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How do we get people to live differently in ways which are better for them and better for society?

This has become the political question of our time. It is something I address in my piece about David Cameron in this morning’s Guardian, where I argue that the Conservative idea of civic renewal overseen by a ‘post-bureaucratic state’ is interesting but not yet convincing. It was an issue that surfaced at a Progress seminar this morning addressed by James Purnell and Tony (Lord Anthony) Gidddens. It featured in today’s RSA Thursday with Richard Thaler.

Encouraging people to work together to build a better future requires a certain degree of public hope and aspiration. In my Guardian piece I drew on statistics I heard yesterday from Roger Liddle - a leading policy advisor to the European Union. Social pessimism is rife in the countries of the old Europe; France, Germany and the UK in particular. Here are their respective agree and disagree scores for the three predictions for the next twenty years:

  • ‘People’s lives will be better than today’: UK 36 – 56, F 27 – 64, G 20 – 68
  • ‘People will earn less because of competition from rising economies’: UK 62 – 32, F 68 – 27, G 69 – 27
  • ‘The gap between rich and poor will be wider’: UK 83 – 14, F 89 – 10, G 90 – 9
  • This extreme level of social pessimism is accompanied by a rejection of structural explanations of disadvantage. Whilst there is growing resentment at the very rich, people are more and more inclined to say that the poor have only themselves to blame. This is not fertile territory for developing a new agenda for social solidarity and action.

    The figures on expectations of growing inequality are particularly stark. One of the other points made by Roger Liddle is that education - which many progressives hoped would be a driver of social mobility and inclusion - has actually become a major driver of social polarisation. The reason for this is simply that the wages available to those lacking higher education are falling, and will fall even faster now hard times and higher unemployment rates are here again.

    Making education a force for inclusion and opportunity will require more than a further cranking up of an increasingly problematic standards agenda. We need to ask what education is for and we need a system which is not about finding our whether children are able but how they are able and how their abilities can be developed

    (For more on this take a look at the RSA's Progressive Education campaign.)

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