Japan, Scotland and the social aspiration gap


I am writing this post at Heathrow Terminal 5 after missing my flight to Scotland due to a combination of complacency from me and severe delays on the Victoria Line; to have one train break down is clumsy, to have two in one rush hour verges on the blitheringly incompetent.  

Thinking of this post last night, I had planned not to put it up until on my way back from Scotland, but now I have time to kill and, anyway, something I heard this morning makes me feel more willing to risk the wrath of my hosts when I finally arrive north of the Border.

In my first annual lecture as RSA CEO, back in 2007, I described what I inelegantly termed 'the social aspiration gap'. This, I suggested, lay between people's aspirations for our country's future and the trajectory we are on if we continue to think and behave as we do. I argued that we need future citizens, in aggregate, to be more engaged (not just voting but understanding that difficult decisions need to be made for the long term benefit of society), more self sufficient and resourceful, and more pro-social. One of the reasons I have no hesitation in expressing enthusiasm for the David Cameron's idea of the Big Society (if not yet the practice) is that the RSA got there first.  

It was, then, fascinating this morning (as I calmy munched my toast safe in the knowledge I had loads of time to get to the airport!) to hear James Naughtie on the Today Programme describing the issues which some Japanese people hope their country will now face up to in the wake of their unfolding tragedy: first, how could the Government and the people have a deeper and more honest conversation about the choices facing a country which already had a debt twice the size of GDP even before the crisis. Second, how could Japan rediscover the entrepreneurial flair which led to it being the world's economic powerhouse in the seventies and eighties. Third, how could Japan develop a new and stronger civil society to fill the gaps between big Government, big corporations and individuals? The idea that Japan could turn this crisis into a national conversation about a new idea of citizenship and society is inspiring. It is also fascinating how recognisable these issues are to us in the UK.

Which brings me mournfully to Scotland. I know what I am going to say will be very irriating to most Scottish readers but in my defence can I say that I am primarily reflecting conversations I have had recently with Scottish friends whose opinion I respect deeply?

Last year I blogged a few times on the lack of honesty among party leaders during the General Election campaign as they told us difficult decisions would need to be made on spending but that somehow, magically, these decisions wouldn't actually affect the lives and service entitlements of voters themselves. But the UK General Election campaign was searingly honest and brave in comparison to what appears - from a distance I admit - to be happening in the lead up to May's Scottish elections.

Not only are none of the leaders who have any chance of being in power after the election admitting to cuts , they are outdoing each other with new spending pledges, including no redundancies for the public sector, no fees for students ever, more free entitlements for pensioners regardless of how well-off they are etc etc.

Part of the problem in Scotland is the lack of choice. If one imagines a political spectrum ranging from 0 degrees' being Respect on the left to 180 degrees being the BNP on the right, the three major parties in Scotland - Labour, SNP, and the Lib Dems (although the Lib Dems may cease to be major after the election) are all camped out in the same territory, roughly between 30 and 50 degrees on the centre left.  The long shadow of Thatcherism and the failure of the Conservative UK leadership to take Scotland seriously (after all under our current electoral system David Cameron doesn't need a single Scottish vote to be able to win a General Election), means that there is no strong right of centre voice. Indeed the  antipathy of Scotland's political class to New Labour, and its resistance to ideas such a diversification of public service delivery, means there isn't even a modernising centre . 

As some Scottish commentators have been saying in recent days, this lack of political pluralism is pretty disastrous. The big three parties outdo each other with promises while threatening  full scale scare and smear tactics if the other parties dare to even hint at  the realities ahead. 

Japan's crisis is profound and urgent, and the worst may still be to come. Scotland's is less obvious and will take longer to unfold. But in both cases it seems to me - sitting here in Heathrow - the process of renewal needs to be based on a deeper public engagement with the questions: what is our country's future and what do we as citizens need to contribute to that future?  Right now, there may be more reason to hope such a conversation will take place in Japan than in Scotland.

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