The effect on national mood and character in a downturn - RSA

The effect on national mood and character in a downturn


I never know what to make of the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins. He writes brilliantly and is always provocative. Yet, he is also one of those columnists who repeatedly invites readers to view politicians as venal morons and to conclude that the world could be a much better place if only it was run by, well, Simon Jenkins.

I am more than willing to recognise that my tendency to defend the political classes from the wilder allegations made towards them betrays the defensiveness of a former insider. But it reflects also my experience of watching politicians at close quarters trying to do the right thing in a world they couldn’t control, and in the context of a public which makes incommensurate and contradictory demands egged on by the ‘disorganised conspiracy to maintain the population in a perpetual state of self righteous rage’ (a conspiracy that sometimes goes by the name ‘the news media’).

So, for example, Simon is an outspoken advocate of decentralising power. He puts the blame for not doing this squarely on the shoulders of politicians but perhaps understates, on the one hand, the public’s antipathy to variations in local service levels and standards and, on the other, the tendency for the media to blame national politicians when things go wrong locally. As Geoff Mulgan said at yesterdays’ Public Administration Select Committee (see yesterday’s blog), the kind of Government we have tends to reflect the kind of society we live in. If social attitudes are contradictory and confused this will tend to be echoed in Government policy.  

Anyway, this is all by way of drawing attention to Simon’s column this morning which goes to an issue I have been discussing in my own blog; what will be the effect on the national mood and character of the downturn. His almost utopian view is more upbeat  than mine (although I detect some tongue in cheek), but he is surely right in his core argument that this is an opportunity for us all to question our values and purposes as well as worry about our debts and savings.

Yesterday I suggested we needed a brave political speech which levelled with us about the scale of the crisis but which engaged us in thinking about what we could learn and what we must do to grow from adversity. Today we have David Cameron’s take on the economic crisis.

It’s a perfectly decent speech which may achieve its intention of countering Labour’s projection of  ‘Gordon Brown saviour of the world economy’ (although, irritatingly for the Tories, this projection is daily receiving reinforcement from many independent sources). But it is a speech which to my mind falls short of what we need.

In essence this is because Cameron blames what has happened 90% on Government and 10% on a contagion in a corner of the capitalist system. What he fails to do is to invite us - the people - to recognise the role we have played in fuelling the bubble. It was after all people themselves who spent more than they earned or saved, it was people themselves who demanded that their house be a source of wealth rather than simply a place to live. (And then when it became such a source demanded that it be exempt from tax - indeed this time last year the Conservatives asserted that the top priority for the UK was to lower tax revenues and add gas to the housing bubble by cutting inheritance tax). The greed contagion among the rich was not just a few bankers it was an entire class of people; incidentally almost exactly the same people as are Mr Cameron’s most enthusiastic followers.

So when Cameron says:

“Over the past decade, we have seen a total breakdown of economic responsibility.

From the government, as it has spent and borrowed without restraint.

And from our financial sector, which has taken decisions which have harmed the rest of our economy",

he avoids asking what role the public, and in particular the privileged public, played in all this. He implies that the solution lies in Government policy and not in the kind of wider self examination that Simon Jenkins and others are advocating.

As I have said before, the political speeches that deserve a place in the pantheon are those that seek to engage the people in understanding the role we all have in things that go wrong and in the solutions that we need. Kennedy did this in his test ban treaty speech after the Cuban missile crisis (my all time favourite).

Barack Obama did it in his speech earlier this year on race. which is why I believe he could be a transformational President.

Cameron’s aim this morning was much lower. It’s probably all he needs to do. It’s certainly not all the country needs.

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