Monthly Archives: November 2013

Between the wars

I am currently waiting to interview a few people to provide case studies for some of the examples of the real big society that I have written about over the past few weeks. In the meantime, I will continue with a few random thoughts. These, as you will see, arise from the fact that I am now of an older generation, that lucky generation, I often talk about. Why, you might ask, is this important? Well, I think it is because we were the product of a somewhat different culture than that which prevails today and has, more or less, for the last quarter century. It is also one that I regard as alien to much of what is good about this country and best represented by some of our institutions. Pre eminent among these are the BBC and the NHS. So what is, or was, this culture and how was it different?

And this is where my difficulty arises. I like what I see as essentially English both on an individual and national level. Yet, in many respects, all of the qualities I feel as representative of this would be considered as important in most cultures and to stress them as “ours” seems contrary to what I see as just that “Englishness”. In this case, I intend to let my heart rule my head and write about them anyway as they being ridden roughshod over by much of our commercial culture.

In his wonderful anthem, “Between the Wars”, Billy Bragg sings:

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is my faith in my fellow man

He also sang of “Sweet moderation, heart of this nation”.

This sums it up for me. Now I will confess to being an unashamed romantic. However, I am also a pretty pragmatic one. Hence the practical and proven examples I write about.

So what are those qualities I relish. Well we could start with fair play, before moving on to a sense of what is right and what is wrong, via a care and support for those less able or equipped to do things for themselves. They would include tolerance and, one I particularly like, an idiosyncratic and self deprecatory sense of humour. Moreover, I don’t see these as isolated qualities but as patterns in a seamless tapestry; as Billy Bragg would say “from cradle to grave”.

And, before opponents cry out about strivers v shirkers, let’s change the language to “fortunate and less fortunate”. Apart from the fact that the latter are more accurate adjectives than the former, “and” is a far more useful way to solve problems than “versus”. The latter tells you far more about the mindset of those using such language. The latter phraseology also represents a far more accurate picture of the situation. The point is, as any parent knows, you support your children when they need it. That is also, by the way, true of good businesses which support the less profitable but promising or necessary parts of their concerns. It should be the same in any society and especially one that has the 7th largest economy in the world. Where does that put those who are at the top in our society on a world scale, especially when they seem to continually require greater rewards than they already have. If even they can’t manage, how do they think that everyone else does? No, the answer is simple greed and living in a world in which they mix, largely, with others are in similar circumstances.

An example of this blinkered thinking can be seen among many of those of us who are football supporters. We support our club, treating the opposition, especially of the local kind, as the enemy. Spurs v Arsenal, Manchester City v Manchester United, West Ham v Millwall, on the odd occasion that these later two actually meet. Yet, what we all have in common is that we are all keen on football and, in that, differ from those who aren’t. In reality, we have more in common with one another than those who aren’t interested in the game. Something we often forget in the heat of the match.

The whole point of this diatribe is to see ourselves as a society in which we support those less fortunate during any period in which they need help. You will then often find that what you see as a hand out is, in fact, a hand up. I think it could best be described as mutual self help. It has a long and distinguished history in this country, not represented in our current commercial culture of “Sod you, Jack” and the idea that those at the top have something that the rest of us are lacking and got where they did through sheer application and hard work. Something that the rest of us also seem to lack. It is a false analysis that paints a false picture and one that those at the top have an interest, indeed a self interest, in sustaining.

What we need to do in most cases is to see life from the other person’s point of view and, sometimes, this can be brought home to you in very directly. It’s called empathy. On Saturday, I was out shopping and came across someone sitting on the pavement, obviously homeless. Having run a charity that helped people who were homeless, I can’t turn a blind eye in these circumstances. Not that I would anyway. I reached into my pocket to find that I didn’t have any money. As I walked on, I found that I did have and went back. The person then said something that really made me understand how he felt. He said “My heart sank when you looked as though you were going to give me money but couldn’t find any. Thanks for coming back”. The expression, “my heart sank” made me feel how he felt. It would help greatly in creating a better society if we could all try to see life through the eyes of those less fortunate than ourselves. After all, if you don’t know the circumstances that led someone to being in the situation that they find themselves, how can you know that it is their own fault? The answer is, of course, that you can’t. Judging people, therefore, as shirkers or strivers is an opinion based on nothing other than your own way of thinking. Those who view the world in this way would do well to consider that fact.

Changing yourself

In order to change others, you first need to change yourself. Unless, of course, you’re already perfect.

Now I can’t believe that I’m the only person to commit the first part of that quotation to paper and I’m not even sure that’s its true for everyone. Yet I do feel that effecting change comes with more power when it comes from those who’ve experienced the problems that the proposed change deals with and have, thus, been part of that change themselves.

I mention the perfect bit as, like some other men, I used to feel that I was so. Literally, maybe, but not in reality. It was, indeed, a cover which allowed me to behave less well than I should have, especially in my relationships, while thinking that what the other people got in return excused that behaviour. It took me many years of therapy and the self service version that is now a normal part of my psyche, to change something that I was, in fact, extremely reluctant to change. It was the other side of the coin and I thought that changing the face of the coin meant changing the obverse. I now realise that it didn’t and I and my relationships are the better for it. Moreover, it has helped me to do things that I always wanted to but never dreamt that I could. In my case, writing, with my first book published and the second to be published before Xmas. The latter, “The Other Side of the Doors” will be launched at Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town in January. Who would have thought, when I worked in my first charity job in the 1970’s and used to frequent Owl, that I would be making use of it in this way? Change can certainly be good for you. The important part of change, however, is whether it is imposed or, worse still, arbitrarily imposed, or whether you are part of the process. Which brings me, in my usual roundabout fashion, to my topic this week.

In the 1980’s, Will Hutton described a 30/30/40 society. One in which 30% of the population were fairly wealthy, 30% not too badly off and 40% were very poor. Thirty years later and the reality is worse than he described and, seemingly, getting more entrenched. Indeed, it is now official. This current generation of young people will be worse off than their parents. The first time that this has happened that anyone can remember and beyond. It is also now admitted that work is no longer a way out of poverty and even John Major has said that privately educated men dominate our public and business life. Yet, in the same week, research was published to show that, once social factors are stripped out, a private education provided no better (and sometime a less good education) than the state variety. Perhaps what you get from a private school is a social network that will stand you in good stead for later life. When you look at the upper echelons of the present government (one of the less competent ones in my lifetime) you cannot help but feel that that is true. Could it be any different? Of course it could. As I continually remind people, the future hasn’t yet happened. Indeed, as one of the lucky generation, who were, in my view, the recipients of over 200 years or progress, to our parents, we were evidence that it could be. This can probably be traced back to the Midlands Enlightenment during which working people, through institutions they created and controlled bettered themselves as never before. In doing so, they played an active role in creating a civic society of no little vibrancy.

We can do this again and need to if we are to slow down this relentless rush to the bottom. Except, of course, for that small percentage at the top who, bear in mind, have more in common with similar people in other countries than they do with the fellow citizens of their own. Last week John McDonnell, a Labour MP, talked of setting up a Peoples’ Parliament. More power to his elbow.

Some jobs…

Some jobs are a way of earning money to pay the bills while others are more than that. As I’ve probably said before, I have been lucky enough, for more than 30 years, to enjoy what I do for a living. I now work from home and commute about 8 yards each morning to my place of work in the corner of the conservatory. So I am a lucky member of a lucky generation. I count my blessings while getting angry that my good fortune is not shared by all. Ever the idealist, I am told. Well, maybe, but also, ever the pragmatist. The latter quality is, I might add, based on realism which is something that politics needs to be based on. Unfortunately, the latter also needs to take account of the general public’s perceptions and the propaganda, disguised as fact, contained in the popular press. So how do governments square this circle, that of perception and/or reality?

Well, to start with, they have an understanding of that reality and the lives of the people in the country they govern. They also need to have experienced a degree of living themselves, preferably outside the bubble that is the House of Parliament. Above all, they need to have a modicum of courage. Unfortunately, in most countries we are painted a picture in which we, say, the English have more in common with one another than, say, the French. A hierarchy, in fact, of nationality. Yet you have only to look around you to see that that is far from the truth. What we have in fact, almost irrespective of national boundaries, is a hierarchy based on wealth, power and influence. Wealthy people, in whatever country, have more in common with one another than they do with poor people in their own country. Similarly with those poorer people. What they experience in their day to day lives determines those lives and their view of the world. Working in the voluntary sector, I hear once that Prince Charles thought that the English were a nation of DIY enthusiasts, mainly because every community centre he ever visited smelt of fresh paint. I hope the story is apochryphal but, I suspect not. So, once again, where am I going with this?

Well, those who have had to struggle in life know what that struggle is about on a day to day basis and it is one that, for most, is not getting any easier. Need it be so? Well, maybe to some degree. What would be better for us all, though, would be to share the load. Remember, we’re all in this together? A fact that has been noted by Sir John Major today when he mentioned the fact that divided political parties don’t win elections. The same, of course, could be said of countries in the global economic race. There is no point in having a system that is, supposedly, based on letting the weakest go to the wall in any country when others play by a different set of rules and leave you behind in doing so. If we try to compete with low wage economies, we are entering into a race to the bottom which we cannot win. There are, in fact, too many countries below us with wage rates that we could never match. I also read of another interesting fact last week which was that the wage share of the country’s GDP fell from 61% to 56% even before the crash. This at a time when an estimated 4.8m people earn less than the living wage and in which two thirds of poor people are actually working. It also seems that working is no longer the way out of poverty. Well, if it isn’t, what i?. It’s all that working people have to offer. Yet, at the same time, boardroom pay among the FTSE top 100 companies rose by 27% last year. Interestingly, it appears that the Royal Mail may have been undervalued by about £1.3bn when it was recently sold. This is more than the total planned benefit savings for 2013/4. All in this together, my backside!

So, let’s start on a different course. One in which governments stand up to companies, especially those which tell us that they will not be able to meet our energy needs without massive price rises. Again, refer to my backside. Let’s provide a living wage, let’s have a nationwide home insulation programme to save energy, provide jobs and reduce bills. It ain’t rocket science and it will demonstrate that we truly are all in this together.

More of this next week. I might even call it Plan B.