I find it inspiring and hugely encouraging when I look around to see that there are clearly plenty of people who care enough to think long and deeply about the issues facing British society today and to articulate their views with the kind of vigor to be found in the bloggosphere online and in comment pages of print newspapers.
I must say I don?t always agree with much of what has been said. That is, of course, no bad thing. Freedom of speech, not to mention debate, has long been a celebrated, rather than opprobrious corner-stone of the liberal democracy we are fortunate to inhabit. So, loathed though I am to do so I feel compelled to drag out the musty, yet trusted old aphorism propounded long ago now by one of our (unarguably?!) greatest leaders: - "democracy is the worst form of Government, except all the others that have been tried"... (Winston Churchill)
I do so because I cannot help thinking that the criticism that abounds amidst the comment, whilst often engaging and intelligent, seems to me distinctly lacking in hope and optimism, not to mention a lack of reasonable alternatives. I profess to be no wiser, and perhaps no help in producing any policy panacea! But when one looks around the world with a view to comparing the efficacy, fairness and appropriateness of our governing systems it is my view that we are not quite so terribly off as we might be.
Having avoided a great deal of the xenophobic factionalism found commonly in Spanish politics; likewise the corrupt, cronyism of the self-serving Italian system that, I feel makes the U.K appear a model of probity, surely we can hold our heads a little higher. Perhaps more than France, which this year voted in a self-proclaimed socialist proposing a confusing blend of classic, Gallic class war ?tax the rich? approach with an unusual penchant for public spending cuts which is having a catastrophic effect on economic confidence. Or Germany. The European economic powerhouse that seems drunk on power; imposing punitive debt management solutions on its hapless southern European partners whilst itself seemingly ever threatened to be pulled asunder along trenchant political and geographic 'dividing lines'.
I admit I'm only half-serious with that pretty superficial caricature. It?s akin to the compulsion one has when looking across at the neighbour?s garden, with a view to checking one?s own lawn meets the standard of the rest of the street; I can spot the corner missed by the lawn-mower with the best of them. But in the global game of ?keeping up with the Jones?s? I want to suggest that we measure up rather better than we give ourselves credit for. When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together ?in the interests of the country? we were in an economic nadir of truly historic proportions. As challenges go they don?t come much tougher; cue ?Labour might have shown more prudence in those boom years by borrowing less?. Or ?The present Government could be accused of attempting to cut the deficit too fast?. Quite frankly I have my opinions, but I?m not an economist and this is not the time or place I wish pursue those trails, fascinating though they are. What I am interested in now and what strikes me as crucial is the need for perspective in the judgements we make and conclusions we draw of ourselves, as a nation in these very difficult times. As a society I think there is something to be said for a re-appraisal of our worth against the tendency for the overly pessimistic collective self- regard I worry we have fallen prey to.
There most certainly remain genuine reasons for concern. Recent studies point to a devastating decline of our equality and human rights record - minority groups and gender representation issues warrant urgent attention in the worlds of politics, business and more broadly across society. By continuing to allow this lamentable lack of progress we are simply not pulling our weight in fighting to tackle inequality and so risk severely hampering the opportunities for the next generation.
Cycling to work this morning I noticed a billboard with a menacing message from the Government?s Inland Revenue: ?We are closing in on undeclared income?. I spotted two more of these on the streets of Bristol through the day. So clearly the campaign is being taken seriously - if advertising space is any indication of intent. Now benefit fraud (which is, undoubtably, the target here) is rightly illegal. Those who claim state benefits illegitimately should be punished; it is not fair to the majority of citizens who work hard and pay tax appropriately. It is also wrong that money is wasted on welfare payments which could be put to better use in these economically straightened times. However it has come to light again, recently of the large scale tax avoidance perpetrated by huge multi-national companies which appears to be a gross, systemic abuse of loopholes which deprive the treasury of millions and billions of pounds. The Government?s ?war? on collecting monies must battle on all fronts - and the business world should be a major front. Because fairness must surely be a primary aspiration for any modern, developed country; it comes out top or near the top of polls taken of what the British public value, for good reason. Unfairness is recognised as a motivating factor for crime, a predictor for feelings of disillusionment and lack of opportunity. To follow this to it?s logical conclusion it has a profound effect on society and individuals? well-being. For those always looking to the bottom line the financial argument even holds true, as this lack of flourishing leads to lower work place productivity and unemployment.
Yet by focussing on some of the great successes the U.K has achieved surely offers real benefits. Paying attention to what is working opens up the initiative to do more if it. So how about...
A free press which, despite it?s recent troubles, vis a vis ?Leveson?, continues to produce some of the most informative, insightful and elucidating journalism, liberated from partisanship and more objective than can be found anywhere in the world is one case in point. There are those who do not operate in this excellent fashion, of course. Many of them. But enough who still do and they should be applauded; we should be thankful - we want them to stick around - we need them! Taking one of our largest, most respected institutions - the BBC - as an example. It is presently having to face up to what can only be described as a series of the gravest of mistakes and concerns pointing to a systemic failure of professionalism at the highest levels. And the response of those journalists, responsible for covering the stories concerning their own colleagues and paymaster? An attempt to gloss over the failures, or to shirk from acknowledging their magnitude? Not a bit. Instead we see reportage which seems intent on holding it?s own leaders and structures to account, publicly and without hesitation or reservation, in a way unthinkable to many many organisations guilty of procedural failure in any similar fashion.
We are fortunate to have a health care system free at the point of use with few equals around the world (if any - though in the Middle East can be found countries with increasingly visible ambitions in this direction now, and enough money to turn potential into reality. The really interesting question is do they have the same willingness to create a system that puts patients before profit? We shall see.) in terms in terms of capacity of coverage (availability across the country, to everyone, regardless of wealth, background, age or health) and successful outcomes for patients. Again, politics is never far away and there are arguments to be had over the preferred public/private management balance, further empowerment for patients over their own treatment, to what extent expensive medicines should be available for patients with serious illness and many other vital issues.
But the fundamental premise of this epitome of the socially compassionate society remains an iconic exemplar of what can be achieved. I don?t think we appreciate this often enough; I don?t believe it can be over-emphasised.
And finally, our local zeitgeist achievement worthy of recognition, I believe, is that Bristol elected to have a Mayor. Despite low turnout in that referendum in May 2012 (and we must all hope this can be improved - perhaps more than hope..act?! Act to inspire and persuade people to believe that their input has an impact.) Bristol voted for change. For the potential to elect a leader who is accountable, who must operate with a greater degree of transparency than the old Council system if they hope to maintain a mandate and who we can kick out if they do not measure up to our standards or expectations. Because we can do that. It does matter which box you tick. Don't accept the defeatist, lazy, cynical argument that it doesn't make any difference who you vote for...If we were in Zimbabwe we could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. But we don?t; our ballot boxes and voting system are run with the greatest integrity and respect for that process in the world. Largely staffed by highly conscientious volunteers who believe strongly in the democratic process and value all that this entails.
The person you vote for may not win; they may not be as good as you hoped. Or no party may achieve an outright majority - forcing the necessity for two parties to work together - an unusual outcome (perhaps likely to become more common in the near future). Still, your vote was counted. Therefore it does count to vote. And it's still a darn sight better than the American presidential election system, so far as I can tell - though I confess to being no expert on said process. Those electoral college votes certainly provide rather different results from the popular vote though, don't they?
So, suffice to say that I do not believe it is all doom and gloom; though our governing structures still do leave much to be desired..there are many ways we can and must seek improvement. For now, I come to the end and traditionally this is the bit where it?s good to end with an inspiring quote so, anxious not to disappoint I offer this:
“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost”
There really is much to celebrate. And I for one plan to do so, in the best way I know how. By exercising my inalienable, democratic right to vote, this Thursday..Now I just have to decide - who for...any ideas?