Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Silver lining?

Five and more years ago, as Brexit and other issues of the post-2008 crash world gathered an alarming pace, I like others found myself wondering, with some fear, what it was all leading to. It was not uncommon for parallels to be drawn with the eras pre-both world wars when things also seemed to be getting out of control. In a sense, we were right – something was coming – though of a nature that few suspected, and it was certainly something that cannot in its primary causes, be called a political crisis. Nonetheless, a crisis it was, and it certainly had a political dimension.

JB MacKinnon’s new book The Day the World Stops Shopping is part of a growing lexicon discussing what will be the shape of the post-pandemic world. He suggests that there have been several times in history where staring into an abyss was necessary to stimulate a ‘correction’ in the direction of humanity’s travel; maybe this is another. In which case, I suggest we have got off lightly – but I still hope he is right.

The Guardian’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, has also picked up on beneficial changes that may come from the Flight from the Office. Just maybe, some good will come of this ‘new localism’ for our hitherto madly imbalanced and atomised nation. By way of examples, here are some ways in which we, and our small community in East Anglia have been affected.

Five years ago, health considerations forced me to leave full-time employment. Like many, I had commuted out of our town each day, to work thirty miles away. What I never saw until that point was how deserted the place was during weekdays – populated very largely and scantly by the elderly – and young mothers. When I was on holiday, it was by definition the school holidays, which were, themselves untypical of the normal situation.

Particularly when a local convenience store moved to the edge of the town, the centre which a few years previously had always been if not buzzing, then certainly occupied, became practically deserted for hours on end. Since many people started working from home, this has noticeably changed. The regular Thursday market has never been so popular, with several new stalls appearing in recent months.

The photos (top and below – taken on a rather dull day) show two recent developments.

The greengrocer was doing such good business that he has now occupied a vacant shop, renovated it nicely, and now has a seven-day presence in the town: a good, useful local addition that will hopefully endure. The local travel agent also closed during the pandemic, and has not re-opened. In its place, a group of locals has pooled resources and opened a café which also supplies artificial flower arrangements. They opened just before the latest lockdown – but an outside kitchen window – what became known as the Cake Hole (on the left in the picture) – meant that they were able to serve take-away drinks and cakes throughout, while also renovating their inside seating space. They have single-handedly revived the town centre, with outdoor tables and nearby seating pretty much continually occupied during good weather. Passing groups of walkers and cyclists are also making regular pit-stops, and they have further plans for being even more of a community hub. Our town centre once again is an actively ‘inhabited’ place.

Less tangible, but still noticeable, is the sense that somehow the place is less deserted during the week than it used to be. There are more people visibly working at home and popping out into the streets as they need. The whole place feels a little more lived-in, in the way one senses in more clearly vibrant places often not in the U.K.

Changes have also affected us personally. While I now go out to teach again, just twice a week, my wife changed her employment over the winter, becoming a civil servant. Her new employer is in Nottingham, some 130 miles or two and a half hours away. But it has been agreed that she will work permanently from home, with just the occasional trips to H.Q., thus allowing her to accept a position that would previously either been unviable or have meant an unplanned relocation. Others in her team are in Bristol, Newcastle and South Wales, and our home often echoes to a cocktail of (admittedly disembodied) regional accents…

In my own case, most of my non-classroom activity now takes place at home (as it often did, but not any longer during the evenings and weekends…) and I communicate with my students and colleagues remotely. I wonder whether there is a template here that could help to address the risks of burnout in the teaching profession, that ‘got’ me back in 2016.

I wonder how many times this story will be replayed over the coming years, and it may lead for many to improved job opportunities and greater job satisfaction, yet without the need to relocate. It is potentially very good news for all those small places up and down the country, that have been hollowed out in recent years to become dormitory settlements. My wife is now another person present during the day, while the loss of her commute means a combination of more productive time and more to engage in the community where she actually lives. We also (happily!) spend more time together, not least over morning coffee and lunch most days. And we no longer need to get up at ungodly hours.

Despite the social pressure during the last decade or two to claim that one lived for one’s work, it seems that these changes have revealed the truth: far fewer really relished office life or the long commutes that if often required. Maybe this is the opportunity we needed for a real, substantial improvement in the quality of British life.

In many ways, our work-life balance has improved hugely as a result; it is true that not everyone (including teachers) can work permanently from home – but the shift that has occurred has affected enough people that is has still has brought wider benefits, and may yet bring more, if it can become embedded. (It occurred to me some days ago that before the industrial revolution, many people worked at home, so in a sense, this is just a return to a much older way of doing things). We could go a lot further: MacKinnon’s book concerns much wider ecological actions; perhaps this is just the beginning. With any luck, this is the point at which we can start to appreciate the quality of life, rather than just the quantity, as he argues we need to, in order to become properly sustainable.

 Perhaps we have finally learned that life on the hamster wheel is neither very desirable nor beneficial. In which case, the pandemic will be proved to have a real silver lining.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

Will the new “British Railways” be truly Great?

It is hardy news that the British national sense of self has taken a battering in the past half-decade – but in fact, the decline has been going on for far longer than that. It is deeply ironic that the political party that claims to represent most strongly the national sentiment has been most instrumental in demolishing many of the physical expressions of that nationhood, which spoke to people of a coherent sense of community no matter where they happened to live.

A nation exists to a significant extent in the minds of those who experience it; symbolism is important for fostering a sense of common identity and belonging. That in turn is important for creating familiarity with, and loyalty to, a national identity in a way that can embrace the multiple individual identities and ways of life that co-exist in any nation. Done well, they can become a source of shared pride in the institutions that we all use.

I wonder if the politicians who have spent the last four decades fragmenting and privatising most of the key institutions of this country realised what they were dismantling; not only was the disposal of the “family silver” often done at a huge mark-down, but in the process, many of the institutions that embodied the national identity of this country were abolished. We lost a sense of national infrastructure, and a significant part of our sense of cohesion as a result. I am by no means a nationalist by inclination, but that does not prevent me from regretting the way in which this nation’s symbolic institutions have been destroyed in a way that others have not permitted. Having a national “sense of self” need not be incompatible with internationalism, even if some see it otherwise: what I would like to feel about this country is that it can look its peers in the eye as equals, neither better nor worse than they.

This is not about the economic performance of sometimes-inefficient state enterprises, though experience has shown that their private replacements have been only a patchy improvement at best – but the fact that in breaking them up, an important intangible quality of nationhood was also lost. It is perhaps telling that the only one that remains reasonably intact, the NHS, has increasingly become a focus for precisely such national pride.

The infrastructure of a nation needs to stand for more than shallow commercialism; it is a statement of confidence and pride in that nation. It also represents one of the relatively few ways in which citizens can interact directly with the machinery of the State. As such, I have always felt that things like hospitals, schools, post offices and railway stations merited the best ‘identities’ that could be devised: national ikons of sorts.

If that sounds bizarre to British ears, then I can only suggest that we have become so used to seeing such interactions as a simple economic race to the bottom, that we no longer perceive the more symbolic value of belonging that can be a part of them.

Unfortunately, the organs of the British state were run down for years before they were abolished; their supposed inefficiencies were hardly surprising given the low and intermittent nature of their funding. Even in our small town of 5000, the local post office was a civic space; sadly, in its latter years it was neglected to a point of semi-decrepitude, and then replaced by a ‘position’ on the counter of a local convenience store. True to name, its extended hours are indeed convenient – but the loss of civic pride and focus was nonetheless the price we paid. Across the nation, Post Offices have been dumbed down until their civic function was all but unnoticeable.

Another major expression of this idea is the national rail network – but a quarter of a century after it too was privatised, dismantled and fragmented, it seems there is finally hope of a better future. The recent Williams-Shapps report seems to have accepted that fragmentation was a mistake, and that there is a need to re-establish a coherent, national institution.

There has already been plenty of criticism from both left and right; for some, nothing short of full renationalisation will do, while for others, anything that impedes red-blooded commercial competition is anathema. There is plenty of detail to be worked out in the next couple of years, but what matters to me is the fact that we may get a unified national institution back. And that ought to be good for the nation’s sense of self, in the way that Scotrail has become an emblem north of the border.

I’m not hung up on who ultimately runs such institutions and am not unsympathetic to the suggestion that commercial innovation is not something the State does well on its own; maybe there is indeed a place for partnership with the private sector. But I am most definitely unsympathetic to the notion that communal aspects of the State’s identity and purpose should be run solely has hard-driven commercial operations – not least because they have little or no time for the more symbolic values mentioned above. The establishment of a national co-ordinating body (even one with the naff “Great” on the front of the obvious British Railways) is a recognition that railways are inherently an integrated network, whose purpose is more societal than commercial.

If they get the branding and wider planning right, in due course we may end up with a national carrier to be as proud of as the Swiss are of theirs. The signs are again promising: the retention and up-dating of the classic double arrow symbol and the re-adoption of the Rail Alphabet font. Yes, these are seemingly-superficial aspects of a much more profound restructuring – but they can hopefully become the “shop window” for what could become a matter of national pride. I just hope that the final designs are as sleek and forward-looking as the best continental equivalents, and not some horrible, fake-heritage return to the “golden age of the Big Four” pre 1947, or some bombastic confection that majors on in-your-face Union Jacks. There are more subtle ways – but on this, I am less confident…

The key things needed are adequate funding, long-term certainty and operational freedom; if those are delivered, it will indeed be progress in this short-termist nation. The signs are surprisingly good – we now need to see them converted into practice, with simpler ticketing, more coherent timetables and trains designed for quality not capacity-maximisation. Whether the private sector will be sufficiently interested in fixed-profit concessions remains to be seen, though it presently seems they will: after the Covid bail-outs, they are in no position to argue.

Equally, it should be made impossible for them to boost their profits by cost-cutting, which is inevitably reflected in the quality of the service. I am encouraged to see this government (which I mostly despise) accepting that state oversight of state assets is a desirable thing, in the name of public service. I think that is a more major shift in mindset than has yet been realised, and it would be good to see it extended to other sectors. Covid has made clear the necessity of good public infrastructure, and the limits of the commercial sector for providing it. If a sweet spot can be found whereby private-sector skills are harnessed for the public good, in return for a reasonable payment, that is indeed very encouraging, and I think ideologically acceptable.

The key thing is that the public interest (for which read the state) that should be calling the shots, not opportunist private profiteers. That includes valuing the more symbolic aspects of national life that have been ignored for far too long: when I am moving around the country, I want to feel as though I am in the care of the State in which I travel, not just a figure on a private company’s spreadsheet.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Moment Zero

Image result for moment zero

I’ve seen it said that adult life is U-shaped. Wellbeing that is – which makes one’s fifties, by all accounts, the pits. No doubt this stage in life has always been one of realisation and readjustment – but I think that those of us presently at it are, by the standards of an advanced society, having it more than a bit rough.

People who were born a decade or more earlier than us experienced the full benefits of the new Welfare State and real social mobility through the Sixties and early Seventies; they too, who benefited from uplift in property prices in the following decades. People ten or more years younger than us have yet to realise what awaits them, while still having some of the benefits of a youth passed in Nineties, and perhaps more natural inhabitants of a commercialised age where everything has its price and principles are worth little. They may yet learn.

Those of us born in the Sixties grew up with our parents’ expectations of the welfare-state nation, but also with the decline and strife of the late Seventies, an endless cycle of economic decline and industrial conflict. From it emerged the Neo-Liberalism of the Thatcher years – just as we were entering the workforce. For a while, it really did seem to be creating new optimism; for those willing and able to ride the “greed is good, no such thing as society” mantra, there were rich pickings – and the legacy mindset of ruthless egotism that has dogged this country ever since. The rest spent our working lives in a period when labour laws were rolled back, and the authority of employers strengthened –their ballooning incomes in the deregulated economy simultaneously pushing up the cost of living – read housing – for the rest.

Thirty years on, we are also the first generation to be feeling the consequences: that whose health is beginning to turn, yet whose retirement seems less secure than for several previous generations; who – if the wave of stress-related mental health is anything to go by – are burned out by decades of long hours, long commutes and unremitting pressure in that deregulated workplace – yet who have also found (as I did) that support is all but non-existent. Not all of us were able to make a killing in a decade and retire in our thirties…

What is more, it’s now our turn to be the ones with elderly parents to support. All part of life’s cycle of course – except that the State no longer offers the support it once did; retirement ages are heading upwards, while Care for the elderly has been pared back and privatised. One relative’s life savings went on paying for her last years; there are others possibly heading in the same direction. If you are neither wealthy enough to bear this, nor destitute enough to qualify for meagre state aid, you are in an unenviable position: prudence on modest means is, it seems, penalised. Even the one small silver lining of losing the older generation – the inheritance and security that may follow – now seems less and less likely when such accumulated family wealth as there is, has all been spent on old age care. Not, I hasten to add, that I would for a moment deny those people what they need in their final years.

On top of all that has come major societal upheaval. I was nine when Britain joined what became the EU; during my early adulthood that offered optimism, much of which came to pass. It was the EU that permitted extended travel to other countries, opening eyes to different ways of life; it was the EU that eventually brought a similar material standard of living to this country; it was the EU that brought blue flags to British beaches, that replaced the Highland goat tracks seen on childhood holidays with proper modern roads and regional investment. It was the EU that facilitated the large number of cultural interactions I had with the continent, not least thanks to the mindset of constructive engagement that it created.

But now all that is gone. Sadly, it is precisely this de-insularisation that Brexiters seek to reverse. Those of us who regret it will no doubt try to continue as before, though we are inevitably impacted by changes in travel and trading arrangements. But the mindset of the country is turning inward; there are too many who never experienced those benefits of EU membership or who acquired the resultant mindset, and I expect this country gradually to retreat further into its old, inward-looking ways. And so we are likely, too, to be spending the final third of our lives in a society from whose values we feel increasingly alienated.

Then came the Pandemic, the impact of which on the U.K. I hardly need to describe. Suffice it to say that it mercilessly revealed the weaknesses of every nation – only in our case, there seem to have been many more than most of the population believed. In many ways, it has highlighted a doubt I have harboured for much of my life: that the U.K. is a dated place, ill-equipped to provide most of its people with the benefits of the modern age.

Evidence for this is everywhere to be seen, from the obsession with national “heritage”, to the enduring social snobbery. It is there in the failure to recognise the glaring inequalities of the country as incompatible with civilised modern values, its acceptance of them as some kind of ‘natural order’ and its utter failure to realise that life is not like this everywhere. It is there in the belief that life for the many is an unavoidable grind. Yet it is Britain that is abnormal; it is possible to make far more just societies than this. People in Germany, for instance, do not need to blow their life savings to cope with old age; and they still have a meaningful degree of workplace and social protection from insecurity.

Britain’s worst failure after the War was to fail to move on; all its ruling class wanted to do was to reassert the hegemony of earlier times. Despite the real advances made by the Welfare State, most of life in this country since has been about the reassertion of the ancient privileges of class, inheritance, and wealth that never really went away. Certainly, the message changed: the ruling class realised that its best chance of survival lay in changing the tone, while lying low with the reality. The same elite recognised that the main threat to its existence was the EU and its promotion of real social democracy; the more evident this became, the more strident its opposition did too. Its real achievement – as always – was to steer the national story away from its own negligence and to blame ‘Brussels’ for every national ill.

In hindsight, my own Moment Zero has been coming for several years. My increased involvement in local affairs has revealed the extent to which the old Establishment interests still control even this small part of the country. The views and assumptions, the sheer sense of entitlement I have encountered belonged, as I believed, to another era – but no, they are still going strong. These are the interests that run this country, largely for their own benefit – and still believe they have a divine right to do so.

My teaching of Politics has reinforced an impression of a governmental system whose interest was in hanging onto as much elite power and privilege as it could. The interest it feigned in democracy and social justice was just that: a charade designed to ensure that the nation did not notice how little it was giving away. It is still like it; the experience of both Brexit and the Pandemic have shown the bombastic complacency with which that elite largely behaves. And yet much of the nation just accepts that its elected parliamentarians are deeply unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. It is just how things are…

It is not always intentionally malign: those people too simply found on this planet what they did. But it is embedded beyond help: even those I know, who express democratic concern – seemingly genuinely, seem to fail to recognise the sense of entitlement that underlies the assumptions about their own position in the order of things. Real understanding would make no such assumptions.

The simple fact is, this country is socially, politically and economically outdated, and decrepit beyond repair – and the more obvious this becomes, the more openly those elites act to protect their own positions, be that through blatant cronyism or strident nationalism. The replacement of the EHIC card and ERASMUS educational programmes with UK equivalents is a de facto admission that such (European) things were inherently worth having; but now they need the nationalist coercion of a Union Jack on the cover. That is the whole point: as the cracks widen and the national deception becomes unignorable, the louder will the establishment trumpet the nationalist story that it has always used to sustain it.

I am now more aware than ever that the first half-century of my life has in effect been lived through one enormous national lie: namely that we were living in the pre-eminent, democratic, liberal democracy that had a genuine commitment to equality and opportunity for all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It has taken time, age and ‘events’ finally to shine a light sufficiently strong to see that Britain’s national story is every bit as fake as those it tends to condemn in what it considers to be lesser countries. The narrative that I could not help but grow up with from 1964 onwards is actually the self-deception of an enduringly feudal society that still consents to the hegemony of a wealthy, hereditary elite which runs the place on a cocktail of aristocratic indolence, neglect, appeals to history and raw self-interest. It has utterly failed to modernise the country as was needed to bring it up to the same social democratic standards as our near neighbours; indeed, it has bolstered its own position by its opposition to this. It has failed to accept that a modern nation’s people exist to be anything more than a dumb work force to be exploited for one’s own enrichment, let alone people who need to be liberally educated, given decent standards and a real say in the running of the nation. But all that sounds, of course, “dangerously socialist” and is publicly condemned as such, by those whose interests oppose it.

Sufficient time has also elapsed to see the real impact of their policies; privatisation, we were told, would drive up standards and lead to more choice for all. In reality, it has made rentier activity more profitable than salaried. It turns out private companies abhor the much-vaunted competition; what they really seek is monopoly – captive markets that can be differentiated and milked for all they are worth – luxury and obsequiousness for those who can pay the premium; barely-concealed disdain and low-cost rubbish for everyone else. This is what we largely got, and it has reinforced social and wealth disparities as a result. Those who benefitted from the resultant massive social injustices were largely those with pre-existing wealth to invest in companies or property – in other words, that self-same establishment. The whole thing was one huge exercise in re-asserting elite establishment power at the expense of everyone else.

They tried to impose it on the continent too – the most fervent advocate of the Single Market was one Margaret Thatcher – but when it failed to dent European social capitalism, they lost interest, and finally took their moment to pull us out…

But the cat is out of the bag. Events of recent years have made the failings all but unignorable, and the level of social debate and disillusionment in the UK seems higher than ever. Even the Establishment’s precious Union is under threat, now that the Scots see the iniquity of the whole thing.

My own parents were no pillars of the Establishment; active socialists in their youth, yet ultimately, they never found the need to ask the profound questions about the nature of the country we lived in, that seem to be happening today. The self-interest of the elite is clearer than it has been for generations, likewise its real attitudes to the rest of us. The wealth disparities are unignorable; so is the physical and constitutional neglect of much of the country – its inability to cope with recent events all too obvious. That backward-looking clique may yet have sowed the seeds of its own destruction by failing to accommodate the needs and mood of a growing (and young) sector of the population.

What’s more, it can’t rely on insularity any more – those of us who have seen the reality of other countries know just how inappropriate the UK’s reality really is, and how much harm it does to the people here, who can’t see for themselves because they have never been allowed to.

When the educated sector of society no longer perceives its interest to lie in the status quo, time is often up for national elites. I feel more disorientated than ever about the place and the time where I have lived; it is hard to know what to believe when more and more of the Panglossian “truth” one grew up with is exposed as a sham. And the peak of this is the utterly British belief that “such things don’t happen here”. Well, maybe…

Those who have lived in Europe in the past 75 years have little to complain about when compared with the previous two millennia, let alone human experience across the wider world; such is the deception of modern comfort. And yet I cannot help but feel that this moment is significant, whether just in my own life or more widely – when the shackles finally fall from one’s eyes and the truth is revealed. Truth that suggests to me that this country needs to start again and rebuild from the ground up, as our neighbours did from the late ‘40s.

This country has had far too much of its fabled security and pragmatism; in tis complacency, it has failed to evolve as it needed to, and recent events have shown that to be an almost incontrovertible truth. It needs its own ZMOT (Zero Moment of Truth) from which something much better might emerge. Sadly, the renewed jingoism of the ruling class is hardly a cause for optimism; even less so, the willingness of a significant proportion of the nation to jump on board. But one thing has changed forever: I no longer believe the old myth, that this country is somehow a special, favoured, uniquely honourable place where truly bad things never happen. It might not make life more comfortable, but perhaps it is a necessary insight for the start of life’s upswing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The great marshmallow test.

Walter Mischel first conducted the marshmallow test in 1972. Its significance lay in the correlation between the ability of children to delay their gratification for eating a marshmallow to wait for two later, and a range of later-life outcomes, ranging from career and relationship success to physical health.

I am currently reading a newly-published book, Chatter, by Ethan Kross, who turns out to be one of Mischel’s former students. His own research has been into the impact of people’s inner voices on their functioning, when they get out of control. This is a matter of interest to me after my own ‘adventures’ in mental health over the past few years, and more generally from my work as a teacher. Krall’s proposes that finding ways of mentally distancing oneself from difficulties and viewing them from a wider “zoomed-out” perspective, has the effect of diminishing their immediacy. It is what we do when we replace gut reaction with more objective understanding. It seems plausible.

I could not help myself from applying the idea to other contexts. My own humanities background has always made me interested in what makes places and peoples tick. As a geographer, I have always been fascinated by local behavioural distinctiveness, so I rather instinctively look at the social ‘health’ of whole nations from a similar perspective.

This train of thought was set rolling again recently by a finding that has found that serious drunkenness is significantly more prevalent in the U.K. than almost any other developed country. While there will no doubt be a range of views on the seriousness of this, I take the view that the need of a society to escape from itself may considered a sociopathology and an indicator of less than good societal health. The fact that many in the U.K. may not take this as seriously as I do is perhaps more of a symptom than a cure: no matter what one’s attitudes, the indisputable truth is that alcohol abuse causes multiple negative health outcomes, and that is without considering its wider social and economic costs, or the psychological forces that drive it. I find it easy to conclude that the perceived need of many people in this country to escape from reality quite possibly says something important about the quality of the lives they feel the need to escape from. Such things are not always apparent unless one has a reliable comparator, such as conditions in other countries. We are not talking about a little convivial tipsiness here – though the line between the two is less clear than I suspect many think…

My train of thought took me yet  further, to the ongoing criticisms of the British government for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. While I have no wish to excuse possibly the worst bunch of national ‘leaders’ this country has had in generations, I do not think it is reasonable to pile all of the blame at their door. In a country of 68 million people, a handful of politicians can only do so much. Even in my own relatively kindly small community, I have repeatedly witnessed pandemic-related behaviours that I find hard to attribute to anything other than diminished responsibility on the part of their perpetrators.

What’s more, we are daily regaled with reports of the ‘damage’ that the current situation is doing to everything from the nation’s economy to wealth disparities to young people’s mental health. All the time, the tendency is to attribute this to governmental incompetence; what I see is buck-passing on an epic scale: just another sign of a society that was not in good general health even before the pandemic struck.

It struck me that the pandemic is in effect one huge marshmallow test. Whole societies are being asked to put their lives on hold in the biggest test of deferred gratification ever conducted – and just as with the children in the original survey, outcomes differ. It may not be stretching the point too far to suggest that those societies that have coped with the strictures comparatively well are in better collective health than those that have not; the implications for the UK (and perhaps the USA) are obvious.

If there is any substance to this, then we need to look for reasons why it may be so. I do not think they are hard to find: the report on drunkenness perhaps gives the game away. People in the UK subconsciously see routine, everyday life as something they need to escape from; this may speak volumes about those lives, the balance of hardships and rewards within them, the opportunities people feel they have – even the physical environments which they inhabit – all things repeatedly identified as social ills present in the U.K. It may say a great deal about the resultant social attitudes of those people with respect to their own ‘agency’, their sense of personal responsibility, and towards those who govern or otherwise constrain them.

The current problem is not hard to understand: a force of nature that is both highly infectious and quite widely lethal. While one should not disregard the functional conflicts that for instance force people into unsafe workplaces, there have still been very many acts that were arguably nothing more than wanton irresponsibility seen in the light of the Covid facts. They range from large, illicit gatherings to individual acts of low empathy that reflect a simple lack of self-control.

The opinion-pieces in the press bemoaning the loss of the social whirl; the reaction to the intended Christmas relaxation, and its subsequent cancelling – all reflect a reluctance to accept that we cannot do what we want – not what we need. Social contact is certainly important (for some) – but not if you are dead. And the key to surviving the pandemic lies above all in an inner resourcefulness and grit that seems never to have developed in many.

The whole point of learning to defer gratification is the ability to accept that life does not revolve around one’s own immediate urges; that one cannot always have what one wants just when one wants it, even for one’s own good. It means drawing on one’s inner resources to cope with this. This might have been considered an unremarkable point of adult maturity – but it seems that many people struggle with it. It is also a lynchpin for stable societies.

Underpinning deferred gratification is an inability to distance oneself from wider circumstances, particularly when they are adverse. And behind that, in turn, is a need to develop the mental resilience that comes from a fully mature mindset. Similar expressions of this can be found in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s work on the nature of Flow: the finding that people flourish in conditions where they are challenged sufficiently but not excessively. Having an overly easy life takes you nowhere worthwhile, and leaves you lacking in resourcefulness when times get hard. The chart below explains this:

Part of Flow is recognising the necessity to defer gratification if significant fulfilment is ever to be achieved. This is why athletes and musicians amongst others discipline themselves to train so long and hard. It involves learning to accept short-term setbacks – and even the fact that “success” may never be guaranteed at all. It is also what traditional approaches to education were based on – the need to study long and hard in order to reach a higher state of rational understanding. Its pinnacle may perhaps be seen in the philosophy of the Stoics, which accepted that life can be tragic, and our best salvation lies in learning to accept that fact rather than rage against it. In effect, permanently deferred gratification.

This seems to be an insight that has escaped modern society at large – it is too busy throwing the toys of its indulged lifestyle out of its pram. How else can one understand people complaining about their lost social lives while so many are dying? The inner resourcefulness that might provide a coping mechanism is just not there; though easy, blaming it on others is not the answer.

 It is impossible to separate the various effects of the pandemic’s impact – but it seems to me that a lot of the problems being reported may well be not so much due to unavoidable hardship, but of people not being able to cope with the suspension of things they want rather than need to do. (I suspect those suffering real hardship are largely not shouting at all).

This explains everything from the huge numbers of people on beaches last summer, to the relish with which people surged out after previous lockdowns were eased, to the thousands of small indiscretions where people prove unwilling to alter what they want to do in the light of what they ought to do. No matter that the real risk (infection, as opposed to law-breaking) has not gone away.  It may be easy to pass blame to others, but this is nothing more than evading responsibility for that inability to defer gratification. Likewise, focussing on what is or is not allowed as opposed to what is medically prudent, is a displacement activity used to avoid the need to look at harder truths. To be fair, this does now seem to be sinking in – but did we really have to get to this point for it to do so?

Why has this affected some societies harder than others? I suspect the answer lies in many very long-term factors in the social climate of varying countries.

Much has been made of the stark contrast between the experiences of the UK and Japan, in the context that these two island societies are often quite good comparators. I suspect the reason for Japan’s better experience lies in its culture of scrupulous hygiene, its fabled rituals of social respect and its resultant willingness to comply. Its religious background is close to Buddhism, with associated philosophy of transcendence. These things are all quite different in the UK. The reasons for this lie too far back in this nation’s development to discuss in detail here – but the country’s trajectory over the past few decades has finally been shown to be the pernicious and socially-unhealthy one that it really is.

Prime amongst the culprits is the excessive commercialisation of society. The incursion of the profit motive into almost every aspect of British life has had unremarked impacts on the nation psyche. The often-gratuitous selling on which recreational consumption depends – relies on people doing anything but deferring their gratification. Advertising actively encourages people to yield to their every passing urge, and to do it immediately. It promotes a self-focused, first-person perspective on life, which Kross has correlated with increased risks and impacts of mental anguish. It encourages people not to think hard about what they are doing, or the longer-term consequences. Over time, this – coupled with the infantilising effect that it has on adult mentalities – has greatly damaged the nation’s ability to act defer its collective gratification. Anything that requires it appears a catastrophe in its own right.  The hysteria and outrage that accompany situations where demands are not met is evidence of the depth of the harm being done. The fact that some have started to reflect on their past behaviours is welcome – but is itself evidence that they were perhaps functioning on (commercially-driven) autopilot in the past. Whether new resolve will endure remains to be seen.

It may be argued that the impacts of rampant commerce are not restricted just to a few countries; this is true – but its perniciousness is not the same everywhere, as it interacts with wider social norms and attitudes. Even today, for example, many German shops close on Saturday afternoons, since shopping is simply not seen as the leisure activity that it is in the UK and the USA. It is a functional necessity, but it does not occupy a central place in people’s attention.

I suspect that another factor is the degree of cultural introversion or extroversion in different countries. Those that appear to value extroversion, such as the USA and increasingly the UK, may be finding the loss of interaction harder to cope with than those with more introverted cultures and a higher degree of self-reliance. These are, however, skills and outlooks that can be cultivated, given determination.

My own field of education might have been expected to be the main antidote to this problem. But it too has been re-cast in quasi-commercial terms in recent decades. This has not only affected the obvious marketisation of institutions, but also the culture within them. The emphasis on (marketised) results has narrowed what may be reasonably taught; the need for “consumer” satisfaction has reduced the risks taken by teachers, for example where work needs to be hard, and gratification deferred – in favour of making sessions “fun” – for which read instantly-accessible, undemanding trivia. The more challenging philosophical subjects have been marginalised in favour of those which deliver practical skills and employability – hardly unimportant, but we have created a workforce-society whose emphasis is on the purely functional, and which lacks the mental-philosophical insight or resolve to rise to demanding circumstances.

And above all, it lacks the ability to differentiate between that which might reasonably be blamed on an incompetent government and that which is the failure of individual personal responsibility. Known epidemiological fact suggests to me that it is the latter which has actually been the main reason for the severe impact of Covid in this country: we simply have created a society that lacks the resolve and ability to respond in the required way. We have emphasised personal indulgence at the expense of social cohesion and created a national infrastructure that was configured to operate along quasi-commercial principles and that cannot respond to the current circumstances. Anything that did not, was allowed to wither.

As with individual health, the wellbeing of societies is not a matter of personal opinion: there are behaviours that are more or less healthy, which promote greater or lesser long-term flourishing. The British have a primitive self-understanding in this respect – and attempting to normalise the symptoms, for example by having a light attitude for mass drunkenness, is an expression of the problem, not the solution.

The simple fact is, the British people have collectively proved unable to resist the ‘marshmallow’ even when the risk is widespread death. Some other nations did not. As in the original test, the longer-term consequences are widely significant.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Not the end.

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.

Similarly, you can’t choose the nation you were born into – but there’s nothing that says you have to like it.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the ‘Brexit wars’, I declared that if Brexit ever happened, I would disown my nationality. I was fully expecting, today, to be eating my words – not because it didn’t happen, but because the futility of such a position would become overwhelming.

You can’t deny where you were born, and even if you do take different nationality, that place and your formative years there will continue to shape you throughout your life. Neither can you ignore the practicalities of the place where you live, which for personal and practical reasons will continue, for me, to be Great Britain.  It is not possible to ignore the requirements of one’s place of abode, so I will have little choice but to comply with the obligations of life this country.

Yet I am not going to eat my words – not out of pedantry, but because I find that they accurately reflect the reality of my life, and a process that has in fact been going on for many years. I find myself living in a country with whose regular culture, values and destiny I feel little affinity. All Brexit has done is to affirm that once and for all.

There were three defining points of my life in this respect: our childhood caravan holidays the length and breadth of the continent later followed up through Interrail; my deepening acquaintance from the mid-1980s with that most contradictory of European nations, Switzerland – and my multiple visits to the European Parliament, beginning at about the same time.

Even from those early days, I found poly-nationalism exciting and invigorating; never threatening in the way it seems a large segment of the British population still does. The discovery of new ways was liberating, not intimidating. Ever since I first broke bread round multinational tables, I knew this would be an important aspect of my life. It is one that Britain does not subscribe to even today; even much British “Europeanism” revels in a kind of novel exceptionalism that is anything but the real thing. (If you think Europeanism is all glossy cosmopolitanism, visit La France Profonde, or the Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples…)

My/our life today has little to do with mainstream British culture, and this is never more sharply evident than at Christmas. Being a typical British ‘bloke’ holds nothing for me. We gave up on TV decades ago, we are not interested in the mainstream music scene; we don’t do junk food, recreational shopping (seasonal or otherwise) or binge drinking. We do not dress in the scruffy, dishevelled way that is the national norm. Sport and soap operas leave us cold. But neither do we do the indulgent self-gratification of the “metropolitan elite”. Our lives are genuinely materially and culturally as influenced at least as much by what we know from elsewhere as anything from the U.K., but not for show, just for what we want and need to be.

Ever since those windows opened onto wider European life, I have increasingly doubted that the U.K. was anything like the exceptional place to live that its majority seems to think. For anyone who values civic and cultural life, even the equal dignity of all human lives, there are plenty of other places that achieve for their general citizenry a much better, and more enlightened, quality of life than this snobbery (and inverse-snobbery)-ridden one. For anyone who values cultural richness, much of the everyday experience of this country is a desert of cheapness, gimmick and disposability.

Mainstream British culture is saccharine: pulp fed to keep the masses quiet – and spending. This is a complacent nation, that would rather wallow in cloying sentiment than briskly address the realities of the age in which we live. Yet at the same time, there is little respect for real tradition or rootedness of the sort that still informs identities in many other countries – the majority here seem to prefer Disneyland, where a sanitised plastic version has replaced the real, earthy, ancient roots. This is a country that prefers to live a consumerist fantasy, while letting the many, many issues that are making it increasingly dysfunctional go unaddressed. That, after all, is the root cause of Brexit.

Covid has revealed the extent to which British civil and communal life has been withered by commercialism, commuting and long hours. The pressures have been the same everywhere – but some nations defended their cultural positions more vigorously than others. The British, having almost no other strong sense of who they are or what they stand for, simply caved in.

The effect of decades of post-Thatcherite individualism killed meaningful civil society in Britain, as has the resultant struggle for survival experienced by many as neo-liberalism cut away more and more of the civic and social infrastructure, flogging it to the private sector for a song. I struggle to identify with a country that treats its civic institutions in this way, that sees them as a source of private profit rather than collective pride and utility – and that avoids paying the taxes to sustain them. I experienced it at first hand in the lack of financial or healthcare support in my own moment of need in 2016 – and am seeing it again as it institutionally fails to cater adequately for elderly members of my own extended family in theirs.

These are real, not imagined, fractures of perspective and values over the dignity and experience of life, between the continent and the island; I see how real people fare elsewhere, and I know which I prefer. I’m not naïve enough to ignore the failures of other countries – indeed I am more confident in my views for having seen their grotty bits too – but my repeated and extended impression remains that those with whom we might reasonably compare  have not fallen as far; they still have more balanced lives and higher-minded ideals than most Britons; they have a stronger instinct to protect their social and civic infrastructure from predation and decline.

I know this country well; there is little of it I have never visited – unlike the “patriotic” part of the population that often scarcely seems to know any of it at all. As a geographer, I perhaps have more understanding of these islands’ natural marginality, in a way that the national culture chooses to ignore, let alone properly address.

This land has its natural assets, though that is hardly something its inhabitants can claim credit for – unlike their growing destruction. But from its bombastic and overblown capital, through the faceless “traditional” suburbs, to the desolation and decay of its more distant regions, I find there is little to admire about how the British live, or how they run their country. Its fabled pragmatism is in reality nothing more than an absence of higher ideals or imagination.

Inanity is now this nation’s defining characteristic – as most obviously seen in its inability to cope with the discipline required to deal with Covid. What worse indictment could there be of the nation than its track record on that score?

For me, ‘Europe’ has always been primarily a cultural matter: the embodiment (even if imagined, which in a sense is all culture ever is…) of a set of values that deliver a culturally rich, meaningful, and balanced society and life for as many as possible, that has never really existed in this country in my lifetime. At least, not if you do not belong to its ancient elite, or its new hangers-on, who have milked the country for all they can get.

The politics of Europe were simply the logical extension of a force which I had always hoped would shape this country for the better. I still think it did that – even though the mass of the population seems not to have noticed – and nowhere near as much as it could have, had it wholeheartedly embraced Europeanism as “just another European nation”.

This blog, and the Living Europe Facebook group have been founded on such values and beliefs. The blog title Sprezzatura was deliberately chosen for its connotations of a well-judged, authentic and original “good life” – but taken far beyond its origins in men’s style.

As with feelings about families and friendships, a modern sense of nationality cannot be commanded; thoughtful people see through the artifice which did that in the past. You have to earn loyalty, not demand it. In that respect, the end of 2020 marks the moment when this country decisively turned away from my own values and aspirations, needs and ideals. Why would it expect me to feel otherwise than as described above?

In that sense, I today am cutting any personal ‘interest’ I have in this country; I will do what is required to live here and nothing more – with the single exception of anything that may help to reverse the madness of its current direction. I shall ignore the chime of 11pm this evening; I will continue as before – but any personal ‘investment’ I might give to the place where I reside has now gone.

Despite my provincial English roots, I became a European, and this I shall remain, whatever the new political realities. Unlike the unavoidable practicalities, identity-loyalty cannot be commanded, only earned.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Beware of the sharks.

They say some species of shark can never stop swimming. They require forward movement to force water through their gills and hence breathe. Even if apocryphal, the story has some useful applications.

Around five years ago, our local independent garden centre closed, leaving a large, increasingly derelict space on the edge of our small town, about half a mile from the centre. It was not long before pinstripe-clad fins were spotted in the area.

At about the same time, a group of local residents was coming together to create a Neighbourhood Plan under the then-government’s localism agenda. The aim of these things is to build local control (shark nets?) into the statutory planning procedure.

It was a long and complex job, that took several years to complete, and this week it appears that it has cleared its final hurdle before going out to local referendum. This is quite a coincidence, because it is the very same week when a building company has launched its marketing campaign for the fifty or so Noddy houses that it is currently building on the site of the former garden centre.

Throughout the intervening period, the Neighbourhood Plan team put considerable effort into engaging with first the land agents promoting the site, and then the building company that bought it. Their aspiration was to produce an architecturally innovative, environmentally-sustainable development which would steer the emphasis away from car-reliance and create a model for the area.

I had several meetings with one of the pinstripe sharks as part of this process, and to begin with, the noises were smoothly consensual. But then the site was sold on, and the building company that bought it refused to engage with the local group. The excuses why certain things “couldn’t be done” mounted.  As a result, we have been left with just another cloned housing estate, planned entirely around the car with, apparently, the blessing of the local authority’s planners who still require major consideration for multiple car-use in all new designs.

So much for localism; the Big Fish have been fed again – and will now go off to prey on some other unsuspecting community. It makes the glossy sales blurb for the development all the more infuriating since it trades heavily (and sometimes inaccurately) on the beauty, strong community and local amenities of our town, while at the same time having made no effort whatsoever to preserve or enhance or them, to say the very least.

Businesses are like sharks; it seems they must move ever onwards, otherwise they perish. They have no sense of fair play; once they have eaten the minnows, they move onto other fish. They have no sense of restraint; cash is their oxygen, and they care not how they acquire it, or how much damage they do in the process. Cynicism is just part of the plan; I doubt they appreciate irony, either.

Decades ago, this nation was seduced by the shark-like charms of private business. We had a succession of Prime Ministers who championed it over the allegedly hopeless public sector. We were encouraged to become shareholders as the nation’s assets were sold off.  I remember, even as a teenager, having reservations about this – but I could see that a nation in which the proceeds of such enterprises were returned to the populace through widespread, small dividends might just work, and accountability to such large numbers of shareholders could even be argued to be democracy of a sort.

It didn’t last. The sharks quickly ate all the smaller fish; today the small private shareholder is a rarity. Privatisation has turned out not to be a form of democratisation, but the opposite. Most of the fodder is funnelled towards, and then circulated amongst, the large financial predators that constitute the majority shareholders. It’s that – and the fact the successive governments have done little to restrain their appetites – that causes market cynicism such as that shown by the building company mentioned above.

We have another one circling; at least in this case, it did engage, and has made some nods towards local wishes. But it was still immediately apparent that it would ultimately do largely what it wanted, while perhaps throwing a minnows a sweetener or two. It only shifts it swim-forward focus, we were told, to the extent that the Law requires it to do so. Which is Not Much. Again, the democratic wishes of the local population will be over-ridden by the profit-lust of the corporate sharks.

This pattern repeats itself throughout businesses and across the nation; it is how they survive. But it is an inherently selfish motive, always seeking to tip the scales decisively in its own favour, while never letting the fixed grin shown to customers slip for a moment. Even small businesses do it – they will (nearly) always sell you more than you really want if they think they can get away with it. Caveat Emptor! Beware the teeth!

Covid 19 has stirred the water. The placid shoals of consumers on whom companies feed have largely fled to safer places. Yet “The Economy” has been enough of a consideration to compromise – for some, fatally – the health measures that needed to have been taken much sooner. Those sharks need to keep swimming, come what may.

But where there is no food, the sharks will eventually starve and fade. That is what is happening to many businesses right now. I find it hard to sympathise; during the plentiful years of consumerism, those sharks grew fat predating on the rest of us. They relentlessly championed their right to do so, both politically and through that bewitching consumer grin. They were the real consumers, not us.  Now that times are hard, I see no reason why we should listen to their new tune. If the sharks really want markets to be so Free, then they can’t complain when they make businesses fail, as they are doing in large numbers at present. That’s the Quid pro Quo.

The more adaptable will find new ways of surviving anyway, and those that can’t probably are no longer needed. Not that many don’t have a good amount of body fat to survive on for a while yet.

Others are doing much better from the new habits of the shoals: those who provide entertainment or hobby supplies; many in the shoals have themselves discovered resourcefulness that they never knew they had. All sorts of amazing, innovative and sometimes downright crazy things are becoming popular in the virtual universe. The small fish are coming back into their own.

So let’s play the Free Marketeers at their own game: those who can adapt should survive in this new world where the gratuitous consumption needed to feed their endless appetites is no longer society’s main preoccupation. Those who can’t, we just don’t need any more. No need to shed any more tears than they did as they relieved us of our hard-earned cash often in return for little of much value, while despoiling our communities and environments in the process. Things referred to euphemistically as “externalities”.

There is, however, one problem: those businesses also employ the majority of the shoals of worker-consumers. The lost companies do also represent lost livelihoods and careers, often shed in the most cursory of ways – and potentially much hardship. Unemployment is rising – but many are also finding new directions that they would never have expected only a year ago. We need to nourish these new enterprises – the online artists and musicians, the writers, comics and posters of amusing memes, the small online craft community, the 3D printers and the hobby-orientated suppliers. We need to find a way of remunerating them for their new and creative communal activities – and encourage many more to join them.

The point of an economy is to serve people’s needs, not the other way round. Those needs are now different.

So forget the whinges of the airlines – what use are bulk-fliers when few people need or want to fly? What use the huge stores that have struggled to maintain their supply chains when we most needed them? Let them wither; if demand returns in the future, rest assured, someone will spot a business opportunity and things will re-start. We just need to find a cost-effective way of cold-storing the assets in the meantime, if we can. Those bits of the old economy that are still needed will be re-born in a way dead people can’t be.

Free Markets are an ideological luxury: created not, as claimed, to benefit the many, but to allow a few to grow very rich minimally servicing them. If that were not so, they would engage in fewer anti-competitive practices where they feel they can get away with it. That is the nature of business: it is self-interested – and we are now living in a less self-interested age.

The problem is the incomes of those who lose their jobs. Yet we already have something of an answer: despite years of denial, it turns out that the government can, when the need arises, conjure almost limitless amounts of money out of thin air. It is only a construct after all – and one whose day is past. The need for income to support people in living reasonable lives is vastly out of kilter with the ability of any economy to generate and distribute the cash to provide it. That is why so many are in permanent deficit. And unrestrained markets actively funnel it in the wrong direction.

It has always struck me that expecting so many people to depend on the relentless swimming of what is in effect a glorified, unequal bartering system for their survival in the modern age is both primitive and insecure, not to mention environmentally unsustainable. Similar could be said for universal public services, whose quasi-commercial models are now also facing economic and behavioural contradictions that might not have existed under alternative models. Once again, the State has stepped in, because you simply cannot allow hospitals, schools and public transport not to operate just because they have become commercially unviable. There is a lesson there.

I don’t claim to have “The Answer” – but somehow, we need to decouple the supply of income to those who need it, from the shark-like behaviour of their (former) employers, swimming ever forward, irrespective of the damage they do with their huge income disparities, poor products, and social and environmental damage. There is supposedly a matter of balancing the books – but maybe that is a concept whose time has finally passed too? When companies are able, through technology, to make the mega-profits that many do, perhaps national debt is less of a problem than it might seem. We simply need to divert those flows to where they should arguably have been going all along. Perhaps the time of the Universal Basic Income has also come.

This not a call for a command-style economy, whose shortcomings are all too real (though the Chinese have perhaps shown to be less so than western mythology would believe). But traumatic events such as pandemics have prompted fundamental change in the past, and there is no reason why they should not do so again. Perhaps we simply need to accept that the sharks’ natural environment is gone forever – and put something more equitable in its place.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A parcel of rogues

English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

I wonder how history will judge the current time.

Maybe the song whose title has been circulating in my head will have something to do with it.

I know it a little from The Dubliners, and had always assumed that it was Irish, but a closer look shows that it is Scottish, attributed to Burns. The song excoriates those who signed the Act of Union in 1707, and the loss of Scottish independence that followed it. Plus ça change.

The Brexit experience seems to have sparked a bout of national soul-searching that shows little sign of abating; in effect, the arrival of Covid has done little more than divert the main channel of its expression, and perhaps blur the boundaries somewhat.

Quite where this will lead is anyone’s guess. No matter what the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations, a cultural chasm has been opened and it shows no sign of closing again. While those who have always had an outward-looking view seem to have doubled down on their Europeanism, the debate is not restricted to them. I think this is a good thing: as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, the worst thing about ignorance is your ignorance of your own. There’s only one way to change that.

The D-K Effect has a geographical expression too: people who are raised in insular places risk not only remaining insular, but also unaware of how insular they are. They tend to do it by over-estimating their own centrality and importance. That, to my mind, sums up the story of this nation, probably ever since sea levels rose 10,000 years ago.

The causes of Brexit go far deeper than the matters of the past decade and lie in the simple geographical fact the Britain is not part of a continent. How little this past-clinging nation has really changed was shown in the belief of a fair proportion of its population in its right and ability to ignore the rest of the world – except to the extent that it can contribute to further reinforcement of its own self-delusions. Such conservatism is another expression of insularity – in our case, turbo-charged by certain events in our past two centuries.

A feature of isolated groups around the world is that they tend to be inward-looking and self-referential. When the outside world does intrude, the reaction is typically one of suspicion, hostility, or disdain. It’s no different from an English speaker walking into a Welsh-language pub. A bombastic, passive-aggressive culture is often the result: a superiority-inferiority complex that wallows in its own failings, while simultaneously twisting them into virtues and thereby itself back into the Promised Land that it believed all along. We in all these islands excel at that. That, I think, is where Britain’s dark humour comes from: the hard-bitten cynicism of a place that deep down knows its reality is not a patch on its self-image.

Much of this nation’s historic relationship with the wider world can be easily read through this prism. The love-hate relationship with its neighbours that stretches back centuries may be more complex than popular opinion believes – but it is still an expression of a relationship that was founded on limited knowledge, just as it is now. People with literally and figuratively limited horizons simply find it more difficult to know how life might be different elsewhere. They have more difficulty just going to see what happens elsewhere – and Elsewhere finds it more difficult to bring itself to them. It was not unsurprising, when that outside world did intrude – during the Nineteenth Century when internationalism took root, the World Wars, and again with EU membership and its consequent migrations – that the national reaction would be inconsistent, unstable and extreme. Insularity and reactionary conservatism go together. When you are unused to dealing with people from Elsewhere you are not equipped to do so, and the line of least resistance is to dismiss them in one way or another.

And then we come to the Insularity Squared of Dunning-Kruger: worst of all, the insular nation was not able to see that the insularity was by definition its own, not the rest of the world’s. The 1950s headline Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off may be apocryphal, but it still betrays the traditional view of an insular nation. I suspect many in the UK remain in ignorance of the extent to which life elsewhere has become internationalised and globalised. International families and nation-hopping careers are no longer unusual. We, meanwhile, still largely see Abroad just as a place to holiday with better weather.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that this problematic worldview has been embedded in our national mindset to a depth that even those who consider themselves liberal might be duped by. I remember my own parents – who were hardly apologists for the British Establishment – expressing attitudes towards “continentals” and their countries that appear mildly shocking now. It was not meant to be incendiary; that was simply how the British views of the continent were, even in the 1970s, when memories of the War were fresher. But despite the emergence of an internationalised so-called “elite” in the country, I think far less has changed than such people are inclined to believe.

In my own case, it was only the opportunity to experience other European countries ‘differently’ that came from having useful language skills and friends who had moved abroad, that changed this beginning in the late 1980s – but even then I found it a long and difficult struggle to stop being intimidated by those places and their ways, even as I enjoyed discovering them. Had this chance not arisen, I suspect I would have continued with my childhood perspectives, as others in my family have done.

Whatever one’s conclusions, I think it is good that questions are at last being asked. If nothing else, Covid has made it harder to avoid comparisons between the nations of Europe and indeed elsewhere – just at the time when many Britons might have wanted to be doing just that. The raw statistics have made it harder than ever to argue that national differences are not significant, or to persist in the belief of the UK’s innate superiority: the same superiority that informed Boris Johnson’s early claim that the nation had a “world-class” response at the ready, and would survive virtually unscathed, as it always supposedly did.

World Class – the perpetual refrain of a nation that is now very often anything but; those that are, don’t need to keep reminding themselves. A natural disaster such as a virus can demolish the vanities of national exceptionalism like little else can.

My own objections to Brexit were born from a genuine belief in the commonality of people, most immediately within a shared Europe, where history and geography have always made it inevitable that we need to rub along somehow. But it was also born from my growing realisation of just how backward and inward looking this country still was, and a patriotic desire that Europeanism might change that. But for years, my views met most commonly with blankness, as though people simply didn’t know what I was going on about. The idea that Britain might no longer actually be Top Dog simply did not compute for those whose entire lives were still based around the contrary assumption.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to think about it. It is a view that many Brexiters still seem to struggle with, despite the tribulations of the last nine months.

If anything, my view has shifted more towards resignation. The one thing that might have made me accept Brexit would have been concrete evidence that this country is indeed building such a strong and enlightened future for itself that membership of the EU would clearly have been a handicap. That would not be impossible: see Switzerland. But I just can’t see it here. The hype is nothing more than that; the repressive undercurrents run just too deep to see, let alone change.

First amongst them is the received wisdom that society is inevitably hierarchical. I have gradually come to see that this assumption is, if not absent, then significantly weaker on the continent wherever stronger social democracy prevails. In fact, I suspect that the UK is one of the last developed nations to have such an entrenched, subconscious and hypercompetitive preoccupation with Status and Pecking-Order as it still does; many others now define themselves absolutely to the contrary.

It is so entrenched that even now most don’t see it; but it is socially destructive all the same. It is there in the promotion of high-end goods on their “exclusivity” and the emphasis on the status that wealth supposedly brings. And in the notion that getting ‘one up’ is both acceptable and desirable. You don’t need to worry so much about social mobility if society is reasonably equal in the first place.

I see it on my regular cycle rides into the Essex countryside, which have revealed any number of luxury modernised farmhouses and former barns tucked away in the glacial folds, where the Very Wealthy are buying themselves seclusion, away from the towns and villages that are fighting a losing battle against swamping by the future-slums of the volume Noddy-house builders. I wonder at the lives lived in such places: a mere 50 miles from London, perhaps simply second homes, the children neatly tucked away in private schools. No need to interact with the plebs of Regular Britain at all.

But it’s only what the higher orders have done in this country for centuries. In a way, I almost don’t blame them – for Regular British life is a pretty crass affair, not something to aspire to. “Civilising” forces – such as a respect for learning, and access to higher culture, are largely absent from mainstream British life, drowned out by the lowbrow, the cheap and the blatantly commercial to an extent that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere.

Historically, this country produced few cultural giants of the stature of the French painters, Italian sculptors, or German composers; only in literature do we come close. We have never valued abstraction or philosophical thought – the basis of idealism for a higher life. (Such as we produced was, ironically, mostly Scottish). We hark back to the Victorians – yet much of their legacy, while grand, is largely derivative and backward looking, a manifestation in stone of that same social authoritarianism that has kept so much of the nation down. It took French abstraction and German/Scandinavian modernism to produce genuinely new templates for the present age – and once again, Britain struggled to cope with change. Its elites made sure of that.

It can be argued that there has been a renaissance in Art, Food, Architecture and Fashion in the past few decades, but it has largely (once again) been cornered by the new-generation elite – educated and affluent; just a new way of demarcating social status rather than anything genuinely democratising. There are precious few signs of its widely enriching the towns and lives of provincial Britain, let alone the poorer parts. Except where the new rich in-comers are pricing many locals out of their own homes. It became symbolic of a way of life that is alien to the majority of British people.

Why wouldn’t those of more discriminating tastes want to distance themselves from such a morass? There seems little alternative – but this is part of the problem, not the solution. By monopolising the best, all you do is coarsen the rest. I see less to flee from in more equal countries.

You only need look at the political climate, or the responses to Covid to see that different values and perspectives are at work in different places. In this country’s case, it is the desire of those at the top of that still-enduring hierarchy to wash their hands of the rest (or at least, patronise them) – as their breeding suggests they are entitled to do – that actually perpetuates the wider crassness. It is by democratising the nation’s assets that people can be levelled up – to use the Prime Minister’s favourite phrase. And yet that is the last thing instinct makes him and his kind able to understand, let along implement. They just can’t get over their traditional sense of entitlement – and over generations, institutionalised deference has polluted the entire nation’s view of itself.

Brexit and Covid are pushing this nation further into a mire of its own making. We still seem unable to see that the only workable ways forward are communal and egalitarian: new models, not clinging to the old. Shameless individualism can be exploited by the virus as well as the political system. We still don’t ‘get’ that the underlying problem is the way this country is fundamentally configured.

Its solutions to both are largely predicated on the values and worldviews of its past; just as was the way it has functioned for decades. It is there in the way its adversarial political system dismisses any other than a single dominant world-view; in the condescension of its leaders, and their failure to cope with the consensual pluralism of the EU27, which even now is more concerned with finding an accommodation than rattling sabres. Its only answers are “more of the same” – the criticism I first made of this country’s inability to become truly forward- and outward-looking several decades ago.

Alternative models that have successfully addressed at least some of these issues have been available just a few tens of miles offshore for the past fifty years. But we have only ever been intent on seeing the wideness of the Channel, not the opposite. And so intent were – and are – we in our belief that there is no other way, even an ocean-crossing virus has yet to make us think again.

It’s easy to blame the nation’s current predicament on this or that sub-group. But in truth it is the whole culture – all of us – that is the problem. From the coarsened urban masses, through the newly-affluent in their barns, to the old elites (whose influence is still stronger than many realise – only less visible) – to our new generation of bombastic, wealth-obsessed ‘leaders’ with their empty nationalism. The Scots (who once made common cause with the French) might sense a particular irony – and the continentals themselves I suspect now see it in a clearer way that we still can’t, now that we have shattered the stereotypes.

In reality, we’re all part of it: such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

the-quick-brown-fox-jumps-over-the-lazy-dog-is-an-example-of-what

It took a little while for us here to start wearing masks. While we were locked away at home, it wasn’t really an issue – but we now have them and hopefully wear them intelligently – i.e. when in enclosed public spaces or where proximity with others is likely. It has become apparent that wearing one also works quite effectively to remind others to keep a distance. It is not a major imposition, apart from the problem of foggy glasses.

So quite what is one supposed to make of reports that fewer than 25% of the British population is wearing masks? Experience here suggests that it may well be much less than that, and comments from friends suggest that even the legal requirement to wear one on public transport is being widely flouted.

By comparison, it is reported that around 84% of Italians and 65% of Spanish and (even) Americans are routinely wearing them.

Assuming the figures are correct, in my eyes this comes close to the indefensible. Even if there is disagreement over the impact of masks (which seems in any case to be diminishing) the precautionary principle surely applies. And the degree of difference in these figures is surely big enough to be significant about something. The question is what.

It is easy to put the hat of indignation back on; I do it easily – but then, I am a teacher. Teachers are paid by society to stick their noses into other people’s lives and behaviours and try to improve them – and I have been a teacher for a long time. Besides, when that behaviour potentially affects my well being, I believe it becomes my legitimate concern. That notwithstanding, it is still an objective fact that different societies in different places and times exhibit differing behaviours, and it is hard not to conclude that there must – somewhere – be reasons for this, given that human beings are in biological terms fundamentally the same everywhere.

Indignant or otherwise, it is easy to read this as an explicit statement of how a lot of individuals in Britain regard the wider society of which they (fail to see they) are a part. The purpose of wearing a mask is primarily to protect other people, and when widely observed, the situation becomes mutual. The impact on infection rates is becoming much clearer. There may well be widespread misunderstanding about this fact – but that raises questions of its own, both about how much attention people are paying, and the effectiveness of official communications.

Equally, it may be an expression of very low levels of concern that people have in what is left of civil society in Britain, for each other: so low that even a trivial but important obligation is too much of a personal infringement to be seen as worth making. This in turn might cause one to wonder at how it came to be like this here, when it is clearly not a universal habit.

The difficulty is, it is almost impossible to pin such things down objectively – and therefore one is left scrabbling for explanations that are all too easily distorted by confirmation bias.

As I said, the most charitable explanation is a low level of understanding – though this still does not reflect well on the country. Worse is low levels of concern, which fly in the face of much of this country’s self-image as a place of civilised values and courteous behaviours.

Somewhere in the mix this may reflect on the nation’s seeming inability to organise itself properly. Even arch-patriots seem to accept that good organisation is at best touch-and-go in this country, even if they turn the regular muddles and short-sightedness into a strange kind of virtue even as others (including me) are tearing their hair.

I suspect another facet is an in-bred tendency to look backwards: in general the British are not good as early adopters, since that involves looking positively at the future, and as a nation we are still far more in love with our past.

It seems to be true at both an individual and collective level: I saw a first-hand report yesterday from a British woman flying in from Germany, of sanitising facilities at Heathrow that had not been replenished, and of people milling around in the airport without any observance whatsoever of suitable distancing. Surely it is not beyond us to get these very practical things right? At very least, this is not the image we as a nation – and certainly not the present government – like to have of ourselves – and yet ironically such débacles are depressingly common. They are not everywhere – as many Brits seem to assume. As one commentator put it some weeks ago: “Even when all we need to do is copy the Germans, how come we still get it wrong?”

Still trying to be charitable, the only other conclusion that I can see for the traditional British cock-up (which seems to be more common than the alternative) is that there is something in the British culture or mindset that is so ingrained that we cannot collectively overcome it – even when we know we need to. It seems to be something that afflicts our ability to construct effective institutions and guide individual behaviour almost equally. I hesitate to call it a blind spot because some of us at least are aware it is there, though trying to overcome it is by no means as easy as might be thought.

What is the common trait that leads British planning law to be impenetrable, that causes so many mega cost-overruns on projects that end up being abandoned, that leaves us dithering over high-speed rail half a century after our neighbours started build theirs; that leads us to persist with outdated forms of government even though there are many examples of how they are dysfunctional – and which leads so many to neglect or even fight against basic individual responsibilities in the face of a resolutely apolitical virus? That makes it so difficult for people in this country to “do the right thing” even when they know they should, to take the easy way out even when we know it is doing us all harm?

Education might be a likely culprit. And in some ways plausibly so – but I think that any failings in that respect are more a symptom than a cause. Why is it that this country has taken such a myopic, market-driven view of education when many other countries seem to see perfectly clearly that developing minds and societies does not and cannot work in that way? That education needs to be about far more than just preparation for the workplace; that “qualifications” are meaningless if not backed by real knowledge and understanding? Arguably it is a shortsightedness that fails to cause it to be otherwise.

“The Market” might be another culprit – again reasonably so, because in reality, free markets like nothing more than large numbers of docile, compliant, identikit producer-consumers. And it is certainly not averse to trying to shape people’s behaviour (not least through flattery and the deception that people are freer than they actually are) to make them so. It seems to me that those countries that exhibit the kind of aggressive/defensive behavioural complexes that perhaps explain people’s unwillingness to take part in collective actions are more likely to have aggressively neoliberal governments and deregulated commercial sectors. But it is still not easy to say which is the cause and which the effect: in a sense people choose their economic models through the ballot box.

But I suspect that the real shapers of national mindsets are actually deeper and less obvious. For a start, I doubt that very many non-mask-wearers are actively going out to cause harm to others. The failure to make the right decision is probably less conscious than that: something that simply causes insufficient awareness of such issues in the first place, though a retail-indulged “all about me” is no doubt part of it.

Another common factor in self-harming libertarian cultures seems to be strong hierarchies. In the case of the UK this was, and in part still is, down to ancestry and social status. In the USA it is linked more directly with wealth – though the UK is treading that path too. I suspect that the resultant inequalities do not only do physical harm but also considerably wider psychological damage. The whole notion of a pecking order informs one’s sense of self; the restrictions imposed by one’s (many) superiors can be limiting and denigrating – and may well lead to a sense of powerlessness and an aggressive defence of what little remains of one’s autonomy and self-respect. Could this explain the shows of aggression seen when non-conformers were asked to comply with lock-down, sanitising or now mask-wearing?

I sense that something is different in those countries where mask-wearing rates seem to be higher (the US seems to be an anomaly here, though it reported varies massively between states – and correlates with their political allegiances). Lengthy acquaintance with some people in continental Europe suggests to me that on the one hand they are more assertively individualistic as citizens – and their socio-politico-economic systems reflect that – but perhaps as a result, they are also less aggressive when challenged or required to pool their sovereignty with others. Compared with places where there is a more overt or overbearing elite, there is perhaps a greater sense of real individual sovereignty – but also more respect for the same of others: in other words a greater sense of commonality.

It’s not an easy thing to describe – but a useful analogy might be driving styles. The UK has one of the lowest road fatality rates in Europe; this might correlate with its self-image as a polite and rather cautious nation. But it also has plenty of overt, daily aggression, often originating from those who drive the most expensive and powerful vehicles. In Germany, Switzerland and Italy, by contrast, experience suggests that driving is often more assertive – you will certainly know if a faster driver wants to pass – but there is somehow less overt aggression behind it; that assertive driver will still normally wait without hassling until you choose to pull over. Behind that, there is an implied acceptance that both have equal right to be on the road – something that road-rage denies.

I increasingly suspect that the supposed modesty that underpins the British self-image is actually nothing of the sort; it is actually harmful passivity: a kind of indifference or complacency born of the fact that in this country all the important decisions are made, and responsibility born, by Someone Else; that for many, their little lives are not felt to be as consequential as those of Important People. Such places often seem to have a strong culture of celebrity veneration, a kind of vicarious living, as though ordinary lives are not good enough.

I think it is symptomatic that here, the perceived solution to the mask problem is for the government to tell people to do it; it should not need to: they have minds of their own. And the failure of our government to do so is in any case part of the problem since governments elsewhere have done precisely that, supported by public expectations.

Somewhere in the mix persists the belief that we live in a promised land in which nothing really bad ever happens – even as it is killing more of our compatriots than almost any comparable nation. And therefore we never need to give any serious attention to our actions, because they are mostly inconsequential. Even when they are not. It is a kind of communal paralysis that is in so many ways perpetuated by the small-mindedness and belief that muddling through is still sufficient, even when we can see that it is not. It is the absence of a profound democratic belief that every life really does matter – not only those of the ruling and economic elites.

But it also allows those in the nation who are alert and ambitious (but not necessarily benign) – and not only viruses – to run rings round the lazy brown dogs of everyone else, thus perpetuating the situation and indeed making it worse.

Another objective truth about societies (as individuals) is that they are quite capable of self-harm, even knowing self-harm. Brexit is one example; the failure of civic duty in the face of the virus is another.

Britain is certainly not the only country where such phenomena exist, or where antisocial behaviours are manifest – but the disparities in mask wearing are surely significant enough to show that it is one of them. In that respect we come close to being objectively inferior to those who are getting it more right. Will we learn from them?

The belief that we are immune to national blind-spots is our national blind-spot. The problem is that the pathology seems so deep that we still simply can’t see it – let alone escape it.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Sowing seeds

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Being a teacher is a strange job. You rarely see the results of your work – and even if you encounter former pupils in later life, it is almost impossible to identify with much confidence any specific effect that you had in them. The whole job of a teacher is predicated on the hope that you will have some helpful effect on the individuals you teach, even if you will never know what.

This is probably why ideology plays such a strong part in the educational profession: in the absence of anything more concrete, there is little else to fall back on to provide shape to our actions.

It is this problem that also leaves the profession exposed to so much idiocy. When it is almost impossible to prove anything much at all, anyone who claims otherwise can get in on the act without difficulty. So we are continually beset by the claims of ‘gurus’ bringing magical solutions, even though it means that education tosses and turns on a perpetual tide of contrary solutions, such is its yearning for answers to the unanswerable.

It is the same lack of agreed, provable outcomes that has made it all too easy for politicians to appropriate education for their agendas. It has been too easy for them to point the finger at teachers for being wrong-headed, unproductive, pointless. It has made it easy for them to impose conditions on education that attempted to twist it into paradigms derived from sectors where it is much easier to measure output. In doing so, they have turned education into a conveyor-belt industry, whose output is not educated individuals, but statistics published and boxes ticked; numbers of certificates handed out, no matter how little the real intellectual effect on the minds of those who received them.

You can’t be a teacher without having some faith in humanity – that it is possible to turn thoughts and behaviours to the good. You cannot function in a classroom without that unprovable belief that what you are doing is in some way important and beneficial. That is true everywhere: the very fact that to educate someone is to anticipate their future means that it cannot be otherwise. But the fact that education’s benefit is unprovable does not make it undemonstrable. Some countries seem to find systems that equip their citizens better for their future lives than others.

As with everything else, the pandemic has highlighted this. The responses by individuals from the most powerful to the most ordinary are the product of their thought processes – or lack of them. To some extent, that in turn is a product of the sum of the education they received, both formally and otherwise. How they reacted to CV-19 is an expression of that.

I have worked for many years in education in the same hope that I was helping to equip British people to be effective thinkers, to be able to take their opportunities and respond intelligently to their difficulties. I hoped I was helping to create a nation of thoughtful, responsible, cultivated citizens.

I always believed that education does have an effect, and that it was a positive and definite force, even if its specifics for any particular individual were unknowable. I never even considered that it was actually an exercise in damage limitation to contain the worst of human idiocy; this was just too cynical an interpretation for any teacher to entertain and still function. But the past few years have shifted my view on this out of all recognition.

In a national political plebiscite that required knowledge and informed thought, despite their so-called education, a majority of the British Public opted to side with prejudice, rumour-mongering or just ignorance. Or they abdicated their responsibilities entirely.

In the face of a known epidemiological threat, this was the response of a significant part of the British public yesterday:

4july

It is no good just blaming the politicians: all of those people have brains of their own. It is what they (fail to) do with them that is the tragedy.

It’s not only what happens in formal education that affects such behaviour: much of the national attitudinal landscape is the product of home life, the national media and peer pressure. But the same is true in all countries, and yet responses – and responsibility – in similar circumstances have not been the same everywhere. The role of formal education is to equip people to know better.

It seems that in Britain life is so cheap that it is worth risking the death of oneself and many others for the sake of a pint.

Educating the British public: how did we get it so wrong?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Workers! You have nothing to lose but your chain stores…

chains-web

I once saw work defined as ‘doing something you would rather not’. That seems about right: I have been pretty constantly productive during the lock-down months, and yet almost nothing felt like ‘work’ ; in fact the same could be said for the last three-and-a-half years since I stopped  full-time employment and was largely confined to quarters. Now that the ill health that caused this situation has mostly receded, the revised life-balance has been very largely beneficial.

Yet the cultural wisdom of recent times has been that work should be central to our lives, that it is the most important aspect of our existence, our most significant activity. By extension, this suggests that disliking our work is the last thing we should do. In fact, we are expected to love it. (One might have another discussion entirely about what we would rather do or not, and why…)

People seemed to lap this up: in the teaching profession, I encountered many people who admitted that they lived for their work. While teaching is a rather unique vocation, I suspect that the sentiment is much more widespread, though how much of this is actually just virtue-signalling is open to question. I often wondered both what such required devotion did to the quality of the rest of their lives (I knew what it threatened to do to my own) – and what messages it sent to the up-coming generations.

The cynic in me suspects that things are not this simple though – and as with almost everything else, the Corona-virus emergency has cast a harsh light on our assumptions and choices. I wonder whether there will be substantial change in this respect – or whether we will in fact return to the good-old-bad-old days as soon as restrictions are fully lifted.

Work is not absolute: it is a cultural phenomenon – in Britain’s case a legacy of the “Protestant Work Ethic”;  it is also a complex matter that goes to the heart of existential issues that I rather doubt the average commuter gave much attention to in normal times. From birth, we are in effect programmed to expect that after schooling, we will spend most of our lives in employment, before being put out to grass at some point when the going starts to get tough. Modern reality may not be quite so predictable, but that is still the normal, if dated template.

The existential matter comes from considering what we would do if we were not at work: part of the fear of lock-down for many people seemed to come from not knowing how they would fill all those extra hours. Many seemed to go looking for alternative forms of work. And yet we have no more hours to fill in a day than people ever did. There is plenty of evidence that even at subsistence level, people in the past rarely filled all their days with work – they did what was necessary, but no more, even though that involved much more than in developed societies today. The same seems to be true in subsistence cultures today – and it can be informative to look at other species, who face the same existential issues when it comes to filling time: what is one to do between birth and death? While lower species do seem to fill almost all their time with basic survival, the same is not true for the higher ones such as big cats or other primates – nor many domesticated animals.

There is certainly a psychological aspect to work, or the lack of it. Unemployment is known for being a scourge, and yet I wonder whether it is the lack of work per se that is the real difficulty, or simply the lack of resources that it brings for doing other things instead. After all, the affluent classes whose income derives from rentier activities do not always seek work – being leisured was (is?) seen as their good fortune. I suspect that many of the problems of unemployment actually derive from the wider situations of those who are most likely to face it: lower income, less educated and with few other ways of finding meaning.

Therein lies another issue: it is undoubtedly true that work bestows purpose and identity. One of the most unexpected difficulties of losing my own job was the lost ability to say to people “I am a teacher”. Ergo, anything much at all. Again, this is probably particularly important for occupations that have a strong vocational element but it may be more widely significant too. But I also suspect it is a stronger male trait than female, which may suggest it has other underpinnings.

We might consider how attitudes to work differ between cultures. I’ve seen enough of southern Europe to know that the mañana culture is by no means dead and this is unsurprising, not least for climatic reasons – but it is also a lazy stereotype to believe that southern Europeans never work hard. There is, for example, a strong work culture in northern Italy, even if one might suspect that it may be a way in which it seeks to assert its parity with the ‘efficient’ countries further north. But that country is also famous for the imagination and richness it devotes to its wider way of life – and that to me seems to be to be a worthwhile trade-off.

One might look at the Germanic countries where there is supposedly a much stronger work-ethic. Except that it may not be all it seems. My experience of those countries suggests that while quality, efficiency and skill are very important, work is not the end in itself that one might expect. Law in those countries has established the social purpose of work – for example, providing employment is seen as equally important as generating shareholder wealth; the requirement to have employee representation at board level has embedded that. A more important question is perhaps why Germany created such laws in the first place when they would be highly contentious in the much less efficient U.K.

The division between work and not-work seems much more flexible – even blurred – than it does in the U.K. Taking sabbaticals is rather more possible – and provision for issues such as paternity/maternity leave and childcare more generally, famously more generous. Perhaps this is the future: where a highly-skilled and autonomous population checks in and out of work as required, as one activity amongst several in an average week? Once again, Britain seems to be behind the curve.

Relationships in the workplace seem more equitable and less hierarchical there, and it seems to me that less importance is attached to work as a wider social signifier than it is in the U.K. It also seems to me that there is a much more visible level of active non-work life in those countries, be that from the numbers one sees doing outdoor activities, eating out or attending cultural events. So much for the Germanic worship of work: I think their attitude is simply a manifestation of a widely more proactive culture.

The pandemic has thrown new light on our attitudes in the U.K. – and it seems that the government is increasingly prioritising the economy over public health. A recent encounter with a former Conservative councillor confirmed his view, at least, that the economy is “far more important than….” He didn’t finish his sentence. I wanted to suggest, “than the lives of little people?”.

For several decades, we have been told that work is indeed the most important thing we do. Most other aspects of life – including education – have been subordinated to getting people into the workplace. But that has not implied becoming an entrepreneur; the emphasis has been on being a ‘good employee’, working harder than you are asked, “going the extra mile” and not rocking the boat. Is it a coincidence that such a relatively poor workplace “settlement” seems to be a feature of those hawkish countries that retain neo-liberal ideologies and hierarchical societies? Is work really as essential as they would have us believe – or is it just very convenient propaganda to keep us toiling to keep them in the lives they seem to expect?

It seems to me that successive generations have accepted this largely unquestioningly; on more than one occasion in my own working life I was lectured by colleagues that I needed to “learn to play the game”. But it increasingly seemed to me that it was less of a “game” and more of a racket. Or at least an excessively hierarchical, quasi-feudal, exploitative set-up that was increasingly tilted in favour of those at the top – and those who gained their favour. My not “playing the game” was simply an attempt to be a reflective professional – one who was prepared to entertain difficult truths in the interests of doing an excellent job – and ironically, trying to help develop the institution for which I worked. But it proved unacceptable to those who ran the place.

It is quite difficult not to come back to the cynic’s interpretation. At present, it seems that health-protection measures are increasingly being compromised in order to get people working. While we hear that many have experienced hardship in lock-down, very many from whom I hear have actually found it a positive experience. They have discovered a new way of life that does not revolve entirely around the rat-race – and also that they can survive without the 24/7 conspicuous consumption melée that our country has become.

This may be the real agenda: making people work so hard they have no time to think is in reality a form of social control: over our place as consumers who keep the economy churning, who provide often-expendable work-units that are needed by the owners of businesses who in recent times have taken more and more of the proceeds of our work for themselves, and who have eroded employment rights in order to keep it thus.  And because the political class fears a population that actually has time to stop and think, and perhaps to find a way of life that does not involve compliance with a status quo than disproportionately benefits them rather than us?

Work is certainly important for many reasons, not only keeping food on the table. The sense of purpose and accomplishment it can provide can be good for mental well-being; it also provides social contacts and structure to our days; it of course creates wealth and innovation and gets things done that society needs done; it is perhaps even reasonable to accept that it does involve a degree of societal control, because there are still many who seem not to know how to use their non-work time constructively.

But the prioritising of work above all else has actually made those problems worse. It has eroded civil and communal life, it has made family life more difficult – and it has removed from people the autonomy to know how to rely on their own resources and to find other aspects of life by which to define themselves. Reducing the long hours of my own work and taking more control has been a significantly good thing. The small town where I live is noticeably different now too: quiet – but inhabited – not emptied-out, as it feels in a normal working week after the commuters have left. The endless (and often needless) consumption and the income to afford it, which is the quid pro quo for the long hours – (and which actually feeds our income back to those who own the organisations that employ us in the first place) – is having a disastrous environmental impact.

In other words, excessive work is actually the cause of many of our other dysfunctions, not the solution.

If the pandemic has made people question these things, it can only be good. The pendulum may have swung too far to sustain – there will always be a trade-off between time and money, though new technologies may be part of the solution here, as indeed electronic technologies have shown in recent months.

Giving people the freedom to choose how to balance their lives seems to me to be an inherent component of a good quality of life – and it already exists to some extent in similar countries; it should be up to people to choose how to spend their lives most fruitfully, not the nation’s patricians to dictate.

That is entirely consistent with the nature of Sprezzatura: the scope to run your life rather than it running you. And I suspect that is the real reason that the powerful in Britain are concerned that it does not go on much longer.