Friday, September 16, 2011

What is to be done?

My latest trip to the UK made me very sad and somewhat angry.

Even on the Katia washed streets of Edinburgh there were young men begging for change. In Estonia the beggars are old and genuinely in need, in Edinburgh they were young and genuinely unemployable. The beggars are a symbol of something worse- the palpable sense that most people no longer feel in control of their destiny. So many have withdrawn into a squalid fantasy world of drugs, alcohol or video games. The misery is obvious and the determination to escape equally so- drunkenness is everywhere. The pallid obesity which is the general lot on the streets is a great shock, after you have  become used to the good health and good looks of the Estonians.

It is therefore not enough to say that there is a political crisis, or even an economic crisis: what I see is a moral crisis. Too many Scots were abdicating their own personal responsibility: "this is the fault of the English, independence will fix this". Too many elsewhere were arguing "it is the economic crisis that did this to us".  The fact is that the fault is not in others, but in ourselves, that we lack the awareness and the energy to define the problem and fix it.

Britain remains a rich country, but the population are failing to take responsibility, let alone take control in their own lives. It is irresponsible to smoke, to drink too much, to fail to take any exercise, to fail to study properly, to spend more than you earn. The consequences of such irresponsibility include poor health, poor wealth and a poor understanding of the world.

I think that politicians are expected to provide leadership and yet, how can they? A politician can determine how much is spent on anti smoking campaigns, but can not determine whether or not people smoke. Yet the politicians are attacked when the health service can not cope with the health consequences to those who choose to smoke, who choose to drink to excess, who can not control their diet and exercise regime.

So in the words of the Russians of the 19th century faced with the political paralysis of Czarism: "What is to be done?"

The Liberal solution has been to place political control with those most affected by political decisions. If people take control, they end up becoming more engaged and making better decisions.

The problem now is the apathy in British society. The failure of the AV referendum reflects a primary failure of those who believe in such political and constitutional change to explain the critical significance of this to the voters, however, it also reflects a deep political inertia.

Yet I have come to the conclusion that though the Liberal Democrats must continue to make the case in government for major reform, the fact is that we need to recover more of ourselves as a party of ideas, rather than as a mere "party of the court". We need to consider the entire issue of social and political engagement. We know that societies where the citizen is politically active- like Switzerland or the town meetings of the United States- create happier and more engaged citizens which in turn create greater social cohesion and greater wealth.

We also know that social alienation is immensely destructive and can lead to a vicious circle of disillusion and failure. The fact is, across British Society, from the riots of the summer, to the rantings of the Daily Mail, apathy, and disillusion are combining to create exactly such a vicious circle. 

I suppose the first thing that we can do is to make people- including ourselves- believe that things can change. If we can cross that bridge of self belief, then we may consider how best to proceed, but the most critical thing right now is to rediscover optimism. 

If we are to address our moral crisis, we need first to repair our morale.

It is in pretty short supply on the streets of Edinburgh right now.  

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