Posted by: davidjmarlow | 29/12/2011

2011 anniversaries…The Devils caught in their own Catch-22s…

Spurs fans used to have a special affection for years ending in a ‘one’. We won our two First Division titles (equivalent to the Premiership) in 1951 and 1961, and cup successes followed in 1971, 1981 and 1991. Although 2011 has brought no silverware, it has been the best year for Spurs for some time – reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League in our debut season, and finishing the year as the top London Club in the Premiership by some margin playing attractive exciting football.

It is difficult, though, to find much else to celebrate about 2011… although, as befits a year ending in ‘one’, it has accommodated a number of noteworthy anniversaries.

My last blog – posted much too long ago – celebrated thirty years of Belize Independence and the influence of its ‘founding father’ – George Price who died in September. This was a positive blog about political leaders shaping persuasive coherent narratives, whilst living humble selfless lives. Unfortunately, though, 2011 has also brought other anniversaries that have resonated more with the mood of economic gloom, public austerity, and inchoate political stewardship that has characterised much of the year.

Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’ was fifty years old during 2011. Catch-22 describes the logical paradox facing the novel’s ‘anti-hero’ – a USAF bomber pilot. Captain Yossarian wishes to be grounded from combat missions on the basis that he is insane – because it is clearly insane to choose to fly missions that can result in almost certain death. However, if he requests being removed from this ‘insanity’, he must be sane, and therefore ‘fit to fly’.

Similarly, the ‘Catch-22s’ of government’s economic policy have been exposed so repeatedly this year, they have almost become its hallmark. In Cameron/Osborne’s terms, the priority is to eliminate (their definition of) the structural deficit. This requires cutting government expenditure and stimulating economic growth. But stimulating economic growth requires government spending, thus increasing the deficit. This Catch-22 creates a vicious circle that is the precise opposite of the avowed intention.

The Coalition struggles with Catch-22’s across all their major policy themes – localism, rebalancing, low carbon development, big society, open for business…Leadership is about reconciling these conundrums in a broadly consistent and compelling narrative that followers can understand and then enthusiastically embrace. That Cameron and Clegg cannot achieve this is a consequence of the coalition’s biggest Catch-22. The only reason (post the May referendum fiasco) for the LibDems to be in the coalition is if they markedly differentiate themselves from the Tories; but in pursuing that differentiation they expose the lack of a Coalition narrative and their powerlessness within it!

The sad passing of Ken Russell in November threw the spotlight back on one of his masterpieces – The Devils – which was released forty years ago in 1971. Still as strikingly original and shocking today as it was then, the film has stimulated many interpretations and widely differing opinion. Interestingly, my most vivid recollection of seeing the film in the cinema as a teenager is not of the nuns’ orgies, masturbation or even the horrific burning of Grandier at the stake. Rather, it is of the destruction of the pristine walls of Loudun that had kept the city safe from a capricious and cynical state, to reveal the charred, barren national landscape interspersed with the crucified corpses of those crushed under imperial power.

Even as a teenager, my enthusiasm for strong city governance and leadership appears to have been acute!

On the face of it Government’s launch of new ‘City Deals’ in December appears to share this enthusiasm. I shall write in more detail on this early in 2012 in my Regeneration and Renewal blog. In summary, though, much of the ‘deal’ is a statement of intent rather than a clear offer, and much of the intent also seems available to any ambitious area that can get its act together in terms of leadership and delivery management.

2012 will be a much better year than 2011 if city leadership teams swiftly and vigorously test government’s commitment to ‘new city deals’. The Devils, however, provides a salutary warning. The King enters the city in disguise (as Clegg/Clark?) carrying an instrument (new deal?) that he claims will exorcise the nuns of the devils possessing them.  The instrument and the exorcism are later revealed as a sham and the state swallows up independent city governance anyway.

Both The Devils and Catch-22 are wonderful pieces of work that I hold very dear. They can be ‘read’ in many different ways and at many different levels. It is almost demeaning to interpret them as parables for UK 2011, but it is immensely part of their power that they have a relevance and resonance to the ‘devils’ and ‘catch-22s’ with which we have struggled in this year now drawing to a close.

I shall still love both pieces in 2012, but our challenge will be to find new and more positive parables for the year we are about to enter. And so, on that more optimistic note…’happy new year’ and all the best for 2012 to readers of this blog…


  1. As ever – thought provoking! Lets hope 2012 is inspiring in positive ways. I certainly have a sense of optimism!

  2. […] postings five years ago. Re-reading my reflections on public policy insanities of 2011 (“The Devils caught in their Catch-22s…“) resonates strongly with the preposterous exercise Cameron has asked us to indulge, to […]

  3. Hello David.
    Could I get permission to use that photo of that unfortunate guy on my site and in a PDF. I will give you credit for it of course.

    regards Liam

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