Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Carpe Diem

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A brief internet discussion with an Italian on social media a few days ago produced the following observation: “I think the British are just too afraid to go outside their comfort zone.” Well yes. But there is a back-story here: being on an island makes it harder for us to go outside our national comfort zone than for those on the continent (although southern Italians might disagree…) Even a committed European like me could only find the time and money to travel abroad a couple of times a year. Contrast that with my Swiss friend’s son – who went ‘abroad’ every day – to school. Even though that was only a matter of a few kilometres’ journey. It is so much easier to become internationalised when your geographical situation facilitates it.

And yet there more in that Italian guy’s comment than perhaps he knew. It has only ever been in the U.K. that I have heard people say such-and-such “is not for the likes of me”. I heard perfectly able students say it when I tried to encourage them to aim for the top universities. I heard a woman in my town say it the other day when I tried to encourage her to get involved with local decision-making.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that a whole continent is uniform – and uniformly different from Britain – but it is nonetheless anecdotally true, as I have observed before, that people ‘over there’ seem less constrained by barriers not only of geography – but also in their own minds. It is one of the things I find attractive about continental culture: compared with Britain, anything – well, at least much more  – seems possible.

I think the reasons for this do come back to our sociopolitical situation. Everything about Britain is still predicated on competitive advantage. The aim in life seems to be to “get ahead” – but of what? The system? One’s fellow citizens? The purpose of ‘success’ in Britain seems to be to buy exclusivity – and I can only conclude that this is a hangover of a social system where rank was (still is?)  everything.

Another social media conversation a few days ago was quite enlivening – and then I checked the profile of my interlocutor. It turned out (since verified) that I had been talking, simply as one human to another, to the CEO of BMW. My perception in Britain is that the elite rarely talk to anyone except each other – and certainly not with the hoi polloi via unassuming Facebook threads.

It would of course be wrong to suggest that everyone is equal on the continent. They have their elites too – but experience suggests that while ambition in those countries may bring an enviable way of life,  it does not – at least to the same extent – bring snobbery. Over the years, I have met a fair number of influential continentals – from MEPs to the (Dutch) President of the UCI (International Cycling Federation ). I have observed and heard about the behaviour of others, from celebrated Swiss art dealers to executives in multinational companies.  Almost without exception, they seemed to lack the superiority complex of their British counterparts. (The principal exception was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish President of the IOC, who seemed to think he was the Emperor of the World; those others whose view was closer to the British seemed to come from countries which shared many of our social problems and attitudes).

Even in the European Parliament, it was very noticeable that it was the British (Conservative) MEPs who had the airs and graces; the rest, even in their own political grouping, seemed much more down-to-earth. I have also heard about the low esteem in which residual elites are held in those countries – they are figures for fun or pity, and they certainly do not possess the power to intimidate that they do in Britain.

I spy an irony here, in that those nations which shout loudest about ‘anything being possible’ – The USA and the UK – are actually those with some of the lowest social mobility. It seems that we have to keep shouting about it, because we know that it really isn’t true. When ‘opportunity’ is so much the monopoly of a few, the mentality amongst the rest, that much of life’s bounty really isn’t “for the likes of me”, seems inevitable. And that includes the ability to travel, to discover that it isn’t the same everywhere.

It is in those countries which are more equal to begin with, that perceived Opportunity really does present itself to more people. And what is more, the consequences and objectives of that opening seem different too. While the aspiration for a comfortable life is probably universal, the attaching of this to exclusivity seems not to be. Wealth and seniority do not automatically make one a superior person, simply a wealthier or more senior one. It is the conflation of wealth, elitism and power that have put Britain (and the US) in the positions in which they now find themselves.

In a sense, this blog Sprezzatura rails against this: beneath an apparently superficial preoccupation with the good things in life lies a more profound belief that they should not be the preserve of an elite, but be accessible to all who want them. That good life does not need to come – as many in Britain’s elite seem to think – at the expense of others. And in any case, the ‘good life’ is not only about material wealth or privilege: many of those good things are actually found in simplicity and attitude, rather than large bank balances and powerful connections.

What prevents more people from enjoying them is the conflation of good living with privilege – of things that are “not for the likes of me”. It is a barrier that seems to be at least much less strong in those nations that are not so persistently hierarchical in their mindset.

The antidote to this is indeed Carpe Diem. Seize The Day, no matter who you are – and make the most of it. And on this day of all – which was to have been Brexit day – I feel it essential to acknowledge the role played in our current reprieve by Gina Miller, without whose legal challenge we would now be having Brexit imposed on us by the most authoritarian, elitist government in recent British history. Even Parliament would not have had a look-in, had it not been for her.

It clearly took someone with wealth and connections like Miller to activate the necessary procedures to bring the legal challenge to May’s dictatorial instincts – but the striking thing about this woman is that she uses her wealth not just to bolster her own position, but for what she believes is the common good. She seized a day without which today would be our last in the EU. I hope she is eventually sainted for it.

While she is a British citizen, it is of course noticeable that she takes at least some of her cultural leads from her past, elsewhere in the world. We British have a lot still to learn.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why should only some have prizes?

Mrs May today says she “shares British people’s frustration” that Brexit has not (yet) been completed. In doing so she illustrates perfectly the endemic problem with British politics that got us into this fix in the first place: she is quite at liberty utterly to disregard the opinions of the at-least-half of the population that disagrees with her. We simply don’t exist, let alone figure in her reckoning. She can claim she speaks for the nation when she clearly does not. Our fate, as a beaten (supposed) minority, need be of no interest to her.

This is the result of a system that is based on disagreement and confrontation rather than consensus-seeking. It is a system based on beating your opponents and then ignoring them. Both major parties are as bad as each other when the chips are down and they win power. This is no way to run a pluralistic modern nation.

This is the system that allows the Conservative Party to describe itself as “the natural party of government”. The fault in that is not the obvious one – but the implication that governing a country needs to be a zero-sum choice in the first place. It is also the system that then allows this party – true to its name – to resist modernising the nation and preserving the privileged classes upon which it has always heavily drawn.

This is why we urgently need electoral reform. While there is no perfect system, and it is true that most of the alternatives are both more complex and less certain, that actually reflects the realities of life, which is no longer as straightforwardly feudal-tribal as our antiquated system presupposes. The implications are far reaching: not only does consensual politics send an entirely different message to the populace, one of inclusiveness rather than monopoly, but I suggest that it eventually effects the very way in which people think about both politics and society more widely.

This nation is handicapped by a confrontational national model that goes far beyond politics – the mentality of winner takes all. It has done immense damage to the country over the decades, not least because of the sense of disenfranchisement and outrage that it fosters, and the frequent reversals of national policy that it causes. It takes a regressive view of life that says only some are entitled to opportunities and rewards – ironically quite the opposite of both right-wing views on ‘opportunity’. and the left-wing view of inclusiveness.

When it comes to Brexit, the argument is not symmetrical: within the EU, nobody is forced to acknowledge that organisation: people are free utterly to ignore it if they so choose. But outside the EU, the rights of pro-Europeans to exercise their wishes and loyalties will be prevented: another case of unnecessary zero-sum politics.

The view that life needs to be about ‘winners’ – and hence ‘losers’ – in my view has no place in a just modern society. Life is both more complex and more random than that, and when it comes to opportunity and fortune, ‘no man is an island’. Ultimately, we are all dependent on each other, and our systems should reflect that fact.

Whatever happens with Brexit, it is essential that this is changed in future. Unfortunately the very nature of the present system makes that, in my judgement, very unlikely, even after the present experience. What will it take to bring about change to a healthier national mindset?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Significance of Flags

maladiere

This is the Maladière roundabout in Lausanne, Switzerland. If you arrive in the city by motorway from the west, this is where you end up. I remember it clearly from my first visit over thirty years ago. Lausanne is, of course, global home of the International Olympic Committee, and so proud is the city of this fact, that it has adorned the roundabout with over thirty-five flagpoles, from each of which flutter white Olympic flags. On most days, this presents a joyous and animated gateway to the city: it is quite a sight. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the roundabout, for all that I have passed it many times – and on the day Google Earth was there, there was clearly no wind. But you get the idea.

The U.K. doesn’t really have a tradition of mass flag flying, which is a pity as it is one of the windiest countries in Europe. And while we do have a fondness for our rather garish flag itself, we perhaps underestimate the importance of such things in the symbolism of nation-building. In fact, that activity is something else that has never really been felt necessary in a democratic way either. Most of the ‘wind’ hitherto generated in this country was dedicated to bigging-up the Empire (and post-Empire), and the upper classes whom it most benefitted. It was rarely inclusive. And now that flag has been significantly misappropriated by the far Right anyway.

The Europhile introspection in Britain, about where it all went wrong, shows little sign of abating. It seems increasingly accepted that the case for Britain in Europe was not lost in spring 2016 – but over the forty preceding years in which absolutely no convincing case whatsoever was made to the British people at large, as to why they should begin to see themselves as part of a European whole. The cynic in me suspects that this was entirely deliberate on the part of the political classes – as one article I read recently suggested, the U.K. saw its relationship with the continent as solely mercantile. It still does.

The next photo perhaps underlines the importance of flags: those of all the nations flying outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

EU-Flags

As well as animating an otherwise rather dull open space, this sends a powerful message, one seen frequently all over the continent, where the EU flag routinely flies alongside national and regional ones on city halls and other public buildings.

It’s not that we don’t understand this significance in Britain: we are more than happy for the flags of Australia and New Zealand, for example, to incorporate the Union Jack. I wonder how we would feel, though, if it became a requirement to incorporate the gold stars into national flags in the same way. I suspect that might be a step too far for even the most communitaire of European Commissions. In the U.K., it was controversial enough to put the stars on car registration plates, prompting a backlash from the nationalists that one still doesn’t see anywhere else.

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My last photo shows the exterior of Essex County Hall in Chelmsford taken a couple of weeks ago. There are four flag poles by the main entrance – quite excessive by British standards. The Essex, England and UK flags are all present – and one empty pole. I don’t ever recall seeing this occupied by the logical next step in the sequence, in thirty years of living in the area, though I may have missed it…

It has always been unusual to see the EU flag flying in Britain – so much so that I normally stopped and double-took in pride when did I see it. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In amongst all the media campaigns being organised to promote Remain, it might not have been a bad thing if, at some point in the past, there had been a concerted campaign to fly the EU flag across the country. I think the effect over those forty years would have been far more powerful.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

“Why would I need to?”

Donald Rumsfeld probably deserved flak for a lot of things. But not the one that he took most for. His 2002 speech about Unknown Unknowns was entirely logical, if a little hard on the ear. In it, he identified a critical issue in human understanding – the problem that we don’t know what we don’t know. It is an issue that is repeatedly underplayed, because it seems like too much of an admission of the limits of human capabilities.

I don’t want to revisit the political aspects of Brexit again here – because I think that, if anything, the cultural aspects of the matter are more interesting, if more intractable. Even if the U.K. manages to find a political resolution to its current difficulties, the other aspects of our relationship with the continent will endure. Brexit has sparked a massive bout of introspection on the part of this nation, but for all of it, I can’t help thinking that we are still a long way from getting to the root of the problem: that requires a depth of insight that is simply not within the experience of most Britons. For the vast majority, the rest of Europe remains either the source of original evil, or a kind of cultural theme park where we take our holidays. Most of the resolution to this lies within the realm of what we don’t know we don’t know, within layers of cultural conditioning so deep that we don’t even know they’re there.

I remember the first time I met a French person who had never been to the U.K. I asked why. “Why would I need to?” was the answer. And in that single reply lies the whole problem for British understanding. It prompted in me a moment of introspection that I doubt many Britons have had. For the simple fact is, for the majority of Europeans, Britain is not the exceptional place that those who live here still believe it is. It is certainly not central to the functioning of their lives.

And yet many in Britain even today still struggle with the idea that their island is not ‘normal’ – nor the centre of the world as they have always believed.

Arrive in Dublin from Holyhead, and you will encounter a very functional working port, and it is immediately obvious that the whole of Ireland is, by virtue of its geography, heavily dependent on imports. Arrival in Dover from Calais doesn’t have quite the same impact, because private vehicles appear to make up the dominant flow – but one only needs to consider the fact that some 10,000 lorries pass through it each day to remember that Britain’s island nature makes us equally dependent on the outside world: in purely physical terms, we live in a place relatively apart from the bulk of human activity. And yet this is so ‘normal’ to Britons that the perceptual distortions that it causes remain for many, unknown unknowns. One might ponder the real reasons why many Britons say they prefer it this way.

One of main consequences of island-living is a very real inability to see what happens elsewhere – and this has the effect of making island cultures habitually inward-looking and self-referential. It is not only the British: the Japanese are in some ways our best comparator here, and they exhibit a rather similar bi-polar attitude to the wider world. What’s more, that very inward-lookingness means we often fail to notice potentially useful parallels even on our doorstep: the British have historically considered the Irish to be provincial and inward-looking, without seeing that the same could be said about them, when seen from the continent. “Why would I need to?” could just as easily be an English response to the prospect of visiting Ireland.

History shows us a thing or two about how the British treat other places: as Nesrine Malik pointed out in The Guardian recently, the British state has been a “machine for running and exploring the world” – but that obsession has left it not much good at modern state-building on the home front. Most of the effort went into building belief in a national brand whose main focus was external – except to the extent that it benefitted the ruling classes. It was largely blind to the need to build an efficient and equitable society at home, which is why even today much of the country suffers from poor infrastructure compared to our neighbours. Britain’s historic treatment of Ireland is also informative here: under British rule, Ireland was impoverished and neglected (unless you were part of the imported aristocracy); under the auspices of the EU, it has received investment and infrastructure, and has thrived – at least in relative terms. No wonder the Irish are Remainers.

The problem boils down to one of pluralism: an island state like Britain has a very different conception of itself from a continental one. When your national frontiers largely correspond with the limits of your land mass, the nation-state assumes a significance that it can never quite achieve on a continent, where one is ever-mindful that one’s nation is indisputably but one part of a larger whole. In Britain, one is rarely forced to accept such pluralities – and where we have to, in Ireland – we have not dealt with them well, even as recently as 2016, where it scarcely featured in the Brexit debate.

It is simply impossible in Britain to do the equivalent of what I have done many times in Switzerland: to sit in a tower-block in the Novartis Campus in Basel and look down on everyday life continuing quite normally in three countries, complete with language and cultural differences – all within a radius of a few tens of metres. It’s not true that everything is sweetness and light: the Swiss-German border seems more porous than the Swiss-French one, not least because of cultural affinities, but it is also possible to detect more antipathy towards the French than the Germans in that part of Switzerland. But above and beyond such sentiments – or perhaps because of them – one is daily reminded that one’s nation-state is not all there is to it. History only serves to reinforce that fact.

It takes a long time to appreciate the perceptual differences that this can foster. I have visited Switzerland perhaps thirty times in as many years, and have got to know local people well. I have had similar, if less protracted contact with others in several other countries. You need to spend serious time, and get to know them as individuals (as you would at home) before these things become visible. You need to reach the point where nationality as an issue becomes almost invisible.

The most obvious is the fact that continentals’ mindset operates at a supra-national scale: going to another country is ‘normal’, not novel. For quite a few, it is just a short drive away. They think little more of it than a Briton does when moving between Scotland, Wales and England. It means that co-operation across those borders is natural to the point of itself being an ‘unknown unknown’ issue – it is just taken for granted that that is the way the world is. Understanding this also rams home just what a tragedy Twentieth Century history was for those nations, in a way that, yet again, Britain could only observe from a semi-detached position.

Yet the basic facts of Geography mean that such interaction does not happen so naturally with respect to the British Isles. I suspect that the vast majority of British people even today have no regular contact with people on the continent – and probably vice versa. Where it does happen, it is most likely to be with ex-pats, who are by definition not locals. Going on holiday for a week or two simply will not do it: you need to sit in locals’ homes, socialise with them, visit their work places, live their daily lives with them before it even starts to soak in. You need to see them no differently from how you would see people who live in a different county.

And then you start to realise that they are indeed operating rather different software. They do not have the same deference to hierarchy; wealth is less directly linked to social status and particularly in republics, the sense that the People (rather than the monarchy) are the State, I believe makes a tangible difference to how they live their lives, the sense of ownership they exhibit towards their countries, the sense that their nations are collective, joint endeavours, rather than being run largely for the benefit of a small elite as is still the case in Britain.

It works the other way too, of course. Britain is just as remote to continentals, indeed more so, because if you have no business there, “why would you need” to visit? It is the same attitude that many British manifest towards Ireland – a remote, offshore place whose habits we don’t quite understand.

But the continentals, too, made one fundamental mistake in their relationship with Britain which they are only now discovering: they assumed that Britain was just another European nation, just like their own. They failed to comprehend the issues of island-hood just as we fail to comprehend their continental-ness. Our inability to explain them ourselves, did not help.

Their inability to see daily life here led them to conclude that the British Establishment’s projections of life in the higher echelons (as encountered through, for example, the diplomatic service) were an accurate representation of the true nature and mentality of the nation – which of course, they are not. To this day, I am often surprised by the strength of the upper-class stereotypes some continentals hold about the British.

They failed to appreciate the complexity of these islands – as some of their politicians admitted when they belatedly took a visit to the border lands of Ireland. The easy assumption that “we are all Europeans now” failed to allow for the superstitions of those who geographically can never be fully part of the continental project – but whose more significant frontiers are in the mind. They don’t understand the exceptionalism that insular geography creates – and they don’t know how to interact with it, because all their normal continental assumptions about the need for international co-operation, co-habitation and the Greater Good simply don’t work with a self-contained island race.

It has always been thus, even to the highest levels: British policy documents over the decades reveal repeated references to Britain’s ‘national interest’ in its European dealings. Well, all countries have national interests, of course – but in Britain’s case, the tone clearly presupposes a conflict between national and international interests; it is one of aggressive competitiveness, very rarely of the General European Good. One is left with the sense that such notions are unknown unknowns.

My repeated visits to the continent gradually shifted my perception; my default mental map is now that of Europe – with Britain stuck in its marginal position in the top left-hand corner. But in reaching this position, I also started to glimpse the different assumptions that operate on the continent as a result: the emphasis of nations there on the common societal good – a term one rarely hears convincingly expressed in Britain, where ‘Society’ is either insignificant – or a never-ending class struggle. It is shown in the way many continental countries are innovating in everything from social rights to environmental good practice – while at the same moment in time, Britain is discussing rolling back Human Rights post Brexit. What greater contrast does one need?

My experiences of the continent repeatedly suggest that those countries – under the umbrella of the EU – are making far more progress in terms of building good societies than is Britain. While there are always exceptions, people there generally live in better homes, more pleasant towns, they drive on better roads, travel in better trains, have more workplace and democratic rights, have less atomised communities, take their environmental responsibilities more seriously, they have less corrupted legislatures, and they generally have a more optimistic, positive view of life, than is common in this country. What’s more, fewer of them seem obsessed with wealth and celebrity and overt competitiveness – simply because getting on with normal life is not the trial for most, which it has increasingly become in Britain as the elite has sucked in more and more of our nation’s resources for itself.

And yet, the conversation in Britain, for all the soul-searching, betrays little evidence that these things are really known. Until we start to tackle these things, our chances of really addressing those highly significant differences in world-view between us and our neighbours will remain – Unknown.

I explored the issues discussed here in more detail in my book ‘It’s a Bit Late for that Now!’  available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.

Food, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

pv

One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.

What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.

As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).

The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.

It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.

But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.

The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.

It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.

One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)

The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.

It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.

To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.

I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.

People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.

To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders.  A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.

Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

All Britain’s problems in one afternoon

I attended an event yesterday that unintentionally illustrated a lot that is fundamentally wrong with this country. I hasten to add that that is no criticism of the organisers, who did an excellent job, and whose idea to run the event was in itself good.

My locality is facing the by far the largest expansion of housing stock in the country, double that of the next largest. Some people are claiming it is the biggest green-field development since Milton Keynes. It entails three ‘garden settlements’ in close proximity, strung along the A120 in north Essex. It will eventually total some 40,000 houses in what are now predominantly very rural areas.

The event was a conference called to created dialogue and share opinion. But…

…as I walked in, it became apparent (in the way it only really can to a native Briton) that those gathered were…err… not exactly socio-economically representative of the local population. The preponderance of country-wear, and the audibly plummy accents suggested that by far the majority of the audience of perhaps a couple of hundred were older members of the entitled tiers of society. Who else could find three hours on a regular Friday afternoon to attend such an event? Most of them seemed to know each other.

I have nothing at all against such people – except that they are, by default, representatives of that sector of society that has run this country as its own private club for at least a couple of centuries too long. They have as much right to their share of the nation and its activities as anyone else – but no more than that. And they most certainly are not representative of the nation as a whole.

They are, however, the people who have tended to do best for themselves out of this country’s extremely un-level playing field – and even by default they clearly intend to keep it that way. This does not make them nasty individuals – but they and their nnforebears are nonetheless collectively responsible for many of the gross inequalities that exist in this country. They were out in their masses primarily to defend their own, often-considerable demesnes.

It was also very noticeable that these are not the people whom one tends to encounter in the streets and shops of this area. Accent alone betrays that; I recognised very few, though I knew ‘of’ some by reputation. I suspect that they keep themselves very much to themselves in the many large rural piles that dot this area, networking amongst their kind, and they tend to go ‘up to Town’ for most of their needs. They represent the fact that this country’s privileged have never disappeared: they just went underground. Integrated into the local community they are not – but they still tend to be that portion that turns out to make its voice known at such events, and to get elected to district councils and the like, where they are well-represented.

They had certainly turned out in droves to object to the destruction of their own little patch of Arcadia.

Speaking to us were a range of planners, businessmen and politicians, including prominent Brexiter, Bernard Jenkin MP who to be fair, managed to squeeze out a relatively non-partisan introduction. The chair of a local district council made a speech. He explained rather abruptly that he has to do what the national government tells him – and that means building lots of houses. He did not explain why we need to have more than anyone else. He also seemed totally unaware that part of his function might be to listen to grass-roots views and convey them in the opposite direction. Local democracy seems not to think it needs to listen to local views, let alone defend local concerns, any more.

A number of competent planners and others spoke, who generally did a good job of explaining both the official and alternative planning policies. But most seemed to agree that the only way it is possible to extract any public benefit at all from developers is to agglomerate to a massive scale, otherwise they simply wriggle through the system’s many convenient loopholes. As much as 90% of the land value uplift from development (which might be used to fund improved amenities etc.) goes nowhere near the public domain of the areas that have such developments imposed on them.

The (new) head of the development consortium spoke authoritatively on his brief, in which he conceded that consultation has hitherto been woeful. One might wonder why. He sounded every inch the developer-magnate who has large schemes on the go all over the place. But the tenor of his speech was very much that the affair was wrapped up between central government, developers and land owners. He grudging conceded that “sometimes things do come out of consultation…” – and I wish his expression of the importance of the ‘collective interest’ had sounded more convincing…

There was absolutely no discussion of the actual nature and quality of what might eventually get built. For ‘ordinary people’ this is actually the prime concern: will the houses be affordable and make good, well-built homes? Will services and infrastructure be adequate? Will a good life be possible in those places? For them it will not be a merely technical exercise of provision. The consensus seemed to judge that there might be an outside chance of making it so, if only the developers could be reined in. Otherwise probably not.

The objection to building in this rural area is easy to understand. The past of record of this Home County sets a very poor precedent in terms of quality, location, infrastructure and architectural merit. What continues to be built on the edge of local towns is the worst kind of dislocated concrete (well, brick) jungle – the slums of the future. Developers latch onto what they believe to be attractive, saleable locations – and proceed to wreck them. Why should we believe that what what comes next will be any different?

There was a sense of futility about the proceedings – plenty of people with good ideas for improvements or alternative solutions – all of which will quite clearly be totally ignored by those who have already decided what will happen.

For me, the meeting was torpedoed at the outset by the chairman, who opined that there was no point in discussing what we could learn from good practice from other countries “since this is Britain”. It would have been much more worthwhile to spend the time dealing with that point alone.

And I came away with a saddeningly familiar sense of being a foreigner in my own country. No doubt they are all lovely people – but many were so obviously from a privileged clique, whose very enduring existence damages the wider social fabric of this nation. I could probably ‘assimilate’ if I wanted to – but I don’t. On the other hand, I feel just as disconnected from the voiceless and often coarsened ‘masses’ who were barely represented yesterday afternoon, and who would no doubt have perceived me as part of the ‘County’ clan. I will be against that wall just as quickly as the rest, should the revolution come.

I actually take my lead from the relatively classless, social-democratic societies of the near-continent – and there is no home for that, even today, in this country.

The conference was well worth attending – but I came away with the strong impression that between the entitled stake-holders (some of whom were known to be ‘interested’ land-owners), the technocracy of the professional developers – and the jungle of impenetrable procedure and legislation that they have created, the whole thing was one great stitch-up. Pretty much a good summary, when seen from a lay-person’s point of view, of the whole of this country.

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.