Life is full of ironies, one being that bad things often turn out good. This is my argument about the British Social Attitudes Survey which has received extensive news coverage today.
The overall thrust of the findings was captured in a quotation from Penny Young, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, which undertakes the annual survey
"In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year's report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves? An emerging sense of self-reliance may take the government some way toward its vision of a more responsible society, but an emphasis on individualism, not Big Society collectivism, may present as much of a challenge as it does an opportunity."
With its undercurrent of individualism, scepticism towards the state and limited sympathy for the poor, the survey points to a pendulum swing away from what might loosely be called social democratic values. The survey also confirms other research in pointing towards a mood of social pessimism as well as a gap between some of the things the public say they want - such as less inequality and more affordable housing - and their willingness to make sacrifices to achieve these objectives.
The survey can be seen as a sign that an era of austerity will inevitably be one in which self interest triumphs. But I prefer a less deterministic view. These findings, and the interest they are generating, should be seen as part of a vital conversation about how we as a nation deal with the hard times ahead. If people are repeatedly told 'there is not enough to go around' a natural first reaction is to try to protect what they have. But after this, as the new reality sinks in, a more thoughtful response may emerge.
I have written in the past about the need for a 'plan C' in which the focus is not how to minimise austerity (although we should, of course, try to) but how we cope with it. If this sounds unrealistic, it is worth noting that many people in Japan consider their ' lost decades' of low growth have enabled the country to reconnect with core values including respect and solidarity, and that in retrospect it was the boom of the eighties which was the regrettable aberration. So what appear to be rather bleak survey findings might actually be just the spur we need for a deeper conversation about how society can grow stronger even when its economy isn't.
The other reason I am humming 'always look on the bright side of life' is more personal. This morning, discussing the social attitudes survey on the Today programme I had a terrifying moment when I completely forgot what I was planning to say next. It was in my second contribution to the discussion when talking about fairness. I just about got away with it but if you listen carefully you can hear a little wavering in my voice.
So when later in the day I got to the RSA Academy I has something to prove to myself. I strode into the pay and personnel subcommittee and really drove through the agenda. As we got to AOB, after a meeting which I had chaired with a combination of authority, control and determination, I felt reassured that my faculties were fully in order. It was at that point that another member put her hand up:
'Thanks Matthew' she said 'it's only a little thing and I don't want to seem proprietorial, but actually I am the chair of this committee'.
Utterly mortified I stammered back the inevitable question 'but why on earth didn't anyone say anything earlier?' 'Well' said the real chair 'we did keep exchanging glances but you seemed to be enjoying yourself too much to notice'.
I could at this point conclude that I am now firmly set on a path of decline, inexorably becoming one of those men of a certain age whose capabilities are declining in exactly inverse proportion to their self importance. But 'no' I will resist such pessimism. The big lesson to take out of the day is very clear: we could all do with a bit of time for reflection. That's why I have just booked myself some extra days’ holiday at Christmas.
Richly deserved as I am sure you'll agree..