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Timeo Geekos et dona ferentes

Timeo Geekos et dona ferentes

🕔10.Nov 2014

It has been a far from quiet week for those high minded folk whose main source of excitement is to muse on the organisation of local government (I think he means us, Ed.). Down in their neck of the woods (taking our cue from the malicious mood of our trolling era, let’s call it geek-central) there has been heavy duty musing indeed, writes Mike Loftus.

The air is thick with a shiny new lexicon. Combined authorities, metro mayors, devo-max, devo-manc and probably devo-double dutch too. Other local entertainment on this theme is being generated by the Solihull hokey-cokey (in? out? shake etc.) which threatens to sweep through the Christmas party scene like gangam style. Dark mutterings from Sutton Coldfield about the threat of Big Brumver seem inevitable too.

Let’s be fair – this stuff is generally fairly harmless. It’s a bit like Morris Dancing. No one knows what the point of it is but the folk involved obviously enjoy it hugely, they use up lots of energy that might be put to more damaging purposes and by the time you are tiring of their bells and accordions they are usually off to another pub car park to disturb the locals thereabouts.

Geek-central really wants make things better. Is that dangerous? Truth to tell it might just be. And here I need to be honest with you. I am a recovering geek. I speak whereof I know. (I should out myself as a one time Morris Dancer, but I would really rather you kept that to yourselves. I didn’t , as it were, inhale. Schtum. OK ?)

The current geek frenzy arises as a result of the spasm of Westminster panic that immediately preceded the Scottish referendum. It just so happens that I spent the week leading to that vote in Boston, Massachusetts – taking the Freedom Trail through that fair city acquainting myself with the US path to independence had a particular frisson at that precise time.

The resounding slogan of the American Revolution was, as we recall, ‘No taxation without representation’. What is less often observed is that the converse is also significant. No effective representation without taxation. Rather less of a call to arms, I suspect.

Take metro mayors, for example, the notion quickening the geek pulse most. It’s surely too much to expect someone to take on the challenge of urban leadership just to be the high profile distribution point for government’s diminishing largesse. If they want to make a difference they will also want their own financial muscle. Surely?

And the intention is these new mayors will be charismatic leaders, setting hearts racing and determined to excite their communities. The model is provided by Boris Johnson. However, Mr Johnson – as indeed was his predecessor – is largely sui generis. What’s more, as a result of his vaunted classics education, he actually knows what that means.

To universal and utter astonishment it has become clear that serving as Mayor of London was little more than a convenient means for Mr Johnson, together with his wit, energy and (ahem) sexual magnetism, to stand modestly in full limelight while awaiting the main chance (who, as they say, knew). The motives of prospective mayoral candidates in other areas might now get a more searching scrutiny.

Anyway, I hear you ask, didn’t we all get a go at this mayor thing just the other week? And throw it out?

Well, it was two years ago, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer appears now converted to the idea. In returning to the notion though Mr Osborne puts me in mind of Bertholt Brecht – not the most obvious of conjunctions. A failed 1953 East Germany uprising was regarded by the authorities there as the people betraying a government which only had their interests at heart. Brecht, satirically, suggested that the Government should dissolve the people and elect another. Maybe that’s Mr Osborne’s route to elected mayors.

In any event – and looking to Manchester where these new notions seem most advanced – the obvious question from the person on the Eccles metrolink might be to ask what’s in all this for me. Happily, the Chancellor has the answer.

To wit, an Oyster card (or a locally branded equivalent, we presume).

Is your heart racing, Eccles person? That’s all you, personally, have been offered so far.

I suspect that the adopted Mancunian Fred Engels is cursing the fact that he and his pal Karl couldn’t come up with the truly bloodcurdling slogan “Citizens unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have an Oyster card to gain”.

With regard to all of this stuff – and Mayor Johnson would be proud of me I am sure – I can only be reminded of Vergil and the Aeanid ( II .49)

Timeo Geekos et dona ferentes (Beware of geeks bearing gifts).

Mike Loftus, ‘News from the Future Ltd’ and former director of Locate in Birmingham. 

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