Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Midas Touch

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I think the current political turmoil in Britain has revealed the extent to which there is no longer much shared consensus at all about the fundamental values of the nation. Hitherto, there somehow existed an unspoken sense that beneath the normal divergences of view and action, there was a greater feeling for the collective interest – dare I say – that we were “all in it together”. Even if one did not agree with individual perspectives, one could always assume that the fundamental  national values of enlightened shared interest were still there. Now I’m not so sure; maybe it was a naive assumption in the first place – the various British clans have always looked after their own first. Perhaps a better interpretation of a nation is a rag-bag of various saints and sinners forcibly pulled together by the diktats of history and geography, somehow rubbing along together?

Britain feels, more than ever before, like a place that is being run by people whose priorities, indeed core world-view, are utterly opposed to mine, which it was perhaps too easy to assume that everyone else actually basically shared. While Brexit is the issue that has perhaps shed more light on this than anything else, it is by no means the only expression of it.

Of more fundamental concern are their basic priorities and principles, specifically the importance and nature of ‘wealth’ and the trade-off between individual and collective wellbeing. Maybe it is just a sign of middle-class ghettoism, but I have always considered it a ‘given’ that monetary wealth is merely the mechanism by which people acquire the things that they really value in life – and for allocating scarce resources – rather than an end in itself. It is perhaps too easy to believe that ‘everyone knows’ that money and power do not bring happiness – but maybe they really don’t?

I am increasingly of the view that those who tend to elbow their way into the most influential positions in society are amongst such people: they see power and wealth as bringing personal opportunity rather than collective responsibility. One individual above all embodies this at the present time…

In my own value system it is self-evident that one cannot (and should not) ignore the well-being of others, even those one disagrees with, if not for more altruistic reasons, then because it tends to impinge on one’s own. But there seem to be plenty these days who either do not understand that view – or do not care. Gaining sufficient muscle, they seem to think, is all that is needed to proof oneself from any of the ill effects of one’s poor treatment of others.

We could perhaps look to history to test whether this is actually the case, but it’s perhaps also too easy to allow hindsight to cloud our judgement: while the various terrors of the Twentieth Century were indeed ultimately repelled, and in much of Europe at least, the century ended relatively peacefully, the same was not true for many of the individuals who suffered appallingly during their often-short lives. Salvation did not come. So I think we should be wary of believing that the current instability will somehow rectify itself in the fullness of time, simply because that happened in the past. Who can say with confidence that certain Eastern European countries are not headed towards another era of totalitarianism – or that the U.K.’s travails will “come out alright in the end?” That is a prediction only made more difficult because the definition of ‘alright’ is not shared to begin with.

It is all too possible to destroy the things we supposedly value by mistakenly assuming that others hold them precious too. Brexit is indeed an example of that: there is a significant risk that it will end up destroying the sovereign nation that it purports to defend. I saw the same in the education sector: the drive for greater ‘efficiency’ ended up destroying the very things that education is really about in the first place – once again, the sacrifice of the valuable to the measurable.

Yet the principle is also much more widely applicable too: it seems to me that the entire capitalist system that supposedly exists to generate wealth and improve life is now in serious danger of making exactly the same error.

The immediate cause of this introspection has been developments in the small part of eastern England where I live: a historic market town of about 5000 people, with around 300 listed buildings some dating back to the 14th Century, and a delightful rural setting. It is about as unlike the popular stereotype of this county as one could imagine. Yet in the past few years we have faced (and continue to face) a number of corporate threats that could destroy the very quality that we who live here all value:

• A major road upgrade nearby that would have torn through some of the most tranquil countryside remaining in the county (now thankfully re-routed).
• A seemingly unending flow of planning applications for large numbers of houses to be built around our town and in the surrounding countryside.
• A plan that refuses to die for an un-needed waste incinerator on an old airfield 2km upwind of the town.
• The extension of a large gravel quarry to within 100 metres of the town and its historic buildings, and the subsequent desecration of some of the most attractive surrounding landscapes.
• At the same time as these developments, the further paring back of social and infrastructure provision such as the threat of closure of our local libraries (which reached the national press, now hopefully resisted), and the cutting back of the bus service (still pending).

In each case, we are faced with parties who claim that what they propose is necessary or essential. One wonders what criteria they are using. In each case, the principle justifications are economic – the gravel is needed, the road is needed, the incinerator is needed, the houses are needed, the library and bus savings are needed. In each case, it is possible to argue the opposite – and that investment and the preservation of the local quality of life in an otherwise over-developed county are also needed. But mysteriously, that never seems to carry equal weight. One wonders what the ‘need’ actually is – and if it is really anything more than the need for companies to make profits or local government to cut costs – mostly at other people’s expense.

We are told that the emissions from the incinerator will be insignificant, that the quarry landscape will be restored (after twenty years of noise and dust), that the houses are required for the county to meet its targets. And yet when one argues for even mitigation measures (we are not all NIMBYs), all of a sudden the need for that somehow ‘cannot be demonstrated’: the housing development that slipped through the net somehow cannot ‘justify’ the extra care taken to ensure that what is created is an enhancement of our historic place rather than a bastardisation. The developer is not obliged to consider the impact of a 20% increase in population on demand for medical and educational facilities, or to mitigate the extra traffic that will use our narrow streets – let alone the impact on a fairly close-nit community. They were not even taken to task for the factual inaccuracies and misrepresentation in their initial application, while bodies such as the Highways Agency, who might have objected, appear simply to have rubber-stamped the scheme.

The need can never somehow be demonstrated, either, for things that would bring genuine benefits – the traffic-calming of our town centre, the enhancement rather than reduction of our local bus service, the provision of better broadband, greater support for community initiatives. The answer is always that there is no money available for such things. It’s not difficult to see the trend: vested interests will ‘demonstrate the need’ for anything that adds to their profits or smooth-functioning, but nothing that will add to their costs or work-load. Those costs are externalised, and left for communities like ours – across the nation as a whole – to pick up through the erosion of quality of life, while the vested interests laugh all the way to the bank.

It is all the more galling when one realises that some of those ‘interests’ are public bodies who exist, one might presume, to protect the public interest. Yet they seem to be run by people, and with cultures that ape private business rather than civic values. The libraries were threatened by the County Council. The quarry extension is being supported – unbelievably – by The Environment Agency on the grounds that the extraction of 13 million tonnes of gravel will permit implementation of a questionable flood management scheme. The housing development was permitted – over the heads of local representation – by the district council, which also resolutely neglects its responsibilities for providing either the planning enforcement or infrastructure enhancements that might offset the worst of the resultant damage. It in turn blames the government (of the same colour) for Austerity.

Time and again, such bodies fail to protect the public interest because they, too, have been forced to run along strict economic principles which decree that anything financially loss-making cannot be justified, no matter what the wider cost-benefit situation. (More charitably, they also seem bound in so much red tape that it is an easy task for nimble developers to run rings round them). It is also why the first action of the local secondary school on becoming an Academy has been to divest itself of responsibility for the community swimming pool in its grounds. It is why the bus service is being threatened with cuts: corporate profitability trumps social need every time. And more widely still, it is why the quality of everything from the places we inhabit to the quality of health and education provision is being diminished because those who make the critical decisions are more swayed by personal gain and a narrow, monetarised definition of benefit, than one that really helps the population in the round.

I used to argue that these issues would prove self-rectifying, once those same decision makers realised that they were not immune from the impact: they still have to drive their expensive cars along the same shoddy roads, and they are still dependent on voters and customers. And then someone pointed out that a good few of them now travel by private jet and helicopter…

It is a legitimate argument that historically, adverse trends do tend to elicit counter-reactions and eventually correct themselves. Empires from the Romans to the Nazis were ultimately cut down by their tendency to over-reach themselves. Push people too far and they do tend to resist – or rebel.

It seems to me that our entire social-economic system is in danger of reaching a similar extreme: by defining wellbeing in purely monetary terms, it is increasingly destroying the very things that people actually value. Our living quarters, culture and wider welfare are being sacrificed at the altar of supposed wealth creation. And yet when it comes to spreading the resultant wealth around, it suddenly (but perhaps not surprisingly) becomes much more difficult to ‘demonstrate the need’. Our county perceived a ‘need’ to cut libraries – but not the tens of thousands spent on private health care for its executives. Academised schools perceive the need to restrain or cut teachers’ salaries – but simultaneously to enhance those of their managers; how (less cynically) are such conflicting ‘needs’ to be explained, let alone reconciled? The biggest example of all of such contradictory behaviour is, of course, the damage being done to the global natural environment.

It seems there is nothing that the great god ‘business’ will not destroy in the pursuit of its own narrow self-interest – including the things that brought it success in the first place. This is not really surprising since companies are, by their very nature utterly  self-interested and usually short-termist. But at very least this fact might support the existence of genuinely effective counter-balancing forces; what is more concerning is that the civic bodies that existed to do this have either been seriously weakened or have gone native.

I think it is now reasonable to suggest that in the West, commercial and other selfish-individualistic forces are out of control and in civic terms, desperately need to be tamed. The supposed pursuit of individual liberty is at risk of destroying that very same thing in the collective sense. If the collateral damage is the destruction of the very thing one supposedly values in the first place, then the system is not working, and one can only wonder whether a fundamentally different approach might have been wiser all along.

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