This post is about two tweets which came my way yesterday. Both speak of the importance of personal responsibility. The first describes its reach in private industry (in this case, I believe in relation to a recent story on the freemium app industry):
Companies are made of people, and people have a responsibility for their actions, inc. developing (potentially) exploitative freemium games
The second, which came my way hot on the heels of the first, said much the same thing – only, this time, in the context of the NHS (the Mid-Staffordshire scandal comes immediately to mind):
The best managers help clinical staff treat according to need and make patients healthier, not enforce NHS policy whatever the consequences
Meanwhile, in an oxymoron-like diatribe of the weakest kind against everything and anything New Labour ever did, David Cameron has this to say in today’s Sunday Telegraph:
That is what everything this Government does comes back to: the future. We are looking at the horizon, not tomorrow’s headlines; doing what’s right for the long-term. Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher said that we should be “in the business of planting trees, for our children and grandchildren, or we have no business to be in politics at all”.
I couldn’t agree more. In 30 years’ time, I want people to be able to look back at this government and see that we paid down our debts, helped create millions of jobs, sorted out welfare, made our schools world-beating and built homes for a generation.
Doing this kind of work might not earn you popularity points in by-elections, but it’s what I’m in politics for: making the country we love as great as it can be.
I haven’t heard that “planting trees” metaphor for really quite a while. I suppose we’ll have Michael Gove telling us next that we should all write a novel before we die.
I’m also just a little puzzled – maybe out of technical ignorance – as to why he says “paid down our debts” instead of “paid off“. Unless, of course, he means that it’s going to be the little people at the bottom of the pile who’ll always end up saving the Tories from their economic selves.
But perhaps this is all just a little too nitpicking on my part.
In truth, it’s always going to be the people who make a difference to any society. Politicians of the kind who tend to rule us prefer to ignore this. If they didn’t, they’d have to engage us in their processes – they’d have to get us involved and actively participating. Far easier to blame an anonymous public-sector bureaucracy – and shift the responsibility stealthily onto equally anonymous private-sector equivalents – than to admit that the root of all our problems lies not in our systems but their application.
It’s not so much a new education system we need – it’s more a system teachers and students know how to work with.
It’s not so much a new legal system we need – it’s more a system whose costs victims and other participants don’t have to fear.
It’s not so much a new health system we need – it’s more a system which provides support as and when a person becomes a patient in need.
The Welfare State is the way to make our society less inhumane. It’s in our grasp – but it is a choice. We can spend considerable resource on allowing the fortunate to further concentrate their good fortune – or we can deliberately decide to give the less fortunate the consideration, charity and kindness most belief systems have tended to argue should be made forthcoming.
But what we have to accept is that, either way, it’s a choice. If we choose to fashion a world where we must walk on the other side of the road from that homeless man who dies at the doorstep of a bungalow, we can. We will do so, I am sure, in order that ambitious alpha men and women can – amongst the disasters they also commit – achieve what they undoubtedly do. And this is clearly an act of socioeconomic decision-making at the highest level, committed by coherent men and women. It is a freely-taken decision. It is an unforced decision to let some people live better at the expense of others. It is a statistical calculation of risks that approves of achievement at the very top, even as it judges society will not rise up in arms and disintegrate as a result of the anonymous homeless dying distastefully in the streets.
If, on the other hand, we opt to help such homeless people – if our goal is to create a socioeconomic environment where this kind of action is prioritised over other, more aggressively innovative, behaviours – we may create, again entirely consciously and deliberately, a society where survival is ameliorated for a far greater number of our souls here on earth, even as achievement measured objectively loses its bleeding edges.
And either way, to come back to the original set of choices, and whether politicians like it or not, if anything turns out right, it’ll come down not to systems they proudly and powerfully announce but, rather, to their humane application – or otherwise – by people who look and act and feel like you and me.
That personal responsibility.
That core humanity.
That attachment to caring at an individual level for each and every relationship.
That love, even.
That kindness, generously imparted.
Far more important for a classroom than this textbook or that is the mind that plans the lesson around a book and the hands that clutch its spine.
For the funny thing about Cameron’s oxymoron of a weak diatribe is that there was very little in it I found myself fiercely disagreeing with. Oh, yes. Those silly sentences on immigration. The daftness around welfare. But in reality, the poor man knows exactly what we need to do. Like when he says, almost pleadingly (the bold is mine):
These are not claims or promises: they are facts. We are turning the tide on years of decline — and building a Britain for those who work hard and want to get on. And we need to go further. We need to get more houses built. We need to build new roads and railways and energy connections. Some reading this may not like that; but as I have made clear, this is not a popularity contest but a battle for Britain’s future.
The problem isn’t the words, David. The problem is the people.
In fact, the problem – more widely expressed – is your, and your professional class’s, attitude to people in general. The fact is that systems, for high-flying politicians, are like electromagnets of recent generation: when you have the opportunity to choose between getting people voluntarily onside or creating a foolproof system designed to cage them into a certain set of behaviours, you can guarantee any minister worth their caviar will be pulled inexorably in the direction of implementing a brand-new system over convincing ordinary people to work better with an existing one.
I really do sometimes get the feeling that Cameron and some of his cohort are locked painfully into the wrong party of UKIP-incubating MPs and hangers-on. If only he, and perhaps they, had chosen Labour, we could right now be facing another decade of government.
Maybe I should now spoil this post for you (or, alternatively, not) by saying how very much that idea makes me shudder.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.
They say familiarity may breed contempt.
I’m inclined, however, to believe that being a politician (of empire-building instincts, at least) makes one contemptuous of the familiar.
In this, both One Nation Labour and the more traditional Conservative impulses, which Cameron has appealed to in his text today, have aimed to reassure potential voters in a time of utter uncertainty that being British, in itself, is quite enough to be getting on with.
But in the end, they are all just words – both Cameron’s and Miliband’s, I’m afraid.
In a sense, I get the feeling that our politicians are likely to be as lost here as the rest of us. And in this realisation (as Poirot might suggest!), I find the future most terrifying.
Where ordinary people would be the real solution, our leaders are now only able to work with systems.
The systems have taken over to such an extent that these ordinary people I mention truly have no impact whatsoever on the results – even as they end up shouldering all the blood-spattered blame.
The personal responsibility which I started this post with is impossible to properly engineer or encourage. We spend our time terrified of the juggernaut-like mechanisms that threaten to bury our professional futures in a careering disgrace. We hide, like frightened rabbits, from the oncoming lights which should illuminate – but which, in the end, serve only to make the shadows evermore powerful.
Yes. It’s the people, stupid.
And our leaders are too stupid to realise it.