To be fair, the old Clyde is cleaner than it was, at least to the eye. All the old heavy industry that used to clog the shores of the river all the way up to Glasgow and beyond has mostly long gone, so it would be strange if it were not. But the clearer waters hide something else.
There have been reasons to be optimistic. Some iconic species like otter, seal and porpoise can been seen out in the estuary. We have even been visited by killer whales, and small numbers of wild Salmon have been finding their way up river for over a decade now.
But all that contaminated land continues to leach toxins in the the river. That is just the old stuff, not all the plastics that have found their way in there in the last decades. Then there are the things happening up the river in the watershed- mostly phosphates from farming.
At present, there is consierable focus on a large fine handed out to Southern Water for releasing raw sewage into the rivers (because it is cheaper to pay the fines than invest in new treatment facilities) but it should not come as a surprise that the Clyde has had similar incidents.
The obvious thing about the estuary though is how empty it is compared to what SHOULD be there. It is a bit like looking at our contour-planted hilsides, devoid as they are of almost all the flora and fauna that used to form the great rain forests, and getting excited by the presence of an eagle. The fish are not there. The reefs and kelp beds are shrinking, the sea bed has and is being scoured by trawlers dredging for the only commercial crop left, prawns and scallops. There is a summary of much of this here.
The thing is, we can do something about this. The toxiicity up river is frankly more of a risk to us (apart from the phosphates and other agricultural polutions in the upper river). There is however great evidence that marine protection areas, partiularly ones that can be policed as easily as the Clyde estuary could be, work.
Let us not be complacent. The firth of Clyde is lovely, but it is not healthy. It needs our help.
Dirty old river
Dirty old river all rusty and brown Coughs out a ship from the dirty old town Scavenging birds patrol overhead Searching for things only recently dead
Last resort trawler hauls close up to shore Scrapes up the last scallop and the very last prawn A flatiron-shaped tug smooths out towards sea Like the impossible flight of the last bumble bee
The dirty old river that once was pretty Collects like a sewer from the arse of this city Where once swam the salmon, the perch and brown trout There are only jobbies bobbing about
Firstly I have to declare an interest- I joined the Labour party again after decades because of Jeremy Corbyn. I thought his style of politics was both necessary and hopeful after years of austerity and the erosion of compassion and evidence-based (rather than ideology based) welfare provision.
Many friends of mine in Scotland went a different way and changed their alegiance to the SNP, beleiving it was only possible to escape the inertia exerted by conservative middle England by breaking free altogether. Whilst I recognise the strengths of this argument I am not yet willing to give up on internationalism nor on the northern Britishness that was my place of origin. I also feel deeply uncomfortable with nationalism of all kinds; history tells us it very rarely ends well.
Next I also have to acknowledge privilege. I am a white middle aged male- the tribe that are usually part of the problem. Making any ‘intervention’ into this area is fraught with the risk that I do not help, I merely add another diversive voice into the open wound that the debate around antisemitism has already left on the left wing of politics in this country.
Why do it then? Mostly, becuase this is how I process things- I research and write about them, striving for depth and honesty, accepting that my views are also shaped by my own prejudices.
The hope that Corbyn represented has been mostly squashed. For some, he was hung, drawn and quartered by the media using an area of life long strength – his battle against racism – which was relentlessly weaponised against him. Others say he presided over a system that failed to deal effectively and transparently with… you fill in the blanks.
On the most recent evidence the very least Corbyn stands accused of is inadequate leadership. But then, his ‘leadership’ skills were never really to the fore; he was never that kind of leader, instead healways more comfortable showing small scale empathy, siding with the little against the big. Perhaps the skills required to be the figurehead of a wide agenda in the face of multi-facetted opposition were never his.
But was/is he an anti-semite? More than this, does the left have an antsemitism problem?
How do we even begin to answer these questions? Last year, I found the arguments in this video compelling. I was struggling to reconcile my own experiences with the picture being painted by the media, and the points made by the late David Graeber rang true;
It is perhaps all too easy to indulge in whataboutism when faced with more blatant racism practiced on the right. Do you remember the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ scandal from 2014? It surrounded a leaked letter supposedly written by an education official describing a plot to take over local schools in the name of Islam. There is a fascinating Radio 4 programme about it all, here. Basically, the letter was a fake, but that did not stop the whole mechanism of the state and the Murdoch media raising a storm. Gove, then education secretary, appointed an expert in counter-terrorism to investigate, who concluded that there were indeed problems caused by radicalisation.
Meanwhile, a Birmingham council investigation, led by a headmaster, disagreed entirely, concluding that the real problem was to do with school governance (remember that Gove was trying to push through his ‘academy’ system, where parents run their own schools independent of councils.) You can guess which report was all over the news.
This kind of racism has no challenge in the media; neither does it even seem something to be ashamed of within the Conservative party. It is the amost-acceptable kind of racism.
But two wrongs do not make a right. I needed to understand, as much as possible, exactly what had been going on with my own party.
If you are at all interested, I suggest you do the same. But here’s the thing; don’t expect a smoking gun that will clear everything up, pointing firmly to the guilty party. The reality is much more complex and much more human. Not that you would think that if you only read the newspapers. The headlines have been conclusive. Corbyn had been ‘unmasked’.
The report indeed found the party was guilty of ‘3 unlawful acts’; political interferance in the complaints process, inadequate training and examples of direct harrassment (key figures who used antisemitic tropes and stereotypes). The devil is in the detail here though and I really do suggest you read the report in full. I was left in no doubt that there was antisemitism within the party, arising from ignorance, clumsiness, anti-Israel feelings and even the old nonesense about secret Jewish cabals that run world affairs from the shadows, but I was also left with the feeling that this would be true of ANY political party, or ANY institution, if you asked the same questions of it after so much blood letting on the issue. The party reflects the society in which it emerged from, although perhaps it feelishly felt itself to be better than it really was. After, we are the GOOD guys, right?
To those who have been hurt directly by all of this, I feel deep sympathy, but these remain murky waters. It has become even more difficult to hold our ‘allies’ in Israel to account for their blatant human rights abuses towards Palestinians and their disregard of international law. The left has done what it always seems to do- fractured into warring factions, divided against itself.
One of the reasons that my Scottish friends often give for deserting Labour and opting for the SNP’s vision of a left-leaning independent Scotand is the fact that Scotland returned overwhelming Labour victories for a generation but this got the left no-where. After all, the political system in the UK seems rigged towards Conservative success. A case in point might be the last election, in which left of centre parties polled a much higher total vote than that achieved by the Tories, who were nevetheless rewarded by an overwhelming majority by our first-past-the-post election process. Proportional representation therefore is most definitely not on the agenda. Instead, we have moves to introduce voter ID measures right out of the American Jim Crow playbook which will almost certainly disenfranchise many traditional left wing voters amongst poor communities. Power is bought and sold at expensive dinners where access to the ears of ministers is literally for sale to those who can afford it. Let us not ever kind ourselves that the money is being spent is for altruistic purposes. It is a shame on our country that there is no sign of a political movement to clean up this cess pool, and replace it with a system that limits/polices political funding and lobbying structures and also regulates so called ‘think tanks’ by making their funding transparent so we know who is paying for their dodgy messages.
The questoin that we constantly seem to ask is this one; can the left ever win a majority in this system, or do we only win by a Blairite move to the safe centre? (Safe that is for the vested interests suggested above whose investment has paid back so handsomely.) Perhaps my Scottish friends have it right and we have to give up on old Albion and build our tartan nirvana north of our new Hadrian’s wall. The problem I have is that although there is much of old Albion I would be very glad to leave behind, there is much that still lies close to my heart; the history of resistance, from the Diggers, to the Chartists, to the Tolpuddle martyrs and the Kinder Scout protestors.
Perhap this is just pointless nostalgia, but I would argue that it is more than that. It is about an ideology, a moment, a set of liberating and inspiring ideas about how the word is, and how it could be, despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite the failures. It has already achieved so much, mostly things that are taken for granted; pensions, benefits systems, the (George-medal-winning for gawds sake) NHS, environmental regluations, free education, safer working practices and so on… all of wihch are under attack both north and south of the aforementioned wall. I am longing not for a flag, but for a quiet revoution of new ideas.
The last labour manifesto had much in it to get excited about. New economic thinking, a green new deal, investment in localism and the promise of genuine change. The trouble was that despite the good things it continued, it lacked a story, an overarching narrative. I hate to say it, but it also lacked a communicator who could inspire more than just a cult following.
Then we come to Starmer. The leader whose main quality was that he looks like a softer more caring Tory. He appears to have a strategy of just biding his time, appealing to the common sense of the common man, waiting for the seemingly inevitable Johnson self-destruction. But I for one am becoming increasingly impatient with him. I have no idea what he thinks. I can see, as if from space, his attempts to not upset the tabloids, even if this means refusing to champion causes that desperately need a champion, but I can not decide what he is for, what he wants to achieve, what passions motivate him. He has no story for me to believe in.
Complaints about Labour’s lack of “narrative” are now so familiar as to be aching cliches. Clearly, if the party has no language in its collective lungs, that is only symptomatic of deeper problems that Starmer has so far ignored. The list is long: the fact that Labour can no longer monopolise the politics of the left; the dwindling of the party’s old power bases in industry and the trade unions; its lack of a meaningful presence in plenty of its supposed heartlands, and the resulting sense of the party leadership in Westminster being a distant clique…
…Over the weekend, the Labour leader announced a new policy on the public sector “buying British”, and a public relations drive on crime. Depending on your point of view, those things will either represent necessary action on some of Labour’s weaknesses, or a grimly familiar resort to faux patriotism and “toughness”. But neither suggest any kind of confident story about what Britain has recently experienced, nor a vision of where it should be heading; a cynical public will either not notice, or see such manoeuvring as proof that the people who run the party are still very anxious.
Richer political seams should not be hard to come by. Particularly in England, where the Covid crisis has highlighted two key things: the panicked incompetence of the people at the top, and the kind of injustices that a decade of Tory-led governments has made immeasurably worse. We now know, for example, that the death rate from Covid in some areas of England has been 25% higher than the national average, and that the impossibility of home working for millions of people has increased their exposure to the virus, with awful consequences. Thanks to Marcus Rashford, the everyday prevalence of hunger has permeated the collective consciousness; the fact that 6 million people now have experience of universal credit has further exposed the cruelties of the benefits system….
Even in the short term, you can not fight populists like Johnson (or Trump) by the application of liberal norms and appeals to decency and good manners- they lied and cheated their way past all that years ago and even their supporters know it, they just do not care. The end result is that it is that much harder to get the general public involved in political discourse after social media driven polarisation has devalued any political speach to ‘just another lying useless politician’. We know that Johnson is a charlatan, but he is at least colourful. He has floppy hair and says outrageous things. Who cares that Starmer forensically destroys him at parlimentary questions every week? The only thing that will rid us of Boris is Boris himself, or his friend waiting in the wings for their own crack at the top job.
But short termism will not hack it in our current situation, with widening inequality, climate change and all. The left understands the problem all too well; here is Monbiot in case you need to hear it again;
What has been lacking almost entirely at the heart of the politics of the left is a clear alternative to the growthism that Monbiot spells out so well. Even when we see it for what it is, it is almost impossible to challenge the dominance of the ideas that allow it to coninue because we can not concieve of what an alternative might look like. (Yes we need a communicator who can spell out this vision, but we must also fear that some communicator because he or she can easily become a 1930’s style dictator in these fluid times. One possible defense against this is a strong movement, mitigated through a network of local politics.)
But the clues are there. Some of them have been talked about for so long that they have almost become cliches. The problem we have now is how we unite to construct that story together, despite all the division, in order for someone to tell it in a way that people can once more believe. This means that whether they like it or not, the SNP, who have perhaps thrived on the Sottish distaste for all things Tory, need a revitalised labour party, because otherwise, post independence, what story will they tell? The same void that afflict the left will affect them, and the danger is that the void will be filled with those who wish only to serve themselves.
Many of us has been watching the world for changes throughout this pandemic – changes for both good and ill. Today, the UK media is full of stories of the re-opening of ‘non-essential’ shops in England (but not here is Scotland) and how this has brought great relief, not just to the traders, but also those of us desperate to return to the great social good that has defined our era: consumerism.
That sounds so judgemental and sneering – as if I do not shop. We have all been caught up in the same cycles of disatisfied wanting, followed by orgiastic aquiring, then post-coital morning-afters in which we awake to the realities of how those thing swe desired failed to deliver any lasting pleasure and in fact might have made us feel worse.
But even as the planet is consumed around us, we still seem to think that the answer is to be found in consumption. We NEED that posh new electric car, right? After all, think how amazing we will look when other people see us passing by, waving our ecological credentials for all to see. Our (my) instagram feeds are full of photos of foraging equipment, eco-toilet paper and fine foods I have made from healthy produce shipped in from half way around the world.
Will anything really change, even after the wake-up call offered by the pandemic and our enforced sabbatical from the life we lived before it?
I think the answer to this question will depend entirely on the attitudes and attention we bring to bear upon it. Cynicism will easily draw us towards inertia and anxiety and fear will spin us off into self destruction. There will always be reasons to point at others and find them wanting, thereby absolving ourselves for the continued dissonance between what we feel to be right and the way we continue to live our lives towards consumption.
As I write this, I feel my head dropping and my spirits sinking and there it is again. Intertia. As if nothing can ever change.
But this is not good enough. I HAVE changed, at least in part. Even if my individual choices are a drop in the ocean, the ocean is made up of… lots of drops. I know this for a fact, being somewhat of the sea-faring salty dog of late.
But for change to take place, individual action (easily rendered as ‘consumer choice’) is just not enough. Change can only happen if we rediscover the collective; if we stop pretending that the world is a binary one made up only of zeros and I’s.
The pandemic surely has made this clear yet again. As well as revealing global and national inequalities in harsh light, it has reminded us that global problems require global solutions. Trump has been Trumped by Biden the middle-man, who now seems to be revealed as rather more radical than we suspected. Even in this fractured polarised world, a window has opened, through which new light can get in, no matter how dirty the glass.
This blog is primarily about ideas; it has long been one of the ways that I try to explore the coming together of spirituality and economics, politics, art and social justice. Partly this is because I have come to believe that ideas shape us for good or ill, even when unrecognised and unacknowledged. Some ideas enter into the zeitgeist of what is seen as ‘normal’ human relations and become almost unassailable. They take on the certitude of ‘common sense’ and as such, any challenge seems absurd. Of course, there is often a power dynamic to these ideas too- they create winners and losers, so the winners pour huge resources into maintaining them.
Think about this for a moment in relation to one of the foremost dominant ideas of our time- individualism. I wrote a blog piece about this once before in which I tried to describe the way that individualism permeates our culture;
ECONOMICS. The dominant economic model for the western world is still Neoliberal economics, which is based around the idea of individual autonomous consumer units
POLITICS. ‘There is no such thing as society’ said Margaret Thatcher, and successive governments on the left and right have tried to prove her correct. Instead we have strivers/skyvers. There are those who are contributing to society and those who are ‘excluded’. The latter need only individual solutions.
RELIGION. We offer only a personal Jesus, who seeks to save the world one sinner at a time. The Hebrew God, who refused even to be given an individual name, and was collectively engaged with a whole nation, has been forgottten.
THERAPY. It is not just because of swiftness and convenience that ‘self-help’ has become such a huge seller and gained such traction within the world of mental health. We can only see individual solutions to what are mostly collective problems.
HEALTH. Positive thinking is offered as the cure all for everything from depression to cancer. Your healing comes from the power of your individualism.
The idea of individualism, even if it contains important truth, masks an alternative reality- perhaps best understood by contrasting two approaches to understanding the natural world.
Following on from the enlightenment and the work of Darwin, we began to see the natural world as one in which the fittest survived, and the weak were discarded. Nature, red in tooth and claw, was a system of competition and conquest, much like our market economies. Supporting the weak is futile. Let nature take it’s course.
Meanwhile, back in old-memory, there are ways of seeing the world as being a great interconnected family- animist folk ideas that we discarded (replaced by idividualised versions of Christianity of course) in the name of science. More recently though, we have learned more about the world of funghi.
Funghi make up about a third of all living organisms on the planet, if mostly unseen and out of sight. The mushrooms we see are merely their infrequent reproductive eruptions, whilst down below the long tenderils of micota are the information superhighway of the natural world. They connect, exchange nutrients, break down, feed up, co-operate and facilitate in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. Funghi form the perfect analogy of a natural world that is anything but individual. A world in which one element is entirely dependent on the other- no, more than that – rather one element is indivisible from the other. They can not exist in isolation, but only in connection.
This idea of connectedness and ‘one-ness’ is found throughout the great religions, in economics, even in politics. So why has it slipped from our zeitgiest? Whose interested are being served here? What changes are prevented if we suppress this idea, perhaps even label it as ‘communism’?
If anyone fancies exploring how ideas/spirituality/activism might come together and form a fungal mass, then it is well worth checking out this podcast, featuring Gail Bradbrook (above), founder of Extinction Rebellion.
As for me, I am determined to continue to be that drop in the ocean I alluded to earlier. I will plant my potatoes and my poems. I will try to reuse, exchange and recycle.
And as we emerge from winter, things will soon start to grow. (This from my aforementioned instagram feed!)
We decided to do something for World Poetry Day, this Sunday the 21st of March.
All proceeds from these events will go to Shelter, because if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that homelessness is something we can do something about… if we want to.
Michaela will be doing a live ‘poetry in to clay’ on FB, You can check this out by via our FB page here.
We will be auctioning a one-off seatree assemblage (again, to raise money for Shelter);
…and I will be doing this;
LIVE POETRY READING ‘The times we live in now’
Sunday afternoon, 21st March, from 3.30, via zoom.
Join us if you can- with the warning (in case you needed it) that my poetry is not for the faint of heart. It offers no easy answers or shallow comfort. It does not shrink from disturbing, unsettling issues, but (I like to believe) it also reaches towards hope…
The intention is to have three parts to the reading, focussing on before/during/after pandemic. How many poems we read will depend very much on those of you who participate… and how much chat we have (please be kind!)
I will be reading my way though a lot of poems written during the lockdowns, hopefully with a bit of explaination and discussion as we go along.
When in human history did the exchange of goods become replaced by the storing up of wealth in some kind of symbolic token?
In case you missed it, the progression of wealth-accummulation has moved on recently. What started out with weights of precious metals has long been replaced by bank notes promising that value is held elsewhere. Increasingly this value has been entirely symbolic -arbitary even. Economic systems ascribe and vary value according to mysterious forces that are as remote as the movement of stars in the heavens once were.
More recently, we have seen the rise of digital currencies; Bitcoin and the like. It feels revolutionary, like the wild west. Huge profits, huge losses. A gambler’s paradise. Most recently we have the advent of the deliciously titled non-fungible tokens. Like the tulip bulb bubble (that burst in 17th C Dutch society) NFT’s are a way to ascribe value to anything, in this case mostly to digital creations that then can be traded and stored away as wealth.
It is a reality that I find deeply depressing, for reasons that I can’t easily describe…
After the corn mouldered in the storehouse, and
Even gold was corrupted by baser metal;
After bitcoin bubbles burst like a septic blisters, and
Digital riches turned out to be all-too fungible after all –
I’ve been thinking about how we measure our becoming – the way that we used to think that human ingenuity would always triumph in the end. Perhaps it will, but then again we have been here before, right? We try so hard to convince ourselves that what matters is slowing time and denying our mortality, whilst at the same time only living life in a linnear fashion.
I get glimpses sometimes – not certainties – just hints that what we are is not just what we can see and touch. Then I remember to all those deep religious thinkers from every tradition who saw everything to be connected and that the spirit that lives in all of us is the same.
The god who loves things by becoming them as Richard Rohr would have it.
But I can’t make sense of any of it, apart from exploring it with poetry.
The upright ape ascends from knapped flint to
Silicon chip. He scratches sonnets in split slate and
Solves problems (almost) as fast as he makes them.
Alchemy promised gold, but instead it turned the
Lights on, lighting a road ahead called Progress.
There is nothing new under the sun; the circle is still
Unbroken. Empires rise whilst others fall; ours was
Not the first at all. It turns out that our times were never
Linear (just oscillation) and that for every page of
Knowledge gained another is forgotten.
But what are we, if not whisps of the same Spirit?
We carry in us the same am-ness as all things that ever were,
Hidden under thin skin and hubris, waiting for those moments
Beneath stars or trees or tenderness when we remember;
A lifetime ago (actually, it was in July 2019) I posted a kind of invitation on this blog to people who were interested in being part of a discussion in relation to post-church networking for spiritual nomads.
The idea had come from a long running conversation that my mate David and I had been having, for years it seems. Both of us have been very active within ‘Church’, but no longer feel at home within the insitution. Both of us no longer attend ‘church’ but neither did we want to invent another one.
But, he and I, along with some of the best company you could ever keep, have been part of a different kind of community; for years we have been taking these weekend trips to small uninhabited islands, where we alternate between silence and communal profanity. These retreats are not accidental nor insignificant. They have gifted me with part of the depth and substance of the meaning I have found in my life. It was out of this sense of belonging and connection that we began to wonder if there was a way to chart a spiritual journey together with other people.
Both David and I have also come close to becoming ‘post-Christian’. The Christian brand had just become so tarnished. Also, the transformation in our belief systems had led us to a place where codifying faith into a set of dualist tenets and beliefs just did not make sense any more. However, we wanted to honour the best of the traditions we grew from.
So we sent out some invitations, and a number of you expressed an interest. Then nothing else happened. It feels as though I let you down, and for this I am sorry.
I can offer some excuses – a lot of things have happened, both to us and to the world, but for me at least, I think I began to struggle again with the idea that I should ‘lead’ something. I feared a new responsibility arising from the expectations of others, and I doubted my own abilities in the shadow of old insecurities that flare up from time to time.
But that is where friendship matters most. I got a call from David just on the New Year, nudging me once more to think about setting off on a new journey.
It would have to be a small, humble one, because during these times, we are all about staying local. But also, during these times, we are all appreciating more than ever the value of the internet as a means to connect and nurture from distance. Everywhere has become local, virtually at least.
So on Sunday, we tried out a new format- one that is not doubt familiar to many of you already. We set up a zoom call, and split our time into two halves- a ‘contemplative’ part and a conversation part. It was so good to connect with others who are in a similar place, even though geography is not on our side.
Where we go with this remains to be seen, but those of you who were already interested in the post-church thing, watch this space!
This year has been hard for us, as I am sure it has been for many of you.
We make a living through a small creative business, through which we sell ceramic art. In a world where shops/galleries have all but shut and our workshops were all cancelled, we have had to evaluate constantly whether we could still make this work.
Having said all that, would I change my decision to give up my old ‘day job’? Not for one second. I still count my blessings daily – not because my old job was not ‘important’ – I remain grateful to those who still do it – but rather because the way I think about work, and earning a living, has changed entirely.
Some of this has meant embracing periods of feast and famine- in making do with small amounts and enjoying being able to be a more extravagant when we can. None of this has felt like a sacrifice- we have not ‘gone without’. In fact, we do not feel poorer in any way. Quite the opposite in fact.
Michaela has had to learn this lesson again more painfully recently, as after breaking her wrist, she has had to take a holiday from the physical skill of pottery- almost like an enforced sabatical.
We have got by. We are OK.
Another way of living is possible.
After ‘these times’ one of the things that I beleive has to happen is a re-examination of the nature of the contract between employer and employee, but more than that, a re-examination of the nature of work itself in our increasingly post-industrial societies.
I post this in light of this article, discussing a book by Sara Jaffe, whose title I stole for the tag line on this blog.
Sarah Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back is an extremely timely analysis of how we arrived at these brutal inequalities and of some of the ways in which a deliberately atomised workforce is beginning to organise to challenge them. Through a series of detailed case studies of modern “labourers of love” – the unpaid intern, the overburdened teacher, the 24/7 domestic help, the NGO employee, the fixed-term academic, the discarded Toys R Us worker, the working single mother – Jaffe, a New York-based journalist, examines two of the most damaging philosophies of our times. The first is the idea that we need to get used to a “disrupted” world in which job security and regular hours and living wages are necessarily a thing of the past, quaint, pre-internet relics such as affordable housing and three TV channels; the second, perversely, that work is supposed, more than ever, to bring us pleasure, meaning, fulfilment, that we should be grateful for it and happy in it and if we are not, we are simply not trying hard enough or being “smart” enough. (Or, as she writes: “How dare we ask questions about the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay our rent and see our friends.”)
We live in perhaps the first period in history when the wealthiest members of society make a noisy virtue of never not being at work; weekends and evenings and families are all part of this advertised sacrifice. They never stop, they tell their employees – their staff at work and their staff at home – and they sell the idea that everyone must be equally prepared to do the same. Long gone is what Jaffe calls the “Fordist compromise” of labour in which workers would give up a reasonable amount of time and effort – five eight-hour days of work a week – in return for a pay cheque that was enough for a family to live on, with a bit over to enjoy free time and holidays and a pension at the end of it, what William Morris called “work for hope of rest”.
Imagine being in charge of a whole economy, a whole country, with a mandate to make progressive change in order to solve problems.
Where do you start? At the top, or at the bottom?
What are your priorities?
What guiding principles should underly and inspire?
What new ideas and understandings should be weaponised in the form of actual policy?
Some of my friends will instantly think of the great new dawn of an independant Scotland, and what might be achieved when given the chance to finally do it for ourseves – after all, it seems possible that Nicola Sturgeon will be in exactly this position soon.
Arguably, the energy of the independence movement is driven by a sectarian world view in which one side is good and the other side bad and all problems/issues are seen through this narrow window. This is great for stirring up supporter passion, but it does not necessarily make for good government – consider the role nationalism has played in world history. That is not to say that great good can not emerge from nationalist movements, but it must serve as a warning as we consider the motivations that drive us.
As Bob Dylan once put it (words that seem tailor-made for Trump);
They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings. Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and then they make you king.’
I hope Sturgeon can chart a path through this minefield, for all our sakes. If so, she will have to develop an agenda beyond the reductive and seductive logic of ‘in/out’ and guide her movement beyond sectarian identity politics towards the messy buysiness of government policy. Even before this, her new government will need a different set of principles and guiding ideas to unite around because ‘Scottishness’ is a bubble that may burst on the sharp points of any number of thorny problems, and then all of the questions I asked at the start of this piece will come in to sharp relief.
(I am going to put a note in here for friends who are passionate supporters of Scottish independence. I suspect already you will be feeling defensive, but hold your fire for a moment. )
Biden too now has his majority in both houses and after the madness of Trump, he now has both the opportunity and the responsibility to deliver on behalf of the (perhaps too) broad alliance of Democrat supporters.
Great catoclysmic events, as well as bringing disaster and destruction, often also give opportunity. Think of the new social contract that was formed in postwar UK, and outlined in the magnificent Beveridge Report, which outlined in clear terms the five ‘Giant evils’ that had to be slain in order to rebuild a Britain shattered by war. I was reminded of these by this article by Aditya Chakrabortty.
Consider the list that the report proposed;
Want. The fact that significant proportions of the country did not have enough. A bit like today, when one in 5 Britains do not have enough money to live on. 14 million people. Back in 1942, who could have imagined we would be back here again in 2021?
Disease. Fair and equal access to health care was part of this, but so was a concern that the impact of ill health should not be determined by wealth and social class. As revealed by the Pandemic.
Ignorance. Access to fair and equal education was a huge concern in post war Britain because it was seen as a form of social engineering, in which poor people could finally realise their true potential. We measured this success by looking at class-based outcomes in the education system and strived to alter our education system accordingly. We don’t do this any more. We focus on individual school performance, because it is easier to find individual failures than collective ones.
Squalor. This was about housing. Building housing stock that gave people dignity, a sense of community belonging and in which people were not subject to the whims of slum landlords. A massive social house building programme was followed by both Tory and Labour governments. Consider our current situation. Shelter, the homelessness charity call it a ‘housing emergency’. Money that should be spent on new social housing is in fact being spent buying private emergency homelessness accommodation. This means then that despite the efforts to bring street sleepers ‘inside’ during the pandemic are doing nothing to solve the real problem.
Idleness. Beveridge believed in the redemptive social good of meaningful labour. Work builds communities, instills pride and wellbeing. Work was essentially a contract between employers and employees, one of mutual benefit. Maintaining a fair balance between the two was the business of government and of a unionised, empowered labour force. Whilst the world of economic growthism that predicated this social contract might have brought environmental disaster, it is still worth asking where we are up to with fighting this ‘great evil’. Do we still see work as meaningful? Is the social contract between employers and employees still being valued in the same way? In an age of zero hour contracts and widening gap between the pay of workers and managers?
But this is looking back, at old ideas – which is of course an important lesson, but my original question was what would you do NOW?
What are your priorities?
The guiding rhetoric of the last thirty-plus years has directed the attention of policy makers towards the top, not the bottom, of society. The job of government, or so we were told, was to get out of the way of the wealth creators. In this way, innovation and the white heat of free market entrepenurialism will create prosperity for all. Thatcherism was the hinge, but this was only softened by Blair, and has largely become a ‘common sense’ hegemony across the whole western world.
Any government seeking to set an agenda will begin in this place, because this is guiding narrative of our age. Success, we are told, is about individuals being set free to succeed according to their own skills, hard work and abilities.
The poor are inconvenient to this narrative. As Chakrabortty puts it in his article;
How ingenious are the British! Like the legendary Inuit people who coined 57 words for snow, we have devised a long list of clever aliases for the stuff that dominates everyday life. Know the ones I mean? Try food poverty. Fuel poverty. Child poverty. Clothing poverty. Transport poverty. Period poverty.
These are phrases mouthed in Westminster and plastered across newspapers (which, this week, are discussing “digital poverty”). They help shape the UK in the 21st century. But this ever-growing jungle of subcategories obscures the one true problem they have in common. It is poverty: the condition of not having enough money to live your life.
If your only choice of an evening is between skipping dinner or going to sleep in the cold before waking up in the cold, then you are not carefully selecting between food poverty and fuel poverty, like some expense-account diner havering over the French reds on a wine list. You are simply impoverished.
If you are using a sock as a sanitary towel, the problem lies not in the time of the month but in your lack of income – which doubtless means you’re also not getting enough food or heating. Gas bills might jump or petrol prices soar, but if those things tip you into all-out crisis, that’s because you were already poor.
Poverty cannot be shelved tidily under different classifications, like books in a library. It jabs its tentacles into all parts of your life, distorting and defining everything from how you feel about yourself to whether you live or die in this pandemic.
Back to that question about priorities and ideas…
My contention to anyone who is seeking to make a new start, post pandemic is that we have to start talking about poverty again, both as a national and an international phenomenon.
We have to stop congratulating ourselves for our face-saving sticking plasters, and get to grip with the structural casues of poverty. This is not just for the sake of the poor, but also for our own sakes, and for the sake of the environment because nfettered wealth creation is a sickness on us all and on the planet.
Perhaps by confronting the language of anti-poverty. Those who will tell you (without ever having been close to it) that there is ‘no such thing as poverty’ in the UK. We have to confront those who play the blame-and-divide game, telling us that poverty is about individual choices, rather than arising from multi-factoral complex interactions between psychology, opportunity, and the brutalising effects of deprivation on all levels.
Certainly by reminding ourselves that poverty in about money, or rather the lack of it. Quite simply, if you are worried about how you will pay for basics – accepting that what is ‘basic’ in the UK might be different from other place- then your outlook on the world will be different. Your asperations will be compromised and your resillience in the face of many obstacles that others take in their stride will be impaired.
Whether you are Beveridge, Sturgeon or Biden, in order to pursue any political agenda, you will be confronted by much opposition. Some of this will come from institutional intertia. Change in large scale systems never comes easy, even when there is general agreement about the need for that change. I can testify to this after all those years working within the health and social care system.
But there will be other, much more direct, forces ranked against you. The think tanks. The largely right-wing owned and authored media, which is aligned with the top, not the bottom. The funding streams that subtlely shift policial compromise by a thousand cuts.
Good luck to you as you seek to tackle poverty, my friend. You will need it.
Four years ago, the incoming president Trump read the words of The Beatitudes, from Matthews Gospel, chapter 5, at his inauguration ceremony. Back then this seemed bizarre and inconcongrous, given what we knew about his character and the way he had run his campaign, but we could not imagine just how far he would diverge from the intent behind those searing, wonderful words.
Today he leaves behind a broken country, whose political system is split from top to bottom, and whose power has been shown to be available for purchase on the open market. Perhaps the biggest casuality of all during Trump’s stay in office was truth itself.
To mark the departure of the worst political leader of a democratic nation in my lifetime, I first take a deep sigh of relief. It has been quite a ride, and we should never again fail to extol the virtue of boredom in our politics.
And I also repost this poem, written four years ago in response to that Trump Bible reading;
The Beatitudes, Jesus versus Trump
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
When he saw the (lack of )crowd, he retreated to the safety of his penthouse suite, attended by his acolytes. From there he tweeted out a stream of popular wisdom
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the rich, because their wealth trickles down like syrup and small people feast like ants on the mess beneath their tables.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who are properly focused on the things that matter and do not get distracted by weak sentiment. Blessed are those who never look backwards, but always forwards, upwards, towards bright new things
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the strong as they smite down the weak and unproductive for how else can our nation prosper?
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who control the message and shape it to their demands. Blessed are their spokespersons. Blessed are the clever forks in their twisted tongues.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose charity is sensibly directed only to the deserving poor. The rest should reap the rewards of their indolence.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the consumers, for their greed is holy. Let the fire of aspiration burn in your souls so that the blessed economy might never be cursed by a lack of ‘confidence’.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the ascendant. Blessed is the Caucasian. Blessed are the men. They make the world as they wish. Any hole is theirs for the digging, any pussy theirs for the grabbing. Through their industry, the nation will be great again.
And how blessed are the warmongers, for they ensure our security.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who take no shit from anyone. Let their power and might be unassailable. May no insult be left unpunished.