Something is wrong

I was born in 1937 so lived through the War, though I don’t remember much about it. I suppose I had a deprived childhood in material terms (sweet ration only 2oz a week; second-hand toys, if any; Fair-isle pullover darned at the elbows, short pants patched): but so did everybody else so it didn’t really matter.   I had a loving family and I was never really hungry.

In my post-war formative years my generation was proud of the leading role our country and armed forces had played in defeating fascism, and continued to play as one the “top nations” in founding the UN and establishing an international economic system designed to create a more peaceful and prosperous new world.

We believed our country had, through adventurous exploration and deeds of derring-do, built a worldwide empire which we were now preparing for self-government and independence based on the admired Westminster system as established by the Mother of Parliaments.  Justice, based on Magna Carta, was dispensed with the scales tipped in favour of the defendant. Our universities were internationally admired and, having given the indusial revolution and railways to the world, we continued to be at the forefront of innovation, having discovered penicillin and invented both television and the jet engine. The BBC was a source of impartial information and a vehicle for both light and serious culture and entertainment which was admired throughout the world.

What was not to like?

Yes, I know, that summary contains a lot of rose-coloured simplifications, not least the importance of the part we had played in the defeat of fascism compared with that of others, especially the USSR.  But that was the over-all story as we understood it.

Half a century later the story is different.

On “Bloody Sunday” in 1972 our army fired on a crowd and killed 26 people.  The “authorities” lied about it and covered it up and it took nigh on 40 years and two judicial enquiries to reveal the truth.  The armed forces of which we were so proud have, to at least one authoritative and well-research source (Simon Akam: The Changing of the Guard: the British Army since 9/11; Scribe, 2021), failed miserably, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

From the late 70s our governments abandoned our Keynesian heritage, squandered the unexpected bonus of oil revenues from for the North Sea by using them to finance an unacceptable level of unemployment in order to cow the workers into submission. The police were set against the miners.  Public assets such as water, electricity and gas supplies were sold off to the highest bidder.  Public housing was sold to tenants at a discount, but many of the houses have eventually landed into the hands of buy-to-let landlords.  The “market” has even invaded our universities: some offer nearly half their graduates first class honours.

The Post Office introduced a new IT system, refused to recognise that it was faulty and prosecuted over 700 sup-postmasters for fraud for more than a decade. Our judicial system fined many innocent people and even put some in prison. The person in charge at the time, instead of being in prison herself or on her knees in a convent begging forgiveness, is honoured with a CBE, chairs a Healthcare Trust and is a board member of the Cabinet Office.

In 2017, 72 people died horrible deaths by fire in the Grenfell Tower block of flats because the builders, with the connivance of the local government authority, had cut corners and coated the building with unsuitable flammable cladding. Five years later the public enquiry has still not allocated blame, and no-one has yet been punished.

The “Mother of Parliaments” has been prorogued by an arrogant government and the judges who ruled that action illegal have been branded “enemies of the people.” Our government ignores procurement rules in order to reward its own supporters, accepts donations which might better be described as bribes, distorts statistics and lies brazenly and persistently, so far with impunity.

We have fallen from trying to be a being a fairer, well meaning, respected and proud country to a third rate dysfunctional kleptocracy.

Why?

Is it our lack of a written consultation or a batch of “superior laws” to preserve our rights and freedoms?  Is it over-centralisation which stifles local, and local government, initiative? Or our electoral system which gives almost total power to one party or the other on the basis of fewer than half of the votes?  Or the private school system which nourishes a class which believes it has the right to rule?  Or our over-reliance on the delusion that we have a “special relationship” with the US?  Or our over-enthusiastic adoption of neo-liberal capitalism and the obeisance to market forces?  Is it that our “glorious past” has generated a national character which is backward rather than forward looking?

Whatever, all our political parties, including the Liberal Democrats, seem totally occupied  with short-term solutions to current problems rather than reconstructing our system with a vision for a worthwhile future.

“It’s time for a change” – a Liberal/Liberal Democrat slogan on which I’ve fought several elections.  We need to spell out what that change is, how we plan to achieve it, and then fight for it with confidence and vigour

 

* Peter Wrigley is a member of Spen Valley Liberal Democrats and blogs as keynesianliberal.blogspot.com

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18 Comments

  • How true! What has happened to the country that the majority of us once thought was a beacon of decency that we were proud to be part of, a slow and steady decline that has lost us respect with our friends and allies?

  • Chris Platts 23rd Feb '22 - 11:48am

    Perhaps we need to start at what were the conditions that inspired those changes post war,and start promoting them again.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Feb '22 - 12:04pm

    Thank you for an excellent article!
    Might it have been the case that during the post war period the concepts and practices of honesty, equity and a greater degree of pro social coherence were to the fore in a society which included so many who saw service in dangerous conditions and would not accept being groomed to accept corruption.

  • Paul Fisher 23rd Feb '22 - 1:11pm

    Excellent analysis. Who will step up from within the national leadership vacuum across politics, government and business? Wither or whither the UK?

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Feb '22 - 1:20pm

    “On “Bloody Sunday” in 1972 our army fired on a crowd and killed 26 people. ”
    Not so – at least 26 shot of whom 14 were killed.

    https://www.historyextra.com/period/20th-century/bloody-sunday-what-happened-deaths-aftermath-legacy/

    Not that it makes it any better. Innocent people taking part in a Civil Rights march.

    And I sympathise with the general them of your post.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Feb '22 - 1:33pm

    Well, No.
    Im sorry but this article is an example of that obsession with “Our Glorious Past”. Yes, some things have got worse but most of the examples are of things being much the same but our expectations rising.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Feb '22 - 2:03pm

    Might data on child hunger, homelessness, income to housing costs, “lobbying” donations, student debt and the like provide some reasonably objective data?

  • Barry Lofty 23rd Feb '22 - 2:25pm

    From my own point of view it is not an obsession with our glorious past, I hope I am not naive, but a gradual disillusionment with the governance of our country, admittedly greatly enhanced with the performance of the present incumbents, but they are just the epitome of our decline!

  • Chris Moore 23rd Feb '22 - 2:39pm

    Your childhood, adolescent and early adulthood beliefs were too accepting of convenient and complacent national myths that kept the country and its colonies deferential and mediocre for too long.

    You single out Bloody Sunday as if this was sui generis: British Imperial forces not infrequently slaughtered and mistreated its happy subjects. Woe betide those who were uppity and dreamed of running their own affairs. Bloody Sunday is just a very late example of Imperial misbehaviour.

    I see your article as more of a comment on your own arriving at intellectual adulthood. Of course, it’s disillusioning. Maturity should be.

    Much better to be aware of the multiple issues of the day and seek to do sonething about it.

  • John Marriott 23rd Feb '22 - 3:36pm

    I was born during WW2 so my earliest memories date back to the late 1940s. Politics, when it reared its ugly head back then, was very much a case of blue versus red and even then, both Tory and Labour politicians were generally singing from the same hymn sheet. Mutually assured destruction protected our backs and we still had a major manufacturing sector, albeit operating mainly in clapped out factories. There was a certain smugness about the 1950s, epitomised by a British government that still reckoned it could mix it with the big boys, whose hubris was brought to an abrupt halt by Suez, although some people have never really been able to accept this.

    Since then, in the opinion of many, it’s been largely down hill. Sure enough, there have been peaks and troughs, but what set things off was the abandonment of Butskellism starting slowly in the 1970s and rising to a crescendo in the 1980s and 1990s, the era of the ‘Big Bang’, the sell off of the nation’s assets, the quick fix and the cynical espousal of the concept of ‘bread and circuses’ so popular in Roman times. Back in the troubled 1970s the late Dr Jonathan Miller described living in Britain as rather like a caterpillar living in a warm mouldy lettuce. You know, I reckon that’s about where we are today. Yes, Peter, it IS time for a change!

  • “Is it our lack of a written consultation…”

    Did you mean “constitution”?

  • Trevor Andrews 24th Feb '22 - 9:19am

    Nice piece Peter. I was a 47 baby so recall the post war years with fondness.

    I keep saying that is easy to talk about change, but we need to spell it out if we are going to win the hearts and votes of the electorate, especially those that do not normally vote for us.

    We do not make enough of the fact we are a party of the people, run by the people – as opposed to the rich and unions.

    Having spent my life in Sales and Marketing the one rule of success is to sell your product well, not waste time criticising your competitors.

  • The heading “Something is Wrong” is right and it’s an excellent simple article about the UK since 1937. Although many things are better, at least materially, something at the heart of our society and government is worse than it was in the past.
    Many things were wrong in the past too and it’s impossible in one short article to present a proper picture, but the message I get is the need for a vision for the way forward which will begin with a change in fundamentals, not superficial and material things.
    In the LDEA this Saturday we are having a meeting to begin thinking about a vision for the future of Education in England. Then at our fringe meeting at conference, we will continue that and among our speakers are Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters who have just published a book outlining change of our Education system; the Forward in that book says the current system is in a mess. That links to Peter’s article, suggesting what is wrong is at the core, not on the surface of all we do.

  • James Fowler 24th Feb '22 - 10:13pm

    It’s rare but refreshing to see something straight out of the Daily Mail on LD voice. I agree that Britain has had it’s ups and downs, and that this period (say 2009 onwards) is certainly one of the downs. On the other hand 1996-2007 was one long party. I think that society certainly had less self doubt the further back you go, but the price of self certainty was keeping the hopes, fears, suffering and even the existence of large numbers of people essentially unacknowledged and invisible.

  • The penultimate paragraph nails it. No party has “a vision for a worthwhile future”. They just scrabble around looking for memes they hope will attract a few more votes. It hasn’t worked at any GE for 40+ years so it precisely meets the Internet’s favourite definition of insanity.

    So why do we plough on regardless, endlessly doing what we KNOW won’t work?

    I suggest it’s because LD policymaking is done bottom-up, starting with detailed policies crafted by a complicated process that eventually leads to Conference. The upside is that policies have a deserved reputation for being well crafted. The downside is that having been developed in silos, they don’t join up well.

    More seriously, it means that there is just one ‘orthodox’ view of any given policy. That creates a monoculture which is the antithesis of liberal diversity. It also kills debate and policy innovation making for a very small tent.

    In fact, the big picture (not the colouring in) is necessarily top-down with detailed policies devised to support it bearing in mind the truism that ‘No plan survives contact with reality’ .

    So, would-be leaders should articulate their vision and, if elected, be given reasonable freedom to run with it as long as they are successful. It’s an approach that supports diversity and creates a big tent. Democratic control is achieved by ruthlessly kicking out the leader when he/she loses contact with the zeitgeist. That’s how representative democracy works.

  • I’m sure many will see the outline suggestion in my earlier comment as a bridge to far and dismiss it out of hand.

    It would indeed be a very big change to the way the party is run but consider the record of Coalition. The reality of being in power (albeit coalition) was that Clegg (and his inner circle) often HAD to make things up as they went along and not just because they were the junior partners. The cause celebre was of course, tuition fees, but there were many others. Enabling the thoroughly illiberal lobbying bill is one that still angers me.

    So, in the real world as opposed to cosy Planet Lib Dem, things have to work roughly as I propose. But because we don’t have the constitutional rules, habits, or culture to support that, we were stuck with following a leader few supported into the enemy guns. The party organisation simply didn’t have the tools to respond to the crisis so many resolved the contradictions by resigning/lapsing their membership.

    And remember, after years of slowly declining overall support offset by skilful ground campaigns, we were only in Coalition because of a rare hung Parliament and not because of any compelling case we had made to the electorate.

    Is any of that good enough? I think not.

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