20 June, 2011

'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay.'

I have just returned from a short, pleasant and rather warm few days away with my family in Portugal. The sun shone, the accommodation was excellent, the flights on time – a perfect holiday. I should be relaxed and at ease with the world. For a week I was out of contact with world news but when I return I find little has changed.  – we still have austerity measures, Ascot has come and gone – but this time with a punch up amongst the toffs at Ladies Day (little did I know a few weeks ago when I wrote my recent blog rebuking the 'Mrs Malaprops of Fashion' that my bizarre ramblings would so soon become reality!) - and the government appear to be on a collision course with public sector unions concerning pension rights and provision.


This last, rather unpleasant item, for me says much about what is wrong with our modern society. The government, ably supported by the Labour Party, are adamant that the costs of these 'perks' are unsustainable. We have heard the arguments well rehearsed before – we are all living longer, working life is very different from many years ago etc – all very true. But what upsets and angers me is the culture of envy that has developed in our society. Anyone who is in receipt of a final salary pension or likely to receive one is increasingly viewed a 'sponger' by those in the  brave new world of  private enterprise.

The Bible tells us that 'the love of money is the root of all evil' (Timothy 1:v 6-10) and more recently the economist John Meynard Keynes mischievously and pointedly  reminded us that there might be more to life than money and the balance sheet when he commented 'once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilisation for the better' . It was Keynesian economics which  gave countries across the world not only the greatest rises in living standards ever but an increasingly equal and fairer society throughout the middle years of the last century. Then along came Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the rest, as they say, is history. The society we now have measures its values in monetary terms – and  it bizarrely  envies those with money but at the same time despises those who it perceives to be 'on the make'. As  Professor Tony Judt ('Ill Fares the Land') points out, for years young people - and often the brightest and best of each generation - upon seeking employment went into jobs that largely benefited society rather than themselves and their pocket – the professions, the civil service and the like. Indeed much of the Victorian British Empire was built upon the backs of such people.  Our own Queen (and I am not a royalist) vowed on her Coronation Day to devote her life to the service of the country. In the past money was not the ultimate defining criteria for a 'good job' - there were other considerations such as  job satisfaction, social good, personal fulfilment, security. Salary or wage was only one, and usually not the most important, factor. Today is very different – young people dream of celebrity status and the wealth and all that goes with it; our brightest and best look to the city for their rewards. Oscar Wilde famously said over a century ago 'The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing' – and we have become a nation of envious cynics.
John Maynard Keynes

It is all a sad reflection that this  culture of cynicism, envy and animosity which has increasingly permeated our society over the last few years and is something for which we all share a portion of blame. It also stunningly highlights our hypocrisy as individuals and a nation.    The reality is that the  castigation of  bankers and city traders largely denies the fact that most of us, given the same opportunity,  would  do exactly the same. The vast majority of us given a large bonus would say 'thank you very much' -  and feel we were worth it. Similarly with MPs expenses – I defy anyone to argue that the majority of us given the chance to claim for items used in our everyday lives (especially when 'the rules' appear to justify many of the claims)  would  not act as many MPs have done. I do not defend either of these examples or practices but merely recognise that  'there but for the grace of God go I!' Of course, there would be many good  souls who would turn down the bonus or be totally honest in relation to expenses  - and thank goodness for that – but these altruistic beings would be the exception rather than the rule. The current envy, bile and animosity being poured on the shoulders of public service workers with their allegedly 'gold plated pensions' is simply another dimension of this unpleasant culture.

Now, as an ex-teacher, I must of course declare an interest – I am in receipt of a final salary pension. I have oft been told 'Oh you're all right - you've got a final salary pension'. Well, yes, and I feel no regret or guilt about it. It was one of the reasons that over 40 years ago I went into the teaching profession . I was prepared to accept, compared with many equally qualified people, a  lower salary, in return for a stable career and the promise of a decent pension at the end of it. Indeed, before becoming a teacher I was a qualified draughtsman and when I began teaching my first few month’s salary were slightly lower than that I had been receiving as a draughtsman five years before – but I made a conscious decision. Tory MP Francis Maude and Liberal (I use the term loosely) 'Danny' Alexander who seems to be leading the charge  against these 'public sector spongers' had just the same choice.  Presumably they had the academic qualifications so could have become teachers- they chose not to. They could have become 'fat cat' hospital cleaners or millionaire local librarians. They could have enjoyed the glory of being a fireman and be told 'what a wonderful brave chap you are ......but ....... oh! sorry - can you please do a bit of moonlighting, take a second job so that you can keep your wife and family'. They could deal with the blood, vomit and drunks at mid night in my local A & E department rather than be a government minister or city trader - there's nothing stopping them and then they too can have a final salary pension.  As Chuck Berry sings and reminds us 'It's a free country, live how you wanna live, man..... ' (Chuck Berry: My ding-a-ling!'). But no,  they elected not to. Why then castigate those of us that did? Indeed, I might argue further  that, having made that decision all those years ago, to become a teacher I might just have contributed rather more to society’s greater good than had I stayed on the drawing board. Perhaps Francis Maude and 'Danny' Alexander might have given me their seal of approval and judged me somehow to be 'a better person' had I stayed designing industrial gas furnaces rather than working with many thousands of young people over four decades.  For me I’m not so sure.  But no, in the end it is cynicism and envy – no more no less -  and our current politicians (of all three parties) are skilled in harnessing this human failing.
Oscar Wilde

But for me there is another dimension to all this - in fact there are many dimension but they are for later blogs you’ll be pleased to know!

For as long as I can remember politicians – and even royals - of all persuasion like to be seen with those whom society generally applauds – nurses, children in schools, on the beat with policemen and the like. David Cameron, Tony Blair Ed Miliband and the like are past masters at applauding our brave firemen, our angelic nurses and other emergency service workers when there is a crisis. It is a photo opportunity. Indeed there have been  many occasions in the past two decades when these workers have been described in the press and in Parliament as 'key workers'. Over the years, however, these groups have been morally blackmailed – 'don’t go on strike and put patients at risk', 'don’t close our schools and put children on the streets and effect their education and well being for the rest of their lives', 'don’t stop digging graves or collecting our rubbish' – the list is endless -  and generally it has worked.  A notable exception was the 'winter of discontent' in the late seventies which  was the death knell of the Callaghan Labour government and heralded in Mrs Thatcher. In the final analysis these workers are absolutely crucial to our very way of life – when hospitals shut their doors, when the litter lies on the streets infested with rats, when bodies remain unburied and fires are left to blaze then society knows it is in trouble. That is why they are called 'key workers'.

And yet, and yet................in many parts of the country these very 'key workers' do not even  earn enough to  get a mortgage. Sometimes they have to take a second job (or more) to make ends meet – the very people that we depend upon most when the chips are down are often unable to take the most basic step in our great 'property  owning democracy' – the ownership of a property! On a weekly basis poorly paid hospital cleaners and their like have to count their pennies but the envious and cynical Mr Maude and Mr Alexander and their ilk now turn their attention to the 'unaffordable' 'gold plated pension' these people might expect in some distant future. How dare they! But sadly, our envy ridden society jumps on the band wagon and gleefully takes up the call: the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, the City whiz kid, the white van merchant lead the derision and envy of the pension that the policeman or nurse or teacher or ambulance driver or other public servant gets.  But at the same time, these 'envious moral guardians'  expect the public servant  to show commitment beyond the call of duty when we need him, to always be available when we require her, to attend to the jobs that we choose not to do ourselves such as looking after the elderly or burying bodies or taking away our waste or rescuing us when we are in dire danger............the list is endless.  There is much cant and hypocrisy at work here.  

You will have gathered by now that I feel strongly about this! As I noted above there are many other dimensions to this – about our society’s value system, about our moral landscape, about trite phrases such as 'meritocratic society' and the like – but they are for another time. My rant is not an argument for  preserving the 'status quo' – public servants and the like must, like everyone else, change as society changes. My anger is directed at the hypocritical thinking, the cynical use made of public servants by politicians and some aspects of the media, the culture of envy that has been created and promoted in our society in the past quarter of a century and a value system that successive governments have created. That value system allows,  accepts and often applauds great wealth often based upon birth, opportunism  or doubtful transitory talent or celebrity fame but at the same time vents its spleen on those who serve our very basic needs.  'How dare these hewers of stone, these drawers of water, these cleaners, these dustmen, these mousy librarians and petty civil servants, these callous social workers who fail to look after our ‘at risk’ children, these lazy teachers and brutal police men have a pension that is better than mine says 'Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells' in his letter to the Telegraph and 'I'll drink to that' says 'Del Boy' as he climbs out of his white van in Peckham? 'It's not fair' they all cry.
The late Professor Tony Judt who died last year having
succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease- an aggressive form of
 motor neurone disease.  A total quadraplegic Judt dictated
'Ill Fares the Land - a treatise on our discontents'
in the months before he died.

So, regretfully, I will not cry crocodile tears if the little men and women of our hospitals and schools and fire stations and cemeteries and old people’s homes and social services and County Halls and  the like decide to go out on strike. Indeed, I will quietly applaud – and if by any chance a local protest is held then  for the first time in my life I think I might go and wave my banner . Striking is a bad thing – however one describes it – and the reality is that probably the proposed pension reforms are not so draconian – but for me that is not the point. It is time for the little man and woman to bite back. It is time for society to try to realign its values – sadly, I don’t think it will happen.

I read today that  the intellectually and morally challenged   'Be my  friend, please call me Ed', Balls is entreating public service workers not to take industrial action and 'fall into a Tory trap'. He might be right, he might be wrong, but in the end he is self serving – he doesn’t want his party  or himself to be mired in a potentially 'bloody dispute'. He is covering his back rather than standing up for what is right – he, and his party, should be ashamed.

While writing this  sad nonsense for some reason the words of the song 'Ghostbusters' has kept creeping into my mind  - what a sad person I am! But no, perhaps it has a place:

If there's something strange
in your neighbourhood
Who ya gonna call?
GHOSTBUSTERS

If there's something weird
and it don't look good
Who ya gonna call?
GHOSTBUSTERS


Oliver Goldsmith
Perhaps it is a timely reminder of those we do call and rely upon when we  want help, when we have things to be done that we find frightening or unpleasant or dangerous. We will not call Francis Maude or Danny Alexander or Nick Clegg or Ed Balls or Ed Miliband or Dave Cameron  or Tony Blair, I think they might be out! – no,  I will call those we rely upon everyday -  the dustman who will cheerfully take away the dirt that I have created each week, the fireman who will turn up to help put out my blazing home, the teacher who works hard with my grandchildren,  the  nurse to whom I will desperately turn when I roll up at A & E, the ambulance personnel who will turn up at my house within minutes and provide support when my heart plays up as it did several times last year,  the street cleaner who keeps my village beautifully clean and tidy each day – but who told me yesterday he is to be made redundant in two week’s time.  These are the people to whom I will turn and who are of value to me on an everyday basis – they are to do with life’s very basic necessities. It is why they are ‘key workers’ and I will applaud their pensions and say let us all pay a little more tax to pay for their 'perk' so that it is 'affordable'.  It is shaming that our leaders ( I use the term very loosely)  and our society despises and envies so much their little 'perks' – affordable or otherwise - and is of the opinion that they are 'unaffordable'. Our values are truly warped.

Personally, I would ask the question is Mr Maude 'affordable', is 'Danny' or 'Ed' 'affordable'? Was Tony worth what we paid him? And my answer would be 'No'.  Because in my book their contribution in economic terms to our society is little but infinitely more importantly, their contribution to, and their effect upon, the well being of our society is at the best non-existent or more likely corrosive - unlike my village street sweeper or the ambulance driver or the teacher or the librarian or the carer of old people who day in day out contribute to our and my well being. It's rather like the group in the  hot air balloon that was travelling over the jungle and was losing height and about to crash.  Someone had to be thrown out to reduce the load!  The nurse with her medical and caring skills might be needed - so she was safe! The brave, resourceful  fireman was also safe - he would be needed should they land in a  dangerous place - he could hack down the jungle with his axe, he could put out the fire if the balloon with its gas burner ignited when it crashed and he could rescue with ease  anyone trapped in the wreckage. The school dinner lady was safe - she could provide healthy food from virtually nothing. The hospital cleaner was  safe - he would ensure that everyone was kept clean and free of germs and leeches in the jungle - he had no fear or hang ups about dealing with the nasty things in life! The teacher was safe - her geographical knowledge  and map reading skills would be invaluable. The policeman was obviously safe - his bravery was unquestioned and he would keep them safe through the dark jungle nights and fight off any intruders. The list went on until ........ 'And what can you contribute?' they at last asked Danny Alexander, 'Ed' Balls and Francis Maude the three politicians in the group. Francis looked shamefaced......'Err well, I'm a Tory so I don't really contribute anything......as a Tory I'm of course one of life's natural leaders. I don't actually do anything and have no particular skills but I tell others what to do and how they can do their job better and more efficiently. So I could advise you each how to do your jobs  - that's what I used to do in government. And if I think any of you are any good when we get home I'll give you a job in my new privatised Fire Brigade and my new privatised schools and my new security companies - sorry, there won't be anything for the nurse and the hospital cleaner because there won't be a health service.  I'm all for people who do things efficiently, cost little and make more money for me. ' There was silence and embarrassed looks all around. The fireman ran his finger along the blade of his axe. The policeman felt in his pockets for his handcuffs.  Silence - the balloon drifted lower towards the tree tops. 'Well. what about you 'Danny' what can you do to help' they asked. 'Danny' thought hard (this was rather difficult for him for  as a Liberal member of the Coalition he wasn't used to thinking for himself). Then,  a  smile lit up 'Danny's' little cherub like face......'I know,  I can talk a lot - unfortunately nobody ever believes me 'cause I'm a Liberal and really it's all hot air anyway - but if I talk out of the top of my hat as I usually do the hot air might rise and it might keep the balloon up!'  The teacher picked up her cane. The nurse grasped her hypodermic syringe. The two women looked at each other and sighed. Silence.....the balloon basket grazed the topmost branches of the trees and swung violently from side to side.   'This is getting desperate' said the policeman.  'And what about you 'Ed' said the Hospital Cleaner to 'Ed' Balls - 'what can you do to help - after all you're a Labour politician - you're supposed to help people - it's the reason for the Labour Party?'  Balls looked perplexed, 'Mmmmm....well I was once a boy scout I could make a tent out of branches - a shelter'. 'That's wonderful' the hospital cleaner cried  'it's what the Labour Party are about - giving shelter to those in need - a kind of  physical manifestation of socialist policy! We'll all need shelter if we crash in the jungle - you can stay in the balloon and as soon as we land you can get building'. 'Oh......'I'm sorry mumbled 'Ed' - I meant a shelter just big enough for me  - y'know to keep me dry and away from those nasty insects and leeches. I mean.......I'm not really a socialist in that sense of the word.....I don't really like ordinary people ......I wouldn't want to catch anything from  you.  I mean, don't take offence but won't you be a bit grubby picking those nasty leeches off these people. I'd be much better off in my tent till help arrives - I won't bother you, if you don't bother me. And haven't you heard, the Labour Party has changed... it's all in the latest Labour Party Manifesto under the section headed 'I'm all right Jack pull up the ladder.'  The rest of the group looked at each other, shook their heads and heaved all three politicians over the side........and everything immediately improved - the balloon soared, the dead weight of Danny Alexander, 'Ed' Balls and Francis Maude and  their ilk had been removed - the balloon society's future was assured!

Flippant - perhaps - but it might say a little as to who are the biggest contributors to our society. Sadly, however,  in our topsy turvy world we can, it seems, afford 'Ed'., Francis and Danny but not the hospital cleaner or the bin man - it says much about our value system.    
John Stuart Mill

In his humbling, scathing, poignant  and brilliant historical and political commentary 'Ill Fares the Land - a treatise upon our discontents' the late Professor Tony Judt quotes  Oliver Goldsmith and John Stuart Mill. Goldsmith in 1770 famously  said in his poem The Deserted Village 'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay.' We are, in 2011, in our country, in danger of our society decaying – our 'leaders' can talk glibly of austerity, affordability, big society and the like -  but the in the end they have, for the past quarter of a century (and ever more rapidly)  encouraged a society based upon wealth  and greed – and in doing so have made us all part of this hypocritical culture of envy  – we are all, already, 'decaying' in humanity and human values. And what of nineteenth century economist, philosopher and civil servant  John Stuart Mill -  a man whose contribution to the economic, cultural, social, political, philosophical and industrial life of our nation would be impossible to quantify so great was it. Well, Mill famously said 'The idea is essentially repulsive of a society held together only by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interest’.  I would agree and argue that this sort of society is precisely what we have today and indeed it is repulsive.I wonder who, in a hundred years time, will still be remembered as the great contributors to our society - Maude? Alexander? Cameron? Balls? Stuart Mill? Keynes? Goldsmith? Judt? Wilde? - I know which ones my money is on!

Perhaps the grubby Mickey Mouse politicians like Maude, Cameron, Blair, Balls, Miliband, Alexander and the rest, perhaps the media......... and perhaps we too in  our wider society should begin to think a little further than the end of our money grubbing, pecuniary noses. Perhaps we should all re-align our own and society's values. We used to have a Labour Party that at least tried to do this but the deaths of people like John Smith, Mo Mowlam, Robin Cook and Michael Foot broke the link with a rich political/social  heritage. They were replaced by the present incumbents and ably lead by that morally bankrupt con man Tony Blair.  He was more than  ably supported by the totally untrustworthy  Peter - 'I'm intensely comfortable about people being stinking rich' - Mandelson.  A shallow, pseudo intellectual, Mandelson's  private life, his wheeling and dealing and dubious ministerial 'connections' with shady operators in the business and celebrity world brought  the moral and ethical standing of the Labour Party to a nadir. Unfortunately, like the other political parties, the lack of depth, the lack of belief, the lack of conviction, the ideal of a quick fix, the lack of compassion, the simple lack of intellectual rigour, the perverted sense of values and the inability to inspire and give people something to aspire to that has characterised political life in the last quarter of a century  has created a vacuum which is now filled with second rate 'chancers' - in for a quick buck with little to offer and the only emphasis and focus was that of the accountant - and that is a recipe for a society which is cynical  envious, harsh and uncaring . American President Franklin D Roosevelt once famously said 'The test of our  society and our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little' -  I wonder what he would have made of Francis Maude, 'Ed' Balls, 'Danny' Alexander and the grubby, parsimonious society that they are so anxious to foster and impose on some of its most valuable yet most  poorly paid members - in short, those 'who have little'.

When our leadership has perverted values and offers no moral compass to society; when our leaders are incapable of inspiring the best in people or in offering a better way; when our leaders simply represent the worst prejudices, extremes and excesses of society rather than guiding and enlightening it - then our land is indeed 'to hastening ills a prey'.

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