Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I can’t remember a time when there seemed to be so much restlessness out there. All over the world people are dissatisfied. I know, they’ve always been dissatisfied, but they haven’t been so restless and vocal about it for a long time, and they haven’t taken action, apart from noticeable moments, like the march against Iraq. But things have been changing for a while, and nobody has noticed or done anything about it, so the restlessness has turned into frustration and anger.
I need hardly point out some of the consequences of that frustration, so I won’t, because it’s becoming boring. What I want to talk about is why this has happened, and what lessons there may be for us individually or for those who rule us. Obviously I’m a voice crying in the wilderness, because I’m not in a position to change anything, apart from being willing to say what I think and ask questions. And this is my forum.
Being dishonest in public all the time
I have to confess I don’t know how else to get my ideas out there. I haven’t been impressed with most of the available political parties for a while. I never was good at signing up, not because I’m not loyal, but because I’m too loyal to my beliefs and principles. Politicians drive me most mad when they say what they’ve been told to say, even when they don’t believe it, presumably because of some deal or pressure exerted on them, or because they fear being deselected, or because they think it’ll get them promotion through the ranks.
I hate having to listen to these people being dishonest in public all the time. I won’t go so far as to say that I think they’re lying, but they certainly aren’t being honest. I would be happier if they told us they disagreed with the party line, even if they ended up supporting it. That way I would at least know what they actually believed and cared about, rather than doubting that they believe anything.
People talking about democracy not working
I know a lot of people who don’t vote, or who vote for what they see as alternatives, simply because they never believe anything any politician says. I can think of some recent voting opportunities that were influenced, in my opinion, by people reacting to ridiculously and obviously untrue statements trotted out by politicians of all hues, each one pasting on their ‘honest’ face, and patently not believing a word of it anyway.
We’re starting to hear people talking about democracy not working, and that worries me. Actually, it is working, because the people are voting, but not in the way the politicians want them to. They’re angry and frustrated with the state of things, and the politicians aren’t listening, so they’re voting for someone else, anyone else, in the hope that they’ll listen instead. It’s easy for new politicians to stand up and promise the earth at these times, and they get votes, but they won’t last unless they have a vision, and it needs to be a vision that assuages the frustration somewhat.
The great game of gaining and keeping hold of power
In this way we swap a set of bad politicians for unknown and untested ones. The may be good, or they may be rubbish. The trouble with politicians is that they live in a strange bubble. I remember learning about Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy many years ago. I liked it, and sometimes it still fits. The idea is that people get so involved in their jobs, and so used to doing particular tasks, and they forget the original purpose of the task. So bureaucrats can forget that their job might be to grant licences, and concentrate on the correct filling in and filing of the form instead.
The person on one side of the desk just wants to travel, or start some business, and the bureaucrat is stopping them because of some minuscule detail. We’ve all been there. Sometimes it seems wilful, and sometimes they seem to be very unhelpful. Politicians sometimes forget that they’re elected to represent their constituents, and they get caught up in the great game of gaining and keeping hold of power, and they effectively lose their way.
If you find yourself stuck at the bottom of a hole, stop digging!
This is a very human trait, of which we’re all guilty. But I’m also reminded of a saying that I learned the hard way. It goes like this – “If you find yourself stuck at the bottom of a hole, stop digging!” I have had very good friends jump down into my hole with me and wrestle the spade out of my hands, because I couldn’t stop. I can see how politicians can turn the truth round, from “How can I serve the people?” to “What will get me re-elected?” Or “How can I hang on to power?”
Rock stars and writers and most creative people have the same problem. There comes a time when they’re not top of the heap any more, they go out of fashion, or they just stop creating good stuff, so nobody buys it. Blaming those fickle fans doesn’t help. They don’t care, they’re buying other stuff. At these times it’s necessary to stop and consider, maybe take a break, go back to basics, rediscover that energy and honesty that’s been lost along the way.
Keep practising the qualities that got us the job in the first place
Everything loses its way. Everybody loses their way. It’s a natural thing. We have times of triumph and times of failure or tragedy, but these are short-lived and intense. The rest of the time we’re rising or descending imperceptibly between the two, comfortably or uncomfortably. And there are times when we fool ourselves too. We might get a good job or a promotion and feel very pleased with ourselves. So what do we do? We relax, take our foot off the pedal. And we can enjoy that so much that we lose our way.
Sometimes we take such a long break that we forget to look around us, we forget that we need to keep practising the qualities that got us the job in the first place. We forget to look over our shoulders at those coming up behind us, ready to overtake. And then it’s over, we’ve fallen behind, and naturally we feel a sense of grievance. Not at ourselves, for losing our grip, but at everyone else. And we flip from being too relaxed to a sense of bitterness and betrayal instead.
It’s the work that counts
That’s the bad news. Now here’s the good news. I’m going to dare to suggest here that this is also a good thing, because we need to be reminded that it’s the work that counts. There never was a leader who lasted very long without working very hard to stay up there. There never was a happy marriage in which both partners didn’t work very hard to make it so. And I’d go so far as to say that you can’t be truly happy unless you’re working really hard at it either.
We’re built to withstand difficulties. We’ve always needed to fight to eat and survive and defend ourselves, and to keep safe and healthy. Nature and warfare and other species and the weather and the planet itself have never given us an easy ride. We’ve gained a little bit of comfort with our technology, and we generally misuse it by relaxing our guard. We started to feel like we had the right to safety and comfort, whether we worked for it or not. What we should be doing is working hard to protect our comfort and safety, and we should never take it for granted.
Our bodies and our minds deserve upkeep and maintenance
I’m suggesting that we should all take a step back and rethink our priorities. I don’t just mean you and me, I mean our bosses and companies and organisations, and above all, our government and politicians. We need to agree that systems and ideas and methods that used to work simply aren’t up to the job of keeping everyone happy any more. We should start thinking in different ways.
I think there are things we all could do about this. I’ve got a long list for myself, and I’m on top of some things and working on the rest. We need to decide that our bodies and our minds deserve upkeep and maintenance, and that we should really make an effort to look after them as much as possible. If we don’t, we’re not only going to waste the time and resources that are granted to us, but we’re going to start to take up resources that might be in short supply, so that others might suffer.
I want to live as long as possible
I’m not turning into some sort of right-wing evangelical nutter here. I’m speaking for myself and about myself. I want to live as long as possible. That’s a given. I also want to be healthy for as long as possible. That’s another given. I want to get as much out of life as I can, and I want lots of pleasure. If I’m in pain or unable to do any of that because I’m not looking after myself, I’m denying myself all of the above. A by-product of that is that I might be taking up finite resources by becoming dependent on the goodness and hard work of others.
I’m not talking about people who are struck down by accident or illness, or who don’t have the good luck to be healthy in the first place. I know how lucky I am. The NHS is contributed to by all of us, and it’s for all of us, but in my view we should all of us be trying to avoid the need to use it as long as possible. And the government should be ensuring that healthcare of the highest quality is available to everyone.
Systems that push and pull at both ends
The NHS is a system that pushes and pulls at both ends. It depends on the government collecting money from us and allocating it to the provision of good healthcare in the best and most efficient way it can, and it’s also dependent on all of us to contribute willingly and to avoid abusing its resources. We all have a burden of responsibility towards this precious resource. If we don’t keep up this good work from both ends, it will stop working. I don’t want that to happen.
I feel the same way about democracy. Politicians must be honourable, and they must be seen to be honourable. We, the people, need to hold them to account, we need to ask questions, and we need to think seriously about our own contribution to the process, no matter how humble or small that contribution is. It is often said that you get the politicians you deserve, and this applies directly to either our participation in the process or our lack of interest.
Let’s start making it good again by starting with ourselves
Let’s stop saying that the system’s broken, and start talking about how we bring it back on the right track, or what we want instead. Let’s stop blaming the other party or Europe, or immigrants. Let’s also say that it’s our fault too. Let’s start making it good again by starting with ourselves. John F Kennedy famously said this – “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Take out the word “country” here, and substitute it with “society”, or “company”, or “family”, or “body”, or “lifestyle”, or even “integrity”. I’m sure you can come up with a better list.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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