What makes a ‘good’ country?

flags

Michaela and I have spent quite a few hours sitting looking morosely into cups of tea, talking about the state of our country, and in particular, our government.

For those reading this outside the UK we currently have a concoction of two different parties governing our country, but the ‘crisis culture’ that has been bred by all the economic doom and gloom has allowed the Conservative party to bring about sweeping changes to our benefits system, or health system and our education system, whilst cutting taxation for people earning over £150,000 per annum by 5%. Much of what they have done has a direct impact on the poorest section of our population, and feels to some of us like an abomination.

For example, people who live in social housing, supported by housing benefit (which includes a high proportion of people who are disabled, sick, have mental health problems, or single parent families) will now be faced with losing money, or being forced to move home. If tenants are deemed to have one spare room, the amount of rent eligible for housing benefit will be cut by 14%. If they have two or more spare rooms, the cut will be 25%. Leaving aside the negative effect this will have on all sorts of aspect of peoples lives, the simple fact is that there are no one bedroom flats to move in to for many people!  Unfair, unjust changes like this are justified by this government by two things- a tabloid-like blame-the-poor attitude, and a constant reference to global ecnonomics.

All of which takes me back to the point of this piece- what sort of country would you want to live in?

I started making a list of the things I would NOT want to see in my country;

1. A large (and widening) gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’- enforced by law, tradition and the use of power.

In the UK, we have a remarkably stable upper echelon. People with money and power tend to be the children of other people with money and power. There appears to be evidence that this was reducing somewhat- at least in part because since WWII we had 40-50 years of political hegemony around the issue of equality- of opportunity, of health care of access to education. Power was taken by working people in the form of organised unions, and greater access to higher education gave people from poor backgrounds knowledge and skills they had never had before.

However, the UK egalitarian experiment was in many ways a very British one- it was not revolution, it was bureaucratic evolution. Progress was statistical, and statistics are always open to manipulation.

Along the way, we all became middle class consumers. The working class disappeared with the shipyards and the coal mines, leaving behind a broken underclass who were seen only as a threat, a burden, an expensive waste of resources.

And at the same time, the overarching idealistic imperative towards equality was allowed to slip away. We no longer talk about it. And many of the key elements of it are starting to killed one by one. Universal non-stigmatising benefits? All but gone. Free education, supported by a fair grant system to support people through universities? Gone. Universal health care from the cradle to the grave? Under threat from privatisation. Etc.

We may (and often do) argue about the nuts and bolts of all this- but the central over arching question- is our society becoming more equal, or more divided- has slipped off the agenda almost entirely.

 

2. A society where the rule of law is manipulated or ignored by the people in power, for their own ends, either at home or abroad.

Our comfort with this one in the UK seems to ebb and flow.  In many ways, we might see our justice system, and our sense of ‘fair play’ as essentially British. The fact that we are outraged when fairness is transcended is a sign of this.

However, many would argue that the assumption of British fair play has always been a canard. The Empire was not a selfless project to civilise the world with cricket and people wearing wigs- it was a means to exploit, to subjugate, to enslave even.

At home, the interplay between power and the law is a complex one, and something that requires constant scrutiny at the same time as people in power would keep secrets.

For which you need a free press, and open government.

So, a mixed bag this- we have some movements towards open government, at the same time as the press shoot themselves in the foot with all sorts of bad practices.

There have been some changes too to the way our system works- talk of jury-less trials, and the removal of legal aid from other aspects of law (for example, benefits appeals.) These things need to be resisted.

 

3. Individual citizens are not of equal value- most are expendable in the interests of those who are in power.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

All sorts of things can be used to excuse this kind of thinking- ideology, religion, economics, war against a common enemy (real or conjured up.)

At some points of our history, the UK has seen its citizens as cannon fodder, or an industrial resource. Currently it is not possible to do this openly thank God.

However, I have heard it said that the measure of a good society should be how we treat our prisoners, our poor people, our elderly, sick and infirm. This should be the first job of government- to govern on behalf of the weak, not the strong. The strong can look after themselves, the weak need to be empowered so that they can do the same.

If this is true, the UK has been doing poorly recently.

 

4. Freedom is waved like a flag, but defined against others, not inclusive of them.

I do not want to be part of a country still caught up in empire lust. However, even without military expansion, nuclear weapons and invasion of other countries, empire can still be a weight upon our nationhood.

We talk about freedom as some kind of inalienable human right- usually hand in hand with democracy and capitalism. Freedom is understood as ‘the right to live in the way that we are living’ with as little interference as possible in the form of taxation, regulation, or imposition by others.

However, this kind of freedom requires examination- particularly when it comes at huge cost to others- when it is based on unsustainable, inequitable trade relationships with poor countries, where it is destroying our environment.

Freedom-to also equally becomes freedom-from. We are free because we are not like you. Perhaps this is sometimes true- there are some despotic places out there. However, when this kind of freedom starts to exclude people in terms of colour, origin, religion, gender, sex- then it is no freedom at all.

 

5. Patriotism becomes nationalism becomes excluisivism, and it ticks like a historical time bomb.

I can think of nothing good that ever came out of nationalism- measured in terms of human dignity and grace. I say this as an outsider living in a country that is considering full independence from the wider UK. Perhaps this might be the project that proves me wrong but I see warning signs to the contrary- the easy negative stereotyping of the other, the co-opting of war stories that justify us against you, the distortion of history to cast ourselves as victims/heroes and the other as oppressors/villains.

In this kind of soil poisonous things grow.

The Bible struggles with all of this- it can be read as the story of a succession of empires as they rise and fall- eventually to be challenged by a totally different kind of Empire, called ‘the Kingdom of God’, in which the the rules are turned upside down- the first become the last, the poor are our conscience and love is our currency.

Patriotism belongs to empire- it has no place in the Kingdom of God.

 

I am British- somewhere inside. I find this difficult to define- as an English/Irishman living in Scotland. I am grateful for the gentle green climate of these beautiful islands, and for the slow pragmatic evolution of our welfare state.

But (in the words of many a school report) we could be doing better…

 

The myth of equality…

Just had an interesting discussion with my daughter. Emily is 16, lovely, intelligent, part of a middle class nuclear family, surrounded by good friends and enjoys a situation of safety and security. She lives in a quiet, relatively crime free part of the UK, one of the richest countries in the world.

In many ways, you could say that she has won the life lottery.

This would be unfair of course-life has this way of challenging all of us in some ways- she is having to learn to cope with dyslexia, and to develop her own individual self confidence, which is difficult enough for any of us.

But what this highlights to me is the issue of equality. Equality of opportunity is the watch word for our current political elite. Borrowed perhaps from the American dream, we cling to the idea that in a vibrant market driven capitalist economy, our measure of success is determined by our ability, more or less.

I suppose in many ways I stand as some kind of evidence of this- the child of a single parent, brought up by the welfare state, educated to degree level, now more or less middle class. However…

There is a devastating critique of this idea by Deborah Orr in today’s Guardian. Here are a few extracts-

The idea is that as long as there is “equality of opportunity”, then a highly competitive economic system that naturally sorts people into “winners and losers” – let’s call it a meritocracy – is perfectly reasonable. But the rhetoric is laughably fallacious. In a system that divides people into winners and losers, you can’t have “equality of opportunity”. The children of the winners will, broadly, always have the advantage. The children of the losers will, broadly, always have the disadvantage, theinability, if you will.

Welfare dependency is not a cause of society’s problems, but a consequence of them. Sadly, it is in the febrile interest of all mainstream politicians to continue pretending that it’s the other way round. The belief that you can transform society by prodding at welfare is similar to the belief that you can untangle knots by pushing at the ends of string.

What might this mean for those of us who are about to hand over our responsibilities to Emily’s generation? Will we saddle them with the same addictions to capitalist excesses? Or will we (and in turn they) find a different way untie the knots?

It is difficult to know where to begin on the macro scale- back to earlier discussions about the Grand Correction. But it is perfectly possible (if extremely challenging) to begin on the individual scale…

Some of this might be about an attitudinal shift, away from blaming the victims of our system-

Humans are not born equal, and individual vulnerabilities are not always easy to identify or to repair. Those who are stronger need to look after those who are weaker. It is precisely because humans are not good at doing this – it’s not in our aggressive, predatory natures – that so many people shrug at their inability to clothe, feed and house themselves. At the very least, this failure of the able should be recognised, rather than dressed up as a failure of the unable. Until it is, it’s hard to see how a better future can be imagined, let alone planned for.

But my greater hope is in Emily, and the desire for us to yet live together in a way that is less concerned with protecting what we have as we seek to gain more, and more concerned with sharing and supporting others, and living our lives in connection.

If anyone can do it, she can.