Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Attlee & Bread

Clement Attlee is indisputably one of the greatest leaders of the modern age. And in these times when politics is dominated by posturing and rigidity, it is worth looking back on the qualities that enabled Attlee to transform his country for the better, despite all the threats and obstacles he faced in the 1930s/40s.

Attlee was not one for setting out inviolable ideological principles, or for uncompromisingly refusing to work with anyone not signing up to those principles. His focus was always on what people actually needed, and how their unfair deprivations could in practice be remedied.

He praised charitable works. He appreciated intellectual critiques of an exploitative economy. But above all, he recognised that unless political power was obtained to bring in changes on a large enough scale, all that were wrong with society would persist with the attendant suffering.

His greatness came from his steadfast determination to use the power of government to implement what would genuinely help people. To defeat the Nazis, he would work with Winston Churchill in a coalition government. To rebuild Britain after the Second World War, he would defeat Churchill in the 1945 elections to establish a new state-citizens partnership that was to provide unprecedented security for all.

Against Conservatives who said the country was in too much debt to do anything for the people, he had the courage to put forward a programme that would pave the way for the prosperity to come in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite those to his right and left within the Labour Party worrying that he was doing too much or too little, he steered the post-war government forward to secure more for the British people than anyone could have imagined.

What we should remember most about Attlee is the fact that he never doubted that his actions as a political leader were to be judged by how much they improved the everyday quality of life for people, especially those who had to endure the greatest hardship.

Let us leave the final words to Attlee himself, with this poem he wrote in 1912, a decade before he became MP for the East London constituency of Limehouse:

“In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity,
The streets where men decay.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children who go to work or play,
Of children born of sorrow,
How shall they work tomorrow
Who get no bread today?

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor, tired mothers, trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love each other,
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Cult of Thoughtlessness

Has the spread of social media led to the deepening of prejudices and proliferation of groundless opinions? Or has it merely increased the visibility of irrational outbursts that were previously hidden from public view? What is certain is that a large number of people have no sense of impartiality, reasoned argument, evidence, or empathy in how they interact with other people. And while social media may have given them more opportunities to express their ill-considered views, it is the established media that have poured fuel on the cult of thoughtlessness that is now burning out of control.

It is the mainstream media that have given charlatans unprecedented air time to present themselves as clever mavericks, and turned them into prime-time celebrities. These scoundrels are allowed to say anything to boost their public profile, and make countless false and misleading claims without any debunking during their media appearances. Yet for all their flamboyant rhetoric, their basic agenda is little more than to deflect public attention from the irresponsible behaviour of the corporate elite (especially those in the fossil fuel business), and channel anger and frustration towards immigrants at home and foreigners abroad.

But this formula of duping the most easily deceived into becoming political fodder for illiberal leaders is hardly new. In early 20th century, thoughtlessness drove hatred and hysteria forward in support of people who for the sake of their own glory would callously destroy the lives of millions.

To avoid a similar trajectory for the 21st century, we need politicians who can organise themselves into winning back power and use that power to support job creation that will spread resources to the many and not line the pocket of the wealthiest few. As for those of us with any kind of educational influence, we have a role to play in raising political literacy so that more people develop the understanding that will guide them towards supporting what is truly good for them, their families and their country.

The key to political literacy is civic thoughtfulness – the antidote to mindless wrecking of social cohesion and human decency. There are three aspects to be cultivated through learning at every level.

First, we should enhance empathic thoughtfulness so that people are more responsive to others’ feelings, appreciate how they treat others is inseparable from how others will want to treat them in return, and learn to see beyond superficial differences and recognise the caring dispositions in others that merit reciprocation.

Secondly, we should improve cognitive thoughtfulness so that people can see through the lies and manipulation perpetrated by con merchants, grasp how important claims ought to be checked by a combination of experienced experts and public scrutiny, and understand what is involved in assessing the reliability of any belief.

Last but not least, we should promote volitional thoughtfulness so that people are better disposed to making decisions after they have taken into account the views and concerns of others, are more skilled at acting in partnership, and can contribute to group deliberations on what is to be done.

For more details relating to these suggestions, see my pamphlet, ‘Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness’, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, and available for free download from: