the French Government, or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is one of the futures that didn’t happen, of course, because PCs and the web happened instead, but you can bet I spent a lot of time listening to people as late as the mid-2000s still talking about multimedia services (and there are those who argue this is what stiffed Symbian). But we do get a sneak-preview of the digital future that Serious People wanted us to have, every time we have to ring the call centre. In many ways, call centres are the Anti-Web.
In Britain, starting in the 1990s, they were also part of the package of urban regeneration in the North. Along with your iconic eurobox apartments and AutoCAD-shaped arts centre, yup, you could expect to find a couple of gigantic decorated sheds full of striplighting and the precariat. Hey, he’s like a stocky, Yorkshire Owen Hatherley. After all, it was fairly widely accepted that even if you pressed the button marked Arts and the money rolled in, there was a limit to the supply of yuppies and there had to be some jobs in there as well.
You would be amazed at the degree of boosterism certain Yorkshire councils developed on this score, although you didn’t need top futurist Popcorn Whatsname to work out that booming submarine cable capacity would pretty quickly make offshoring an option. Still, if Bradford didn’t make half-arsed attempts to jump on every bandwagon going, leaving it cluttered with vaguely Sicilian failed boondoggles, it wouldn’t be Bradford.
Anyway, I think I’ve made a case that this is an institution whose history has been pathological right from the start. It embodies a fantasy of managing a service industry in the way the US automakers were doing at the same time – and failing, catastrophically.