Saturday, 13 August 2011

Suffering a poverty of means, morality, and aspiration. A manifesto for a divided Britain

Following the worst nights of civil disorder seen in my lifetime I expected some big questions to be asked during the recall of Parliament. Something is clearly beyond damaged in our national psyche when chaos descends, not because of any one cause or factor, but the simple collective realisation that you can get away with it. Destroying your community for personal gain has, and always will be, morally bankrupt. Big questions on the state of the means, morality and aspiration and the lack thereof in Britain's young working class I thought would be the central theme of the debate in Parliament on Thursday.

Unfortunately what I heard was almost the complete denial of any problem. They were labelled 'opportunistic' 'Greedy' and 'mindless'. This sort of language is simply used to vindicate the political classes of any responsibility. These individuals may have been all of the above but these are learned behaviours from a society that successive governments have helped to create. It's time they owned up and it's time they took real and lasting action on social stagnation.

We live in a divided Britain. While I think we do a good job in providing great access to the means of social mobility, we keep the classes so vehemently separate it's no wonder they begin to demonise each other. I have always believed that it's a working class pragmatism and humility mixed with an upper class education, motivation and ambition that produces the kind of people that change our world. Yet we're all so scared of each other this paradigm is almost impossible to achieve in our society.

I say this needs to end now.

So in the spirit of blue-sky thinking that such endemic social problems demand, here are some of the ideas the government needs to issue to end the plague of seperateness, the denial of access to centres of excellence and the realisation our ideas of a punitive justice system does not recognise the value, and indeed the need for, the inclusion of the community it affects.

Private Schools: Centres for the rich and famous to keep their children away from the working classes. They provide a wonderful service to the tax payer by having parents who essentially 'pay twice' for their childrens education. They also enjoy tax-free status due to the special value they give to the community. I say they keep this- but only if each and every school that claims charitable status accepts 20% of their students to those with entitlement to free schools meals at no cost. Schools either become businesses and contribute in tax to the education of others, or become charities that make a difference and cease to exist in the current state where they do neither.

Bring back EMA but reform it: No free money for kids but give them everything they need to have a meaningful college experience. Free School meals, Free travel to college and book vouchers to cover the cost of any materials they need for their courses. Those who can pay do, those who can't get support they need. It means not a tax payer cent is ever spent on cigarettes, but college no longer becomes a financial burden on those who cannot afford it. Education should be for the capable- not the rich or the financially needy and policy should finally reflect this.

Restorative justice: One of the most depressing things to emerge post riot is the first e-petition to make it to the 100,000 mark was to revoke the benefits of the rioters. I won't go into the legal nightmare of a mum being made homeless because her thirteen year old son bricked a Dixons but what I will say is that our justice system needs to A) involve the community it affects and B) Rehabilitate those who believe their community is so worthless that it is worthy of destruction. You destroy a shop? You help rebuild it. You steal its stock? You help make it profitable again. You threaten them with violence? You become an assistant to a police officer and help prevent violence in the future. Justice has to be more than punitive- it has to show how everyone benefits from a society of tolerance, freedom and order. It also needs to show how people working together create a meaningful direction for the whole of the community. Inevitably people outside of this are the very people who turn on it in times of crisis.

National Citizen scheme: National service lite essentially. Potentially a great scheme for social mixing but A) it's only 6 weeks long and B) it's not compulsory. Many peoples first 'defining experience' is that of being away from home. Combine that with something that educates someone in the value of community service, gives them skills they can use, and bonds them with people of all backgrounds you create a platform that unifies people and gives all classes a degree of common experience. This would be at least be a nine month scheme that ends the endemic social separateness that affects people of all classes.

Role Models: Unfortunately there is no one policy that can fix this. We need a greater celebration among the wider world of those figureheads that foster peace, tolerance, innovation and imagination. I went through history class without ever being taught about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa. People like Richard Branson, Alan Sugar or Mark Zuckerberg never have their story told about how their one idea changed the world in business studies. Education should be about helping people to have a degree of self-actualisation that helps them realise that success doesn't come from an accident of birth but an understanding that as long as you're passionate about something you can lead by example and become the kind of person people talk about for decades.

This is not about wealth. It is about values, it is about creativity and a non-linear view of what success is. Part of the problem is too many people view wealth as a statement of success- People need to view social value in new and more complex ways and providing more role models in our education system is a great way to encourage people to think differently on the idea of what 'success' is.

You may argue that these ideas won't work, you may even argue that these ideas are crazy. You may believe that there is more that we the people, and the government can do. If so 'share' this article and contribute to the debate- Because the silence of our politicians is nothing short of jarring.