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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The toxic brand of Government

We (the royal; professional) have just started holding formal evidence-gathering sessions for an inquiry into the Redesign of Public Services. It sounds rather grand, but essentially we just sit next to some very eminent individuals with far more experience than us, and listen-in on fascinating conversations about how design processes and practices could be brought to bear upon the policymaking process and the delivery of public services (at some point in the future, @JocelynABailey will have to write it all up into coherent argument, including recommendations to Government – just to silence critics that perceive my job to involve a lot of talking and whispering ‘mmm interesting through narrowed eyes).

I’m not going to use this blog to explain or sell our inquiry or its premise to you. If you’re so inclined you can have a gander at our work here. However, there is one strand of the work that I find particularly interesting, so thought I’d share my thoughts with those who gave a damn.

With so many design industry bods involved in the process, it’s no surprise that talk of ‘brand’ is quite prevalent. Design, when spoken of in these terms, and in relation to the public sector, too easily conjures images of very expensive refurbs of Government departments, or Siobhan Sharpe (holy faak). Of course, on one level, we’re talking about logos and fonts, but on a much deeper and more significant level, a discussion of brand is the inevitable result of refocusing ideas about policy development away from the institutions of governance – local authorities, government departments, quangos – to the end-user or receiver of the policy mechanism or service: the citizen. It’s worth saying that the inquiry process began with extended discussions on how we should ‘brand’ the individual service user across the work stream. We chose ‘citizen’, because it holds connotations with democratic accountability, and most importantly places the end-user within his or her local democratic context. This isn’t simply a consumer who has exercised informed choice and decided to fly Virgin Atlantic; their relationship to choice, payment and accountability is very different: they pay taxes and vote.

Within the commercial world, we talk of strong or weak brands, brand ‘buy-in’, and often how a brand permeates cultural consciousness (for better or worse). My overriding impression from the opening weeks of our inquiry has been that it is astounding just how contaminated the brands of ‘Government’ or ‘Public sector’ have become within UK cultural consciousness. I’m not simply talking about the general dislike for politicians, or the widespread discontent resulting from massive budget cuts. This is visceral negativity, cynicism, and distrust associated with the experience of engaging with the public sector, or following a service from start to finish that has been designed and implemented by Government (or via one of its outsourced providers). Just listen to my colleague after a phonecall to HM Revenue and Customs, or my mother trying to book a GP appointment, or read my tweets after a 90 minute trip to the Brent Parking Shop.

An more subtle example: as part of part of a Social Design Talks series we have co-organised with the V&A and the Young Foundation, we examined a new Time Banking project called ‘Care4Care’. Time Banking is a way of encouraging greater civic engagement and volunteering through a kind of monetisation of time. If you provide non-medical care to an elderly person in your community, you are able to bank your hours in a central nationwide database to go towards your own ‘Care Pension’. This can then be redeemed when you need it, or transferred to a family member. Care4Care is, of course, a way of rethinking the problem of elderly care that removes the state completely. That doesn’t mean that professional care, when needed, shouldn’t be provided by the NHS; it simply suggests that before such dramatic interventions are necessary, there might be supporting mechanisms within the community that could step in.

Those on the left might find this problematic. Are you submitting to Adam Smith economics if you recognise that waiting around for altruistic civic engagement isn’t particularly useful, and that you have to make it worth citizens’ while to give up their time to visit an elderly neighbour, do their shopping, help them with the ironing? It’s remarkable that Care4Care doesn’t even seek to answer these questions. They identified a potential solution to a number of social and budgetary problems, a solution that focused on the needs and behaviours of citizens. They aren’t trying to attract volunteers away from schemes were they don’t benefit directly; they are much keener to draw in existing, non-incentive volunteering activity. Frankly, if the outcome of a scheme includes fewer lonely citizens, increased civic engagement across generations, and high quality non-medical care for more people in the face of remarkable state retrenchment, I don’t really care whether human beings need an incentive to go next door and keep someone company. Sorry chaps, but there isn’t enough time for ideological soul-searching.

When talking about the scaling of Care4Care, a room of (probably) left-leaning design and arty types in the V&A were all passionately adamant that it must stay outside the institutions of the state. The NHS mustn’t ‘get their hands on it’, people said. The ideational discourse of the NHS, its internal cultural references, all institutionalised, and the baggage of the word ‘care’ as it exists within the bureaucratic structures of the NHS appeared at odds with the mutuality of Care4Care: the NHS provides you, individual, self-contained ill person, with care. Co-created, home-based, non-medical interventions seem antithetical to the ideational structures that make up our public services in health. People involved in the designing of user-centred public services want to keep them away from the ideational structures and the institutions of the public sector for fear of a) what might happen to services once subsumed, and b) of how people will perceive them and perhaps be reluctant to use them. The brand, perhaps, has become toxic.

So what does brand buy-in look like? The example most frequently cited to our inquiry has been the London 2012 Olympics, and particularly the Games Makers. This, of course, links to the voluntary aspect of Care4Care, and would perhaps challenge notions that volunteering, civic engagement and community spirit have been as absent in the UK as rationing and bee-hive hairdos (Amy Winehouse aside). As civic society brands seeking buy-in, where did the Games Makers succeed and the Big Society, for example, fail? The Big Society is perhaps the strongest example of a public sector brand becoming instantly toxic. First, and most obviously, 2012 was a concentrated, international, vibrant one-off. Also, it somehow appeared de-politicised; about citizens, not politicians and bureaucrats. By contrast, the ‘Big Society’ brand seemed opportunistic, and became too-quickly associated with austerity, seen as a way for politicians to justify the retrenchment of the state rather than as a way of reinvigorating civil society and empowering communities. But also, the Big Society was formulated and rolled out from Government within the institutions of Whitehall, and the Games Maker brand was carefully constructed through private sector brand consultants and in an office space high in the sky next to Canary Wharf. The question remains: at what point does the brand become toxic: when the institutions of Government get hold of it, or when the public recognise it as an public sector brand, and so turn away from it? Are we looking at a case of bad branding within Government, or would any brand coming out for the public sector be instantly toxic and very difficult to gain buy-in from citizens?

Through the process of redesigning public services, Government must think about the rebranding of public services. Citizen engagement and buy-in requires a strong focus on how a service brand sits with the end-user. The current ‘public sector’ brand doesn’t do this, and we need to work at re-framing how ‘the state’, ‘public services’, ‘the taxman’, ‘GP surgery’, ‘jobcentre’ echo through the population. Some would argue that brand consultants and service designers are those will the skill base to achieve this. Let’s see what our inquiry decides when we launch in 2013. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Lines on the day they opened The Shard.

Unreal city. Wren’s dome, the cornichon, 
Make sure that tastes of every man are met 
Across the city's skyline; pacts upon 
Which London’s architectural rhythm is set 
Through variety. It’s what they say ‘bout here: 
The mix, the urban life, the greater chance 
There is of finding one whose view is near 
To mine: a critic fooled by 'mere romance'. 
A lie then: full city often empty; 
Who else feels Portland Place just as I do? 
A single set of eyes, that feed just me; 
How would it seem if looked upon through two? 
And now, from outerspace it seems, has come 
A great glass 'I', alone, reflecting sun. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Design and Change

I spend a lot of my professional life persuading people (as much as possible those with political power) to open their eyes in a particular way to recognise and question how the human world has been designed. 

This is in stark contrast to my views on the natural world, where the crucial argument to win is the beauty of non-design, of a universe without prescient origin, end or purpose.

The argument goes: if you understand how the world is designed, then you can understand better how to change it. Before I started working in this field I too, as an amateur observer and fan of good design, had failed to understand just how socially and politically strident design can be, whether judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My colleague Jocelyn Bailey writes consistently strongly on this question (her blog is here) and I have so far kept this blog unprofessional in that I don’t tend to discuss the strands of my life that pay the rent. However, following a recently conversation we had whilst jaunting about the Houses of Parliament, Joss asked if I planned to write up my thoughts on the topic in question - namely whether the design of buildings is a barrier to change - I decided to dip my toe in the water of professional and personal cross-over.

The study of making policy is frequently a study of not making policy, i.e. why nothing changes and the status quo dominates. I came to the conclusion that in order to battle against the great static, resistant monoliths (or Leviathans, as I heard Conservative MP Jo Johnston recently describe the NHS) such as the Civil Service, the comprehensive school system, or indeed the NHS, you have to approach them as huge discursive structures which exist because of the linguistic patterns that flow through them, and stay the same because this quality is ignored. 

Bear with me. The above is a one paragraph summary of a rather self-indulgent (but I think interesting) 12,000 word dissertation. Essentially, my argument was that shifting norms in public bodies (or indeed any static and resistant organisation) is all about tapping into their background music, if you like, and changing attitudes and behaviours from the inside out. These are institutions in the cultural and discursive as well as historical and bureaucratic sense, and their behaviours and quirks are fixed in their wallpaper; they are not simply the sum of the opinions and attitudes of individuals who work there. The famous criticism of the Metropolitan Police post-Stephen Lawrence was its institutional racism – prejudice was in the air you breathed, and would not disappear with the removal of racist officers. 

(By the by, I once heard Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse use just the argument that the racism would disappear because the bad eggs would soon retire. My heart sank.)

The New Labour Governments appeared to understand this in certain fields. Look at how they embedded the idea of ‘customer’ within the front line benefits system as a way of changing culture and reflecting an important policy shift. This word ‘customer’ saturated departmental magazines, staff bulletins, ministerial speeches, training manuals, and represented a huge policy shift away from the perceived benefit entitlement culture of the early 1990s to a system that hoped to place benefits payment within a clear system of exchange. No more ‘something for nothing’; the 'customer' in a supermarket pays for their bread and we were expected to pay for our benefits through training programmes, or gaining experience through volunteering. A similar example is their approach to sexism (think of chairperson above chairman). 

What does this have to do with design? Well, I’ve started to think that my earlier thesis could be expanded. Why not look to the literal as well as metaphorical wallpaper of public bodies and see if we learn anything about why they don't change? Institutions don’t change because their design, as well as their discourse, can reflect an embedded status quo. 

The modernist architects understood this. Le Corbusier was almost revolted by earlier models of housing where status, wealth and political power were reflected in architectural opulence. In his version of housing - the great, stark, flawed Unité D’Habitation in Marseille - he managed to link a new political view of equality through housing to a particular design and tried to break with a long tradition of slum housing where poverty was compounded in your architectural circumstance.

Take a Victorian theatre. Never was there a starker example of social division made true through design. As you reach the rafters, as the prices go down, the seats shrink, the decor loses opulence, and your view is obscured. The wallpaper is always less extravagant in the cheap seats too. One might argue that opera as an institution will never rid itself of the label of elitism until the great Houses of the world are knocked down and replaced with Greek-style amphitheatres (Denys Lasdun’s 1963 Olivier Theatre at the National – a modernist masterpiece – is just that) where status is not embedded in their design. 

Only kidding.

Now apply these ideas to current pressing questions of the elite in public life. It is said to be problematic for both front benches to be dominated by a particular background, or indeed a particular school and University. Following my thesis, it’s hardly surprising that nothing has changed in this regard when you look at the design of the institutions that we are trying to shake up. Eton, Oxbridge, Parliament – the same carpets, the same wallpaper, waiters in the same clothes, courtyards based around the same essentially medieval idea of secure open space for those with something to protect. When Charles Barry was designing the Houses of Parliament, a nod to the hierarchical structures of the past served the need for Governmental buildings to emanate legitimacy and power. Also, I am sure he was keen to make sure MPs and Peers felt comfortable in their new Palace, and so gave them a building that felt, smelt, and sounded just like their school and university. The same is true of the Inns of Court, each like a small Oxbridge College (the bar and bench receive similar criticisms of elitism to those levelled at Parliament). You could say that the march of the elite through our public institutions is laid out for them in the design of the buildings they inhabit through the first decades of life.

Am I suggesting that if we knocked down the Palace of Westminster and built a new Parliament inspired by a 1960s comprehensive school, we would solve the problem of elitism in politics? No, I’m not. Well, almost. I think it is worthwhile to imagine how the elitism question would be tackled had the Luftwaffe destroyed more than simply the Commons Chamber during the Blitz.

Constancy is often something to be proud of. Ours is one of the world’s oldest Parliaments, founded on principles that I hope we never loose. But our political and governmental system also contains seemingly unbreakable blocks, which we should not see as unfixable quirks (House of Lords reform, for example, but that’s for another blog). I would suggest that politicians look around them, listen to their surrounding, and only then think how they can change the institution of which they themselves are a fundamental element. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Destructive Lyrics

Some days, my job involves a lot of self-conscious marching from breakfasts to coffees to meetings to drinks. I say 'self-conscious', because I am hyper-sensitive to how I must appear to passers by. Long legs, go-go gadget arms, short body (currently elongated by a Jill Sander-inspired green mac - or 'lab coat' as some have said) and far too much hair. It doesn't help that the colleague with whom I work closest is (although female) of a similar height and build, and holds a similar love, it seems, for having loud and distracting conversation whilst strutting. Not that I shy away from this image; one might as well pre-empt judgements others make, and present them with confidence. It's a power thing, of course.

Today has not been one of those days. Today has been entirely office-based and administration-heavy. The great benefit of which has been the chance to listen to music all day long. Such a rare luxury these days, and today's choices were rarer still as I almost without thinking turned to an old university favourite: AccuBroadway.com. It is an exclusively musical theatre-oriented free online radio. It's true, it doesn't have the most diverse collection (far too much Gypsy for my taste) but there are no adverts, it's Sondheim-heavy, and the sound quality is good through office headphones.

Listening to too much Sondheim in one working day can be counter-productive. Every so often, through the e-mail chains and reports, your ear catches a lyric that is so totally devastating it penetrates right to your core, and you have to go and brew a mug of Earl Grey. I should be used to this by now, and at least prepared for the danger points. I have been totally convinced of the genius of our greatest living songwriter since I was sixteen, but owing to free time restrictions, domestic privacy, and maybe a little self-preservation, I can't recall the last time I sat and listened to a whole Sondheim show right through.

A recent conversation amongst friends was about our favourite lyrics in popular songs. "What's your favourite lyric, Thomas?" It was hard. I've always been a novels above poems boy; music above lyrics. Honestly, I can find lyrics distracting, and often embarrassing. There's a blockage, somewhere in my head, around discussing the emotive, human content of English lyrics, unless they form part of a piece of theatre, like Sondheim. My favourite lyricist, excepting Sondheim, is Jacques Brel. Talking about French lyrics seems easy, and almost natural. The one-step-removal of a foreign language provides a kind of theatricality and encourages a bit of objective distance from the subject matter, which makes it easier to deal with (for me, at least). The one and only love letter (cringe) I have ever attempted was a veiled confession of that fact, and included reams from Brel's most romantic songs. Whilst writing it, I couldn't relax, let go, and say what I (thought I) really felt. Shows that the chap in question probably wasn't worth my attentions.

(He never responded to the letter, by the way. Said he'd written one but would never send it. How pretentious.)

Lyrics, for me, are also intensely, almost unbearably, nostalgic. Sondheim's lyrics are so evocative of University life: the vast green sofa in my third-year room, the almost lacquered dark brown floorboards strewn with papers and piles of toast-crumby side plates (white, with a blue rim). The Divine Comedy, one band whose lyrics I can talk about without blushing, is so closely tied to the (and sorry Charlie for this) oddly musty but comforting smell of one of my closest friend's room. And through nostalgia, comes inevitable sadness, which is where lyrics and musical content differ. I don't feel sad listening to the melodies, the overtures, or the countless pieces of orchestral music I enjoyed through University.

I have just begun reading Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood, which contains one of the most powerful descriptions of 'the past' I've ever come across: A character - now in his 50s - is visiting the rooms of his University supervisor:

Gerard got up and went to the shelves, knowing where to look, and as he touched the books he felt some fierce and agonising sense of the past. It's gone, he thought, the past, it is irrevocable and beyond mending and far away, and yet it is here, blowing at one like a wind, I can feel it, I can smell it, and it's so sad, so purely sad.

Having written the all the above, it's becoming clearer why one particular song that came through my headphones today has had such an effect. It's the title song from one of Sondheim's worst-performing shows, Anyone Can Whistle. Not a piece I know at all well, but I've heard this song a few times. But never has it struck so loud a chord as it did this afternoon. Read it, if you like, and tell me why.

Or tell me I'm being sentimental.

Anyone can whistle,
That's what they say. Easy.
Anyone can whistle
Any old day. Easy.
It's all so simple:
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me why can't I?

I can dance a tango,
I can read Greek. Easy.
I can slay a dragon
Any old week. Easy.
What's hard is simple.
What's natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me how to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whilst for me.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

In Memoriam Andrew Shaw: mentor, idol, and friend

It is late June 2006, and a stunning, wide-skied Lincolnshire afternoon. I have just graduated, and alongside a few friends from Cambridge, many generations of the Kohut and Cullum family are on deckchairs and benches in our newly-gazebo-ed garden for my 21st birthday barbeque. A Lincolnshire barbecue has a very particular scent: pig-manure on the fields mixed with the burnished herb and spice blend of an over-cooked sausage. 

Our garden was very long, and impracticably thin. Horse stables running along the right, and the wall of our neighbour’s bungalow on the left, rather pompously built up higher than our own house. This patch of grass  didn’t ever fully perform the function of a garden in the ‘English Country’ sense. Sheep ran through it in a bid for freedom at least once each month; my sister and I failed to persuade tennis balls to bounce on it to any practical height; it flooded whenever the rains came for longer than ten minutes (causing my mother near heart-attack-inducing stress before the house was sold). It was also often a muddy drive-way leading up a short bank to our fields at the rear, with ‘uninterrupted views out to the Wolds’ (Estate Agent Brochure, 2007-2009). On this afternoon, owing to my widespread popularity and expansive birthday guest list, cars were driving across the garden at regular intervals, and parking in the field.

My Grandmother and her sisters (all three alike in look, temperament, and a predilection to think themselves better than most) are lined up on a bench facing the garden-cum-drive, no doubt positioned specifically to pass judgement on those arriving. At about half past two (I am playing some kind of racket and ball game with a cousin’s son) I hear the sound of a car skidding too fast down the gravel portion of the drive by the house. Crossing the garden at speed is a bright blue open top convertible with my former music teacher, and dear friend Andrew in the driver’s seat, shirtless, hair spiked with blonde highlights, wearing aviator-sunglasses, an array of neck-ware, tight jeans, and with a perfectly even, deep brown tan, waving with flamboyant abandon as he drives. Grandma and her sisters have faces that betrayed a mixture of shock, awe, and confused lust.

It is one of my fondest memories of Andrew, bulldozing into people’s lives with an unashamed declaration of who he was.

Throughout these two months of Andrew’s illness, many of his former students have been speaking of how much he touched their lives. Like others, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the possible, now actual loss of someone who was so fundamental in shaping who I am: my tastes, my talents, my attitudes. I wrote a blog up here about being as much oneself as possible at all times, so that achievements can be measured alongside who you are truly. I now realise that this was something I learned from Andrew.

As a student of Andrew’s, I was in awe of him. His manner of teaching was that of a musician and music lover: we’d listen and he’d talk. During those four years, music became a history of shattering moments: when Bach completed his 48 Preludes and Fugues and western harmony was set; the bass entry in the first performance of Beethoven 9; the first resolution of the Tristan Chord in performance; the riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the poor amateurs of Leeds Festival Chorus trying to sing Belshazzar’s Feast; the opening of the newly restored Coventry Cathedral alongside Britten’s sublime, subversive War Requiem.

But for Andrew, music was much more than simply a series of great works, and so too for his students. It was about the live, real performance and experience of some of the world’s greatest noises. It is here that is influence is most keenly felt, day-to-day, amongst many generations of Lincolnshire schoolchildren, and where his loss will be most hard to bear for generations to come. I find it tough even writing about my experience on stage at school, and Andrew’s role in that part of my life. In those hours inside and outside of classrooms, in rehearsal rooms, in churches, on stage, I learned to understand how music and theatre get inside your muscles and sinews, works of art becoming absolutely tuned to your sense of self, part of what makes you tick as you walk around in this flawed, clunky, ugly, real world.

I consider myself so lucky to have had a relationship with Andrew that developed from student to friend as soon as I left King Edward. When I fell unrequitedly in love after about 45 minutes of being at University, he was the first person I called for advice (he’d been there before, got the t-shirt, etc).

It has been such a tremendous privilege to join him as a staff member on music tours to Belgium, to see for myself him continuing to guide and shape the values of young people as he had done for me. And goodness me, did we have fun.

I recently told Andrew that almost all of my life’s greatest experiences can be traced directly back to his influence or guidance. He scoffed, as you’d expect (for such a natural showman, he was unexpectedly modest at times). I don’t for a second think this will change now he’s gone. Whenever I sing, whenever I hear wonderful music, see a great opera, whenever I drink coffee with at least 2 inches of Grand Marnier in the bottom, it will be thanks to him.

One writes, that `Other friends remain,'
That `Loss is common to the race'—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Poppies, Dame Helen, and Remembrance

First off, I want to make it clear that I wore a poppy yesterday, and will continue to do so for as many years as human beings are stupid enough to take up arms against each other. I would like to put in a plea, however, that the poppy/pin design is modified to better cope with today’s thickly-woven jackets, and tube-travelling lifestyles. By 11pm last night, mine was not up to a standard of neatness that I would usually strive for.

Each year that I’ve been old enough to choose to wear a poppy myself and not have it pinned on by my Grandmother, I’ve thought hard about why I wear it, and discussed my feelings towards it with friends. If any of us, as adults, decide to wear such a bold, culturally-laden symbol as a poppy, it is only sensible that we question why we do it, each time we do it. It’s very easy to drop 50p into the tin and pin one on because everyone else at the tube station is; even easier to change your Facebook profile picture to a poppy; add an avatar to your twitter. You’ll not be shocked to hear that I’m pleased by the debate around poppy-wearing this year – it’s healthy, it’s to be expected, and I feel much more comfortable living in a nation where we continually question and challenge our behaviour, rather than blindly follow path-dependent cultural norms.

Let me lay down my stall on poppy wearing: difficulty comes for me when attempts are made to load the poppy with multiple sentiments that do not necessarily sit comfortably next to one another. For many, the poppy is a largely pacifist symbol of remembrance: we remember our Grandfathers, and their Fathers, whom the state, on our behalf, conscripted, and dispatched across the world to fight fascism and tyranny. The ultimate loss of liberty in order to protect ours. We are free today because they, for those years of war, were not.

It’s an important point of contrast between the soldiers of today and the soldiers of the Worlds Wars that soldiers of today choose to join the Armed Forces, and are free to leave at any time. The relationship between those soldiers and us, through the mechanisms of the state, is different. As a friend of mine said yesterday, the thought of modern conflict – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – makes one angry, politicised, opinionated. The loss of life today is no less upsetting than the loss of life in 1916, but my reaction is too big, too complex, and too contrasting to my reaction to the Somme, that wearing a poppy alone cannot support that.

This year, the object of debate for me has been the British Legion poster with Dame Helen Mirren, showing her wearing a poppy with the quotation: “Our troops are the real stars.” The tag-line for the campaign this year has been ‘shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’, clearly marking a correlation between the wearing of the poppy and recognition of support for the UK armed forces. I don’t blame the British Legion for trying to keep the Poppy Appeal relevant. With fewer and fewer surviving veterans, they pointedly extend the remit of their appeal, beyond merely remembrance.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the celebration of ‘our troops’ above many other public servants. Social workers, nurses, teachers - they can be such remarkable people. And the context in which they operate doesn’t make me feel as uncomfortable as the hierarchical, tightly structured, wholly rigid, compliant, aggressive, homo-violent culture of the military. Let’s think about the word ‘stars’. ‘Stars’ emote glamour, excitement, glory. That’s not war, for Dame Helen’s sake.   

So, how to conclude? First, people who wear a poppy should think hard about why they wear it, and resist blindly and easily following the crowd. Your poppy will hold much more weight if you can fully articulate what it means to you, what messages it carries. Similarly, people who choose not to wear a poppy shouldn’t be branded as ignorant. If the message of the British Legion marketing campaign is too much ideology for their poppy to support, then so be it. There’s no shame.

There also shouldn’t be an assumption that wearing a poppy means buying-in to military pomp or standing ‘shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’. There are people for whom watching a military parade is the emotional equivalent of a enjoying a really good bottle of red wine with a re-incarnated French poet from the 19th century. They wear a poppy, and so do I. Hey ho; never mind, eh?

During the two minutes silence yesterday, I was in the Terrace café in Parliament – moments from where votes were cast to send UK forces to Iraq in 2003, and a minute’s walk from the nation’s set-piece of collective mourning at the Cenotaph. At 11:02, the House of Lords display screen read ‘We Will Remember Them’, the boats on the Thames sounded their horns, and conversation re-started, with a collective intake of breath. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, speculate what those 20 or 30 individuals then enjoying their coffees had thought during their two minutes. Anger fired by politics, pride from pomp, or remembrance. I simply hope it wasn’t blind, automatic, or thoughtless. 


A small post-script. @DavidUnderdown9 has pointed out that conscription was only introduced in 1916 in the UK. A useful reminder, yet I would be very reluctant to make a strong comparison between the volunteer armies, the 'pals' battalions' of 1914 and 15 and the trained soldiers of 2011. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Buy-in to the social contract

There is certainly no worth in people like myself, with too many opinions on too many subjects, pretending that we understand all the causes, and have the solutions to the problems of the last few days. I have also read a lot of drivel across the interweb, with some truly notable exceptions commenting with wisdom and understanding (such as Zoe Williams of the Guardian here, and Camila Batmanghelidjh in the Independent here).

But then, watching the gradual destruction and disintegration of this city’s already declining built environment, caused by the very people it is designed to protect, nurture and serve, is undeniably powerful, and I don’t judge the results of an immediate compulsion to tweet in a less than considered manner; to blog a list of causes and solutions from a position of ignorance; to describe human beings as ‘feral rats’ who, quite frankly, have fairly shit life-prospects compared to the owner of a baby clothes shop in Ealing.

I’ve seen reactionary, racist, authoritarian points of view expressed by close friends, and I must admit, on listening to an audio-boo of a couple of girls describing the thrill of looting, a quick whack with a police baton didn’t seem too concerning. 

I think Ed Miliband is playing the political discourse just about right. Condemning the criminality first and foremost, ensuring order is restored (not at the expense of civil liberties and human rights), but keeping in mind the societal messiness and the need for nationwide soul-searching. The sooner we can restore the rule of law, the sooner we can sit back and ask ourselves how so many young people, from so many areas across the UK, have total disregard for their own lives and for the communities still in the process of bringing them up.

The problem with ‘Broken Britain’ and the ‘Big Society’ that was trumpeted to fix it  (I use the past tense because I cannot see any politician daring to use either term with seriousness after this week) was that it saw simple reasons for individuals’ decisions not to buy into the social contract of liberal democracy. Apparently, Labour had made it too easy for individuals to decide to ‘opt out’ of respectful, hard-working, law-abiding Britain. They could sit on their arses, practically haemorrhaging babies, because Labour would pay them to.

But what of the converse? Did I, aged 13, decide that I would opt into a social contract? Did I decide, having had the morals of right and wrong explained to me, that I would not covet my neighbour’s flat screen TV and blue-ray player? Of course I didn’t – the truth is simply that there was no other frame of reference throughout my upbringing other than that which involved buying into the social contract.

However, this ‘frame of reference’ is more complicated than simply not having been exposed to breaking the law – it’s about understanding what is lost if you do. I have been mugged twice since living in London, and both times my mind went through the same thought process: ‘I can stand here and fight, risking injury, or I can let go of my bag and stamp my foot as they run away’. Both times I let go, because there is too much to lose in fighting back and perhaps being beaten up. There was clearly not 'too much to lose' for my attackers in mugging me. I also have too much to lose in smashing up a shop window, or setting fire to businesses on my local high street. My liberty, my family, my friends, the joy I gain from simply living my life – these are all too precious to risk losing. This is my frame of reference instilled since childhood. 

How would I feel if this weren’t the case, if I didn't know the thrill of achievement, the love of a supportive family, the freedom to travel and see the world?

It’s a quite breathtaking piece of good-bad timing that last Friday saw a performance in London from the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. This orchestra is the pinnacle of the country’s El Sistema musical-education-cum-social-inclusion programme, within which 90% are youngsters from severe social disadvantage. I don’t have time to write about how a similar nation-wide programme in the UK might affect our social fabric. It is interesting, however, to consider what happens if you give a child an instrument, give them the prospect of excelling in it and the ultimate goal of touring the world with it. It instils a frame of reference across society which includes long-term goal-setting, and perhaps most important, the chance of failing, and losing it.

The liberal-democratic social contract works because we understand and value that which is lost if we don’t keep up our side of the bargain. It’s the same with religion: not wishing to be inflammatory, but Christianity exists through fear of eternal separation from God following the day of judgement, and belief in the value of his eternal presence.

I don’t buy into the Christian contract, because I don’t care about eternal separation from God (I don’t believe in it, in other words). The same is true of those rioters:

Why buy into the social contract of liberal democracy if you don’t believe in what is lost in breaking it?