The American political strategist James Carville is reputed to have said something along these lines: ‘it is only when a politician thinks he will be physically sick if he says the same line again that the ordinary voter is just beginning to recognise it’. I am not a politician but I was reminded of Carville’s view when someone recently e-mailed after hearing me deliver a speech.
The generous correspondent wrote ‘I was fascinated by your concept of a social aspiration gap, have you written anywhere about it’? The tempting answer is ‘yes, in was in my first RSA annual lecture in 2007 and I have been banging on about it almost constantly since’. But just because I’ve been talking doesn’t mean anyone’s been listening. The impact of an idea is a lot to do with the context in which it spreads. Perhaps now, when I find it a bit wearisome to rehearse the argument again, is just when it fits the moment. So here, in its bare bones, it is again.
There is a growing gap between the general aspirations of a country like ours and the course upon which we are now set. In many areas ranging from providing dignity to elderly frail people, to competing successfully in the global economy, to reducing social inequality, we are simply not thinking and behaving in the ways which will deliver what we say is our preferred social outcome. Closing the gap requires citizens as a whole to change in three ways:
We must be more engaged; by which I mean we must understand and accept the real choices facing decisions makers and also the ways in which our own behaviour shapes those choices. As an example of the latter: the trade off point between sustainability and economic growth will probably improve if we are willing to act voluntarily to curb our greenhouse gas emissions.
We must be more resourceful; by which I mean we must, on the one hand, be more entrepreneurial, risk taking and creative and, on the other, be more self sufficient in terms of managing our lives whether this means updating our education, managing our health or investing for our retirement.
We must be more pro-social; by which I mean we should see making a contribution to the well-being of wider society as an important part of our lives and the definition of a full citizen.
The starting point for broad strategic policy should be the question: how can we enable people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want? This starting point is likely to lead to a careful analysis of how people live and what they value (a new social economy combining private and public resources with more intangible assets like levels of care, compassion, confidence, trust and solidarity), and which proceeds through a process of co-design and co-production focussed on major institutional reform in pursuit of deep and long term changes in norms, expectations and behaviours.
Apart from the email, a number of things have made me want to restate and refresh the social aspiration gap analysis. Analysis of the crisis in Europe seems to be turning to the failure to confront populations in countries like Italy and Greece with the looming reality of their situation while the long term remedy lies in those populations (and it is of course the same for us in the UK) becoming more economically competitive and less reliant on state expenditures.
In terms of the idea of greater resourcefulness I have become increasingly interested in the idea of narrative. A few weeks ago on this page I suggested that one reason for an apparently greater willingness to work hard for modest pay of immigrants may reflect the stronger story they hold about self-improvement. It is simply more motivating to feel you are running hard to go forward than that running hard to stand still, especially when there is a just about tolerable option of not running at all.
Finally, in terms of being pro-social, my concern that this sounds merely pious has been somewhat assuaged by reading a speech by NESTA CEO and respected policy guru, Geoff Mulgan . It’s not the most substantial speech he has ever given but, in focussing on volunteering, civility and philanthropy and giving reasons to believe social media will in time expand these virtues he provides some rigour to this part of the argument.
These ideas can be variously accused of being obvious, vacuous, judgemental or naïve, but five years after first describing this analysis I still find it strikes a chord with audiences. So maybe instead of being disappointed that it hasn’t taken off I should now be shouting it out more loudly. Having said which being convinced I am right and that one day my brilliance will be recognised is the kind of thinking that will end up with me walking down Oxford Street wearing a sandwich board bearing the slogan ‘beware the social aspiration gap’.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.