There comes a point in any political argument where the nature of the discussion changes from the consideration of details – you believe in tax cuts, I don’t believe in tax cuts – to something more profound: a fundamental difference in belief about how life and society should function.
People on both sides of the debate can trade their facts about the merits of welfare spending or whether cutting back benefits motivates or penalises the individuals affected. But ultimately, one’s position may simply depend on whether you feel it is right for society to support its more vulnerable members, or whether you believe that we’re individuals and that beyond the bare minimum needed for survival, you’re essentially on your own or should learn to be.
This is what I would describe as politics and the moral dimension. It’s not about the policies, it’s about the principles you hold to be true. Policies may come and go as expediently as the leaves on the trees but your core values should remain inviolable and unwavering.
So I’m proud to be a socialist. In the words of the former Liverpool football club manager, Bill Shankly, “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards.” To me, that isn’t about restricting enterprise or envying success, nor is it the false or unequal distribution of wealth and reward to the undeserving. To me, socialism is simply about recognising that everyone should have an opportunity to build a better life and to feel that they are fairly rewarded for that endeavour. In that respect it’s a platitude for both the left and right. What makes us different is how those words are put into practice.
My socialism believes that even individuals doing modest things should feel their lives and their contribution are meaningful and can lead to something better, if not for them, then for their children. Being less affluent shouldn’t be a reason for shame or dissatisfaction. Conservatives relentlessly preach that they are the party that cares about “hard working families” and yet the flip side of their rhetoric is to pulverise those same people, who are often working multiple jobs, many on zero hour contracts, who need food banks, tax credits and other in-work benefits simply to get by. Just under three million children in the United Kingdom live in poverty and two thirds of them are in working familes. One hundred and fifty years after Charles Dickens wrote about the hopelessness of the working class in Hard Times, millions of people in Britain today still have almost nothing to look forward to other than getting by. Is this really the best we can do?
Under the coalition, Britain has begun to resemble a great country estate slowly sinking into ruin, able to get by on its former glories, keeping things looking slick with a fresh coat of paint paid for by visitors to the Orangery restaurant, but not having near enough attractions to raise money for a new roof. The Conservatives had their chance to build the foundations of a better future but they’ve failed. The country is going backwards. There isn’t any sign at all that things can improve, rather we’re being told to expect more of the same, or worse.
My socialism would like to create an open door through which anyone can pass. It isn’t a door that is wedged tight shut because of where one’s journey through life begins, nor does it slam in your face like a punishment if misfortune overtakes you along the way. It doesn’t accept that others do the work you can’t be bothered to do yourself. But if you have the skill, talent or ambition to pass through, then I do believe socialism is the best doorway to providing opportunities that are open to all, not just the lucky or privileged few.
These are difficult times but they are made more difficult by the policies of a Conservative-dominated government that has little interest in building a fair and just society. Astonishingly, the main outcome of the financial crisis has been the consolidation of right wing selfishness and an ideological disinterest in the lives of others as they are truly lived. In both Britain and the United States, the conservative creed is starkly apparent beneath the rhetorical camoflage of “fairness”, a concept they little understand and even worse do little to uphold. I believe we deserve better.
When I listen to the speeches and read the reports of the latest initiative to cut public spending, curb welfare or tackle immigration, I find almost nothing that chimes with who I am and what I believe in. Most of the time, I share my outrage on Facebook, no doubt to the dismay (and in some cases, disdain) of my friends who could be forgiven for finding my invective somewhat tiring.
But where I grew up, government policy mattered, and matters still, not in an abstract, academic kind of way, but because it affected peoples’ lives directly in terms of the wages they earnt, the food they could place on the table, the heating they could afford and the clothes they wore. Affluent Daily Mail columnists yawn and roll their eyes at such mythologising. They scoff on Twitter and quote lines from Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ as documentary proof that hardship only befalls the working class in satire and only ever in real life to those who deserve all they get. But other columnists, like Harry Smith, a true Yorkshireman who actually lived in a society with no welfare state and no NHS know that such miseries were the norm, not some witty Cambridge Footlights invention.
Conservatives like to claim that theirs is the party of opportunity and progress but it has never felt that way to me. Aside from the once in a lifetime handout of allowing people to buy their council homes (enriching individuals through the exploitation of social assets, owned by all, for the benefit of all and whose more far-reaching legacy has been a housing crisis), I have always felt the negatives of Tory rule far outweigh the positive things they claim to have done for the working class – and I have lived over half my adult life under one Conservative government or another. Today, the impact of policy is felt as hard as it ever was by ordinary people, chastised by ministers they generally did not vote for and made to pay, through austerity, for the mistakes and catastrophes of wealthy individuals who will never know what a ‘freeze in tax credits’ represents. That such an bureaucratic phrase can conceal such unjust and unfair misery is a scandal.
I’m fortunate. I have been able to reach a position in life where it doesn’t really matter to me who is in power. A bit more VAT here, a little less tax allowance there: none of it really affects me in the way that it matters to people who have to watch every pound they spend. And this is the problem with so many of the privately educated, wealthy and assiduously networked members of the government. It doesn’t matter to them either. They do not have a jot of understanding of life’s hard choices. This is not in itself a failing; one can hardly blame someone for being born into a comfortable and affluent family. But what they can be blamed for, in too many cases, is the stratospheric lack of empathy they display towards the poor, the unemployed, the sick and to immigrants from other countries.
Not only is this the antithesis of my upbringing, but the attitudes I perceive in the Conservative Party don’t seem to have much in common with the values of British fairness and decency that all of us would like to believe in. On the contrary, as the general election has drawn closer, and Ukip seems to have become a serious political threat, the smug, condescending, arrogant, inward looking and heartless side of the Tory right has come screaming to the fore. The LibDems have all but disappeared. Tooth and claw (and ignorance) hold sway.
I hold a great admiration for the U.S. economist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Krugman, perhaps the most well known of the left wing economic experts who have repeatedly spoken about the negative impacts and ill-founded basis of conservative austerity policies. Time and again from his op-ed platform in the New York Times, he has skewered muddled reasons and loose justifications for ideological assaults on public spending. Krugman’s argument is not that we need a tightening of purse strings to fix the damage caused by the financial crash of 2007-9, but that the tightening itself has only caused further harm and misery. In a recent article, he rounded fiercely on US Republican House Leader, John Boehner, for expressing sentiments that I suspect are similar to those held by many in the British Conservative Party.
“I could also point to zero interest rates and low inflation as evidence that we are living in a demand-constrained economy. I could ask how, exactly, Boehner believes that increased willingness to work would conjure more jobs into existence. But what really gets me here is the fact that people like Boehner are so obviously disconnected from the lived experience of ordinary workers”
Krugman refers to a maxim from the opening of the film, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’:
“Anyone who is willing to work and is serious about it will certainly find a job. Only you must not go to the man who tells you this, for he has no job to offer and doesn’t know anyone who knows of a vacancy. This is exactly the reason why he gives you such generous advice, out of brotherly love, and to demonstrate how little he knows the world.”
As a socialist, this has always been my problem with conservative catechisms. I consider myself as someone who has been reasonably successful, so one might expect that I would gravitate towards a view of the world that says ‘I did it, so can you.’ And coming from an ordinary Northern background, I could also be inclined to feel that hard work and determination are all you need to break through social barriers and lead a better life than your parents or grandparents.
But actually, I don’t feel this way at all. I know that the course of my own life was directed by so many lucky breaks and opportunities that fell into place at the right time – wonderful teachers, for example – that to claim ‘I did it all by myself’ is not just fatuous but patently untrue. I suspect that if you looked at the careers of all these self-made men and women who lecture the unemployed and under-privileged about willingness to work, you would find many similar instances of luck and fortune that just somehow escaped their memory. I don’t believe that anyone ever does it all by themselves. We all have a debt to society even if that debt in a few rare cases is nothing more than living in a stable democratic country with a strong civic society and respect for the rule of law.
But if (like George Osborne and a host of other Tory luminaries) you come from a family of immense wealth and prosperity, then you didn’t even need to trust to luck or judgement to find your secure position in life. From the moment of your first breath, it was something that you could take entirely for granted, like the sun rising in the east. You have no legitimate right to lecture people less fortunate in their start in life about the dangers of idleness. For them, the sunrise of each new day is not just a fact but a re-introduction to a multitude of perils of which you have no idea. As with John Boehner, to suggest that anyone who relies on benefit would rather ‘just sit around’, is cruel and patronising.
So there it is. I’m a Labour man, a lefty, a liberal, a socialist. I’m not an apologist for failure or a champion of the idle. I just happen to think that we are only as strong as our most vulnerable people and that creating a society where anyone can fulfill their potential is a better route to prosperity than ring fencing opportunity for the privileged few. We’re not all equal and it’s fantasy to claim that we are, but we can be equal in fulfilment. Work has to be made to pay, but it should be made to pay for better hospitals, schools, infrastructure and public services, not for higher dividends for the one percent who want to innoculate themselves against the rest of society. We’re in danger of returning to Victorian degrees of separation if we allow them to succeed.
By curious co-incidence, today is the 70th anniversary of the end of conflict in Europe in World War Two. Out of the ashes of that conflict arose the Welfare State, the NHS and a host of improvements that transformed British society entirely for the better. Needless to say, they were provided by a visionary Labour government. I would like to think that the 1945 generation would be appalled by the meanness and the deprivation being forced onto the country they saved. That they would warn us of the dangers of splendid isolation. That the weakening of common European ideals and allowing old differences to re-emerge would terrify them. Most of all, I would like to think they would shake us out of our complacency that nothing can be done, that this is just the way it has to be. This, of course, is the other meaning of conservative. If it is nothing else, my socialism is aspirational. There really is a better future to be had but only if we are all, truly, in it together.