Elections are at their best when a country is encouraged to face the future. But it’s almost a cliche to say that the 2017 election is so far all about the past. The media’s been quick to paint Labour’s plans as from the 1970s (though Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ of the 1960s might be more appropriate) and have been keen to talk up the parallels between Theresa May and the prime minister of the 1980s – though May’s One Show appearance, with its references to ‘boys’ jobs’ and ‘girls’ jobs’ seemed more 1950s than anything else. The 1990s and 2000s are not, on the other hand, to be spoken of kindly.
Is any of this helpful? Possibly, if we knew where to look. Much of the fascination with the past has arisen as civic and civil society has attempted to make sense of the referendum result last June. There has been plenty of discussion about the roar of the disaffected and the idea that they struck against change – to their economy, to their community – that they did not sanction.
Now ‘the past’ is an easy place to look for answers. You can find whatever you want. The 1950s were a time of certainty but also a time of change. We’ve lost deference and on the one hand we have to find new ways to support teachers and front line ambulance staff who do not automatically receive the respect we need them to have, but we can equally take some relief that the appalling abuses indicated by Aberfan, Savile, Hillsborough and Rotherham these days cause shock and are increasingly scrutinised.
At the recent NCVO conference a speaker talked about the sense of loss felt in many communities but also of a tremendous pride in place. I think it’s time we thought more deeply about what this loss is really about and whether it points the way to possible renewal.
There’s no doubt that what some people miss is an ethnically-homogenous population of ‘normal’ families where the husband is the bread-winner and rules the roost. The loss of power felt by this group has been used to explain the rise of Trump and other autocrats and nationalists.
But the 1950s and 1960s had something else too: an idea, born during the national sacrifices of war, that together we could create a better society. It was a time of slum clearance and massive house-building, of huge reform in education the idea of which was to give all children an equal chance, of civil rights and of moves towards equality. There were many mistakes made, but there was much that was good. The system allowed for aspiration but inequality was not something to be shrugged off. The Osbornite idea that social housing should be transitory (thus promoting the idea that community cohesion was less important than the whim of the market) would have been an anathema. It was reasonable to think that each generation would be more wealthy than the last. It was realistic to think of buying a house in London before the age of 30. Politicians could propose taxes because there was a more grown-up understanding that if you wanted better services you would have to pay for them.
I’m currently reading a book about Robert Kennedy (about which and whom more in a future piece). One of the things that has struck me most is how Kennedy’s ideas about public service and the moral imperative to build a decent society seem so out of tune with today’s debased discourse where serious subjects are boiled down to soundbites and the most exalted economic concept is the Laffer Curve.
It seems to me that it is quite possible to miss a joint aspiration for a better community without wanting to bring back hanging. It is also quite possible – within the context of a sense of place – to want to be a real stakeholder in the generation of prosperity, and to want to develop a coherent community that has slightly different characteristics from the place next door.
Obviously this is not a new concept. For example, many people have been looking at the issue of stagnating market towns and how their economy and polity can be regenerated. But I wonder if the time is right for something new, whether the national project of Brexit provides us with the chance to forge a new consensus that can replace that which existed between 1945 and 1979. I don’t mean the facile consensus of spin merchants like Change Britain but a real, thinking, living consensus. Such a consensus must relate to this century, not the last. This is not an argument for monolithic public services but it is an argument for a community the working parts of which are properly accountable. It is certainly a call for a different approach to our democracy, and for a redistribution of power and voice. I hope that the voluntary sector will carve out a distinctive role.
Let’s reboot the argument. In the past, the future was something exciting, not scary. And when people said we were all in it together, they meant it. Let’s revisit the past – not to recreate it – but to bottle a spirit where we were valued as citizens rather than consumers.
Check the ‘GE2017’ category for other posts in this series.