“No man is an island entire of itself;” John Donne
We’re at the end of a year, at the end of a decade; many of us feeling bruised and apprehensive. The UK’s been through four tumultuous years since the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, otherwise known as Brexit; it has now elected a right wing government, with a leader whose political advisers, such as Dominic Cummings have no respect for accountability or democracy, and who appear to be influenced by hostile powers.
Despite all promises to the contrary, the government has already started selling off the family silver. Having agreed a £4bn takeover, by a US equity firm, of the defence company Cobham.
Lady Cobham, daughter-in-law of the founder, said, “In one of its first major economic decisions, the government is not taking back control so much as handing it away.
“In Cobham we stand to lose yet another great British defence manufacturer to foreign ownership, through a takeover that would never have been approved by the Americans, French or Japanese, all of whom have taken steps recently to raise protections for their own defence sectors.”
Further raids are being mounted on the family silver: the selling of the National Health Service. Boris Johnson and his political pals have repeatedly promised the NHS will never be up for sale. Promises decried by one of their own, the former Tory Prime Minister Sir John Major: “The NHS is as about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python.”
Call the Midwife may be one of Britain’s most popular dramas, but we could be fast- tracking backwards, towards its reality. Based on the diaries of Jennifer Worth, who was a district nurse and midwife in the 1950s when the NHS was newly set up, early episodes portray heartrending stories of illness and poverty. Given the unethical, immoral, greed of US pharmaceutical companies who’ve long been itching to get their hands on the NHS, it’s not fanciful to believe people may again be burdened with financial ruin and destitution because of ill-health. ‘Freedom from fear,’ was a founding ethos of the NHS and for over 70 years it’s delivered exactly that. John Pilger’s film The Dirty War on the NHS outlines in stark detail what we may expect (available on ITV hub till 15thJanuary 20). So take your vitamin pills and eat your greens people, US pharma is on its way to plunder your purses.
Or will we have to set up ‘medicine langar,’ as proposed by H. S. Phoolka in India? ‘Langar,’ is the communal meal served at Sikh Gurdwaras; in recent years, volunteers have extended it through food vans, serving meals to the increasing number of homeless living on the streets.
As the new decade dawns, as our world becomes less secure, we have to ask ourselves what are our values? What do we want for ourselves and our society? And let’s not forget the planet, the melting glaciers, the raging bush fires in Australia. The planet is our home, the soil from which we get our food, the materials with which we build our houses, the water that quenches our thirst.
We have presidents, prime ministers and politicians whose only belief is in profit, who deny climate-change science or merely pay lip service. Without the planet we have nothing. We cannot exist.
I know values are a complex topic, but we can drill down to basics. I believe we all want equality, fairness and justice for ourselves. If that’s what we want for ourselves, then we must want it for others too. As the poet John Donne said nearly 400 years ago:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
What do we do in practical terms? What do we do as citizens, as workers, as families? These questions are no longer abstract or rhetorical. Since Brexit, racists have become emboldened, and the number of racist incidents have increased. Swastikas, with the numbers 9.11 were painted on walls and shop windows in north London’s Hampstead and Belsize areas, on the night of 28thDecember 19. Many believe the numbers 9.11 refer to the violent pogrom against Jews of 9th November 1938. In New York five people were stabbed in a Rabbi’s home. If one minority is attacked, all minorities are attacked; such bigoted hatred feeds on labelling others as enemies.
Our responses and solutions must be varied and practical. One of the most important actions we can take is to demystify politics; to teach how our political system is set up, and to familiarise children, students, and everyone else, with the places where our politicians work, debate and make decisions. Our political institutions have too long been the preserve of the elite and the middle class. It’s no accident that Jacob Rees-Mogg takes his son with him when he goes to a meeting with the prime minister at Chequers, or when going to cast his vote; the son is being familiarised and educated into our political structure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jacob Rees-Mogg fully expects his son to become prime minister one day.
We should nurture and enable the idea that anyone, from any background can participate in politics and put themselves forward for office. This means that by the time they leave school, every child should have visited Westminster, walked through its grand doors, gazed at the portraits and decorative ceilings, sat in committee rooms and become aware that this centre of power, this famous building, belongs to them and they have a right to be there. And further, they have a right to expect transparency and accountability from the people who work there, their elected representatives.
Whether such teaching and visiting is done through schools or community groups are organisational questions, but not beyond the capacity of a society to arrange.
The UK’s current system of First Past The Post, often written as FPTP, is deeply flawed, skews our politics and fails to represent vast sections of the population. Proportional representation needs to be campaigned for and eventually implemented, no matter how fiercely the two main parties resist.
Additionally, let’s have a look at places where progressive change is occurring and examine how their political system is delivering for their people. Finland has been voted the world’s happiest country two years in a row, so it must be doing something right. Recently, Finland elected a young woman as prime minister: Sanna Marin, 34 years old, who heads a coalition government of five parties, four of them headed by women. In an interview, Sanna Marin, it appears having been asked ‘what’s the trick?’ replies, ‘there’s no trick..’, that she’s been working in politics for ten years, that in Finland age and gender don’t matter, and it’s the issues that’re important, not the people.
Finland’s politics aren’t based on FPTP (First Past The Post), but proportional representation, giving a variety of parties a voice at the table, providing better representation for voters and enabling consensus politics.
If they’d come whizzing through space, from a galaxy far, far away, Sanna Marin and her ministers couldn’t be further removed from the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
To tackle climate change, the Finnish government has pledged to make Finland, carbon neutral by 2035; lauded by Finnish Greens as the most ambitious target in the world.
“For me it feels like I won the lottery when I was born as a girl in Finland,” says Tanja Auvinen,head of the gender equality unit. Is there any other country in the world, where women could say the same?
Not surprisingly Finland’s parliament is around 47% female. Many people think of women’s economic and professional success as only benefitting women, and feminism being a philosophy for women only. Not so. Feminism as a philosophy benefits society as a whole, by advocating equality, fairness and justice for everyone. To be clear, as it often needs repeating: feminism is a social philosophy benefiting all. Including men and people at the bottom of society.
So let’s provide support for people from working class backgrounds, and for women from those backgrounds in particular, to learn about our political system and to enter politics. Whether that’s in the form of setting up funds for visits to our political centres, for short courses, or for other needs. The doors of Westminster must be pushed wide open….
The election of Nadia Whittome, as the MP for Nottingham East, provides an inspiring example. Only 23 years old, from an immigrant, single-parent family, she’s also unique for promising to donate half her MP’s salary to charities in the austerity-hit area she comes from, declaring that will bring her earnings in line with those of teachers, fire-fighters and other workers in the public sector.
At the start of a new decade, with a government whose credentials in governance are as untrustworthy as the purveyors of snake oil, we need hundreds of other Nadia Whittomes and their male counterparts. In the following video, Nadia Whittome’s election pitch begins with the sentence “Rise with your class, with your community — not above it.”
In the decade ahead, as we want equality, fairness and justice for ourselves, so we must want it for others too.