Riyadh: Friday 13th July 2012
Amid the tedium and pettiness of the office politics which has dominated much of the last week, one of the few pleasures has been an intermittent email debate with an old friend, Jack. As usual our email correspondence has taken the form of a discussion of politics. As usual, it has been enjoyable and a welcome distraction. As usual we have failed to reach a consensus. It will be a sad day when we finally do. It may well involve one or the other of us reposing on a death-bed.
It was my friend who first persuaded me to take up blogging. I had long kept up a diary, but the nature of diary keeping is somewhat different from blogging, and I was not immediately receptive to the idea of blogging. In some ways I’m still not. My friend, Jack, maintains a blog himself, albeit, one that he seldom has the chance to add to, and it is his insights which inform much of what Crabbitat is. I owe him much as a friend, and in many ways Crabbitat is something of a tribute to him. In fact, it is frequently written to him.
Jack is a resident of Hong Kong, one of the worlds more interesting and enjoyable postings, and during the course of our email correspondence he was able to outline some of the things he is able to do there, including frequent social sporting activities, and indulging a long-held ambition to take up yachting. Together with his young family, Jack is able to make the most of a pretty spectacular city and all it has to offer. Living in Riyadh, it is tempting to be a wee bit envious of Jack. Indeed for most people, even those living in Hong Kong, it is tempting to be more than a wee bit envious of Jack.
Envy is pointless, however, not to mention ugly. It is also ultimately, self-destructive and dishonest. Jack and I are not in competition. We never have been. On the contrary, our lives have taken broadly complimentary paths and our friendship exists, in no small part, as a result of this. From our jointly formative years to the summer of our lives, Jack and I have seldom competed over anything because we have, broadly speaking, coveted different things and gone about obtaining them in different ways. And if, in recent months, I have become increasingly aware of a deep disappointment at the emptiness of a life wasted in Saudi Arabia, I should not forget that failure is no respecter of international boundaries.
The path of many a human life is (during the coming 40 or 50 years) very likely to be one marked by disappointment and bitterness. I am unlikely to be alone in finding the ownership of my own home or residence with my love to feel a million miles away. After generations of seemingly inexorable growth, the west now perceives that it cannot any longer foot the bill and institutions it thought were markers of its civilization are now being abandoned. The country I was born into looks very different 35 years on. By the time my birth reaches its 70th anniversary, it is likely to look far different again, and there is little to indicate that its people will be either financially better off or happier, although the two are seldom linked.
For one thing, with the dismantling of institutions, synonymous with our perceptions of civilisation, comes a deeper loss in our sense of self-worth. When Britain abandoned its empire, it did so in exchange for free health care, pensions, and public education and housing, built on a vast scale. However reduced Britain’s self-image may have been, however much these institutions might seem imperfect with the passage of years, their creation came about from a collective desire to build a better world for all.
This time, which the loss of British Institutions, there is little evidence of a similar quid-pro-quo. We are promised that the abolition of what remains of the welfare state will lead to a more competitive Britain which can afford to pay its way in the world. But in reality the fruits of this revolution will not be seen in our lifetimes, such are the scale of the debts to be paid back and the extent of the restructuring required. In the mean time, we lose not only old-fashioned and ineffective elements of public sector schooling or social work, but beloved institutions which remain the envy of much of the rest of the world. The BBC World Service is cut back just as the Army and local authority schooling are cut back. The knife must be seen to wielded in all parts of British life.
This is easily justified, of course, and it is not the intention of Crabbitat, to argue that the unsustainable must be sustained. Yet, with the systematic removal of layers of British cultural and social systems, something of the British themselves will be lost also. The Britain which remains, will be leaner, better educated, fiscally secure and better able to compete in the global market place. Yet, beyond that image of a tightly run Britain, in which individuals are accountable for the provision and funding of their own healthcare, and much of the required community institutions are outsourced to local community volunteer groups, there is little recognisable about the Britain of tomorrow, little to suggest I would flourish there, or find happiness.
Of course we are at the beginning of a long process. Victorian Britain, with its Jingoism, pollution, seismic wealth inequality strict, stifling, hypocritical morality is unlikely to have been more welcoming. On the contrary, just as the Britain of tomorrow will seem a very different country, there is little point looking for answers in the failed utopias of the past. The only way history can cast us is forward.
I must confess to being unconvinced by the vision of Britain’s future branded as the Big Society. It is not that I think it is unachievable, undesirable or unrealistic. it is more that to achieve it, the British will need to adapt to an individual responsibility for their own actions to make up for the shortfall in social and civic provision previously provided by organised religion.
The Government disagree. They point to the Victorian era and the lessons drawn by Edmund Burke. They point out that before there was a welfare state, civic responsibility lead to the construction and administration of the great towns and cities of Britain. They argue that without the state, Britain still had temperance societies, and self-improvement groups, fellowship societies and electoral reform groups. They point too to the observations drawn by Alexis de Tocqueville, when touring the United States, who noted that American life was essentially driven by these same forces. They argue, convincingly that society does not require a powerful State, to function. remove the state, and what happens is that people come out and begin to perform the necessary civic and social functions themselves.
So what would this renewed Britain look like? What will the “Big Society” bring? Well fast forward a hundred years and what do we see? Firstly, Britain is flourishing. A largely independent school sector churns out a highly educated, literate and numerate population, the envy of anything seen in the far east. Britain is socially mobile with this independent schooling free for almost all at the point of delivery thanks to bursaries and voluntary groups, religious societies and private industry investment in local communities.
The far-sighted decision to dismantle the welfare state has led to a boom in philanthropic endeavor. Life’s winners are successful and their earnings are barely taxed at all. The result is that they have plenty of money left over which is ploughed back into the youth groups, and school boards which gave them their chance.
A spirit of entrepreneurialism flourishes in Britain. The young are wholly literate with the latest technology and lead the way in its evolution and innovation, her well-funded educative institutions are the envy of the world. Moreover, little energy is wasted by the young in trying to change the world through revolution. They remember through history, the lessons of the wasted century when commitment to left-wing social causes paralysed society and wasted the talents and energies of youth. As Britain fights her way back up the latter of Nations, it is her youth, unburdened by the massive debt burden bequeathed to their parents by the baby boomers, who now drive this dynamic rise.
And when not working, they are the fittest generation in history. Their lives are busy affairs, involving involvement in school committees, part-time involvement with the local volunteer fire brigade, coaching kids in sport and participating in social groups who try to make the lives of those less fortunate, more bearable.
There are few who actively aspire to politics. The overwhelming dominance of the global economic drivers render conventional politics as essentially irrelevant. The principal function of politicians is to uphold the legal framework of the constitution and to provide a minimum basic safety net for the very poorest and most vulnerable in society. Much of defence spending is now in the hands of the private sector, while maintenance of the prisons and asylums is similarly seldom done directly be government. Only a light touch regulatory body retains government involvement in these institutions, ensuring abuses are monitored. Yet even this is in decline as an increasingly moral and responsible society takes personal and individual responsibility to ensure that abuse of the poor or the weak is regularly exposed and punished.
Finally, despite being one of the fastest growing economies and busy, upwardly mobile societies on the planet, Britain is also increasingly religious. All the worlds religions are represented in multicultural Britain and almost everyone is involved in active participation through the various religious institutions that have flourished through the creation of faith schools a hundred years ago. The net result is a Britain which bridges the gap in international relations between the major development areas of the globe. Britain is integral, a beacon of peace and hope and vitality on a troubled world.
Why am I sceptical? Three reasons.
- Women: History shows us that when Britain was a nation of societies and civic involvement it was principally women who were involved. it doesn’t matter if these were temperance societies, religious groups, charities or campaigners for penal reform or greater healthcare. It was women who worked at the heart of the communities to provide these groups. Why do these groups no longer exist. even in America where the provision of these services has been much less robustly undertaken by the state than in Britain? Because women now work. Indeed, just to retain a family income approximating the national average, women have no choice but to work. They will simply not have time to do that and run the voluntary life which is expected to dominate British life.
- Liberalism: Or rather it’s absence. The vision of future Britain I have provided above is now seen as the dream of the political right. But in reality, both in America and in Britain, when it was at its hight, societies civic involvement was the realm of Liberalism: do-gooding political liberalism. And this is crucial. For the right tend to preach the economic wisdom of the market. The drive to manipulate tha market is more mediated by cultural liberalism, where civic responsibility and giving back to the society from where you came are crucial. But in America, Liberalism is now used as a dirty word for socialism while in britain the battle for the soul of the nation is between the right to “Fairness” and the rights on the “individual.” The idea that these are, in fact, one and the same thing, is anathema to the right and left. This decline in Liberalism, is essentially a decline in the idea that the individual is responsible, not only for his or her own life, but for society as a whole.
- Religion: My friend made a point that should have been irrelevant during our political jousting. He pointed out that he was an atheist. This should not matter because he is a good and moral man. It does matter, because, while being an atheist does not stop you being good, it does appear to stop you caring in an accountable way for the rest of society. This is not a slight against my friend. It is a general observation that both Alexis de Tocqueville and Burke made their observations in profoundly Christian Societies, in which religious observance was the cornerstone of each and every community. An atheist is quite capable of purity and goodness, just as a man of faith can exercise great cruelty. But no atheist society has so far managed to form a genuine community of the free as envisaged by modern conservatives. Even Stalin’s war-time Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad populations, called upon to make colossal collective sacrifices, were more effective when the party reopened the churches, and replaced socialist propaganda with nationalist propaganda (tied up to the Orthodox religion of the national church and the national historical memory of that country).
Thus I am sceptical that the removal of the welfare state will lead either to a happier or a wealthier Britain, which is not to say that I deem it unnecessary. In the final reckoning, Britain, would keep its
social institutions if it could afford to do so. It has become too attached to the dignity of free healthcare for all, high quality, politically impartial broadcasting and retirement to abandon those things willingly. It’s just that it cannot keep up the payments any more. The end of the welfare State in britain is not, as you would expect in a democracy, at the behest of the electorate, but at the behest of the credit agencies. But in the likely event that this dismantling is not accompanied by a quid-pro-quo, and a generally accepted alternative vision that the British themselves can believe in, it is probable that the coming century will be one of frustrated ambition and disappointment for a Britain, unable to realise its potential or live up to the glories of its past.
It is therefore important to remember that that same ‘Glorious Past,’ was only ever equivocally glorious. The great Victorian expansion of Glasgow demonstrates this dichotomy clearly. On the one hand, Glasgow became the second city of the Empire, the city from which a third of the world’s shipping originated and in which fabulous wealth could be made. Yet, at the same time this was the city whose reputation for slums and deprivation, overcrowding and misery was to out do that of any other comparable British city. It is therefore with great care that we are to welcome a return to unregulated civic society. Lest we forget, the slums were not cleared by private enterprise or philanthropy, but by systematic social policy decisions taken by Government. The great beauty of Civic Glasgow’s architecture is an almost entirely capitalist creation. But the fact that these are no longer surrounded by physical reminders of the endemic poverty and misery upon which Glasgow’s wealth was built, is the result of socialist aspiration.
It would be wrong to suppose that the clearance of the Victorian Slums was a justification of Socialist or welfare culture. Glasgow’s poor, remain poor. The housing often remains poorly maintained and the isolation of the communities has led to a greater disconnection and emptiness for many. But the existence of the slums in the first place, existing side by side with the fabulous civic wealth of the city, should act as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to suppose that an unregulated free market is an untrammelled good for all. If the Britain of the future is to resemble Burke’s, Liberalism, and I would welcome it if it does, we will need as a society to make individual sacrifices and take personal responsibility, not only for the lives of ourselves and our families, but for the inevitable losers in capitalist society.
And that spirit of sacrifice and individual accountability will be tough to replicate, shorn of the faith-based institutions of the Victorian era.
And what of my disappointment and sadness today? Faced with the petty frustrations of work, the absence of friends, and loved ones, or the knowledge of my own life bleeding away towards its conclusion without my having achieved the most basic of accomplishments, I face today that great realisation that we try to keep at bay through busy lives and alcohol. I am guilty today of weakness; of letting awareness of my shortcomings dominate my consciousness, spreading bitterness and sadness and defeat? Today the chance of ever supporting my own family, let alone contributing to the sort of society envisaged by de Tocqueville and Burke seems light years away.
Yet this is a nonsensical position to take. Whatever the iniquities and misfortunes, frustrations and trials of my life, they pale into insignificance next to the lives endured and enjoyed by others. Riyadh can get to most people. It can let the petty and insignificant take root and blossom into a hardy and brutalising cynicism. And whether we think of nations or individuals, cynicism is the greatest threat to renewal and recovery that there is.
Tomorrow I will go back to work, try to forget my disappointment and sadness and focus on the day-to-day world of my job; trying to forget the pointlessness of most of what I do. And it is exactly this which an increasing number of people will need to do in the century which lies ahead, combatting cynicism with forgetfulness, depression with repetitiveness, self indulgence with soul sapping monotonous industry. And perhaps it is this need which will lead once more to greater religious observance in Britain, as people find that they need help to come to terms with the emptiness of much of what we do.