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.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Ref.

ref

 

Twenty-five people strode out onto the grass. Several of them were carrying balls, which ever-shifting groups proceeded to kick about among themselves.

As time wore on, an air of uncertainty seemed to descend, as though they were waiting for something. Eventually, one of them decided to make off up the grass with one of the balls, towards a goal post. There was a cheer from the spectators. But some of the others on the grass seemed not to have noticed; they were still occupied with different balls.

Gradually, however, a few more started to join in a repeat of the above movement, even passing the ball from one to another as they went. Others tried to stop them. But it wasn’t easy to tell who was on which team, since there were ten different colour schemes visible on the field.

After about ten minutes, one of the people deliberately tripped up another who had a ball, and then dribbled it around behind the spectators before coming round the end of the field and through a goalpost that had, in the meantime, mysteriously been replaced with one four times as wide as that at the other end of the field.

Some on the field protested vigorously, at which point they were set upon by the others, and a full-scale brawl ensured. Some of the spectators gladly joined in, while others lost interest and sauntered off home. The ‘game’ was eventually won by those who were able to punch the hardest, at a score of 13-0 and five dead.


 

Times of emergency often provoke people to face issues that they would rather not. Currently, that includes some pretty fundamental questions, such as whether it is possible to run a country under conditions where close interaction between its residents is potentially fatal.

One might also ponder the importance, or otherwise, of Trade in a situation where matters of mutual survival are suddenly of much more immediate significance. Public Opinion in the U.K. apparently still supports an extended lockdown until the risks of infection have fallen much further. When it’s a choice between cash and life, most people don’t hesitate to choose the latter.

But another rather existential question concerns the nature of human interaction. Since the time that there was first more than one person alive on this planet, there has been a need for some kind of accommodation of the possibly-conflicting interests of multiple sentient beings. It is evident, too, that by virtue of existing, those individuals cannot help but have an effect on everything around them, including other beings. The question is, what type of effect. It also apparent that individuals’ good can be furthered by interaction, thereby achieving things that neither could alone. It is not as simple as just allowing the economy to perish, since people do need to interact for all sorts of things, while isolating people totally is potentially to leave them to perish from all sort of other causes. This is the argument being made by some for ending the lock-down.

How to reconcile these two grossly conflicting needs is the conundrum that Covid-19 presents. It is also the subject of social and economic theory down the ages.

There can be few who would advocate running Premier League football along the lines described at the top of this post – and yet there seem to have been plenty over the past decades who thought it was a good way to run society more generally.

They are the ones who describe taxation as theft, who claim that there is “no such thing as society”, and that “the invisible hand of the market” is the best mechanism for running things. They tend to claim that competition is the natural dynamic of society, as of Nature itself – competition which they evidently intend to win. They are the ones whose attitude towards the State is hostile, who portray the organs of the state as either megalomaniac or lumpenly jobsworth, intent on depriving them of their “rightful” freedom to act as they alone choose.

These attitudes may reflect more on those who express them than anyone else: on what grounds might one really object to the presence of any form rules – except because one wishes to flout them? Most of the “bureaucracy” that such people wish to hack away exists to protect the many from predation by a few. Why else would one wish to loosen safety standards or conditions of employment?

Yet a version of such market-dominated views is prevalent in the U.K., to the extent that even the more thoughtful among the younger generations who have never known it otherwise, seem to find it very difficult even to conceive of society being run any other way. This is probably no surprise, since in that time, even the State itself has been run by those who held such views, and whose overriding aim was seemingly to remove its influence from as many areas of national life as possible. They argued that the State was inefficient and inept. At what, one might ask. Selling burgers – or saving lives?

 

I’m old enough to have been brought up with a different view, no doubt reinforced by the fact that most of my family has worked in various state enterprises. I grew up with a view of a benign State as the guarantor of basic standards and needs. It was the State that provided electricity and water, and co-ordinated train and bus services. It oversaw the provision of universal standards of healthcare and education. It underwrote those things that are necessary, but where profit is not the most important or viable consideration.

It might have been a bit dull, but it nonetheless had a showroom on every High Street rather than a call-centre in cyber-space, and you knew that the prices it charged were not fuelling the mega-profits of a few private individuals living in tax havens or the zero-hours contracts of unfortunate operatives. You knew that the head teacher was answerable to the County Council rather than his own pension fund. You knew that train fares would be consistent, not run by “yield management” techniques designed to maximise income for the operator.

You had some faith that the State would take a long-term strategic view of the needs of society as a whole, and plan accordingly, that it could act where there was no profit to be made. In short, the State was arbiter, the provider of the social goods that underwrite the basic needs of society, which it provided without fear or favour irrespective of people’s private interests.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that the State got everything right, or that the divide was always in the right place. It was probably never a good idea for the NHS to be the sole provider of spectacles. The consequences were visible on the face of every citizen with less than perfect eyesight. I also know that innovation can be messy and unpredictable, while self-interest is a strong (but not the only) motivator. The important thing is to balance conflicting interests.

I suspect that the shortcomings of the State peddled by free-marketeers since the 1980s were less inherent, and more to do with poor practice. The State is not inevitably bad: just look at the German, Swiss, Scandinavian or New Zealand ones. It is just that the British State has been badly run – not least because it was perpetually starved of funds by those who were able to avoid contributing, and often run (with little accountability, but plenty of condescension and entitlement) by those who had few personal interests in its working well, since they had already bought themselves out of it.

It is not as though the free market does any better. The myth of market efficiency  has been exposed: what private companies crave is not competition, but monopoly: a private monolith instead of a public one. A situation where they have the rest of society over the barrel of their own corporate interests – and these they  will conspire to create when the State is too weak – or negligent – to prevent it.

The pandemic response is simply the latest, most extreme demonstration of what happens when you try to run civil society without the impartial, logical, consistent organisation that only a disinterested entity can provide.

It is the “lean and efficient” commercial sector that largely replaced such an entity in the U.K. which has been exposed as having neglected investment and strategic planning. It should come as no surprise that when one promotes profit-seeking, it is entirely predictable that that is how many people will behave, both individually and in groups. It is inevitable when such organisations tend to be run by self-selecting, profit-seeking individuals whose personal perspectives align with that worldview.

The Coronavirus pandemic has put the shortcomings of this approach up there in huge, illuminated letters for all to see. When it came to the crunch, it was the large corporations who struggled to keep supplies rolling, who were ill-equipped to cater for a suddenly-much-wider range of needs – not that it stopped them propagandising as vigorously as any State, telling us how they were “here for us” and were “looking after the nation”. No: they just knew the alternative was oblivion.

It was quasi-commercial policies that deprived the NHS of the strategic reserves it needed to respond fully to the emergency – and the altruism of its ordinary employees that largely saved the day while the executives were struggling to work out what to do.

The same could be said of the government: at a time when the guiding principle has needed to be social solidarity and welfare, grass-roots society has largely risen to the need. But the libertarian free-marketeers in charge have found themselves bereft of the insight for far-sighted decision-making. Even now, their approach is more public-opinion than public-service. And as if that wasn’t enough, the experience is being daily rubbed in by the very different situation in those nations that never lost sight of the need for an effective social contract in the first place.

Perhaps the most ironic sight is now the self-same private sector that has spent the last decades demeaning the State and profiteering from its neglect, now coming cap-in-hand to the State for support, supposedly in the interests of its vital social function. So much for the “invisible hand of the market”: when the chips are down, it is the very visible hand of the State that is needed to save the day, just as ever.

Those who advocate competition fail to notice that in even nature, co-operation is at least as effective a survival strategy. When individuals compete, the strongest normally wins; when disparate individuals compete with an effective team, the team does.

Because those existential questions dictate that, whether it is a game of football or the functioning of a complex society, few things can operate properly and equitably without logical, consistent and fair rules – and their enforcement by an impartial Referee.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

David and Goliath

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There is a battle brewing. The enemy is anything but unseen: it dominates life in this, and to varying extents most, countries. The early skirmishes have already been seen: the calls from the harder Right for lock-down to be ended in the interests of getting the Economy back working; in the headlines in the less responsible press announcing that from next week Everything Will Be Alright again.

Even The Guardian’s economics correspondent Larry Goddard wrote a piece a few days ago arguing that people balance their economic interests with life-or-death situations every time they get in a car to go shopping or to work.

It’s a persuasive argument, and not without some sense of course – but it seems that even Goddard is in hoc to the Great God Economics. So are all those people in other fields exhorting an early end to lock-down. They can’t get sufficiently far outside the box to envisage what might now be necessary. Could it be that many of them are precisely those who have driven our societies in the direction they have gone in the past few decades, those who real priority has been (and still is) to make as much money as possible from the rest of us, even if it means working us to the bone? It’s not as though we’ve not seen their like throughout history. As with everything else it touches, the pandemic reveals their true selves, and the priorities that drive them. 

On the other side, there is a growing body of comment pointing out the benefits that the slowdown has brought; that were it not for the health fears and the tragic news, day to day life would in many ways be much improved. The early apprehension that lock-down would be unbearable has been at least tempered by the discovery that it is possible not to run one’s life against the clock and still enjoy it. In fact, quite possibly to enjoy it more.

I spent three decades in a hectic career; I still cannot quite believe that thirty years went by almost without my noticing. What I do remember, though, is a constant nagging voice telling me that the pace at which I was living was not right. Life was tearing by in a blur, many experiences barely touched upon as I sped on my way to the next deadline. Had it not been for the mental health difficulties that precipitated it (and which, after all, were all the proof needed that the pace was not good for me) the slowed-down period of my life since 2016 has had much to recommend it. At last I feel I am living my life, rather than watching from the side-lines. And even though that life has had to be pared back in some ways, there has still been a net gain.

The battle to come will be that between the huge interests that want to get us back to ‘life as it was before’ as soon as possible, and those who want lessons to be learned, and things to move in another direction. A recurring theme is the fact that the odds are stacked against the latter. Modern society is so controlled by commercial interests and their political puppets that the hope of radical change seems to be slim.

This too is a depressingly persuasive argument. But it overlooks one thing: for those systems to function as they did, it requires the complicity of the rest of us. It requires people unquestioningly to buy (literally and metaphorically) all the unnecessary stuff that the commercial world needs to flog to survive – and which even now, elements of it are still trying to flog us. It needs people to accept ever harder working lives in order to maintain the income needed to support this. It needs people to buy into the myth that their lives will be better the more they buy or consume,  the further and more often they travel, and so on. And it relies on people being willing to sell their souls to accept that More Money is the answer to all their problems.

It is easy to criticise this as being a middle-class morality – and to some extent it is, at least if you consider class to be defined these days by income. Although this household’s past four years required a severe pruning of our consumption, we still had enough money coming in, plus some savings, that we were never at risk of starving, or losing our home. Plenty are.

But in another way, the fact that there are many in society who do not have such a buffer is the fault of the rest of us too. It is precisely the middle classes whose endless, mindless consumption fuelled the corporate policies that treated the less-fortunate increasingly badly. It is precisely the earning classes who prioritised bonuses and tax cuts over investment in the essential services and social safety-net that we now all need; who tolerated increasingly insecure work for the low-paid so long as it meant they could carry on buying more for less. In other words, the plight of the less fortunate in our society, is to some extent in the hands of the middle classes too.

And it is also the middle classes who were in the vanguard of the wave of angst that swept the country at the news that their chock-full consumer lives (and own long working hours in their dream careers) were going to be curtailed for the foreseeable future. It is they, after all, who are most afflicted with Affluenza, and who felt they had most to lose when those hell-for-leather lives ground to a halt. Anyone would think they never moaned about the impossible conflicts they faced in managing their daily routines…

The battle to come is definitely a matter of David and Goliath. But we all know the moral of that story. Life As It Was Before will only resume if sufficient people cave in and let it. There are of course many who desperately need to secure their incomes in the short term – but this is a battle with a longer time scale. It is not about not earning a reasonable income – it is about what we then do with it. And about what we more generally consider to be ‘reasonable’  (and unreasonable) in the first place.

There are signs that resistance is building: not only in the predictable (but sensible) calls from the Unions that workplaces need to be safe before people return to work – but also from those who  support an extended closure of schools even at the (supposed) cost to their children of the lost hot-housing that formal education now is. It is also there in the numbers of people who have rediscovered that places are nicer (and cleaner) when not choked with cars; in the people who have actually appreciated more time spent with family or who have re-connected with their communities; in those who have discovered new pastimes and skills. And in the general sense of a life that is being lived at a more sustainable and in many ways more pleasurable pace.

The battle to come will only be lost if all those things are forgotten in the coming months and years. All that is needed is for sufficient numbers of people to change – and then sustain – their ways of life, so that they are no longer duped by the call to resume a life that returns us to all those unmissed routines.

It is not easy to change one’s way of life. Managing with less stuff takes determination; if you’re hooked on it, finding other things to do than recreational shopping requires determination too. As does not getting in your car and travelling for every need. It is especially difficult since so much of our infrastructure is now geared to people doing exactly those things. But this emergency has shown that another way is still possible, when we put our minds to it. The question is, how many will actively, determinedly do so?

In the longer term, education, economics and commerce are all human constructs. The Virus, to say nothing of the wider ecological crisis are not – except inasmuch as we caused them. Pretty much any aspect of human life can be reconfigured, as it has been in the past weeks (political claims that “it can’t be done” have been shown for what they are). Except for whether you are alive or dead: in that respect, there is no contest.

The battle to come is going to be one of determination – between the vested interests who would get us back to a “normality” of whose detrimental effects we have been graphically reminded – and those who now see that something else is both possible and desirable. In the decisions we make as and when the immediate crisis winds down – the things we do, and perhaps more significantly the things we refuse to do – people-power must be able to send a loud message to those in power, about the changes that have to be made.

Because try as they might, neither corporations nor politicians can implement their programmes without the complicity of everyone else.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Il Dolce far Niente

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A deep silence is descending. In our small town, during the day almost nothing moves. It’s the same kind of silence that you normally only find in villages in La France Profonde, or parts of high-summer Italy; the early warmth and sunshine only reinforces the impression. Or perhaps it reminds me of my West-Country childhood, where the summers seemed to go on forever…

A trunk road passes near the town; often there is a ceaseless, low-level roar of lorries heading for the East Coast ports, and cars heading to workplaces, or the nearby retail centres. That has gone. So have the aircraft in this most crowded of airspace. Even in the town centre, except for the occasional vehicle, and the singing of the birds, the silence is near-total. The town is never exactly busy, though over the years the influx of commuters has upped the tempo. It has a rush-hour; not any more. In twenty years here, never before have I heard my footsteps echoing in the streets. Human voices, when heard, have an unusual clarity…

Somehow, there is a depth to this quietness that isn’t normally there. The tempo of life is slowing. Apparently, seismologists say the country has stopped vibrating.

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On our occasional forays, one gains snatches of voices out of sight in back gardens, or glimpses of people lolling in rooms. Now and again, a conversation is had (from a safe distance, of course), in an unhurried way that rarely happens when people have busy-ness to get back to. A sound-track for this would shatter the silence of course, but it seems like the right time for Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, or The Lark Ascending. Or perhaps La Mer.

It is of course not like this everywhere; it would be monstrous not to acknowledge the duress of those working to keep the rest of us serviced, let alone in the hellish places that some hospitals must be.

But for many, it is a matter of sitting and waiting. And from this, we can learn much. The country that originated il dolce far niente can be frantic too; life has to go on, everywhere. Here too, there is plenty of activity; the difference is the pace at which it needs to be done. But we can learn something valuable about a benign pace of life. We can remember that plenty of stuff can just Wait.

Even the names of the days are blurring; when it’s no longer a matter of work routines, do even they really matter? Did our ancestors get depressed about Mondays?

The meaning of that phrase does not refer to laziness, so much as the ability to stop and do nothing when circumstances permit. To linger over lunch or a chat, or just to sit and watch the play of sun and shadows on the wall. It is perhaps related to doing things well, rather than just quickly. It’s akin to mindfulness: an ability to be in, and to savour the present moment, to put one’s schedule on hold and just be.

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No doubt there are many who are finding confinement extremely difficult – even holidays these days seem to be a mad rush for the coast or places to keep the kids entertained. In this pressure-cooker of a country everything, it seems, need to be done at break-neck speed, as though people are scared of simply slowing down.

Is it too much to hope that they too might eventually break through this, and also learn what our particular circumstances here admittedly make easy – that quietness is restful and restorative, that boredom comes from within, and that forever revving the pace of life is not the answer? That, insofar as there is one, seems to be in the quality of lived experience, not the quantity.

Even in cities, the pace does seem to have slowed; much of what we admire about the world’s most liveable conurbations relates to their pace of life – not only the buzz of things to do, but also the ability to step off that conveyor and just chill. That’s perhaps what makes continental cities so charming; maybe now is the time to see that it is possible here, too?

What does seem to be hurrying is Nature: the speed at which the air and water have cleared has been quite breath-taking. Maybe there is a desperately overdue lesson in there too. Even pandas are breeding, now we have learned just to leave them alone…

It might seem self-indulgent to talk about the benefits of the current situation, when there is so much tragedy unfolding. But even a cloud this dark is not without its silver lining. Perhaps we should be reading James Lovelock or E.M Forster – and pondering the world we have made? Deciding what positive things can come from this?

Surely the best way of commemorating the tragedy of lost and shattered lives is to learn how to live that which remains for the rest of us, less cheaply?

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Reckoning

In global terms, I am not widely travelled. But in my frequent journeys around Europe, I have learned one ‘truth’ that I believe can be applied everywhere: people and places are not all the same. At one level, that’s a truism of geography, but it also applies to the social and economic landscape that people overlay on the places they inhabit.

It’s been a nice conceit for Europeans to think that the increasingly close relationships between our nation-states have made us “all just European now”. But it’s not true: the differences remain as strong as the newer realisation that we have more in common than we thought.

It’s not only a national issue either; the tendency to think in terms of national blocs frequently masks the differences that exist within nations. Things can be very different over small distances, even between more and less advantaged districts of a single town. The same tendency also disguises larger patterns, such as the fact that the USA has more coronavirus cases than Europe. I haven’t done the maths, but physical size and population of the USA make a comparison with Europe as a whole more valid than with much smaller political units, before we Europeans go crowing too loudly.

But now more than ever, none of the foregoing detracts from the basic fact that things aren’t the same everywhere. My experience can hardly be claimed to be scientific, but the repeated impression of numerous countries has been that each has its own ‘way’, that seems to transcend any attempt to smother or standardise it.

I suspect the reason for this is simply that ‘culture’ is both a more and less transmissible phenomenon that we realise. While it is easy enough to identify its outward expressions, I suspect the sheer depth of that ‘programming’ is less appreciated. Because we are exposed to this particular virus literally from birth, we acquire immunity before we’re even aware that is what it is. We then get trapped within it, which makes it more difficult to assimilate others.

What both fascinates and puzzles me is the extent to which culture might be heritable – nature, rather than as one might suppose, nurture. Accepting the many limitations on one’s ability to see the whole picture of something this complex, repeated exposure to Europe’s kaleidoscope has both given me a sense that there are some grounds for national stereotypes – and made me fascinated about precisely why Italians are Italian, Germans German and so on. It almost seems as though nations are unable to escape from their own mindsets, even when it might be in their better interests to do so. It might also explain why the why the UK predictably follows US norms more closely than do other European nations – and language-dependent mindset is only part of it. What genetic cultural commonalities might also play a part?

Yet Nurture is the more obvious influence: from one’s first breath, one is programmed by an all-enveloping message about the world. The things one treats as “normal” are the product of the neural networks that grow by exposure to certain things rather than others, and become established simply by virtue of frequency of encounter. Culture shock is an expression of what happens when one confronts this.

I can find no other way to explain why a universal human aptitude for language ends up with people speaking different ones dependent on where they grow up, or how the universal human need to eat finds so many different expressions.

What we perhaps underestimate is the depth to which these things pervade our entire experience – to the extent that different individuals seem to perceive the world in fundamentally different ways. A recent example was Britons’ wildly varying readings of their nation’s relationship with its neighbours. I think it’s too simplistic to attribute that simply to the influence of the media, the choice of which is itself a product of deeper currents. British attitudes to the wider world seem to be more generally informed by a deeper perspective of isolationism – without, seemingly, any recognition that insularity is itself a form of conditioning, not an absolute of human nature. It’s a function of island-dwelling so deep that many rarely even notice it.

It seems plausible to consider that those who have been exposed to a wider range of cultural experiences (for example by living in a poly-cultural environment or simply having wider geographical horizons) might have developed more varied neural networks as a result, thereby rendering them fundamentally more comfortable with pluralism than those who grew up in more homogenous surroundings. In Switzerland, for example, it is consistently the remote Alpine areas that are the strongholds of right-wing nationalism, whereas the big cities are more liberal. But I’ve met few on the continent who seemed as inherently insular in their attitudes as many British.

Beneath this seems to lie another question: why is it, in this day of instant international communication, when the world’s cultures are interacting more closely than ever before, does our ability to learn even practical things from each other seem so slow? Why is it that the British persist in mocking Germanic ‘efficiency’ even as they might be much better off imitating it? It seems that they just can’t ‘do’ it , even when they most need to.

What is less appreciated is the extent to which culture perpetuates itself – and in objective terms, that can mean replicating and even amplifying national blind spots. The people of a nation are as much a product of its culture as the reverse.

Collectively the British still seem to find it more important to perpetuate their country’s traditions – even as they grow manifestly more and more unsuited for the present day. There is an element of bloody-mindedness when it comes to learning from others – even where it means doing things worse, rather than adopting their methods. We then tell ourselves that it is actually we who are “world class”, even when the evidence contradicts it. This deep runs the national superiority-inferiority complex.

National institutions and policies can reinforce these patterns: the British have been told by their politicians and media for sufficient decades that there is “no such thing as society, only an economy”, that they have come to believe it, and behave accordingly. Even the education system – one of the key methods of cultural transmission – has been recruited to this cause, emphasising economic outcomes at the expense of personal wisdom or resilience, or wider social values. The Health Service (as everything else) has been run as a quasi-business, even though the result has been perpetual shortages and changes of policy. The nation has been led to believe that low taxes are better than a high-quality public realm – and as for the enduring acceptance that traditional social hierarchy is a natural order, it is so “obvious” that even now it is rarely widely questioned. The excessive, futile social competitiveness that it begets is simply treated as the norm.

However, this is not just a British issue: such cultural imprisonment is visible to varying extents across the world. Such convergence as there has been, for example in attitudes towards the human rights or environment, seems to have been the product of top-down intervention by organisations such as the EU or UN.

Which is why I come back to the idea of a heritable element to culture. As technology increasingly turns human culture into a single entity, it ought to be far easier to learn and adopt new strategies and mindsets than it is actually proving.

Anyone who has travelled on Swiss public transport can hardly avoid asking themselves the question, “Why can’t everywhere be like this?” Anyone who has crossed the Belgium-Luxembourg border and noticed the sudden absence of pot-holes and road noise can hardly not reflect on the mindsets and resultant priorities that produced such a striking physical manifestation of the difference between two neighbouring states. The answer is not always money.

More generally, one might wonder why certain states globally exhibit hawkish behaviours while others are more dove-like. Why is it that the nations with serious social problems don’t look at those with fewer and find it within themselves to emulate them? Why can’t Americans look at Europe and realise the obvious, glaring causality between gun ownership and mass killings? Something deeper and more instinctive seems to get in the way.

In the case of the U.K., why is that we instinctively follow the USA’s lead, at the expense of conflict with our nearer neighbours, even while they often don’t suffer from the same extreme social and economic problems that both this country and the USA do? Something deep inside seems to prevent us from doing so – even to the extent of driving a Brexit that few now claim will bring any real benefits.


 

But now we have a Reckoning that will throw all these things into harsh relief. I am not inert to the individual suffering that the coronavirus is causing. It is a human catastrophe. But with my (compassionate) social scientist hat on, I also wonder what it might tell us, and we might learn from it.

In objective terms, this pandemic presents the closest we are likely to come to an utterly dispassionate test of each nation, as of each person within them. The systems, policies, infrastructures – and mindsets – of each are being tested against a ruthless but remarkably constant adversary, which is exposing their respective strengths and weaknesses in a way that ‘mere opinion’ cannot.

And, allowing for the imperfections of information and reporting, it seems evident that while no country has coped ‘well’, some have coped better than others. To what extent is that luck – and to what extent a reflection on the model that each country operates? Much-criticised authoritarian countries seem to have had more success in imposing measures to curb transmission than those in the libertarian West, while within Europe, the “humourless”, “efficient” and “conformist” countries seem to have suffered less than less disciplined ones.

Those that have invested in their health care and technical sectors now have capacity that others which have cut apparent “inefficiencies” to the bone (in the name of cost-savings) do not. Those that retained a stronger sense of civic cohesion seem to be having fewer problems with curfews than those with more individualist streaks. I am bound (but not surprised) to add that the British education system seems to have done little to equip the nation’s citizens as a whole with the perspectives and resilience that might have led to a calmer, more disciplined response. This ‘common-sensical’ nation has revealed itself (again) to be nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid is coming from some distinctly unexpected quarters…

And the ultimate free market – the USA – sadly seems set to reap a whirlwind that even the UK may avoid, on account of a healthcare sector that was organised for corporate profit rather than universal public health. What more tangible evidence will be needed of the folly of that approach?

In the UK, the flaws of governmental libertarianism have been exposed – but so have the inadequacies of a society where social obligation has been all but obliterated; one in which inequality is so entrenched that there is no shame in depriving one’s fellows of basic needs by bulk-buying (and let’s face it, you need a certain income to be able to do that) – or by considering that one’s “right” to take refuge in one’s second home is more important than the risk of importing the virus into the remoter communities. It is the same mentality that seems to have led the lackadaisical, silver-spoon-raised Johnson somehow to think he was immune from contracting the virus when shaking hands in hospitals. The mindset runs so deep that it defies even common sense. But it can now be shown incontrovertibly to be wrong.

It is the mindset that has nationally prioritised private interests over social need for decades – the same interests that have been found wanting in a national emergency (just-in-time supply chains may cut costs but they do not work at times like this). Others, meanwhile, have been deluging us with emails of opportunism-cum-desperation assuring us of just how public-spirited they actually are, now that our patronage has dried up. Where were those values before the virus when they hoovered up our cash and funnelled it to shareholders? And does anyone really not see the irony in the multi-billionaire, non-tax-paying Branson asking for state bail-outs?

This is not pretty. We should of course balance it with the many acts of compassion and selflessness that are happening across the country, most of which are small and unreported. (Is it too much to describe it as a national reawakening? Even Johnson now accepts that there is such a thing as society…). We should also accept that negative behaviour is probably happening elsewhere, and we are simply not seeing it reported. But the balance-sheet will not inevitably be the same everywhere; I wonder how many Swiss are ignoring their lock-down. (In fact, my informant tells me it is virtually total).

Is it too much to hope that the trial-by-Armageddon of this pandemic should result in some important lessons being learned? Including the need to learn from others where attitudes and practices are better? That isolationism and social polarisation do not work? That (unprofitable) investment in resilience and contingency measures is not economically foolish, let alone socially unnecessary? That in the end, good government is essential? And that mocking nations who are less ill-disciplined, more enlightened than we – and whose citizens have enough social education to know when to curtail their personal idiocies in the name of collective survival – is foolish?

I think that various national responses to the pandemic have tended to reflect national norms more than dispel them. Some of that is circumstantial: more gregarious societies were perhaps going to have quicker contagion than less gregarious ones; on the other hand, they tend to have warmer climates, and so might experience quicker reductions as the summer arrives, that are nothing to do with policy. As I said, it’s complex. But above all that is the ability of each country effectively to run its own affairs. That will ultimately be measured by infection and mortality rates in the face of a common threat.

In the case of the U.K., it will probably be seen to have muddled through, initially over-reliant on bombast, spin and opportunism, followed by a belated but partially successful change of tack; its public services doing a good job despite long having been starved of resources; a nation that is not as sensible (by a long way) as it thinks it is, with cultural transmission systems (such as education) that are found not to have equipped the people as well as they might have, to deal with the biggest collective emergency of their lives.

In other words, pretty much the normal story for this country. But it’s a pity we still find it so hard to learn (in all sorts of ways) from those who arguably did better.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Cannon fodder

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Now is hardly the time to be preoccupied by grumbles about the state of the nation. Emergencies such as the coronavirus should ideally see us setting aside our other differences and working for the common good. (I am very irritated by the email feeds that I subscribe to, which have continued to make political capital out of the situation).

However, it is also true that extreme circumstances often reveal stark realities about the way we live. Albert Camus used epidemic in his major work La Peste for precisely this purpose: the way in which various characters react in extremis speaks volumes about the real nature of the human condition.

On the one hand, locally there have been any number of small gestures of community-spirited kindness – while on the other, certain landlords elsewhere apparently intend to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent, come what may; this reflects a depressingly callous side of human nature. (Since I first drafted this, the government has said it will make such actions illegal – but the intent nonetheless remains…)

What is true of individuals is, it seems, also true of nations. The respective responses of various countries to a broadly common threat is quite revealing about the mindset of those who run them, not to say their general level of competence. To be fair, we should overlay on that the relative position of those countries in relation to the development of the pandemic. Those who were hit first can hardly be blamed for making mistakes that experience may allow others to avoid.

But it still informative to note the extent to which some nations have adopted a hawkish approach, while others have been towards the ‘dove’ end of the spectrum; this perhaps reflects varying perspectives on, and levels of compassion towards, humanity in general. And once again, Blighty seems to have been firmly in the hawkish camp. Boris Johnson’s early comments on national policy gave the impression that losses amongst the ‘ordinary ranks’ were to be considered acceptable, or at least unavoidable, collateral damage. Only later, when this was reported negatively, were slightly softer messages forthcoming.

His choice of words is also informative: he considers dealing with a virus to be a “war” in which we are all to be conscripts. It is not very different from the imagery he used for Brexit. It betrays a confrontational, winner-and-loser mentality that is of questionable utility – unless you happen to consider yourself a habitual winner, which Johnson of course does.

A salutary point, however, is that some of the countries that we have become accustomed to praising for their tolerance, progressiveness and democracy, have been quicker than the U.K. to impose conditions not too far removed from martial law. Likewise, Britain’s accursed island status has been thrown into sharp relief: on the one hand the arrival of the virus has shown the idiocy of believing that we really can pull up a drawbridge on the world – but on the other, it is perhaps true that with closed borders, islands and other remoter areas really are somewhat shielded from the risks of a wholesale pandemic that could more easily sweep across a continent.

Perhaps more important, though, is the vision with which a country is run. Are those others who have imposed draconian measures really doing so because of their underlying authoritarianism, or just a more realistic appraisal of what is in their people’s best interest? At least it appears that such policies are consistently and equally applied; I can’t help but wonder whether the gradualist British approach is designed to leave doors ajar for those who have the means to help themselves first…

I don’t subscribe to the view that the ruling class of this country is willfully neglectful of the rest of the nation. It’s more subtle than that – and Johnson is only the particularly buffoonish tip of a much larger establishment iceberg: one that is still raised to think in terms of social hierarchy, “natural orders” and its own self-evident preeminence. It can’t help it, any more than the rest of us can help having our basic assumptions – but it does have further-reaching consequences.

It is an attitude that propagates hawkishness, that makes it easy to consider the ‘ranks’ as lesser human beings, which in turn justifies in its own mind a hierarchical approach to how people are treated even in times of emergency. The key thing (just as it was in national nuclear-strike strategy) is to protect those who are ‘pivotal’  to the perpetuation of the existing order – who just happen, of course, largely to belong to one particular socio-economic stratum. Is this just the privileged protecting themselves again – or (given that many such people are senior decision-makers) a necessary strategy for continued societal functioning? It perhaps shows that in the minds of such people, the continued existence of the British State is more important in itself than that of the majority of the individuals who comprise it: an attitude that is a hangover of Empire if ever there was one.

This mindset is doing significant and increasing damage to the fabric of British society. It can be summed up as Entitlement. From their earliest days, those who are born into this segment of society is taught to assume as a ‘given’ that their destiny is assured – and that that destiny is one of privilege.

By means of accent, lineage, connections, high-paid employment, inherited wealth and education, they continue to sequester the best that this nation has to offer for their own kind, before the hoi polloi has a chance even to get near it.  Their crowning achievement is to have persuaded the rest that this is indeed a natural order, in which the principle function of the lower orders is to fall on their swords when necessary in order to perpetuate the good life for those at the top. This is why it shows so little concern for the impact of adverse events on the population at large: it really does consider those other lives to be of lesser value than its own.

It is an intractable problem. As one such person said to me some time ago: “There is so little you can do with the plebs. They are so hopeless, so basic, and with such low expectations that you really can’t consider them to be much more than cannon-fodder”.

Sadly, there is an element of truth in this. Having been working again with young people, it is all too evident that significant numbers come from backgrounds, and have expectations, that are very likely perpetuate poor-quality lives. It is extremely difficult to raise these young people’s expectations, or to persuade them that there are alternative trajectories for their lives to the ones that, by their late teens, they already seem locked into. Pointing out that there are others having very different experiences seems to do little good: they have already bought into the mindset that certain things are “not for the likes of me”. Such attitudes become an unwitting collaborator in keeping the so-called elite where it believes it belongs – and experience suggests that they really are a particularly extreme handicap in British society compared with elsewhere in Europe.

Yet when one is faced with the reality of the such starkly contrasting lives, it becomes quite easy to understand Holly Martins’ view in The Third Man, that most humans are little different from ants, whose ceasing to exist would make almost no difference. Except that its exploitation could help bulwark the higher orders further.

But it is wrong.

It is wrong in a way whose understanding of why is perhaps beyond those whose entire existence is predicated on their belief in their own preeminence. To begin with, you have to un-learn that ingrained assumption that some humans are naturally superior to others. I don’t believe that Johnson and his ilk spend their everyday lives consciously thinking and acting on this – but it is so utterly impregnated in their very existence that they probably can’t help themselves. It doesn’t help that they live and work in a bubble that thrives on such groupthink. Everything about their lives insulates them from the rest of society. This is probably why Johnson seems so little troubled by the criticism radiating from large parts of the rest of society: he simply doesn’t see that the same rules need apply to his type, nor that he need be troubled by their outrage. Part of his privilege is to be able to behave as he pleases, and answer to no one. And after all, the nation has just elected him by a landslide, hasn’t it?

But once you have un-learned the superiority complex of the ruling classes, one thing becomes apparent: it is not that everyone is important – but that in the face of a pandemic, no one is. And once you have accepted that, it becomes very much easier to understand why egalitarianism really is the only logical response – making sure that everyone has the best stab at this life that they can, for there are still so many things about this life that we cannot control that we really do need to optimise those that we can.

The hierarchy that still bedevils every facet of this country, even down to its pandemic management, fails to understand one thing: it is not a survivor of the brutishness of so much of national life, so much as its source. Those (supposedly) lower British orders need not be any coarser than they are in other countries; what makes them so is their knowing lack of opportunity and access to the more elevating aspects of life. And this has primarily been caused by the hoarding tendencies of those with the means to do so: the higher orders are not the refugees from baseness that they seem to believe: they are its cause.

In Italy, residents of the big apartment blocks have responded to their incarceration by singing on their balconies; in Britain, the media seems to be responding to a similar scenario by reminding the nation how much television there is to watch. This is the extent to which such disparities in everyday life-opportunity infiltrate national psyches. I have had to work hard to persuade my teenage students that there is plenty they could do to stop themselves getting bored in the coming months. But they are mostly not that resourceful; British society encourages them to be otherwise.

Life today is in many ways far removed from Hobbes’ view of it as “nasty, brutish – and short”. But we still have far to go – and it is perhaps it is during extreme times, whether Brexit or the pandemic that this is exposed. Some people are starting to describe these things as a wake-up call. Perhaps the test of this theory will be whether those who increasingly run the show use it to bulwark their own positions, or finally to wake up to another reality. After all, the really essential workers at times like this are the ones doing the most basic but essential work – and maybe we need reminding of that fact.

Perhaps the most likely eventuality is that the present economic model – which (with education) is the prime mechanism for perpetuating privilege – may simply fail to cope with this emergency; the fact that Johnson has already hinted at a universal basic income and eviction controls may be a sign that realities are being faced that might otherwise not have been.

On the face of it, a virus does not discriminate between people according to their wealth or social status – but the ability (and willingness) of the elites to protect themselves at others’ expense will no doubt – as Camus pointed out – speak volumes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

The topographical geometry of a big little island.

Geography still suffers from an image problem. It has never had glamorous TV presenters or highbrow authors to make its case as has, for example, history. And yet, as one of the few books to buck the trend shows, History is the prisoner of Geography. What happens in places is, fundamentally, dictated by the spatial configurations of those places.

For better or worse, Brexit has prompted an increased focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK – something that I felt had largely been put to bed by the early 1990s as free market economics (and in my view the Single Market) provided at least the veneer of a much more successful country. As I worried at the time, it was merely papering over cracks that have been cruelly exposed again in the last fifteen years.

And yet we seem not to learn the lessons of Geography. British people widely seem to have almost as little real appreciation of the lump of rock they inhabit in the eastern Atlantic, as they do of the continent next door. At present, this is particularly apparent in the discussions about regional disparities and the role that new transport infrastructure may have in addressing it. Yet even the politicians seem not to have noticed that history is littered with initiatives to solve this particular problem, as though it is nothing more than a slight political oversight, rather than the more enduring forces of geography that they are dealing with.

So here is a brief explanation.

  1. The British Isles are not “an” island – nor just two – but about 6000 – of which about 130 are inhabited.
  2. Many of those islands are highly indented in shape. Great Britain alone has a coastline of around 17,800km (setting aside the controversy about how this is calculated). It has an area of just under 210,000 km². The Hausdoff Dimension for the island is a high 1.25 – in other words, there are lots of separate, sticky-out bits into the sea, on the way to nowhere.
  3. This means that useful distances between places are often a lot longer than they appear. For example, Pembroke to Penzance is 175km as the crow flies, but 500km in human travel terms. From my home, Dover is about 90km away in a straight line but double that by the shortest road. In practical terms, this means that regional economies that in a country of a more consolidated shape would be able to interact, are often barely able to.
  4. In addition, Britain’s position on the margin of a vast ocean means that there are few reasons to go to, let alone beyond those outlying places in order, for example,  to reach other countries. Italy suffers from a similar peninsularity problem, but at least one can head to the Balkans or North Africa from the extreme south. There are very few places to go from northern Scotland. So they remain culs de sac.
  5. As a result, many of Britain’s regions are remote, underpopulated and underdeveloped – for example, the further south-west, west Wales, and progressively, the whole of the north.
  6. The shape of the island naturally dictates that routes from the extremes all converge in south east England. London is not where it is by accident.
  7. While the country’s topography is not as challenging as say Italy’s, when combined with the indentation, it still presents problems. Those radial routes manage to cross lowland England without too many problems – but they are then divided from each other by ranges like the Pennines and the Welsh uplands. This makes travel to London easy, but cross-country travel much more difficult. There is only one proper East-West motorway between the M4 (London to Bristol) and M8 in Scotland.
  8. Equally, linear geographies make the emergence of parallel routes more difficult – there is nothing approaching the ‘net’ of motorways seen in Germany and Benelux, thus focusing traffic – and hence congestion – on a few routes. See the maps below (though note that some British dual carriageways not shown would almost be considered motorways on the continent). There is still no direct continuous dual carriageway between the English and Scottish capitals, nor along the south coast.
  9. The same shape only gives rise to one major non-London axis, from south-west to north-east – but this was historically neglected by transport companies that were much more interested in serving London. It also has to dodge or cross many of those ridges of upland.
  10. Recent history has not helped either: when Britain was the world’s workshop, it was as easy to dock a ship at Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow as London. This was aided by the fact that the hinterlands of those cities produced goods (cotton, wool, steel) for which wet, hilly terrain was a positive advantage when it came power sources and raw materials. Nowadays, such areas are perhaps less attractive. In many ways, the population distribution of the UK is a relic of 150 years ago. If you were planning a new city today, you would probably not choose Glasgow or even Newcastle as the location. The large populations of northern England and central Scotland are marooned in places which in geographical terms have little competitive advantage – and lots of disadvantages.
  11. The increasing links between the UK and the continent have placed the regions at an ever greater disadvantage. Any trade or travel between them and the continent encounters the London region as a major blockage, in both practical and economic terms. And coming the other way, too much investment gets as far as London – but no further.
  12. This has not been helped by policies that have privileged the London region at the expense of the rest. In simple terms, the UK has focused development in the most favoured areas and abandoned the outlying ones. Many countries would use infrastructure to do exactly the opposite. But regional services through the Channel Tunnel never got off the ground – cancelled due to low predicted demand – even though there was equally low demand for train services from London to Paris before the tunnel opened. Quite apart from the practical impact, the effects on provincial perceptions of ‘Europe’ would have been great.

A lot of current discussion centres on, for example, whether the country needs High Speed Two – or whether the money would be better spent linking the northern cities. This is to miss the point: we need both. The fact that the cost is now so enormous is the result of decades of failure to address the problem. We are half a century behind the French, for example, in building high speed rail lines.

Too often, they are still seen as discrete projects, rather than as an integrated network. It seems to have been too much to expect High Speeds One (to the Tunnel) and Two (to the north) to be linked together, for instance. It was also too much to expect Crossrail to be linked into HS1, or to be used to provide regional services from East to West across southern England, rather than a simple commuter shuttle for London.

High Speed Three (Liverpool to Hull) makes most sense if it is linked into HS2 in Manchester and Leeds – it is the overall connectivity that is important, and would make the projects both more cost-effective and user-friendly. It would also reduce the risk of HS2 simply sucking more growth into London. And the option of building it from Plymouth to Edinburgh to link almost all regional centres to provide a counter-balance to London seems never even to have been considered – despite the fact that that route could have been built with money saved from expensive construction in the London area.

An imaginative private sector proposal to link HS 1 and 2 via Heathrow and Gatwick has apparently been rejected even before the drawing board (too many Tory seats in the way?)

All of these things are entirely within the ability of this country to solve – or would have been, had they not been neglected for so long that the cost is now enormous. The real problem has been a lack of understanding or foresight – of the benefits of joined-up thinking in particular. And that is perhaps the most British failing of all.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

After the storm.

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After the storm came the calm. The passage of 31st January 2020 was always going to be difficult – and so it proved, despite my best efforts to ignore it. But it was also a non-event as most of the country remained quiet.

The following morning, I woke to a strange sense of relief – I guess a natural reaction to the knowledge that an unpleasant ‘peak’ was finally past. But that in turn is giving way to a more sombre mood, as the reality of what came to pass sinks in – assisted by the first depressing indications from the government about what it intends next.

For me, the shock of Brexit was compounded by the fact that this is the dénouement of something I have striven for not for three, but more than thirty years – ever since I first visited the European Parliament in 1989, and my already-nascent Europeanism crystallised into something more specific. But all those years of battling widespread indifference, when Europeanism was seen in the UK, if at all, as an eccentric minority concern, seem finally to have ended in rejection.

For this reason, too, it has seemed all the more cruel that I have had simultaneously to contend with several years of poor mental health (thankfully also largely past), which made every surge and slump of hope that much more acute.

But we must rise above. I made myself quite unpopular at times by questioning both the motives and methods of some of those campaigning for remain. I am unrepentant – because I know that the insight that comes from self-scrutiny is an essential part of understanding. And from understanding comes greater effectiveness.

I still worry that the irrationality, even hysteria, that was seen in some quarters of the remain camp, was an expression not of resilience, but the lack of it. I have found my own greatest reserves in the knowledge that membership of the European Union is not the same as being European. The latter is an entirely personal matter of perspectives, values and choices, that cannot be taken away by mere political changes. It took thirty years to grow, and I have my doubts that it can be ‘acquired’ in three. 

I fear that the extreme emphasis placed by some on the technical and political losses of Brexit only betrayed the void that lay behind. Clinging to the technical minutiae was in fact an expression of the insecurity of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, not its strength. For many in the UK, membership of the EU was perhaps their only apparent means of European expression. It is not. The objection to things that were being taken away was perhaps indicative of the lack of appreciation – or ‘ownership’ – of those things that cannot be taken away.

I don’t for a moment blame anyone for that – the climate in this country for five decades has done nothing whatsoever to encourage people to think otherwise. But in a sense, the remain movement was nonetheless an expression not of the solidarity of British Europeanism, but the opposite: something already barely within reach that was now being taken away. My reason for pointing this out was simply to alert people to that possibility. It seemed to have escaped notice that some of the sentiments being expressed in the name of “Europe” were diametrically opposed to what that ideal supposedly stands for. The fact that I fell on deaf, even hostile ears only confirmed my fears.

But that is why it was ultimately futile: over 47 years, Europeanism utterly failed to resonate in any cultural sense for the vast majority of people in Britain, such that Brexit would represent the ripping away of anything at all. By contrast, the Leave camp was able to appeal to precisely that “gut” instinct of its latent support base, that they were regaining something of value.

Grieving is a necessary and important process. It brings catharsis, and ultimately acceptance. But even in its depths, our rational selves can still recognise it for what it is. I’m not convinced that utterly abandoning ourselves inconsolably to it is ultimately helpful. We might at least accept that grief is capable of hugely distorting our world view – and save important decisions and declarations for a time when we are more rational again.

This is why I think it is essential that we pro-Europeans to take a hard look at ourselves, as soon as we each feel capable of doing so. I think it is why we should be cautious about knee-jerk reactions, such as those “rejoin” demonstrations that have already taken place. They could do a lot more harm than good at the moment. Discretion needs to be the better part of valour.

Now is precisely the moment when those rational selves need to reassert themselves, painful though that may feel; nobody said this was going to be easy. We must all rise above. After all, profiling of pro-Europeans suggests that they are more likely to be highly-educated and with a forward-looking, progressive view of the world. If we neglect the advantages that this confers, then we really will need to abandon all hope. The backward-looking traditionalists will have won.

So what is to be done? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on the personal aspects of Europeanism that are solely within the individual’s control. Ask yourself hard questions about what it actually rests on for you. Is it simply the desire to go through the fast lanes at passport control, or it is an integral part of your daily life? How familiar are you with the reality of the rest of Europe – or is it just a holiday destination? Are you a role model for what Europeanism means? How many languages do you speak? (This above all is something we need to address). In what ways has wider European culture shaped your own day-to-day life? Do you follow European affairs as a matter of course? When you conceive of where you live, which map comes to mind (the British one, or the European one)? What choices and values do you live by – and what are you transmitting to your children and those around you? How many genuine friends do you have in other countries? (If none, can this be fostered?) Europeanism is ultimately about horizons and perspectives – our own.
  2. Accept that on the one hand there is little to be done about the current national situation – but on the other, that it is not set in stone forever. In five years’ time, there will be another election, and a subsequent government will not necessarily pursue the same hard-line policies as the current one. We need to do everything possible to ensure that a change of regime is achieved.
  3. Look at the domestic situation. Many of the flaws in this country that led to Brexit were not caused by it. We need to maintain the pressure for electoral reform, for regional rebalancing, for less inequality, and for awareness-building amongst a wider public, about the merits of ongoing Europeanism (not just EU membership). If the current government assists by addressing some of the regional issues, then we should give credit where it is due – and recognise that they are actually helping to reduce dissatisfaction with the state of this country. Regional aid is, after all, a European approach. That can help us – and it may well be that the actual trajectory of the country will do so too, should the economy and social provision plummet further.
  4. Realise that we are not immune to human weakness. Perhaps the greatest current threat is simply that the passage of time will blunt pro-Europeanism, as people become acclimatised to a new reality: the acceptance that grief eventually brings. There is no point in dismissing that possibility at present: it is simply too soon to tell. A harsh reality is that acute events tend to mobilise people to action, but their removal can have an equally rapid dissipating effect – and the peak moment in the anti-Brexit mobilisation is now past. No one can be sure exactly how much will be left of the remain movement two years from now – and anyone suggesting the contrary is claiming things that are simply not knowable.
  5. Accept that reconciliation will be necessary. That means give as well as take. It is probably true that views are now so polarised that a whole segment of the British population is beyond reach. But remember too, in your shame and frustration, that we are not the only European nation to have such people. We still have at least to tolerate them: I am not convinced that the condescension and condemnation that flowed towards them helped the Remain cause one iota. It just embedded a lot of their prejudices. In order to reverse Brexit at some point, we will need to convince those who are not currently strong Europeans. Demographics are on our side – as may be coming events. We need to take every opportunity to demonstrate what has been lost – and how it can be regained. The first thing to do is to tackle the very thing that never took root in the first place: the shifts necessary in the national mindset to bring real European understanding to this country in a way that, had it existed, would never have allowed the Brexiters to rip it away. Until that genuine love of Europe is embedded in our national psyche, then no political campaign is likely to succeed.

This is not a matter of national politics; it a matter of the personal choices of every person in the country. It may not make much progress for a long time – but it can begin now.

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Sea birds on the Essex mudflats on Bidet. Tomorrow they might be on the Rhine estuary. Brexit means nothing to them.