News from Nowhere: The Good News
As we face the threats of nuclear conflict, climate change, energy shortages, and economic crises, it is perhaps worth sparing a thought for a kinder, fairer, greener, and more collaborative, innovative, and empowered society.
It’s been an eventful, chaotic, and distressing few weeks in British politics. But in this period of relative calm, as the nation grudgingly welcomes into office its latest unelected Prime Minister, we might pause to reflect upon some more positive possibilities than these dismal days tend to allow.
On Tuesday morning earlier month, two very different stories hit the UK’s headlines.
The first was the news that the National Audit Office would investigate the amount of public spending on a national exhibition that had become known as the Festival of Brexit, following concerns raised by a parliamentary committee and claims that this event, staged by the government at a cost of £120 million, had drawn only 240,000 of the 60 million visitors it had been expected to attract. That’s about £500 per visitor.
The second was a report on the growing popularity and impacts of community orchards, a set of projects whereby local people are clubbing together to plant fruit trees on disused plots of land across the country.
These orchard initiatives are nothing like the failed urban beautification schemes that have been seen in recent years, by which corporations and government authorities have sought to create extravagant gardens in metropolitan centers, idealistic visions twisted by the influence of money and power.
Nine years ago, while still Mayor of London, Boris Johnson had eagerly supported plans to construct a so-called Garden Bridge across the River Thames, a 366-metre-long structure for pedestrians, cyclists, shrubs, hedges, and trees. The project was abandoned in 2017, having incurred a cost to the public purse of more than £40 million.
Then, in January this year, the Marble Arch Mound, an ugly artificial hill built in the middle of London and commissioned by Westminster City Council at a cost of £6 million, was torn down less than six months after it had opened to a trickle of volubly disappointed visitors.
Today, however, these orchard projects are bearing very different fruit. There is a real need for community-led initiatives providing cheap or free produce to local people. Britain’s cost-of-living crisis has meant that many ordinary people are finding it difficult to afford nutritious fresh food, even while the previous abortive administration, when not working its hardest to wreck the UK economy and exacerbate inflationary pressures, had sought to reverse the progress made by the last government on strategies both to extend the provision of free school meals for children from the most disadvantaged families and to make it harder for supermarkets to promote the sale of junk food.
The tendencies of government to waste resources and opportunities in these ways contrasts starkly with the capacity for public good embraced by such grassroots initiatives as the community orchards movement or indeed the popular campaigns fronted by a premier league footballer and a TV chef which have in recent years encouraged governments to provide free healthy food in the nation’s schools. We shouldn’t underestimate the worth of such popular actions in their impacts on the national consciousness and public policy.
This situation is of course, as always, subject to a range of different and contradictory interpretations. A laissez-faire Conservative would say that it demonstrates the breakdown of the nanny state and that we should put our faith instead in the power of the so-called Big Society. (Ironically, many of those Tories have been themselves brought up by their own professional nannies and tend to agree with Margaret Thatcher’s belief that ‘there’s no such thing as society’.)
A follower of the Communitarian movement (Third Way centrism’s version of the hippies of the 1960s) would say substantially the same thing, but rather more nicely, and would probably give you a hug.
By contrast, a radical populist would argue that it shows the failure of the entrenched structures and institutions of the political establishment. An eco-anarchist would suggest that it proves the total futility of top-down government and the rule of law. An Opposition politician would point out that it indicates that Tory administrations are clearly rubbish.
We might, however, from a more constructively progressive perspective, propose that we can see in this situation the possible advantages of bottom-up, community-based modes of political ideas-creation and agenda-setting – or what we might simply call ‘democracy’.
For a country that has so recently struggled under the incompetent leadership of a Prime Minister brought to power by the votes of less than a fifth of one per cent of the national electorate, and which is now enjoying its fourth unelected leader in a row – chosen by fewer than two hundred members of his own parliamentary party – the opportunity for a little more democracy certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
In a world beset by online hatred and extremism fueled by fake news and the trolls of the disinformation wars, it is too easy to forget the value of community action and grassroots activism, and how the growth of such activities can benefit from digital technologies and platforms for the purposes of mobilization, debate, the building of consensus and the translation of shared ideas into real-world action, into the offline equivalent of that most valued virtual commodity, truly high-quality user-generated content.
As we face the threats of nuclear conflict, climate change, energy shortages, and economic crises, it is perhaps worth sparing a thought for the good that can be done by a small group of disparate individuals coming together to plant a few fruit trees for the sake of their communities and families. Our political leaders could do a great deal worse than that, and very often do.
It is, for example, a tragedy, and a scandal, that food banks should be commonplace across the towns and cities of the world’s sixth-largest economy, but it is also a triumph that they are here at all. Their existence may of course stand as an indictment of our ruling classes, but they also represent a vindication of the fundamental virtues of ordinary people who strive through acts of charity, kindness, and community to support those most in need in these times of unusual hardship.
Let us, therefore, try to focus our thoughts, for a moment, not on the rampant injustices which consume us, but on the individuals who have struggled to build a better society – upon, for example, the families who have lost their own children, from Stephen Lawrence through to Molly Russell, and who have selflessly and courageously campaigned to make the world a fitter place for future generations. We recently saw such progress in the constructive institutional reactions to the public response to the murder of Sarah Everard. We see it every day in the actions of ordinary citizens seeking to serve and improve life in their communities.
There are lessons to be learnt from every crisis, and benefits to be wrought out of each catastrophe. If we survive the next few years, and come through all of this as a kinder, fairer, greener, and more collaborative, innovative, and empowered society, then the harm and the pain caused today by the vainglorious strategies foisted upon us by our political masters will... no, we cannot say they will have been worth it.
All this needless suffering most certainly will not have been worth it. But let us hope and pray that it may yet help us stop it from happening ever again.
But how might we start to translate the visions of these diverse public spheres from the microcosms of local action onto a grander national stage, to address the escalating problems of civic disengagement, the critical collapse of political trust, and the so-called free world’s democratic deficit?
There are many ways in which a society might seek to take advantage of the benefits of grassroots people power. We hardly need revolutionary violence to achieve this. Perhaps the most radical and effective way would be to construct a ladder of democratic empowerment which would swiftly escalate the impact and influence of individual and hyperlocal civic engagement. Let us pause for a moment to consider how this might work.
There are currently just under fifty million people registered to vote in the UK. In many areas, there are already structures of parish, city, and county administration, but these layers of government are not connected by democratic processes. There’s no joined-up thinking or incremental enfranchisement going on here.
Instead of this obsolete and dysfunctional system, we might imagine then, for instance, a structure of hyperlocal (or parish) councils, each comprising, say, twenty representatives who would each represent just fifty constituents. Every constituent would know their representative well. They would be engaged in real and ongoing civic dialogue.
Those hyperlocal councils would each represent a thousand voters and would elect a representative to a local (or town, borough, city, or area) council. Those would again consist of around twenty members and would thus represent twenty thousand voters. Each of those local councils would elect a representative to a regional council comprising twenty members and representing a total of 400,000 voters. Each of those regional councils would elect a representative to a national people’s senate of about 120 members, a second chamber of parliament which would replace the outmoded patronage and privilege of the House of Lords.
Thus, within just a few degrees of separation, each voter would be closely acquainted with their hyperlocal, local, regional, and national representatives. This would afford not only the enhancement of direct and intimate democratic accountability; it would also create a route for the smooth and swift flow of ideas and perspectives from the individual and the community to the level of regional and national discourse, debate, and decision-making influence.
There’s nothing particularly novel or unique about this idea. It’s just one of many possible approaches. It’s not my own: I took it from an episode of a British political situation comedy broadcast by the BBC more than thirty years ago. It’s not rocket science, after all – nor indeed something truly complex, challenging, and difficult, like shopping for your family and paying your bills on an average wage in the Britain of 2022.
This idea’s modest providence doesn’t make it facetious, but it raises the question as to why such obvious ideas for fundamental reform have never managed to get off the ground.
The reason of course that such simple solutions haven’t really been taken seriously by the political establishment is that they would challenge the traditions, institutions, and material advantages of that establishment and might offer, in place of an illusion of democratic agency, the possibility of real power being devolved to the people. This entrenched inertia both underpins and undermines the resilience of the status quo in contemporary politics.
Yet how, if they were given the chance, could these kinds of community initiatives begin to play out, and what might their impacts eventually be? Well, if you’d indulge this conceit for a little while longer, we might be forgiven for trying to picture the scene.
It’s September 2063. The early autumn sunshine ripens the fruit on the trees. A child pulls an apple from a low-hanging branch and takes a bite. It tastes mellow and sweet, as golden as the morning light. Across the river, in a great glass building always open to the public, sits the people’s senate. For this is the heart of London, the orchard city that offered a model for the environmental, social, cultural, and economic regeneration of the nation.
This is, of course, merely a dream, a symptom perhaps of an ingenuous utopianism. Recent history has taught us, though, that it might sometimes be wiser to put our faith in the progressive hopes of local communities than in the overreaching ambitions of reckless power – that there might indeed be nothing naïve in such an approach after all.
Today we celebrate Halloween, a date which invokes some of the darkest traditions in the modern Christian calendar. It’s the start of a period of few days in which we remember the living presence of the dead, but it has in recent decades become commercialized as a carnival of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and assorted incarnations of supernatural wickedness.
The United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister was announced a week ago, on the day of Diwali, Hinduism’s great festival of lights, an auspicious enough start for the country’s first Hindu premier, and indeed for the first person of color to occupy the top job in Downing Street.
Now, I for one like Boris Johnson about as much as the next man – just so long as the next man is Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, or Jeffrey Dahmer – but I must admit to being sympathetic to the view that if he’d been successful in his bid to return, vampire-like, to life in Number 10, then Halloween would have been a rather more appropriate date for that news. The failure of his bid for political resurrection has offered the possibility, if not of actual hope, then at least of a break in the nation’s apparently relentless cycles of despair.
The traditions of Halloween, with its pumpkins and treats, are said to have evolved out of pagan harvest festivals, a time to celebrate the fruits of our labors and the vital bounty of the natural world. As such, this modern holiday of ghastly and dystopian horrors might reclaim from its roots something better aligned with our sunlit utopian dreams.
It is also, in the Christian tradition, the eve of All Saints’ Day, the date which immediately which precedes All Souls’ Day. This might represent an apt enough point in the year to turn, in our hope and faith in humanity, away from the anxieties of these dire days and, in remembrance of better times, towards the possibility of a brighter future, an antidote to the crises which threaten to engulf us all.
Many, however, remain unconvinced that the arrival of a newly unelected premier will solve the country’s problems, although most reluctantly agree that he looks like a big improvement on the previous two. (But it has also been pointed out that the Leader of the Opposition’s pet hamster would have done a better job than either of them. He doesn’t anyway immediately appear to be pathologically dishonest or utterly insane.)
Last week, the Daily Mail newspaper rather optimistically described Rishi Sunak’s accession to the nation’s highest office as a ‘new dawn for Britain’. Rather more pragmatically, Mr. Sunak himself told his party that it was time to ‘unite or die’. On his first day in office, with none of the zealous exuberance of his immediate predecessors, he spoke soberly of the need for ‘competence and stability’ as the country faces a ‘profound crisis’.
The new incumbent of Downing Street is known to be a fan of both Star Wars and spreadsheets, so we might at best hope that we will prove to be something of both a moral visionary and an economic realist – rather than the technocratic airhead which that combination might also portend.
Sometimes, though, even the most idealistic among us may have to accept that, before they start getting very much better, things first have to stop growing even worse. The UK’s latest premiership is no panacea for all the social and economic ills that ail the nation, but it may represent a pause – or a deceleration – in the downwards spiral of the country’s politics. That hiatus isn’t in itself a turning point, but it may set the conditions in which the reversal of our fortunes slowly becomes possible. We might at least grudgingly and provisionally welcome that.
On his first day in office, Mr. Sunak spoke with the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, something than in her seven weeks in power Liz Truss had, quite extraordinarily, neglected to do.
In her final speech outside Downing Street, Liz Truss had appeared unrepentant about her refusal to build consensus and the devastating consequences of her uncompromising approach to office, as she continued to rant about the importance of ‘boldness’ in government. Rishi Sunak, by contrast, had shown the very opposite of her bombastic optimism when he’d spoken on the same spot a little while later.
Unlike Ms. Truss, Mr. Sunak has sought to assemble a government of party unity, reflecting pretty much every political hue imaginable (just as long as it it’s blue).
In doing so, however, he prompted some consternation among his more moderate colleagues by reappointing to one of the great offices of state Suella ‘Cruella’ Braverman less than a week after she’d resigned in the wake of a digital security breach. Labour accused him of having done a 'grubby deal' with the once-and-future Home Secretary in order to secure her support in the leadership race. Others felt that her hard-line opposition to immigration would hardly help government ambitions to boost economic growth
And, if Ms. Braverman’s reappointment raised a few hackles, then the return of Boris Johnson’s most disloyal lieutenant, that ‘treacherous snake’ Michael Gove, to his old cabinet position certainly raised a lot of eyebrows and possibly several heckles and laughs.
It remains to be seen whether Rishi Sunak is a brilliant political tactician or whether he has created a Cabinet of all the talents but with none of the moral scruples or ethical commitments needed to keep a government together through the toughest of times. He may be a modern-day Machiavelli, a cool calculating mastermind with a famously nice smile, but in the downbeat and somber start to his time in the nation’s most exalted office it was observed by many commentators that he didn’t seem to be smiling so much anymore.
Last Wednesday afternoon, he faced his critics in his first session of parliamentary questions as the UK’s new Prime Minister. Although the event maintained the sharp edge of the cut-and-thrust of its debate, it nevertheless seemed rather better humoured than in recent months, as each side laid into the other with the usual robustness but with perhaps a greater sense of respect. Politicians on all sides congratulated Mr. Sunak on becoming the country’s first British Asian premier, and, just for once, it felt like they really meant it and that he sincerely appreciated it.
As one MP put it, this was one thing on which the entire chamber could agree. It would be fitting if this crucial acknowledgement and confirmation of the innate worth of diversity and mutual regard in British politics might lead our parliamentarians to try to find more points of consensus, solutions steeped in those ideas and values which they and we all share.