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.