Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Regular listeners to BBC Radio 4 will need no introduction to Robert Peston. Blessed with probably the most irritating speech mannerisms on the, ah, ah, the, ah, the, ah, ah, ra-di-o, he is nonetheless the BBC's star economics and finance reporter, widely credited with various scoops that anticipated the events of the 2008 "credit crunch".
On Sunday morning, half-awake, I heard that familiar voice intoning on the most irritating programme on Radio 4, the "magazine" Broadcasting House, which I usually take as my cue to get up, go and make a pot of tea, and read the paper in the kitchen. He was talking about the differences between state and private schooling, and how -- much as he disapproved of the private school system -- he couldn't help but admire individual schools as exemplars of educational excellence. So far, so routine. But he then said that, in particular, he admired the way the private sector, unlike the public sector, invested in the sense of a school as an institution, with a history and a sense of self.
Peston himself was educated at a North London comprehensive, and is proud of that, as he should be. But he told a very telling anecdote. During his time at the school, there was a sense of pride in the achievements of ex-pupil Laurie Cunningham, the first black footballer to play for England. On his recent return to the school, Peston had wondered why there wasn't, say, a building named after Cunningham? The current headteacher's response was, "Who?"
There, precisely, he has put his finger on a key problem in contemporary Britain. The endless churning of policies and reconfiguring of priorities and outsourcing of services and abolition and combination and recombination and renaming of institutions -- in the public sector -- mean that there is no longer any continuity from generation to generation for the "clients" of public services. We have no history, and communities need a sense of their own narrative to exist as communities.
At your local health centre, you probably see a different doctor with each appointment, and that doctor will have had no time to prepare for your ten-minute slot, and will be unaware of your previous medical history. Public services -- things as basic as rent collection, say, never mind the fancy stuff like libraries -- will have been outsourced and downsized and moved between departments, with older staff laid off in successive waves of "rationalization", and historic files digitized or more likely recycled as useless old paper.* Institutional amnesia is the norm: no-one can remember how things used to be done, or how and why we got where we are now. As a consequence, no-one cares, either.
The environment and infrastructure are in constant flux, too. Your gas, electricity and telecomms are no longer supplied by national utilities. Your bank and the Post Office will have closed their small local branches as "inefficient". Venerable local shops will have been driven out of business by hypermarkets, and large local employers will have moved their manufacturing base abroad. In the name of competition and market forces and in the mad pursuit of ever-lower taxes, continuity has been replaced with endless empty "choice" between one unknowable quantity and another, all brightly-wrapped in PR hype, and arriving daily in the form of mail-shots, cold-calls and email spam. It's all too faceless, too confusing to care about.
As for schools, for those who were educated at public expense, the chances are that your primary and secondary schools have been renamed, merged, demolished, rebuilt, reorganised and even moved to a new site -- mine have -- so that any sense of history or institutional pride will have been broken decades ago. Uniforms will have been abolished and reinvented several times over, games fields sold off and built on and competitive sports abandoned. Old team photos? Into the skip! And what about previous heads, teachers, and pupils -- their names, their achievements, their peculiarities, their reputations? "Who?"
There is a common dream, which most people find upsetting, in which you go back to your childhood home, and the current occupants have no idea who you are. Well, that is our contemporary world, for the majority who cannot afford to buy themselves out. It is a place where you are always becoming a stranger, whose name is unrecognised, whose files have been lost, whose account has expired, and whose key no longer fits the door. Why vote, when all it means is more empty change? Why care about your community, when it gets dumped into a skip twice every decade?
When a politician like David Cameron talks of "broken Britain", don't you want to grip him firmly by the lapels, and ask: And who was it who broke it? And how come only my bit of it seems to be broken? Maybe if you stopped constantly pretending to fix it, yet all the time deliberately making it worse, who knows, perhaps it might mend all by itself?
* Family historians will know of the frustration of tracing Irish ancestors. Why? The census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after the censuses were taken. Those for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during the First World War. The returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were destroyed in 1922 in a fire at the Public Record Office at the beginning of the Civil War. To lose one set of census returns may be regarded as a misfortune...