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Martin Roseveare and a 1940s nudge

2 May 2013
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Set up in 2010, and more commonly referred to as the ‘Nudge’ Unit, the Behavioural Insight Team aims to apply an understanding of behavioural economics to contemporary policy making.

Their approach is famously inspired by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. The book put forward an argument in favour of ‘libertarian paternalism’ (p. 5) by ‘self consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better’ (p. 6).

The thirteen-member Behavioural Insight Team has tended to remain behind the scenes.  In the last two days, however, it has become a lot more visible. It first came under stringent criticism for its use of ‘bogus psychometric tests’ for jobseekers. And then it was announced that it was to be spun out into a ‘profit-making mutual’.

The Behavioural Insight Team’s effectiveness has now become a minor point of debate. But how radical is its approach?

A couple of week’s ago I spoke at a Political History Network seminar and argued that you can find an interesting precedent to the use of behavioural economics in the government’s 1946 decision to ration bread. In short, I argued that whilst the scheme itself was much more hands on, the publicity campaigns that preceded bread rationing were an obvious attempt to nudge the public into making certain decisions.

Martin Roseveare, the civil servant brought in to the Ministry of Food to oversee the scheme, described his approach as ‘target rationing’. An approach whereby the public would be encouraged to amend their behaviour and sub-consciously ration themselves. Like Thaler and Sunstein, Roseveare recognised that this was all about altering the consumer’s ‘choice architecture’ through clever publicity.

Unfortunately for this post, it is difficult to measure the impact of this, because his scheme was never carried out in full (the British government took the unprecedented decision to ration bread instead).

Nor, it should be said, was Roseveare ‘spun out’. He was merely given a knighthood and sent back to his day job as the Chief Inspector of Schools.


Political Funerals, Funeral Politics

20 April 2013

This post is the result of a thought process sparked by a potent combination of the last entry on Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and my teaching at the University of Bradford. Let me explain.

I have been teaching a module called ‘Culture and Society, 1760-1914’ since Christmas. It offers a broad survey of the so-called ‘long nineteenth century’ by looking at a number of specific topics. It’s also quite wide ranging – with workshops on Victorian vegetarianism, Jack the Ripper and London Zoo to name just three. As part of this, my students have also considered the role of death in nineteenth century Britain and the changing culture of monarchy.

In both cases I illustrated the broader themes with examples – the monarchy was analysed through a comparison between King George III’s and Queen Victoria’s jubilees, whilst the session on death and mourning referenced the Duke of Wellington’s spectacular funeral (c. 1.5 million mourners, a £11,000 funeral carriage, £80, 000 spent on seating etc).

I was planning this session on 8 April and delivered it the day before Thatcher’s “£10m” ceremony. A coincidence certainly, but it got me thinking about the politics of public remembrance (not least as I had also used Churchill’s funeral as an example with a group of adult learners a couple of weeks earlier).

The whole debate surrounding Thatcher’s funeral raises a number of questions.  From those about the importance of recognisable sites of memory in provoking public debate about history, to those about the relationship between political power, personality and the public perception. These are the questions implicitly raised by the comparison between Thatcher and Attlee.  They are also questions that could be applied to a whole host of historical figures.

A little preliminary searching throws up a 1999 textbook by Harry Garlick called The Final Curtain: State Funerals and the Theatre of Power (which I haven’t found access to), but also leaves the impression that there is much more research to be done. The limited examples of Thatcher, Attlee, Wellington and Churchill suggest it would be a fascinating topic.


Note – If you don’t find this all too morbid I would recommend Peter C. Jupp and Clare Gitting’s Death in England: An Illustrated History (Manchester: University Press, 1999) as an excellent introduction.

Attlee’s Funeral

17 April 2013

Following Margaret Thatcher’s death a number of commentators have sought to contrast the expense of her planned funeral with Clement Attlee’s simple 1967 ceremony. To help you make sense of it all, here’s the full text from page 5 of 12 October 1967’s Guardian:

Quiet Funeral for Lord Attlee

A simple, even austere, funeral service, attended only by his family and close friends, was held yesterday in the ancient Temple Church, close to the flat in central London where he spent the closing years of his life.

Lord Attlee, elder statesman and Labour Party leader for 20 years, died at Westminster Hospital on Sunday, at the age of 84. Fewer than 150 people were at the service, lasting less than 20 minutes. The Prime Minister Mr Harold Wilson, and Mrs Wilson were among the close friends present. 

The service epitomised Lord Attlee’s love of simplicity and directness, with a psalm and two hymns – one of them the rousing ‘Jerusalem’ sung at so many Labour gatherings – and prayers.

The immediate family mourners were his son, Lord Prestwood, with his wife Anne, Lord Attlee’s three daughters, Lady Janet Skipon, now an American citizen, of Iowa City, Lady Felicity Harwood and Lady Alison Davis, and Mr Laurence Attlee, his brother.

Close friends in the congregation included Mr Emanuel Shinwell, Mr James Griffith, Lord Longford, and Mr Alister MacDonald, son of Ramsay MacDonald.

The service was conducted by the Master of the Temple Church, Canon Theodore Milford, assisted by Canon Edward Carpenter, Archdeacon of Westminster Abbey.

Lord Attlee’s ashes are to be interred at a memorial service in Westminster early next month.

Interestingly, Temple Church also provides the backdrop to one of the more contentious comment pieces written this week.

Note – This page was updated on 19 Apr to fix a broken link.

Perception and Political Posters

15 June 2012

Yesterday I attended a conference organised by Chris Burgess to coincide with the excellent ‘Picturing Politics’ exhibition at the People’s History Museum. One of the key issues discussed was the infamous 1978 ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster produced by Saatchi and Saatchi on behalf of the Conservative Party. This brought out a number of interesting facts, including that the poster was only displayed at 20 sites, that none of the originals exist, that Thatcher didn’t like it, and that it was also shown in cinemas. It also raised an important question. Namely, why is it seen as historically important?

Read more…

Wikihistory: Royal Commission on the Press

2 June 2012

After another week of interesting revelations from the Leveson Inquiry – albeit revelations that haven’t moved the Inquiry any closer to a resolution – it seemed apt to turn a previous post written on the 1947 Royal Commission on the Press into the second of a series of Wikihistories. 

You can check out the updated page at:,_United_Kingdom

The original post has also been reblogged by Inforrm:

A Retrospective on Parliamentary Standards

28 May 2012

With Parliament on recess, the upcoming Diamond Jubilee and Tony Blair’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, today’s political news has been notably retrospective. It’s quite fitting, then, that Baroness Warsi should have rekindled the 2009 expenses scandal by referring herself to the Parliamentary Standards Committee following accusations that she fraudulently claimed for rent that was never paid. 

The accusations – pursued, as in 2009, with abandon by The Sunday Times and The Telegraph – have increased the pressure on Warsi following a string of perceived blunders. All of which has led to a wide range of comment. Given today’s retrospective feel Read more…

‘We Work or Want’

15 May 2012

William Hague’s blunt assertion that Britain must simply ‘work hard’ if it is to overcome its current economic woes has been widely – if not sympathetically – reported. The Independent, for example, has portrayed his comments as little more than an attack on business leaders and call for the country to ‘stop moaning’. 

His comments, and the media’s reaction, are reminiscent of a similar campaign launched to boost exports during the ‘age of austerity’ that followed the end of the Second World War. Then, after a succession of crises, the government launched a campaign for increased production under the tagline ‘We Work or Want’ Read more…