Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Thinking European

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How do you change a culture?

Chris Boardman, the Olympic cyclist, is charged with doing just that: reducing Manchester’s chronic traffic congestion and turning the city into Britain’s cycling capital. As he realised, the problem is only partly practical: what is really needed is a change of mindset:

“Three hundred miles from here, 50% of the kids ride to school every day, 30% of all journeys are by bike – in The Netherlands, parts of Germany, in Denmark. Take anyone from here and stand them there and they’ll say, “I prefer this”, he said. When people see, they understand.

Recent reports suggest that while the government is proposing new legislation on air pollution post-Brexit, its track record is dismal, and it was one (admittedly of several) taken to court for missing reduction targets.

Nottingham recently received a £5 million grant from the EU with which it employed a Dutch company to improve domestic insulation and cut energy bills for the recipients by 50%, much to their satisfaction. There is no equivalent national programme in the U.K., except for those in receipt of benefits. You are reading this correctly – there is absolutely no programme to improve the performance of some of the worst-insulated mass-housing stock in Europe – simply because our government has not deemed it important enough.

Such neglect is all too frequent in Britain: in too many cases, domestic provisions for even such essentials as workplace rights are half-hearted in the extreme – as are assurances for the future. This is not a nation that takes the lives of its ordinary citizens particularly seriously – and it is having seen superior approaches – and mindsets – on the continent, that persuaded me that European governance is on balance preferable to our domestic alternative. The evidence suggests that collectively, other countries are doing many of these things better.

An inability to see is, I suspect a major problem. For those struggling in difficult circumstances, horizons narrow; the cause of the problems may not be visible, and attention is focused on the pressing need to survive.

Yet as Boardman points out, when people are shown alternatives, they do not reject them. The problem in Britain is that this rarely happens. It is relatively difficult for people here to observe ‘ordinary life’ elsewhere. The cost and hassle of leaving the country mean that it only happens on special occasions – and both the nature and context of the typical holiday mean they are unlikely to provide much insight into the daily-lived reality of other places. The linguistic/cultural divide (whether perceived or real) makes it worse.

Yet my experiences suggest that Boardman is right. On several occasions I instantly destroyed my students’ prejudices against public transport simply by putting them on that symbol of European urbanism, a (Strasbourg) tram. I achieved a similar effect by ‘parking’ others in ordinary homes and school life in Switzerland for a week. And yet others came to more understanding by virtue of my taking them to the European Parliament and talking to people there. It works: there were rapid shifts of perspective.

But the real shift needed in Britain is far bigger. This nation has come to the point of Brexit because 150 years of a national mindset have ‘taught’ it that it is both superior to the rest of the world and apart from it. Reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe recently showed how inaccurate this perception is, seen from a longer perspective – and how damaging it can be.

Continental nations’ bloody histories have given them a greater appreciation of the importance of European stability, while Britain’s apartness has given it both a failure of such understanding and a complacency that has led to the lengthy and profound neglect of its domestic affairs. Not to mention an enduring, cynical temptation to profit from continental disunity.

The venom accompanying Brexit is out of all proportion to any adverse impact that the EU has really had on many people’s lives – but not out of proportion to the genuine problems they are encountering. These problems are home-grown – and they are not simply practical: the biggest of all is the mindset that for so long said that Britain didn’t need to evolve or adapt, that it was simply entitled to the best, and that nothing really needed to change.

We only have ourselves to blame for the breakdown of the social contract in Britain. While national elites are primarily responsible for the neglect, the rest of the nation repeatedly endorsed their policies at the ballot box. We failed to maintain the national vehicle, and the British charabanc now sits smoking on the hard shoulder, from where we can watch the modern vehicles of more careful countries speeding past.

For Britain, change is a concept so difficult that it is to be resisted at all costs. Small-c conservatism is so deeply embedded in the psyche that we mostly don’t even notice it is there – at least until we are put in a context where people clearly think differently. That was my experience on the continent – and I repeatedly came back to Britain feeling I was returning to a tired, dull backwater. At the time I was criticised for my supposed lack of patriotism – but all I was doing was observing problems that the nation was choosing to ignore.

It is no surprise that those who are struggling tend to look backward rather than forward. But ironically, by voting for the status quo, they stymie the one thing that might help them: genuine, enlightened change. They are too set in their ways, believing what they have been told, that this is the natural way of things. They rarely question why it is like this, or how the system actually works, that keeps it so.

It is part of the reason why the country’s workforce failed to adapt to economic change: it was trapped in a regressive mindset which expected opportunities to be handed down from its betters as they always had been – which of course largely failed to materialise from governments that simply did not care enough to put meaningful support in place. The result has been whole communities still hollowed out of any economic purpose, three decades after that process happened.

The culture of despondency and dependence is embedded – and the only perceived antidote is exclusivity, of aspiring to buy oneself out of the masses, rather than improving mainstream life. There seems incomprehension that if so much of the nation’s wealth were not in the hands of so few, it would be very possible to improve the mean standard of living for everyone. And yet the tax rises that could address this are – we are told – political dynamite. All despite the abundant evidence from Scandinavia and elsewhere that higher general taxation results in better welfare provision and more just, contented societies.

Britain’s entire mindset is so ensnared in webs of hierarchy, elitism and privilege that it simply does not ‘get’ the notion of social democratic egalitarianism that, while far from perfect, is much more established on the near-continent. It seems congenitally unable to take meaningful steps towards enlightened empowerment such as those Chris Boardman referenced in The Netherlands.

Getting people out of traffic jams and onto functioning public transport is just one example. But it seems that this is just too demanding a position for most Britons, who continue to support domestic policies that opt for the minimum-effort approach of pandering to the vested interests that got us into this mess in the first place.

If the EU is responsible for any part of Brexit, it is a long-term failure to appreciate that Britain is less like the continent than it seemed to think. It should have made greater efforts to give people from outlying parts easy access to the rest. Subsidising Channel crossings would have helped, as would a greater programme of cultural exchange. In fairness, this would have been mediated via domestic governments – and the likely reaction of the British one to such intervention does not require much imagination. British governments have had too much vested interest in preventing British people from ‘thinking European’.

Likewise, such programmes can only work if the intended recipients are receptive in the first place – and therein lies the real problem for Britain: it is trapped in a loop of self-referential self-justification that no amount of outside influence seems able to dent – and the nation is about to dive head-first back into another cycle, rather than grasp its best opportunity ever to lay such shortcomings once and for all to rest.

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