The gathering storm


I found myself this morning at the ICA for a breakfast seminar on behaviour change held by the Institute for Insight in the Public Services. It was a good breakfast and we all enjoyed the splendid Danish pastries both before and after our discussions of the obesity epidemic.

Hearing the various presentations on the theory and practice of behaviour change and campaigns to reduce obesity, smoking, binge drinking I felt a rising irritation. One question kept hitting me. Why hadn’t I been invited to be on the panel? Haven’t these people read my Guardian article or the edition of Ethos dedicated to behaviour change that I have recently guest edited?

I decided that the best way to show displeasure while being dignified would be pointedly to resist participating in the Q and A. However when it began there was a lengthy pause (at least three seconds) before the first hand went up and at that moment I understood that the duty to share my insight was so much more important than my ego. I leapt in.

In fact, not only did I ask several questions but to help the panel I starting answering other people’s points from the floor. Judging from the murmuring every time I intervened I was making a real impact.

Indeed I could tell the organisers recognised their mistake in not inviting me to be a keynote speaker when on the way out I overheard one say to a colleague ‘why on earth did we invite that Matthew Taylor to be in the audience’.

Last week I suggested we should see the credit crunch as much as a failure of political culture and leadership as of economic management and corporate greed. This view seems now to be spreading (my three readers must have been talking to loads of other people).

As I said, any serious economist knew that borrowing, debt and housing bubble would burst and in doing so hurt many of those taking risks to improve themselves (read the excellent Jonathan Guthrie in yesterday’s FT to see the impact the slow down is already having on small businesses).

But to take action in the face of people’s desire to spend and the bank’s desire to lend would have taken political courage well beyond that customarily shown by our leaders. Arguably Vince Cable was the only person who warned us what was coming. It is often the case that the LibDems – knowing they have no realistic chance of being in power - feel liberated to tell us the truth (which is why last week promising to cut taxes seemed so perverse).

I have no idea what Gordon Brown will say this afternoon but let’s hope there is some recognition that we are reaping the whirlwind of a combination of consumerist individualism, mass media irresponsibility, and political timidity. This was completely missing from Alistair Darling’s computer generated speech yesterday.

Business, politicians, journalists and citizens; we walked hand in hand into the storm. Instead of casting around for culprits or suggesting simple solutions we need to reflect on the lessons for society in general.

Every once in while a political leader has the courage to reframe an issue from ‘who should we blame’ or ‘what should leaders do’ to ‘what does this mean’ and ‘what should we as citizens do’. Kennedy did it on the arms race, when he said it was up to Americans to choose peace. Earlier this year in response to the row over preacher Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama had a brave attempt of reframing the issue of race.

Labour looks doomed at the next election but I for one would believe anything was possible if this afternoon Gordon Brown showed the confidence and leadership in explore the social origins of the present crisis and the real choices he and we now face.

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