Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

It can’t be done

shires

Way back in the Nineties, the design team Richard Seymour and Dick Powell made a series of programmes for Channel 4, in which they fundamentally redesigned everyday products to improve both their functionality and aesthetics. The most memorable was Designs on Your Loo; the full programme can be watched here.

In it, they worked with Bradford-based sanitary-ware manufacturer Shires in an attempt to develop their product. The pair travelled the world in search of the cutting edge of WC design – and found it notably at that time in Japan. They brought their ideas back to the company – where they encountered a deep-seated resistance. At the time, the company was a long-standing and significant mid-market player producing a range of pseudo-traditional suites, complete with cheap wooden seats and ornate phoney-brass handles, all with dainty, faintly ridiculous ‘heritage’ names. There is a memorable moment in the film where one of the company’s managers proudly shows Seymour and Powell the extra-curly “design features” that the company added, supposedly to make the product more attractive. Powell was incredulous, observing that all it did was make the thing harder to clean. Design is not a matter of superficial curly bits.

As the duo persevered (with the rearguard support of Shires’ deflated one-man design team) against interfering but ignorant management, they did eventually produce a compromise product. The company then rolled this out with enough fanfare for a world-first. But for me, the abiding memory is of a significant British manufacturer whose methods and attitudes had not changed in decades – and which saw no need to do so. The Market, they said did not want anything new; the existing retro-range was sufficient; the risks were not worth taking.

The immediate response to new challenges was, “It can’t be done”.

This programme has stuck in my memory because it is a striking metaphor for this country’s wider difficulties.

In the past week, I have heard a UK-resident Dutch woman ranting about how this country is so far behind the curve when it comes to convenient and sustainable public transport. I have also had a meeting with representatives of a major building company, which gave a clear impression that corporately it was not interested in innovation. The implication was that the market will not support it – even though this part of the market was telling it to its face, quite the opposite.   It is the white-knicker argument all over again*.

It is also seen in the recently-released designs for the temporary House of Commons (needed while the original is (belatedly) refurbished). Rather than take the opportunity to experiment with a new format, the design is a copy of the original, a pastiche worthy of Shires. And let’s not even consider the passed-up opportunity to move parliament out to the regions for a while… Everything militates against change, even when the need for it is overwhelming.

The same attitude was manifest some months ago at a local planning forum that I attended. At the outset, the chairman said, “I will rule out of order any discussions of good practice in other countries: this is Britain we are dealing with”. And at a stroke, many excellent potential solutions were dismissed as unworkable. The aforementioned building company made the same comment a few days ago: “we need to work within the realities of the British context”.

Taken at face value, it is hard to argue. But even assuming it is not just a convenient excuse for inaction and short-termism, it does not deny the underlying problem: just why is the culture of this country so resistant to even desirable or urgent change? An Anglo-Italian contact of mine (currently resident in Italy) put it succinctly: “The British are too afraid to go out of their comfort zone”. It is an observation that could be used time and time again.

Sadly, the same mentality also seems to pervade our administrative functions: planning issues seem to encounter as much resistance there as from the developers. The building company mentioned earlier admits that it is partly cautious because it does not want to waste time developing designs that will be thrown out by ultra-conservative planning authorities – some of whom appear even to be selectively ignoring the more progressive parts of their own planning guidelines. I have encountered similar resistance myself – the impression is of an organisation paralysed by red-tape and stuck in a hidebound, backward-looking rut that stifles innovation.

I was first struck by the disconnect between attitudes in this country and the continent around the same time that the Seymour-Powell film was screened. I often returned (from Switzerland in particular) clutching innovations that I had found there, which were nowhere to be seen in the U.K. Some years later, the same things would appear in this country, where they would be loudly hailed as evidence of how cutting-edge the nation was. It covered everything from the arrival of IKEA (whose Chuck-out-the-Chintz approach was in itself telling), through the fads for silk shirts, mid-length shorts and Birkenstocks and a wide range of new technologies, to films (even some English language ones seemed to have had continental release before they came to the U.K.). I even noticed it in the use of vinyl design-graphics on the sides of lorries and trains: vehicles on the continent were multicoloured and cheery for years while ours were still boring white or brown.

There isn’t the space here to delve deeply into the psychology of why this should be so – but I suggest that the false perception that we are cutting-edge when we are actually often behind the curve, is yet another manifestation of the insularity that we as a nation aren’t even aware we suffer from. We simply don’t see enough of what is being developed elsewhere. The institutional resistance meanwhile is the product of a sclerotic system that hasn’t been properly shaken up for far too long, where the status quo is just too comfortable, the punters just too docile – and the fact that it is easier to produce a new sound-bite than a genuine innovation. It’s not that this country doesn’t produce innovators – but the frequency with which they still have to work abroad to succeed tells all.

Change can be uncomfortable – but it is sometimes necessary and always unavoidable: time moves forward, and things change. It’s called evolution. Often it brings benefits as well as problems: the trick is what you emphasise. The challenges are the same everywhere – and change for change’s sake  is not always good – though it can still be as good as a rest… But the real problem is one of receptiveness. Cultures that deny Change are themselves headed for extinction.

It is the same attitudes that are leading this country further and further up a blind, Brexit-induced alley: the mistaken belief that the Past is Best, that Britain Knows Best, that it is still leading the world, and can learn nothing from anywhere else. But when it comes to progressive change, It Can’t Be Done.

In the meantime, the world of sanitary-ware – as much else – has been captured by sleek continental designs from the likes of the German Duravit and Swiss Laufen. Companies that glory in bringing the latest designs and technologies to the market to improve people’s lives. A few British companies are now making cheap imitations, but that is all – and I don’t see them making much of the export headway that will be essential should Brexit finally happen.

The metaphor for the national mindset that was Shires went bust in 2009 – and I suspect the rest of the country is not far behind.

 

*The White Knicker argument: for many years Marks & Spencer said that they mainly sold white underwear because that was what their customers mainly bought…

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Midas Touch

mt

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.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

LSC01

Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of the earlier perspective.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

(previously posted on my blog Teaching Personally)

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Carpe Diem

gina-headshot-e1509375521711-600x404

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.

flags

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.