The real downturn

There can be few of us that at some time have not paused to ask, “What is happening to society?” It would seem at times that the whole fabric of our community is being gradually torn apart by violent crime and social disorder. Each day with depressing monotony, the news gives us stories of how a racist thug bludgeoned to death a small shop owner or a radicalized religious zealot has killed dozens of innocent women and children over a perceived religious slur. Often in obedience to a deity which demands a Holy War and apparently sees nothing wrong with the senseless mutilation of people whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I believe that for some time things have been getting steadily worse, yet this deterioration has barely been noticed by those who have their hands on the levers of power. Much like the experiment in the 60s (probably anecdotal) where a frog is thrown into a pan full of hot water. The immediate reaction is that it will jump out. However, one observer discovered that if you turn the temperature up very gradually, the frog will stay in the water and eventually boil to death. Is this what is actually happening to us all right now? Are we really about to be boiled alive?

I have a friend who refers to these events as “the revenge of the D stream,” but just of late, I have started to question whether or not he has a point. He goes on to tell me that society has replaced the electorate with a consumerate and that we are all reaping the whirlwind of bad political decision-making.

Certainly, the headlines, as we dive into the New Year, are more preoccupied with the money retailers made over the Christmas period. I am at a total loss as to why ordinary people should give a damn about this, but apparently, it is more newsworthy than the plight of real human beings who are suffering in some of the worst floods in history in Queensland Australia.

Our Queen and head of the Commonwealth issued only the briefest of statements on the matter. Whilst her concerns may be real, Australians may be right to see the lack of a Royal visit as vindication of their ambivalence towards the monarchy.

If this is a measure of the sincerity of our leaders, perhaps we should not be too surprised that the community as a whole is struggling to find anything more to worry about than how much money the chief executive of Next or Bob Diamond of Barclays made last year. (The numbers are too large to fit on this page).

My feeling is that there are now two significant forces at work in our society. There exists the possibility that they will eventually combine to create the perfect storm. The first is the widening gap between the wealthy and those who have very little.

The scandal over MP’s expenses illustrates all too clearly how out of touch those who have money are with the majority that does not. How can someone who does not even know the price of a loaf of bread, be responsible for running the economy which relies on it? How can a Minster for Schools make decisions over spending on state education, when they themselves send their own children to be educated in the private sector? Harriet Harman lost her job following the public outcry for exactly this kind of hypocrisy and yet subsequently went on to become deputy prime minister.

The second is access to higher education currently blocked by a threefold increase in university fees. How much real talent is going to be overlooked in favour of the privileged who can afford higher education? If a measure of a civilized society is the importance it places on education, then it looks as if the UK is heading towards a troubled future.

This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. I personally have little time for religion and the child abuse scandals of the Catholic church have understandably caused many to turn away.  I also believe that at the very least, Christianity used to provide a set of rules on which a stable society could be constructed. It is entirely reasonable that religion is no longer taught in a secular state system. The problem is, the removal of mandatory religious education has also left a vacuum. One which is too easily filled by criminality and antisocial behaviour.

These core values are not going to be easily substituted by a couple of sessions each week on citizenship. It is not just what is happening in schools that is giving cause for concern. It is what is happening within the family. Children are now growing up in an environment where there are second and third generations of people who have never been in full employment. Where the only talk around the dinner table is about welfare benefits.

2011 could well be a year marked by social unrest, but I have little doubt that if the inequality in our society is allowed to progress unchecked, it will not just be climate change that we will all be worried about.

You will only be able to fill up your Range Rover and drive your children to public school if society is still functioning. The fuel crises in 2000 showed how quickly it can all unravel when a blockade of a few oil refineries by fuel protesters was enough to trigger panic buying and bring the country to its knees in a matter of days.

My conclusion is this:

Denying access to higher education except for those fortunate enough to have a privileged background will have serious long-term implications for all. We should be striving to make society fair, not widening inequality.

Secondly, we need to take urgent action to deal with the root causes of delinquent and antisocial behaviour, by giving more time to parenting skills and social responsibility within the school calendar.  Young people need to know that they and their futures are valued by society, otherwise, instead of becoming net contributors, they risk becoming a burden either through welfare payments, policing costs or the penal system.  Worse still, more young people will fall prey to religious extremists who profligate terrorism.

Finally, we need to put an urgent end to the destructive and negative mindset of corporate and consumer greed.

It would seem that all great civilizations have a peak and then something happens that acts as a catalyst, paving the way for their ultimate destruction.  By turning our backs on a fair society, endorsing fat cat salaries and blocking the road to higher education for the poor, we will have passed the summit and may already be taking a good few steps back down the other side towards our own decline.

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