Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Civic Consciousness - Quality of Life

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time in the Czech Republic. When a country is unfamiliar, there are always small things which strike you. A group of neighbours emerging from the entrance to their block of flats with brooms and bin bags and proceeding methodically to tidy the grass and paths around their block. A young man, rough and tough, peeling cellophane from a pack of cigarettes and walking ten paces to a litter bin to deposit it. Bottle deposits and a Bottle Returns counter at Tesco to get your money back.

The United Kingdom has a reputation as a dirty country. Dirty streets, dirty hospitals. Sometimes it's exacerbated by public policy. In the seaside resort where I live, domestic waste is collected by the council. Pubs, restaurants and shops pay to have their waste collected by private contractors. The result is that an individual street is never clear of rubbish and rubbish bins, since the council and the contractors all have different collection schedules. There is never a day when the landgulls, the pigeons and the rats can't find something to eat in every street.

But, of course, the people who pass through those streets just chuck their rubbish on the ground. It is amazing to watch what people drop. Even if there was a single collection for the whole street, "the public" would undo the work within hours.

We don't have much civic consciousness. In the Czech Republic, they probably do. It may be part of the legacy of Communism. It probably also goes with being quite small and quite homogeneous - more so since the peaceful separation from Slovakia.

You could probably develop an Index of how anti-social people are in different communities and countries. But first you would have to agree on what counts as anti-social behaviour. To me, anyone who keeps a dog in an urban area thereby announces their intention to deposit shit on the pavements. Sometimes they clear it up, but clearly not all of them and not always. We are probably not the worst offenders. In Paris, I have walked behind elegant women with elegant little dogs. Studying these promenades, I have become convinced that the dogs have been trained to shit on a disliked neighbour's doorstep. Here, it is only on council estates that dogs are used as an offensive weapon.

Recently, we had a lot of snow here on the south coast. Not one householder in a hundred emerged to shovel or sweep the snow into the gutter while it was still soft. With thawing and freezing, the pavements soon became ice rinks. I have never seen anything like it, anywhere. The local hospitals had to declare an Emergency since they were overwhelmed in A and E with people who had fallen down.

Civic and civil go together. Civic consciousness and quality of life likewise. Mr Cameron talks about a "broken society". I would say it is a society in which too many people are locked into private agendas which define anything outside their front door as none of their business. Public spaces - the streets we walk - are places which get trashed because no one thinks they own them or takes pride in them. It's the Council's job.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Rousseau and the Common Good

Rousseau thought that the more people have in common with each other, the more likely it is that they will work together for the common good. See The Social Contract. This is pretty much a tautology, but an interesting one.

If you are all small farmers, you are more likely to agree what you need and want from government than if ninety percent of you are landless peasants and ten percent large landowners. On its own, having in common that you are small farmers may be a more powerful uniting factor than other things that divide you, such as language or even religion. Switzerland got its act together despite having three languages (technically four, because a few people speak Romansch and they were and still are accommodated on the bank notes). It still has its act together and operates politically quite differently to the rest of Europe. Referenda form a regular part of political life. Governments are always coalitions. Offices rotate. Income is high. It has become less isolationist: it has joined the United Nations and, remarkably, the Schengen Area. The euro is becoming a second currency.

Rousseau would despair of the United Kingdom. How can you possibly get people with so little in common with each other to work together for the common good? An honest answer is that you can't. A significant part of government activity is directed towards getting people simply to be civil to each other. This has not been without its successes, even in Northern Ireland. We are less racist, less homophobic, less sexist than we used to be. Even the BNP seems more civil; some Muslim groups may now despise their neighbours more than the BNP despises them.

But the lowest common denominator of civility does not convert into the highest common factor of a community united for the common good.

Rousseau would almost certainly recommend that the United Kingdom be broken up. It's a failing state. Four independent states would have a better chance of welding together identities and a shared sense of purpose. England would still be too large and too fractured for Rousseau's comfort. He would suggest taking out London, which manages to have a strong identity despite - or because of - being the World in One City, in Ken Livingstone's felicitous phrase. There is something about very big cities which allows them to ride above the prejudices which defeat smaller communities.

I think Rousseau was thinking broadly on the right lines. I would vote for an English Parliament with powers equal to those of that in Scotland. But like Mr Salmond, I would want to pull out of the United Kingdom. It's had its day. Its an imperial relic. There are people who think of themselves as British, encouraged to do so by Conservative and Labour alike. More people think of themselves as English, Scottish or Welsh. No one thinks of themselves as United Kingdomish unless UKIP supporters do.

Unlike the English Democrats, however, I want to stay in Europe and join the euro.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Quality of Life

What new public policy has most improved my own quality of life in recent years? I would have to say the ban on smoking in public places. Simple and highly effective.

What next? For me, to require public services to stop observing so-called "Bank Holidays". These are really only public sector holidays now. They not only disrupt everything from access to doctors to refuse collection, but they are the launch pad for numerous scams. Out-of-hours doctor services double the shift rate for "Bank Holiday" cover (£175 per hour according to yesterday's Sunday Times ).Binmen likewise command double time to do the necessary catch-up work on the Saturday following a Monday holiday.

A High Street kebab shop with a staff of half a dozen will open 364 days a year. The staff work shifts, which means they are off work at different times - something which is still rocket science to your average town hall.In fact, the whole retail sector now opens the best part of 364 days a year. The same ought to be true of the whole public sector. Doctors' surgeries, town halls, refuse collection rounds, courts - the lot.

How much more grown-up for workers to be able to use their holiday entitlements on days which fit in with their own plans. Nanny doesn't always know best. In this case, Nanny has given us bank holiday traffic jams and crowded public spaces and has picked the dates to guarantee bad weather.