27 November, 2011

A Broken Contract (Pt 2 - The Meritocracy Myth)

Since writing my last blog there have been a number of events which have interested, concerned and angered   me. One was the publication of the UK’s latest unemployment figures which, apart from an expected rise in the unemployed showed an increase to over one million in the number of young people out of work . There was much hand wringing amongst politicians of every hue, many hollow sounding promises and even worse more “sticking plasters” announced by the government to address this situation – various “schemes” that we are told will help youngsters into work and stop them becoming what has begin to be called “NEETs” – that is youngsters who are Not in Employment, Education  or Training. The reality is, of course, that even allowing for the fact that these initiatives are well intentioned they do not and will not solve the problem – in the final analysis the jobs are just not there. To really address the problem a whole new view is needed that would have to encompass issues of globalization, capitalism and the like – and I really don’t see that happening (unfortunately) any time soon.

The second event has been a couple of conversations with friends. Both my friends said the same thing – complaining bitterly about what a waste of time it was for successive governments to want a huge percentage of the youth population to go to university. These youngsters should get out and get a job I was told and then, these comments were quickly followed by the follow up that many of these youngsters who go to university are undertaking "useless" courses. The implication of these comments being that only the very brightest and best should have the chance to go to university and that less “worthwhile” courses and universities should go to the wall.

Well, maybe they have a point – in an ideal world only the truly academically gifted would go to these two or three great seats of learning and the rest of us would indeed  go out to earn a perfectly rewarding and satisfying living in a myriad of other ways. In other words,  how it used to be. But, of course, we do not live in an ideal world and successive governments have told us that “education, education, education’ is the way forward. Our youngsters, as I said  in my last blog, are encouraged to get higher and higher exam results in order that they are viewed as employable or university material. But still, the rate of youth unemployment moves inexorably upwards. As I said above – there simply aren’t the jobs, and the rest is all irrelevant. So, from my perspective it seems to me that the young are in a bit of a sticky situation – very much between a rock and a hard place. Jobs not available, but if they follow government advice to stay on and get more education then they are criticised as doing "useless" courses or not of the right calibre for a “proper” university. I’m pretty sure that if I was leaving school and  thinking about my future now I would be pretty cheesed off and rather angry with what our society was offering to me.

Having said all that, however, there is another dimension to all this which impacts on the whole situation in a hidden and more insidious way – and which perhaps makes the whole situation infinitely worse.

A few years ago, Tony Blair claimed to want to create a genuinely meritocratic society in which those who rise to the top do so because of talent and ability rather than a privileged background. As Blair put it, “......the development of human potential, the belief that there is talent and ability and caring in each individual that often lies unnurtured or discouraged.” Blair wasn’t alone in this dream. In the last General Election my own MP, Kenneth Clarke, informed me, in a campaign leaflet - in which he asked for my vote -  that he “believed in a meritocracy”.  But this made me think! How can one in power say they believe in a meritocracy and still make the loyal oath to the Queen – the ultimate symbol of  an aristocratic society. Has our Queen got the top of the aristocratic tree because she worked harder and utilised her talents  better than any other aspiring Queen in the UK? Are there lots of failed Queens or second rate Queens sitting out there who didn’t quite work hard enough?  Or, is she our Queen and at the very pinnacle of our national tree, because quite simply, she has worked harder, used her talent and ability and care and fulfilled her human potential better than the rest of us – and thus has become Queen. If we had all worked as hard as she, then maybe  we too could have been King or Queen! Of course she hasn’t – she is Queen because of an accident of birth!  The whole thing is a nonsense! I wrote to Kenneth Clarke and asked him to justify his claims and made much the same points I made here. Now, whenever I have written to Clarke in the past, or since, he usually has the good grace to reply – as an MP he is  an OK guy. On this occasion, however,  not a peep. Perhaps he didn’t have a meaningful answer or perhaps one is not supposed to ask those questions.
Our "meritocratic" Queen - is she the
best Queen around? Are there lots of less
good Queens sitting around somewhere?

But, you might be asking – where is this going? I will tell you.

It would be hard disagree with the ethical and philosophical basis of a “meritocracy” – it is a goal to strive for. It is the American dream – anyone can be President if they  work hard. But it only really works if everyone has the same starting point, that there is common agreement about what constitutes ‘merit’  and that they have an equal chance of achieving that merit, value and ultimate reward. Equally, in striving for a situation where merit is the basis for advancement, it is also implicit that some will be excluded and perhaps disenfranchised if they don’t work quite so hard or don’t fulfil their potential quite so successfully. And, if a meritocracy is to mean anything  it must acknowledge diversity and difference. It must value all and the efforts of all. It must promote and value and reward a wide range of skills, abilities, aptitudes, lifestyles and employments. In brutal terms,  in a meritocracy, who is the most meritorious  - the merchant banker or the carer of some elderly patient? Certainly the best rewarded is the banker, so we assume that he/she is valued more highly and therefore has greater merit. Is this morally justifiable? Who judges the amount of merit?

Although the notion of a meritocracy has been around for many hundreds of years it really became a political and sociological ideology with the publication of Michael Young’s satirical  work “The Rise of the Meritocracy” in the mid–sixties.  Young was largely responsible for writing the Labour manifesto that swept Atlee's  Labour party  to power at the end of the war. His books ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ and the satirical ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ I can remember inspiring me and being  almost obligatory reading for people of my generation. Young’s thesis and subsequent writings over the next fifty years envisaged a meritocratic society but one which, sadly, he also forecast, would be ultimately doomed to failure. Briefly, he argued that laudable though a meritocracy is it will ultimately put ‘its seal of approval on a minority who to shine....and its seal of disapproval on the many who do not..... and as a result general inequality will become more grievous with every year that passes.’ When he wrote this in the late 1950s Young envisaged that this would come to pass during the middle years of the twenty first century. In the event he revised his opinion in 2001 – shortly before his death -  when he wrote that the years of the Thatcher government and then, especially, the Blair government had made it come to pass fifty years earlier than he anticipated! Which is, of course, exactly what we have today – just as he forecast. What would he think and say if he were alive today in 2011!

So we have this bizarre, perhaps morally indefensible and almost Kafkaesque  situation for young people (and indeed, for many others). Because of “economics”, the need to balance the accountant’s books and society’s ever increasing demand for “value for money”, cheap goods and the like our needs are satisfied by increasing uses of technology and cheap labour often from the far east. This results in people in this country (and others) being thrown out of work because the jobs are no longer available – to employ our own workforce will make goods too expensive, so better use technology or cheap labour abroad. Those lucky enough to be in work are increasingly in non-manufacturing industries since the manufacturing is done elsewhere in the world and they are increasingly dependent upon academic “qualifications” to access this work . Governments of every hue tell their electorate, or in this case the young, that they need more better qualifications so that they can access this economic and employment wonderland. As a society we increasingly “value” these qualifications, they define us as who we are. And at the same time, of course, they put value or merit on those that have them – and by  default devalue those that do not. If I am lucky enough to have the skills or the aptitude to be an accountant then the world is my oyster - if, on the other hand, my skills are (say) in caring for others then the rewards that the world will heap upon me are significantly less - and I will be the first out of work in hard times. Those who do not fit the value system inherent in the meritocratic society are marginalised and cast aside.  Each year we see thousands of youngsters whooping and crying as they receive their exam results - and those who did not, for whatever reason, creep off into the shadows with few prospects. My dad or the Denaby miner and the like (see previous blog) who possessed no such academic qualifications that would be meaningful today would  be of no value, no merit. Had this situation appertained when I was a teenager I would undoubtedly have been one of those to slink off and become a NEET. A non-person.

But the whole issue is compounded. Young’s predictions have become an awful and Pythonsque reality – because there is no work or because those with fewer academic skills are less able to access the job market they “stay on” at school - hoping to gain some of these qualifications, these educational  passports to work, dignity, security and happiness. Indeed, the government encourages them to do so – but then society derides them for undertaking “useless courses”. And then the government provides the ultimate kick in the teeth – it says, “Get lots of education, then you will get a job” (except a million don’t - they become  NEETs) – “Get the highest qualifications that you can – but ooops, we are sorry,  your 5 grades at “A”  are not quite  high  enough now because the standard is always rising and the jobs are getting scarcer – you need  5 at A*. Oh!.....and we nearly forgot to tell you, we will charge you many thousands of pounds for your studies when you go to university – a debt that you will carry around with you perhaps into middle age or older”.
Michael Young

If we are not angry then we should be. If the young are not angry then they should be. They, and we, are being taken for a ride – all because of the accountant’s ledgers, all because of globalization and our consumerist society's ever increasing demand for cheap goods and the venture capitalist’s quick buck. For all these reasons we  are not only taking away the right to go to work  but we are asset stripping and de-skilling a whole generation – and we are taking away any pride, dignity or responsibility  that they might have had or may have gained through work.

Of course, it is not all – the lucky few are doing well. Those able to access the academic wonderland, those who enjoy the privilege of birth and all that it brings, those who swapped the quadrangles of Eton for the quadrangles of Oxford and then the quadrangles of the Palace of Westminster have no such worries; those whose skills and abilities and aptitudes match the meritocratic society’s  set of values will be winners.  But what of the other (to coin the “Occupy” movement’s phrase) ninety nine percent. Successive governments have told us that better and better schools will ensure that the young are able to benefit and get the qualifications they will need.  Well, we’d all be in favour of  that so let us assume that the government’s dreams come to fruition. That Michael Gove waves his magic educational  wand and in a blink every school is like Eton, every child is an academic icon. Every child has qualifications of the highest order. Will there be jobs for all? Will everyone have a dignified role to play on society? Will everyone feel valued?  Of course not, it will not alter things one jot – the modern economy is reliant upon a smaller and smaller work force and upon fewer and fewer workers – the hewers of stone and carvers of wood are long dead. Under our present system the jobs are simply not there and unless we,  and the government, start from the Keynesian premise that full employment is the goal rather than the globalized economics based on consumerism and the quick buck of the City whizz kid, then there will be those who get life’s glittering prizes and an ever increasing number who do not. This is exactly what is happening today -  a few years ago it was only those youngsters with no qualifications who were unemployed NEETs – now we have youngsters who have played the educational game, have ticked all the right boxes and who  have perfectly good degrees in the long term unemployed. We should be very, very worried.

This is the contract that we have broken with our young and indeed with much of society and saddens me that we are not more angry. As a society we should be ashamed of ourselves - rather like in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, as a society we have increasingly sold a huge portion of our society's future and our young for cheap imports, mobile phones from the far east or cheap food. We have sacrificed the jobs of Sheffield steel workers or Rhondda  miners or Lancashire weavers or Tyneside ship builders and the like for a quick business fix and the bank's profits. And in doing so we have taken away the future and the aspirations for many of our young. As we walk down our High Streets and shopping malls and pass, for example, "Primark" or "BHS" or "Matalan" and we take advantage of the ludicrously cheap imported clothes available in shops such as these and think "what  a bargain I have got", perhaps we should remind ourselves that in doing so we are also ensuring that there is no UK clothes manufacturing base to employ people. Had "Primark" and the like been around half a century ago then my mother and many of my relations would have been out of work as weavers and there would have been no factories for honest skilled youngsters to be employed in and learn the skills of factory engineering. But, of course this is what we do - the quest for a bargain has become the sole motivator and justification of society - and in making our purchases we feed the City accountant, banker and capitalist and at the same time take the future away from the rest of society. We ensure that the profits of people like "entrepreneur" Philip Green are maximised but our industrial base, our workforce and our young are cast aside in order to feed the   monster that is the City. We should all be ashamed and we are all to blame. I have quoted clothes "chains" - the situation and result is the same in other areas. Next month I will be travelling on a budget airline - I can travel hundreds of miles for a ridiculously low cost - what a bargain! But in order to achieve this, the facilities available have been pared, the staff reduced, checking in is all electronic.......and so the list goes on. Like other budget travellers I will take only hand baggage since to take extra incurs extra charges - so there will be no need for baggage handlers - another few jobs down society's drain. The real cost of my "bargain" - is the casting aside of staff and employment opportunities - but hey, let's not worry about it Michael O'Leary will have a few more coppers in his pot, City economists, accountants and bankers will be a little happier with the bottom line figure and their bonus increase - and I have a bargain! Everyone is a winner - except society!  I am not a Luddite fighting change and wanting a return to a mythical and golden past. But as society changes and technology, especially, impinges on our lives it must be the role of government to invest in the futures of the many and not the few. As William Beveridge, the impetus behind our welfare state, said "The object of government in peace and in war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of common man". Had he been alive today he might have well slightly rewritten that to include other groups who ensure that the happiness of the common man is limited. And what would the great Joseph Chamberlain have said? Chamberlain, one of the very great British politicians and manufacturers said a hundred years ago "My aim in life is to make it pleasanter for this great majority; I do not care if it becomes less pleasant for the well to do minority". No, we should all hang our heads in shame as we sacrifice our future and the futures of the next generations for a bargain and a cheap deal.

As I noted in my previous blog even in the most primitive of societies, the young are valued - for they guarantee the future - as potential skilled hunters, as midwives,as witch doctors, as arrow makers and the like - and the jungle tribe teaches its young and gives them the chance to take over as hunters and gatherers and cooks and midwives -  for they provide tomorrow. We have taken the reverse view - marginalise the young, prevent them from learning the skills that society requires by removing the jobs and at the same time tell an increasing number of them that they don't have the skills to get on the ladder anyway because they haven't got enough "education, education, education". It has all the ingredients of a Gilbert and Sullivan satirical opera - my, what scathing songs W.S. Gilbert would write. It would be laughable if not so sad and serious.

The whole notion of meritocracy sounds appealing – indeed it is – as with Kenneth  Clarke's assertion that he believes in it, who wouldn't agree - and what a great sounding political slogan that everyone will vote for! But in only has any credibility or meaning  if the playing field is level and if the benefits that it brings through hard work, aptitude, ability and the rest are equally valued. But, of course, in the society we inhabit it is not level and all are not valued equally.

Two football teams begin the season. To all intents and purposes they are exactly even, similar players, same number of spectators, similar ground facilities. At the end of the season Team A wins the Meritocracy Cup – they have worked hard, played well and clearly been the better team. Their hard work, skill and endeavour has been rewarded and they take the trophy and the acclaim – they are valued. They have won the Meritocracy  Cup – and rightly so – and in doing so shown the superiority over the other team. It is an admirable lesson to the other team to work hard and then they too will win.  The winning supporters can justly claim that their team is the best and deserving of praise and value and merit.

But what if the two teams are different? What if one team is an ordinary team but the other has a rich owner who ensures that their facilities are so much better, that only the greatest athletes are used, that they have the best coaching and medical care that money can buy to ensure that they recover from injuries and are kept in the peak of physical condition. If and when this team wins the Meritocracy Cup are they quite so deserving. The losing side may have given their all throughout the season, worked much harder and  been far more committed to their task but have always been handicapped when compared to the other team. What do we or should we value here? It seems to me that issues of fairness and equality come into play – and these are critical considerations if one is talking meritocracy.

A silly example it is true – but not without "merit"! If we want a meritocracy then we must ensure that everyone involved has a completely even and equal chance to fulfil their potential – or in Blair’s words “to rise to the top because of their talent and ability rather than  their privileged background”

And, perhaps, most important, is that in  a meritocratic  society we must  all have a common understanding of what to value and what is of value. For in our society, we show how we value something by  the rewards we bestow upon it! If a meritocracy is to mean anything it must mean that everyone is valued for their contribution. In our society the major way that we reflect our value is by paying a wage. In the bizarre world of professional football we are happy to accept bizarre payments to twenty two men who chase a leather bag filled with air around a patch of grass for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon – and we see that as a useful contribution to society so we reward this merit with many thousands of pounds each week. We reward those who work in the City with huge sums of money. We pay our TV and film stars eye watering amounts. Now these payments might well be justified but for the life of me I can't understand why we do not, in the same way, show our esteem and value of the nurse or the care worker or the teacher or the lorry driver or the policeman or the miner or the .............. After all these people make a contribution – but we pay them much less, or we say hold on your job has gone now, you’re redundant. In short we say to the nurse and the teacher and the care worker and the postman “you and your role is of less value to us, you are of less merit.” In some areas of the country these people have to be offered "affordable housing" because although classed as "essential, key workers" we do not recognise their merit and value to society by a realistic wage. We value some things more than others – some things are seen to have greater merit and are therefore rewarded appropriately. This is the weakness of the notion of "meritocracy".
Who is most deserving of "merit"
 and wealth?
Wayne Rooney.......

Or the care Worker?
Well, you might now be accusing me of being naive or living in cloud cuckoo land. You might well be saying that’s just the way it is and that Wayne Rooney has such wonderful football talents that he deserves all this merit and money or that Jonathan Ross filling our air waves with expletives is part of the great values of our society so he deserves his millions of pounds in wages. And you may be right. But when you are lying on the hospital bed having just been involved in a motorway pile up, and you cling to life by a thread; or when you are old and feeble and need washing and cleaning and taking to the toilet; and when you have children and grandchildren and you want a teacher to teach them to read and add up; and when have no food in your larder because the post man hasn't delivered your pension and you have no money to buy food at the local shop.........then your value system  might be somewhat different. Wayne Rooney’s skills won’t be much use to you. Jonathan Ross’ expletives and cheap humour will not raise a smile. The City banker’s bonus or the venture capitalist’s profit will not sustain your empty belly through the dark night.

No, meritocracy is a good idea – but for it to work there has to be a fundamental shift on our values and aspirations.  As I said at the beginning I don’t see that happening any time soon – and in the mean time those  lucky enough to win the meritocracy race and be most highly valued – most full of merit in the eyes of society - will enjoy its benefits. And the rest – especially our young - can go to hell.

08 November, 2011

A BROKEN CONTRACT (Pt 1: "I gotta right to go to work but they shut it all down.....")

I haven’t blogged for almost a month – no reason, we have just been busy and other things got in the way. The break, however, has provided me with breathing space to think about my next  bit of rambling. It has also reinforced my view that I must tackle a blog that I have been intent on for a long time. I warn you in advance, this is going to be long - in fact, I have already decided to split it into two or three parts.  So here goes!
Occupying St Paul's and the City
In the last 3 weeks or so a number of incidents/events have occurred that have set my mind on a path. We’ve had, of course, the continuing world economic crisis and problems in the Eurozone. Here, in the UK, we have been repeatedly told that austerity is the only way forward. Throughout the world the “Occupy” movement has grabbed the headlines and in some kind of response to the “Occupation” of the area outside St Paul’s in the City of London a prominent investment banker, Ken Costa, has been employed by the Church of England to “reconnect the financial with ethical”. He has demanded that the City “rediscover its moral compass”. Mmmmm – glad I’m not trying to fulfil his job description! I don’t want to sound a naysayer or pessimist but since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (more than ably followed by Tony Blair and George Bush) I don’t think that there can be any doubt that the two terms “financial” and “ethical” are mutually exclusive – and as for “City” and “moral compass” is that some kind of oxymoron?
But against this world back drop, my little life has been staggering on – and I have a number of observations and events that for me, at least, make sense and which I believe say much about our society – especially in these turbulent times.

The first, is not an event – simply an observation. A week or two ago, all my family – wife, children and their families had a few days together in a hotel by the sea. We do this a couple of times a year. My five grandchildren range from two years old to eight. My two children – Kate and John – have “good” jobs and everything should be rosy. But looking at my grandchildren I wonder what the world will be like when they grow up – and what opportunities will they have. When Kate and John were born Pat and I could reasonably look forward to them having a better life than us – good jobs, educational opportunities,  access to  material things that we could only dream of. Well, in many respects that has happened – but will it be the same for my grandchildren – will the promise of an ever improving society be fulfilled?  In my last blog I commented upon the opportunities that I – and my generation - had enjoyed. When we left school we expected a job to be available – in fact, it wasn’t a case of taking any job – we could often choose the career we wished to enter, safe in the knowledge that if we worked hard, paid our dues then our future was reasonably secure.  I’m not so sure this is still the case – in fact I don’t believe that it is.  I will return to this specific point later. I would however add a couple of things.
Almost forty years ago I became a deputy head teacher and the school in which I taught served a local estate which had been built in the early 50s and its residents overwhelmingly worked in the adjacent gypsum mine. These were “salt of the earth” people and whenever we had a parents’ evening it was not at all unusual for dads to say “Make him work Mr Beale – I don’t want him down the mine like me”. As a parent I could always relate to this – education was the way forward. For these hard working gypsum miners education was the way to a "good" job, a stable career, to wealth - and indeed to a respected place in society.Unfortunately, it seems to me this notion has increasingly “gone wrong”.
Ken Costa - a man with
one hell of a job description!
My second observation relates to something I see every day of the week. Each morning, Pat and I go for a walk before breakfast. We pick up our newspapers and get any shopping that we require from the village shop. Each morning we see youngsters going off to school – most of them teenagers in their school uniforms, carrying their mobile phones, school bags and occasionally running to catch the school bus. Each morning I think to myself, these kids appear to be doing all the right things.  My village is a pleasant “well off” place where parents will be interested in their children’s future, the youngsters look smart (in the odd way that teenagers do – boys with strange hairstyles, girls looking like models on the catwalk!), they chat and smile, they  are polite if they speak and I assume that their school bags are full of last night’s homework. But, again, as with my grandchildren, I wonder will it all work out for them? We so often read in the papers of so many youngsters not finding work. We increasingly read that even a degree is not a guarantee of a “good job” – you have to have a “good” degree. It’s no good having five grade A at GCSE – to have a chance you now have to have five A*. Would I have made it in today’s world – almost certainly not.
More Occupiers!
Of course there are a lot of reasons for this – technology has changed the rules of the game – machines now do the work that used to be done by the hands of men and women; society's needs have changed, particular issues like pollution and green considerations have impacted upon our work and homes.......in fact there are any number of things that can explain away the reason for things changing. But, in my view to assume that economics and austerity plus increased education are the only salvations to a changing world are false premises. These are issues that are about the very nature of society and how we wish it to develop – they are not just about economics, the market or higher and higher academic qualifications.   It is my profound belief that if we are not worried about this as a society then we damn well should be. Whatever, the economics,  whatever the social and educational issues, whatever the party political  viewpoints are it is my opinion that this is a ticking time bomb.

As anyone who has read my "stuff" before will know I am a Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler fan. As I have mentioned before my favourite Knopfler song is "Telegraph Road" with its prophetic "I gotta right to go to work, but they shut it all down, I got a right to go to work but there's no work in this town......." Written at the time of Thatcher it has perhaps a similar resonance today - especially for the next generation.
For years, we have “happily” thrown the less well educated on the scrap heap – “Oh, you need to get better qualifications" the politicians have told them. “Get on your bike and look for work  like my dad did” said the offensive,  intellectually and morally challenged Norman Tebbit thirty years ago as his government decimated the economy in the name of capitalism and a fast buck . Tony Blair chanted the mindless mantra “Education, education, education......”. Well, that’s alright – as long as the contract is fulfilled – I get educated and society rewards me – I’ve played the game, done what is required, jumped through the educational  hoop – now give me my job and access to life’s good things. Sadly, it increasingly isn’t working like that today.

Don't think that I am anti education and academic qualifications - I've got a fist full of them and I want them for my grandchildren. I believe in learning  for its own sake. I do not subscribe to and could wax long and lyrical on the value and rightness of studying obscure areas of knowledge rather than the utilitarian approach favoured by governments keen to cut the cost of education.  But, it is my view that education of any kind is an access to being part of society. The boy who is taught to make arrows in his tribe can become its hunter and thus be important and valued. The girl who learns the mystery of childbirth will become the tribe's mother figure and help her friends in child birth. The child who learns the mysteries of the tribe will become their priest or their sage. They will all have a valued place in their society. No, education is a good thing - lets have loads of it. Unfortunately, though, it only works if it actually gives this access to future participation and recognition - to being valued and approved of. If the boy who has learned the skills of making arrows is then told "Sorry mate, hunting is old hat we're off down to ASDA for our grub" then he is devalued, marginalised, he has no dignity. His "education" did not help him - and yet, in good faith. he had played the game - someone, somewhere, had broken the agreement between the generations. I might study the most abstract forms of ancient history, of no intrinsic worth, but if it provides me with recognition within the small circle that I communicate with in my ivory tower then it has worked. But, sadly, today it seems to me the link has been broken - no longer is education the automatic key to success and an enriched (in the widest sense of the word) life. An increasing number of youngsters are being left high and dry - because they can't manage those A* or because their skills are not regarded as quite so worthwhile as others or because they are in some way disadvantaged or because the job opportunities are no longer there.  The race is half lost before they start off. Education is potentially the great key to open doors - it was for me, I got the certificates and had lots of doors from which I could choose - the key opened all of them. I do not believe that today education opens so many doors - and an increasing number of youngsters are still standing outside holding the key but the door to work and therefore recognition and pride and dignity won't open. But, that's for Part 2 of this blog!
We have heard much in recent months of the “Arab Spring”. I am not an expert but understand that one of the reasons for the unrest in middle eastern countries which spilled over into violence and calls for a change to the system was the large numbers of educated youngsters with few prospects in these countries – and they were demanding change. Is this our future – I believe it might well be, and without condoning violence I might say, “and rightly so”.
And  the nub of all this for me? It is the fulfilling of what, I believe, is a basic human contract between the generations and between people – and it is something which, since Reagan and Thatcher, we have increasingly turned away from. I pay my taxes – not just for me, but for all of society. There is an element of trust at work here – we pay our taxes assuming that others too will pay theirs. We “trust” those with authority over us to spend the money wisely.  We pay our taxes to keep up and maintain  what we have already invested in (say, keeping the railway line running) and also to improve things for the future -  in trust for the benefit of future people perhaps yet to be born and still to enjoy what we have done.  Others before me did it for me and so I must do it for those who follow. Part of my taxes will pay teachers, doctors, road builders, policemen and the like – I don’t say at the end of each year “Hold on, I don’t have any children and I don’t own a car, and I haven’t been in hospital and I’ve not called out the police – please can I have my money back.”  We build roads and railways so that others can enjoy their benefits – today and in the future – that’s the deal. It's called society.  Of course it is not only about taxation – it’s about our whole  set of beliefs and values – we  act as we do as part of a community – and for the continuing good of that community. Or at least that is – or was – the theory.  Between the generations this “contract” is extended – not only do we as adults hope that the world will be better for our children and grandchildren we have an obligation to put into place measures and to ensure that it will be better – it is their inheritance and is what, I believe, being an adult member of society is all about. It is common to all societies  - no matter  how primitive or advanced.
Now, politicians like George Osborne will tell me that that is why he has put these austerity measures in place  - to ensure that our debts are not willed onto the next generation. There is clearly some mileage in his argument, but the whole issue is much, much bigger and  deeper than that. His is a very naive and partisan view of the world. Considerations about the values and beliefs and ideals of a society are only in a small way bound by economic considerations – there are higher order considerations at work.
Ainsworth & Martin - rather grander
than the lorry dad used to drive but still the same livery!
But to move on – but continuing a theme! A couple of weeks ago I was driving down the road – it was early evening, just going dark. I came to a traffic island on the outskirts of Nottingham  and as I sat waiting to cross the island two lorries crossed the island in front of me – and I was immediately taken back to my childhood. Almost without thinking or reading the names on the lorry side I registered that they were “Ainsworth and Martin”. Readers may well never have heard of them – but they were very much part of my childhood. When I was a small child in Preston my dad drove for the company. It was the early 50s and Ainsworth and Martin were a small haulage company and their little garage – big enough for perhaps four or five lorries – was on Maitland Street, just a few streets away from where I lived. Even in those days they were a rich blue colour and had red writing – I can still picture them and it was good to see these visions from my past crossing in front of me. Although bigger and grander they still had that same livery – I liked that. As I watched,  I  vividly remembered as a very small child – perhaps 5 – walking round (by myself) to the garage on dark nights, through the dark streets (we wouldn’t allow a small child to do that today, but then it was quite normal) to  where the lorries returned and to wait for my dad. When I got there a pretty, matronly lady who I think was the secretary and who was always heavily made up and seemed very posh  would allow me to sit on the wooden steps leading up to her office and she would always have sweets.  As I remember it her office was not a grand affair – just a shed tucked in the corner of the garage area with two or three wooden steps leading up to it. In winter the garage was cold and she had a little oil heater in her office –it always smelt and felt snug and warm with the tang of paraffin in the air. She always seemed to wear a sparkling white blouse (or that is how I remember it) and had bright red lip stick and wafted a sweet smelling perfume. Looking back, she reminds me now of a "real woman" - the sort you see in films of the era! (What a sad old man I am!!!!). Although the garage smelled of diesel oil and the floor was covered in oil and grease she always seemed to me to be bright and clean – a vision, even to my child like eyes, in this grubby, oily environment! When dad pulled in from his day behind the wheel he would pick me up and I would sit behind the wheel of his lorry holding onto the massive steering wheel. Very occasionally, one of the owners - I think his name was Reuben Ainsworth - would be there. A small, austere man as I remember, and since he was the boss I was afraid of him. When a lorry pulled in he would walk around it and check it, talk to the driver and confirm that all was well. I know that he was very insistent that his drivers and his lorries were always smart - Dad had to wear a tie and his boots had to shine, just as the lorries did.

Today, having looked at their web site I see the company is now a “logistics company” – they’ve gone up in the world, no longer just “haulage” and their address is no longer Maitland Street, and they have a fleet of lorries - but it’s good to know that a bit of my history lives on and that the company is still part of the local Preston community. When I saw the lorries that night, on their way, I assume, home to Preston I felt like chasing them and flagging them down and saying “Hey, I used to sit in one of these sixty years ago – my dad helped to build the company – probably before you (the driver) were born”. Don’t worry I resisted the temptation to do this – I’d probably have been reported to the police!
ERN 109 - all dressed up for the
 1952 Preston Guild procession
 with my dad driving! (Preston Digital
And, following from this, I found this wonderful web site – the Preston Digital Archive - quite by accident. It's a digital archive of Preston’s past. Thousands of old photographs of the town and its people. I saw grainy photographs  that brought so many memories back and amongst  them photographs of a couple of my dad’s old lorries – vehicles that I can remember proudly sitting in. These were not “Ainsworth and Martin” lorries but “English Electric” – the company that he moved to when he left Ainsworth’s and where he spent the rest of his working life. FCK 389 and ERN 109 – the registration numbers are still etched on my mind (I can repeat car/vehicle registration numbers from years ago  - how sad is that!) – these lorries were part of my childhood and to see them brought back the picture of my dad going off to work in his green overalls. Throughout his working life, he  always wore a tie and had brightly shining boots - things, I think, instilled in him  by old Reuben Ainsworth.  And Sunday night was always the time when he stood and ironed his overalls for the following week. I can still smell the diesel on him when he returned at the end of the day – the old photographs brought all this back. Even to this day Sunday is always the day I clean the family shoes, so that we are smart and like my dad I feel "undressed" and scruffy if I am not wearing a tie - I wonder if old Mr Ainsworth knew that in a small way he would still be having an affect sop many years after his death?
FCK 389 - I sat in this many times
(Preston Digital Archive)
I mention these two items about lorries and my childhood not for sentimental reasons (although I have enjoyed reminiscing) but rather because I think they are important in the debate.
You see, as I drove along that evening having seen the two lorries from Ainsworth and Martin I reflected on what it meant to me. My dad did not have one single qualification - academic or otherwise. He left school early and like his own dad and older brothers worked taking fruit and vegetables from the nurseries of Hertfordshire, where he grew up,  into Covent Garden Market  in London in the early hours of every morning. He learned to drive a lorry from sitting beside his own dad and brothers – but never took a test – it was the days before formal driving tests. He had no GCSE or A levels or degrees. He drove around Europe and India in the Second World War as a soldier and after the war continued his profession (and I choose the word carefully) - long distance lorry driving - with pride. It was what defined him as a human being and a member of society. Only very late in life did someone ask him to gain a qualification. He was in his mid fifties when the government said “You have to have an HGV licence if you are to drive a lorry” – so he took the test and passed it.
He didn’t define himself by the qualifications he had because he didn't have any. Had he had to fill in a CV then the “Qualifications “  column would have been blank. He would probably have been out of work today. But he was never out of work – I don’t ever remember him missing a day’s work (although I’m sure that he did). He defined himself by what he could do – drive a lorry; take the engine out of a car or lorry and repair it and then put it back; turn up each day with his tie on and looking smart and his lorry all bright and shining; sit each Sunday afternoon and neatly fill in his “log sheets” the records of where he had been that week ready to be handed into the work’s office on Monday morning so that he would be paid on Thursday; iron his overalls, shine his boots and be ready to travel the country’s roads on Monday morning. I’m sure that he wasn’t a saint – he was just an ordinary bloke, he liked his cigarettes, he occasionally had a glass of beer, occasionally swore – but above all lived an honourable and dignified life based upon what he did - and did well. His pride and dignity came from the fact that he worked, brought home the weekly money, paid his taxes, did a good – albeit humble – job and I’m sure felt that in his way he made a “contribution” . But for him (and remember, I am saying this as a retired teacher!) Blair’s mantra “Education. Educations, Education......” was irrelevant. He had an honoured place in his society based upon the skills that he had and what he contributed. Sadly, I don’t think there would be any such place for him – and millions of other like him – today. Society demands more – “We’ll give you respect and rewards and a place at the table if you have the “good” degree. Get your five A* GCSE and we will consider you worthwhile”. The name of the game is “drive up standards, pass more exams, get qualified.”
Dad in India - Boxing Day 1945 - with my mother's name
 on the front of his truck!
But, I ask, what of those with no qualifications; what of those who are so disadvantaged in our modern world that their opportunity to get these passports to success and the consequent “dignity”  and pride in themselves is severely limited; what of those increasing numbers who do jump through the hoop, get the qualifications but there is still no work; and what of those who through no fault of their own suddenly find that their pride and dignity has been stripped when their job has gone because economic targets must be met, the market has fallen, austerity must bite? And I wonder where my grandchildren fit into this equation? And I wonder what has happened to the basic trust and contract between the generations.
It seems to me that economics now drives everything. “We must all suffer” says George Osborne as he stands at the altar of economic austerity. Well, economics is important, no one will deny that – certainly not me – but I also wonder if there are too higher, more important things than even economics.

Indeed, this "contract" is not an idealistic pipe dream of unreconstructed liberals. It is a fundamental of all societies no matter how advanced or primitive. The old take care of the young so that in turn the young will care for the  old. We teach our young to play a useful part in society, give them a role, they take over and hunt, produce, reproduce, care and in their turn pass on these attributes to the next generation. Everybody wins, society goes on. And in that sense a higher moral and social imperative is at work than simply the demands of the economy, of the City, of big business. It is about the fundamental nature of society - unfortunately George Osborne and his ilk do not see this. All they see is the balance sheet - we must throw people out of work because the balance sheet demands it; we must cut costs of education and charge high student fees because the balance sheet demands it; we can do only what we can afford because the balance sheet demands it. And so the delicate balance is broken - the expectations of the young are quashed their opportunities for involvement, role, dignity, standing, contribution are curtailed. For the short term balancing of the books the hopes, dreams, aspirations and indeed contribution of the next generation is increasingly sacrificed. And, in a piece of legislation so mind bogglingly repulsive and showing a total lack of comprehension and joined up thinking our Prime Minister, whilst wringing his hands at the high level of youth unemployment and a generation that may never know work, boasts that in future  there will be no compulsory retirement age. In other words older people, like me, who have enjoyed the privileges, fruits and benefits of a life time of full employment can carry on and work as long as we wish - and at the same time, presumably prevent a youngster potentially taking over our job. I think that I might have some difficulty explaining that to my grand-daughter - "Oh sorry, you can't be a teacher at the school because although I'm almost seventy and have enjoyed the job and the pay for half a century its mine and I'm not sharing it with you. I don't give a toss that you're unemployed and have the qualifications. The job's mine so clear off."   The age of the accountant and bean counter is here - forget care, compassion, dignity, pride, moral imperatives, society. The world of the accountant, the investment banker, the hedge fund manager, the venture capitalist and financier is firmly rooted in greed - to acquire more - it's their raison d'etre. It's not about other human attributes and considerations. To use a quote that I have used elsewhere "The idea is essentially repulsive of a society held together only by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interest" (J.M. Keynes). This is where we are at in today's world - economics and the balance sheet drive all - instead of being our servant it is our god. And individuals will suffer - and in the longer term so will our society. We have messed with the very fundamentals on which social living is based - whether it be in the bee hive, the lion's pride, the jungle tribe or the village in which I live - we have broken the link, the "contract" between the generations - because the balance sheet says so.
Arnold players form a guard of honour
 for the Denaby team as they went
out of existence
And this brings me to my final observation of the past three or four weeks. Each week I go to watch my local non-league football team – Arnold Town. Each week I spend a pound or two buying club raffle tickets for a small prize. Each week I lose. I don’t mind – it puts a bit of money into the club. I say I have never won – not strictly true. Once, many years ago, I won when we went  to watch our team play in Yorkshire – at a club called Denaby United.  The prize was not a bottle of wine or a few pounds but a huge parcel of meat wrapped up in newspaper from the local Denaby butcher – chops and steak. It was delicious and kept us going for the rest of the week. Denaby is historically a coal mining village. It had a turbulent history and in its time miners had had to work in terrible conditions. The village itself had rows of miner’s cottages and the football ground was a little dilapidated; the Club worked hard to keep up appearances and provided wonderful hospitality. We always enjoyed our trips to Denaby – wonderful, dour, sincere, salt of the earth folk.  In the Miners’ Welfare building a large board commemorated miners who had died in various pit accidents over the years . But in 2002 the club at last ceased playing – economics, disputes, a changing world meant that there was no longer a place for it. It was a very sad day – the club had a proud history that stretched back to the previous century. As it happened, my team, Arnold, were the opposition for that final match and the Arnold team formed a guard of honour for the Denaby players as they entered the pitch. A great crowd had gathered - many coming from all over the country to mark the passing of a once great and proud club - and there were many tearful eyes when the final whistle blew and the club ceased to exist. For a moment it was almost as if the heart beat had gone out of the town.

A poem written by a Denaby wife -
of her husband and his miner colleagues. No GCSEs here -
but loads of pride and dignity
I mention all this because, over the years, thousands upon thousands of miners and their families had lived and worked in and under the village – in dreadful working conditions. I may be wrong, but I would guess that academic qualifications were not too high on the average miner’s agenda –  grit, hard work, support of your fellow miners were probably a bit more important than GCSEs. Like my dad these men got their dignity and respect from the job that they did, from honest labour, not from how many letters they had after their name. Their pride and dignity came from winning the weekly struggle – not only to get coal out of the ground but to also survive the harsh realities of life at that time. The poem on the right says it all; the men were valued by their wives and families and friends not because of academic qualifications but because of what they did - a hard, unforgiving job which put food on the table - it gave them dignity, value and merit not only within their family of village but to them as individuals. And then, as the 20th century wore on, coal became unpopular, uneconomic. The “dash for gas” was on – and thousands of men up and down the country,  like the men of Denaby, found themselves on the proverbial scrap heap. Not because they had no qualifications. Not because they deserved it.  But because of “economics”. And their "value", their "merit" went with their jobs. No, the "contract" is about more than just figures on a balance sheet. Just because "austerity" can make the books balance and send the accountant and government minister home happy and "the  economic doctrine has worked" doesn't make it right -  in balancing the books perhaps it has also destroyed peoples' lives and self worth.

The shift is over at Denaby - honest
 labour and pride  - which Margaret Thatcher
and capitalism took away for profit
I wonder if, Ken Costa and the other doyens of the City and the financial world will factor this into the “moral compass” that they are considering. I do hope that this whole  “reconnection” of finance and ethics is not simply a means of convincing us that bankers are really alright and good guys – just like you and me except they have been a bit “misunderstood”. I hope that they will be addressing what economics and finance and the capitalism of the last three decades has done to the fabric of our nation, to the livelihoods of millions and perhaps more importantly to the dignity,  pride, hopes and fears  of generations - not least the current one. I fear my hopes will be in vain. I fear that my grandchildren might not be able to enjoy the same opportunities that I did, no matter how clever they are and how many letters they have after their name. I fear that because  of  economics  and the appetites of the financial sector, always looking for a quick fix -  a company to buy or close down, a company to be made leaner and more sellable, a deal to be done, a bonus to be paid – that the honest work opportunities of millions will be diminished. And if some of these are my grandchildren what dignity will they have after years of unemployment? Unlike my dad, who had no qualifications, they will not be able to hold their head high and say “I contributed”, “I have a respected place in society”. They might have a sack full of certificates  but in themselves these are worthless unless they provide access to a place in society. 

No, this is more than simply economics and to argue otherwise is offensive – it’s about the nature and needs of humanity and the values of our society -  and we are now reaping the rewards  of Margaret Thatcher and Reagan and the greedy beast – the free market - that they  set free. Almost a century ago Keynes recognised the signs, implications and the pitfalls of rampant capitalism and its impact on society. He famously said "To suggest social action for the public good to the City of London  is like discussing The Origin of the Species with a Bishop sixty years ago." I fear Ken Costa will find things haven't changed one bit from Keynes' day - except that the City has grown even greedier and the balance sheet is even more the dictator and director of our social and moral life - the very essence of our basic humanity has been gobbled up by these financial monsters.