No More Heroes Anymore?
The Scotsman, October 31st 2009
Britain is not a happy land. It is a place filled with disgruntlement, anger and resentment. This is about more than anxieties caused by recession. Instead, people have a sense that greedy bankers, politicians, BBC bosses and many others are just looking after themselves and that something profound has changed. That the civic code governing society has fundamentally altered.
This is tinged with an air of who do we believe in anymore? Thirty years ago the Stranglers sang ‘No More Heroes’ and it has come to pass. Who, apart from ‘national treasures’ such as Joanna Lumley and Alan Bennett, ‘old skool’ entertainers like Bruce Forsyth and Nicholas Parsons, and the political veteran Tony Benn, is there to admire? None of the younger entertainers or practising Westminster politicians.
This all sounds a little too ‘Grumpy Old Men’ – a phenomenon of our age found in men (and women) of what used to be called ‘middle age’. They go on about the callow nature of youth, ‘the hoodies’, the passing of manners and civility, and then conclude that it was all better in some far off distant time, usually when the person in question was growing up.
There is a widespread ill-ease with the complexities of the present, which sees people look backwards to the past, whether it be retro-culture, or the attraction of historical novels rather than those based in the present day. Where for example have been the defining novels dealing with Blair’s perfidy on Iraq, or the music album about the economic crash?
Thus, many of a certain vintage place Britain’s ‘golden age’ either immediately in the post-war era, or a sepia-tinged nostalgia for 1940 when Britain knew what it had to do. To other more recent versions, such as the usually serious New Economics Foundation the moment of bliss was bizarrely 1976 which they identified as the most happy year in post-war Britain, when to most it was a time of hyper-inflation, stagnation and industrial conflict.
Yet the ‘grumpies’ have a partial point. What is it we believe in beyond ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (itself flagging a bit), Radio Four quiz shows and Tony Benn doing a plausible impersonation of everyone’s favourite grandfather? Few can navigate between the worlds of fame and politics the way Joanna Lumley did in the Gurkha campaign.
Once upon a time people had a whole host of serious causes and ideals to sign up to which contributed to defining the world. There were the ideals of Communism and socialism, there was gay liberation and feminism, Third World solidarity and anti-apartheid. And there were fervent anti-Communists and socialists.
These groups had a notion of moral fervour and passion, of challenging wrong and injustice and seeking to overcome them. Where does that impulse lie today in modern Britain? It can still be found in the work of some of the churches and campaign for international debt relief, but no one but a blind party loyalist would claim it is found in mainstream politics.
The last few decades have seen far-reaching change. Some of this has been enormously positive: the challenging of homophobia, racism and sexism and the decline of deference and the caste society which once was Britain.
At the same time there are a host of factors making people more anxious and insecure. Many of the anchors and reference points by which people had a sense and security of the world have been weakened or stripped away: the idea of a career, how work is organised, pensions and other social security benefits, what the family and marriage are, and how the generations get on and speak to each other.
This links the British malaise to a wider mood found across the Western world which has been shaped by the juggernaut of globalisation with its fixation on free market choice and promotion of a culture of the self and individualism. The language and philosophy behind this version of the world has not been one people felt they owned or could influence.
What has done immense damage to society has been the pursuit of the remorseless logic of economic calculus and the pessimism inherent in economics about the human spirit. This has aided the ideal that the only kind of relationship which really matters is one based on economic exchange, and that other values such as public good matter less.
Once great public institutions such as the BBC now find themselves in a total mess with their pay scales for top staff and celebrity talent, while one of the most revered parts of society – the Royal Mail – is slowly destroyed by a combination of management dogma and trade union blinkeredness.
The missing ingredient in the public anger about bankers, politicians and BBC salaries is trying to find a language and philosophy which is different from that of market fundamentalism and the pursuit of the self. This outlook has resulted in the exact opposite from George Osborne’s ‘we are all in it together’, which people outwith the system know to be Orwellian doublespeak.
Fred Goodwin has kept most of his pension, Jacqui Smith kept her second home allowance along with Osborne his Capital Gains Tax avoidance, while Jonathan Ross retains his £18 million ‘salary’. These people in selfless advancement of their idea of themselves believe they have every right to what they can get.
What people are struggling to articulate is a language of justice and fairness which includes moral judgement. As people hesitantly struggle to find an ethical outlook of life which combines individual responsibility with public priorities in government and corporate life, numerous thinkers are contributing to this debate.
Philosophers such as Michael Sandel and Susan Neiman are writing and thinking about the relevance of morals in public life, the notion of right and wrong and good and evil, along with how we come up with a meaningful idea of justice.
This debate has to challenge market logic and management jargon with its incessant incantation of ‘modernisation’ as the means of change, and nurture a different language and set of values.
Fred Goodwin, Jacqui Smith and Jonathan Ross are both representative of the worst excesses of their classes, and totems for an age of irresponsibility and immorality. None have shown any genuine remorse because they believe they operate on a different moral plain from the rest of us. There is something of Jonathan Swift and ‘Animal Farm’ in all of this, and until the first bankers and politicians are charged we will know that we are far from even beginning the story of ‘we are all in it together’.