The symbol of our nation

Adapted from an image by Natalie Oxford under CC BY 4.0 licence and available for reuse under the same.

It’s too tempting to try to summarise a year’s events neatly: it was a good year, a bad year, a tumultuous year… You can always make a case for all of those verdicts or more if you marshal your evidence carefully — lots of things happen around the world over the span of twelve months, after all.

It might be more feasible, however, to use the year’s events as a lens through which to view, say, the state and character of an institution or country — although its state or character may well have developed over much longer than a single year. That’s certainly the line of thought that the events of 2017 have nudged me down. And I’ve settled on the undeniably gloomy conclusion that the year’s events have thrown up a fitting symbol for the current state of the United Kingdom, and that that symbol is the smoking ruin of Grenfell Tower, after the dreadful, tragic fire that struck it in June.

The official inquiry will, I trust, identify in detail the exact causes of the disaster. But many of its roots surely lie in malformed public policy, in some cases also maladministered. The themes one might observe in these seem, to me anyway, to stretch across our public realm as a whole. Some of these can be seen most prominently in active choices by central government since 2010, but many stretch back decades more, across governments of all stripes. They include:

  • A general over-reliance on market-type policy solutions since 1997 and possibly 1979
  • Related to the above, convoluted structures in and around government that disperse and obscure accountability (one suspects the inquiry will struggle to identify in any concise way who responsibility rests with)
  • The prioritisation of regulatory ease for business over the public benefit that the regulation was supposed to secure
  • A troubling but apparently pervasive laxness about enforcement and doing jobs properly (quite probably related to the problem with accountability noted above — if you’re not going to be held responsible, it doesn’t matter if you do your job properly or not)
  • A grotesque fixation with up-front costs, and failure to consider either long-term value, or the knock-on consequences of spending (or cost saving) that is motivated by short-term cash considerations (one can see this in the political fetishisation of the public finances in the media and all parties — those with whom it originated appear to view any substantial spending as an obvious public ill, without consideration for what it achieves)
  • An ongoing lack of will — not ability, but will — to address the public policy problems facing our country.

It’s the last point that bothers me most. Whatever public policy errors contributed to the Grenfell disaster, they were not inevitable. They will not be found to have arisen from an unforeseeable combination of circumstances or from the chaotic implications of emerging technology. As failures, they will be much more profound than this. If one is at all familiar with any area of public policy in any sort of depth, it is hard to escape the impression that there is a collective lack of will to govern the country effectively.

So it is that we reach the end of 2017 with mounting crises across many — perhaps most, maybe even all — areas of public policy. The NHS is underfunded, and going much the same way as the social care system, which sank into crisis some years ago; worse still, it is configured wrongly to meet emerging patterns of demand that were foreseen well in advance. The extent of our housing crisis is now stark: homelessness is now escalating mostly because of the end of private tenancies, with essential public sector workers struggling to find places to live and the experience of housing difficulties an apparently crucial political cleavage in the general election. The criminal justice system, from the courts to the police to the prisons, is obviously tottering, with open comments from senior figures within it along the lines of it being dysfunctional and an embarrassment now commonplace. The armed forces appear to be standing less ready than ever to do even the basics. And the deep-seated problems relating to the economy are also clear: we are in deep trouble where productivity is concerned, real wages are stagnating and both poverty and inequality are on the rise. That’s not even an exhaustive list. Brexit isn’t even on there — and you don’t need me to make the point about how it will suck up all the oxygen for years to come, at the expense of everything above.

However, while Grenfell Tower would be an apt symbol of our nation in respect of its governance, that’s quite a narrow approach. The kind of answer a policy wonk would come up with. But realistically, probably no single image can capture every aspect of our nation, so I’d like to suggest an alternative image that could equally well function of a symbol of our nation, in a very different respect. It’s the below image used by Poundland as part of its pre-Christmas marketing strategy on social media.

Grenfell and the policy ills it indicates all exist in some sense apart from the rift that currently bisects our society. The rift would be there even if we had just had a good couple of years in public policy. Brexit is the big, obvious manifestation of that rift, and the thing that alerted most of us sharply to its existence; but the divide itself runs deeper.

I’ve chosen this symbol not because of the specific image or brand, but because of the mild — but highly illuminating — brouhaha that it created on social media. There was the most remarkable split between those to whom the advert was self-evidently grossly offensive, misogynistic and beyond the pale; and those to whom the complaints about the image came from self-evidently wretched and joyless idiots whose way of thinking poses a threat to the British way of life (look it up yourself if you think either description is an exaggeration).

The responses of the two brands involved — for although a Poundland ad, the image also features Twinings tea — illustrates the divide in our society further. Twinings made its displeasure clear, emphasised that it did not condone the image, and directly or indirectly caused Poundland to re-make the image minus the branded box. Poundland, by contrast, doubled down: its amended image was presented without apology, and its Twitter account responded with thanks to those who had commented favourably on the marketing campaign.

Poundland, undoubtedly, know their market. They are selling mainly to less affluent people with fewer educational qualifications, not particularly socially liberal and (perhaps only to a degree, this one) older. Debate rages about which of these metrics is the crucial one in defining the societal divide in the UK, but to me that seems to miss the point: the divide isn’t neat, even though it is stark, and the way to understand it is to consider all of those things, not just one of them (and add to the mix a divide between dwellers in cities / university towns and those outside them, attitudes to authoritarianism, and of course Brexit vote).

It’s not hard to see how the Poundland campaign can seem unremarkable and even unproblematic to many. As a whole it drew on a British tradition of bawdy humour (more examples below), as seen in seaside towns through the decades, in the Carry On films that remain the Christmas schedule staple of ITV3, in pantomimes across the land, and even in modern TV productions such as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (non-coincidentally the butt of jokes by, dare one say, liberal metropolitan comedians for many years, but also a ratings success and in its day the flagship programme of its channel, BBC3).

Equally, it’s not hard to see how it can seem profoundly objectionable. Many of the images smack of the low-level sexism now increasingly seen as unacceptable in a mainstream where it was once commonplace (to take another example from the recent Christmas television schedules, see either of the Two Ronnies Christmas shows recently repeated on that middle class liberal bastion, BBC4). The ‘teabagging’ image is, however, rather stronger as innuendos go, and the fact that the female doll is wearing a ‘Girl Power’ t-shirt can only possibly be a highly calculated two fingers to liberal sensibilities.

So, what’s the connection between the two symbols? Or rather, the two sets of things that they tell us about our country? I had intended to pose that as a rhetorical question to round the piece off, but unfortunately I can offer an answer. It’s not a distinctive analysis but still, here it is: perhaps these symbols show that our democracy has failed, and that the UK is (in democratic form) ungovernable — it is floundering at a policy level to meet the needs of a population that is divided to the point of incoherence and, for that reason, cannot give it a useful democratic steer.

There’s no shortage of people putting this view forward, or at least some form of it. Perhaps they’re right: perhaps our country has split apart, either as a direct result of policy decisions or because policy has failed to avert it. And whether it is meaningfully ‘ungovernable’ or not, it may be impossible to govern to the satisfaction of the population as a whole, which in a democracy is surely important.

But… it’s just an answer. Not necessarily the correct one. Things can change quickly. The above analysis would have appeared to make little sense two or three years ago. Maybe it offers a warped perspective, a view from a low ebb that will not last. Maybe, after all, we are just coming off the back of a few bad years, and there are better ones ahead.

Maybe.

Working in public policy and writing here about politics, infrequently, in a purely personal capacity.

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