Tag Archives: community

Wooden Ears

It’s the morning after the night before. I hoped that Scotland would not opt for independence, for various reasons more or less irrelevant since I had no vote anyway. Now that it has, though, I feel no sense of victory, no gleeful gloating over those who campaigned so passionately and persuasively for the alternative. There is no pleasure in the hurt of decent people.

Yesterday’s referendum was about Scotland, and the message of the votes is from no-one else. As the political leaders settle, rather unedifyingly, to squabbling over the fall out, I still wish that the rest of us could have a chance to make our feelings similarly known.

I know that there was a certain degree of negativity on both sides. Primarily, though, I believe that whether choosing Yes or No people were voting FOR something. The huge turnout, the almost universal interest and the strength of feeling together show that people are not so much disengaged from politics, but feel under normal circumstances that their engagement is of no value. This time there was hope, alongside fear: hope of change, hope of better, hope of being heard. That hope deserves to be honoured, not used as a fig leaf for spinning and political machination.

There’s undoubtedly a regional – if not national – element of FOMO in all this. I’d argue that it’s now been seized on by those who will choose to use this as another distraction from the real direction of government policy. Why blame benefit claimants for your own hardship when you’re being officially encouraged to envy those lucky sods north of the border, or within the M25, or anywhere else just far enough out of reach to easily verify how much of that alleged good fortune actually exists?

Whatever the outcome, there were always going to be bitter times ahead, and my heart grieves at what I can already see coming. So here, for the record; for any politician or would-be politician reading, is the message I, in Northern England, want you to take from this. I don’t want to be coerced into feeling resentful about others. I don’t want an expensive debate about regional assemblies or elected mayors or any other window dressing. I want a substantive change of the way that our elected representatives govern in our name, a much shorter route of communication between them and me, and at least the prospect ever of being able to influence things.

Stop tinkering around with our money under the cutesy guise of balancing the nation’s books. We know, whether we’ve forgotten it or not, that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by some self-indulgent splurging on nurses and typists at the council, but by bankers playing silly buggers with confections of debt which are to money as spun sugar is to a loaf of bread. We didn’t max out the credit card on some national retail therapy; we turned a blind eye to an entire fashion parade of the Emperor’s New Clothes – and we’re doing it again.

Stop lining up the poorest and most vulnerable in our society like some grim audition for a national 10 Minute Hate. We’re becoming so obsessed with the fear that we’re being fiddled out of a few measly quid, that we’ve taken our eye off the fact that need and sickness can come to us all and that the real drain on our resources is happening elsewhere.

Stop saying that you’re listening, and then continue doing the opposite. Get out of Westminster and talk to people other than focus groups and special advisers. Employ people who’ve never worked in London or engaged in politics.

Much of the content of the independence debate is, of course, specific to Scotland. But many of the concerns of those people engaged in it, expressed in the context of a non-partisan vote, aren’t.

Think big. Health, welfare, education, jobs: security and confidence matter to us all. Give us a vision of something to believe in, don’t fight over the ever decreasing number of votes from people who think they have the most to lose from the menaces you’ve encouraged them to believe in. Create a future I want to be a part of and contribute to, rather than one I fear. Give us the headroom to grow into what we want to be, not dwindle into a shadowy, paranoid sideshow, living in the past.

Will anyone be big enough to stand up and take on this challenge, rather than falling into the trap of petty finger-pointing self interest?

I doubt it.

But I hope so.


Us v Them

I don’t follow Jason Manford on Facebook. I should say at this point that I have nothing against Jason Manford. In fact, some of my best friends follow him.

So it was that earlier today I saw the following status update, snorted and clicked “Like”.


It’s not a new sentiment, of course. It’s one I’ve shared many, many times myself – and meant it. But within moments of scrolling on through my timeline, I started to feel uneasy about what it actually meant.

I find it almost impossible to express my thoughts about the referendum on independence coming up next week. Not because I’m not Scottish: after all, that’s no prerequisite to voting. Not because I don’t live in Scotland at the moment, though I have in the past (and have always kind of hoped to again in the future). But because of those two factors, I have no vote. I don’t need to choose between the variously conflicting versions of truths and statistics, am not called on to painstakingly separate hope from fantasy, caution from fear. In short, it’s not my decision – and it’s not my place to opine, though I (along with the rest of us) will be affected by the fallout, whatever happens.

There have been endless metaphors about the potential separation of the United Kingdom. It struck me yesterday, though, that it feels to me, living in the North of England, rather like a beloved sibling leaving home. You squabble, of course. You fight over bathroom rights, who gets to watch the TV, who’s the favourite. Then suddenly, they have the prospect of taking off for a glamorous new job, though the details are vague and you’re afraid it might not all be it’s cut out to be. You’re jealous, of course, and you know that you’re likely to be grounded forever with your pocket money cut, but you’re worried too, even though you know it’s not really any of your business.

Leaving aside the arguments for and against independence, though, the tone of some of the debate is starting to bother me. I resent Westminster-centric policy and bias as much as anyone else who grew up outside of the rarified atmosphere of privilege which still seems a prerequisite for power in this country. I hate that my own region has so many obstacles to overcome to compete with the South East, I chafe, like the rest of my neighbours, at measures introduced to ease problems in London and its surrounds which cause or exacerbate the ills of where we live. There is a glaring inequality and imbalance in the UK, and the failure of any mainstream party to acknowledge and address this frustrates me intensely.

What I don’t believe, however, is that people are intrinsically better or worse – or, actually, that different depending on where they live or where they’re from.  It’s seductive to think that our personalities are shaped by our origins, that we “belong”, in some mystical, indistinct way to one particular area or group. But it’s dangerous too, especially when we fall into the easy trap of choosing the good bits for ourselves or those we identify with, while pinning the less desirable character traits onto a different, distinct, bunch.

I daresay there are people in London, who in all but speech and cultural reference are much more akin to those round here, or even further north, than to those who live scant miles away and make the decisions which govern us all. That a farmer in Cornwall has more in common with a shepherd in Cumbria than the townies who summer down the road or moved there permanently for a new life in the country. Increasingly, surely, we’re not where we’re from: we’re what we have, what we do, what we aspire to. That’s not something which can be defined or contained by borders, national or otherwise.

I don’t know what will happen next week. I don’t even know what I want to. I do hope that, whatever the outcome, more power is devolved to local regions around the UK so that decisions can be made much closer to those they affect. Even more than that, though, I hope (knowing that it is largely in vain) that we don’t start a march towards tribalisation in the guise of local pride. We’re better off recognising that almost all of us are “that lot” – and talking seriously about how to hold those who aren’t to account.

Past caring

It’s rare that a member of this Government says something I applaud. But reading Jeremy Hunt’s speech on care of the elderly, calling on Britain to emulate the “social contract” between young and old found in other countries, I think he has a point. Of sorts.

I trudge the path through our village from home to school, day in, day out. I walk past terraces and bungalows which I know are occupied mainly by elderly people. I see them, sometimes, in their front gardens, or at the windows, or walking fearfully against the human flow of be-scootered and be-bicycled children streaming down the hill to school. I always nod, always smile, talk when I have the chance. I see one couple, frail as sticks, huddle at the bus stop; once, heartbreakingly, in bitter wind, sobbing against each others’ shoulder. On that day, of all days, my car was in the garage or I would have turned round gone to offer them a lift to wherever they were going.

A local befriending scheme, a co-operation between Neighbourhood Watch and Age UK has launched this month, compiling a database of people, like me, who can pick up a loaf of bread, or put out the wheelie bin, or, frankly, be a guaranteed smile and a little bit of human comfort for elderly or frail people who are isolated and alone more than ever when the bad weather comes. To me, it’s a great idea: knocking on the door of a stranger, no matter how good the intentions, seems ill-advised and more likely to worry and upset than reassure, but a partnering of need and help through trusted agencies solves many of those issues. No doubt this is the kind of thing Jeremy Hunt has in mind, and yet…

We heard last week about care visits being as little as 15 minutes a day; people forced to choose between someone making them a warm drink or being helped to use the toilet. People seeing no-one, talking to no-one, 4 million for whom the television is the main source of company. Befriending schemes are a good idea, but the problem, surely, goes most deeper.

For all that I agree with Mr Hunt’s invocation of a “social contract”, I can’t accept it from one whose government does all in its power to undermine the fundamentals which make such a contract possible. Whether right or wrong, paid work outside the home is valued over caring in our society. Childcare is approached as a problem which parents need to outsource in order to return to full employment. Payments to carers, who on the most basic of economic measures save the state billions by keeping ill, elderly or disabled loved ones at home, are under huge pressure, and initiatives such as the bedroom tax mean that such families are being squeezed beyond endurance. Withdrawing in-work benefits from those working part time hits people who use their “free” time to look after parents who might otherwise need to be moved into residential care or depend on those blink-and-you-miss-them visits from carers. As happy as I am to help with the befriending scheme, I can only do it because I have the luxury of being based at home, combining working with looking after my children, and I suspect my fellow volunteers will be the same or retired.

At an even more fundamental level, we have lost any concept of supporting communities. My own region has suffered tremendously from public sector job cuts, with 1000 additional job losses announced just this week at Middlesbrough town council. I have written before, and I still wonder a lot, about the true cost of savings made in wage spend. For every person given a job in an area of high unemployment, surely, you are not only supporting the local economy but allowing a person of working age to stay near to their extended family? If people are forced ever more to London and the south east for work (or, conversely, forced out of those regions due to benefit caps), how the hell can they step in to “take responsibility” for their elderly relatives, as Mr Hunt so piously implores?

If you want people to care, you have to stop encouraging a perception that caring = shirking. You have to let people take some dignity and security from their work, and place value on family and community as real, tangible virtues; not a way to save the Exchequer a few bob. Give that lot some consideration, Mr Hunt, and then we’ll talk social contract. Unless you’ve found a buyer for it first.

How to be a local person

I like to think that where I live is a village, but it isn’t really. It almost is; it used to be; but it isn’t anymore. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it now.

The problem is that it doesn’t really know what it is, either.

You see, we have a problem with immigration. You wouldn’t think so to look at us – in the shop, at the school gates, in the doctor’s surgery, the faces look the same and the voices are all pretty similar. Nonetheless, a richness of brownfield sites has been transformed over the past decade and a half into those kind of estates of detached houses which people like to sneer at, but which are just what lots of young families want.

So they (we) came, and they (we) multiplied. The result? A comfortable, prosperous, pleasant place to live – with an identity crisis. Those who were here before the new housing are left, baffled and rather resentful, turned inwards to each other. The newcomers, attracted originally to the prospect of life in a village, get involved in community activities, but that in turn sometimes leads to ill-will and silent feuding where toes are inadvertently stepped on.

Pressure on an over-subscribed school only adds to the problems: people whose children can’t get into the same primary which they themselves attended are (understandably, if unreasonably) unlikely to look kindly on those taking “their” places.

How do you belong to somewhere that wishes you weren’t there? Or, perhaps, how do you belong to somewhere which isn’t sure what it is? Travelling and living in Spain, I was always struck by the strong sense of local identity. A village would celebrate its own saint’s day in its own manner with traditions children inherited as their birthright; a fantastic spectacle to an onlooker, but one which depends by its nature on continuity and exclusivity.

Of course, places do change, and what we see as static and age-old would probably look very different to a visitor from a century ago. My village/suburb/whatever will doubtless take on a new identity over time, but no-one wins if we pretend that nothing was lost in the process.