One of my friends had a hit in the 80’s with the anthemic song ‘Dignity’. Before that time, Ricky Ross and I shared a flat for a couple of years and worked with unemployed, homeless and drug-using kids.
He’s still doing his bit to preserve dignity, through great songs and in unsung acts like taking his recent tour into prisons as well as concert halls around the UK.
I’ve ended up on the edge of politics as the Chief Executive of the Citizenship Foundation.
I’m just back from three days at a European conference for people like me: people concerned with the state of democracy. When you’re discussing democracy in Europe you begin to realise that not all nations view the purpose of democracy in the same way. Many consider the value of people-rule to be people dignity: everyone attending to each others’ benefit alongside their own.
As it happens, my trip to The Hague came a few weeks after chatting to Ricky about the forthcoming Scottish referendum (due about a year before the forthcoming European referendum…). I sensed from him the same view about the purpose of democracy that I heard in Europe, and it related to dignity.
And I’m haunted by the question, ‘what have we let happen to our country?’.
How have we become familiar with stories of near-dying people being told to go back to work by ATOS (a profit-making company, not representatives of their fellow citizens), or those on respirators being denied extra room for their apparatus because they have one bedroom too many in their council property? It feels like government choices are ending up less humane than any caring citizen would prefer.
But these are just the more sensational examples of an underlying principle that is too insidious for us even to own up to.
The subtle difference is whether or not democracy exists to keep us wealthy or to preserve some equality of dignity.
In a consumerist era we have defaulted to measuring people’s value by their wealth. Gang kids in London won’t be seen wearing anything but the latest brand of trainers. Anything less would demean their dignity and symbolise their place in a lower echelon. In the suburbs, it’s the car you drive. In wealthy areas it’s the school your kids go to. We have a permanent weather-eye on our place in the pecking order as defined by our income and means.
Will democracy guard our income or guard our dignity?
Now that I’ve asked that question, it’s clear where our priorities lay for the last five years.
We have reached a point where there is a tacit agreement that if you have more money in our democracy you have more right to a voice. Its result is visible in the voting figures: poorer people vote half as much as wealthy people. But it’s also true in the way we will defer to voices from business, elites, newly rich, money marketeers and anyone else whose lifestyle exemplifies what we consider to be success. We have returned to being ruled by those who went to Eton but for different reasons.
We defer to them because we believe that to become like them would bring us dignity. So they must lead our democracy into the Promised Land.
We’ve accepted that our journey to the Promised Land will have collateral damage. Some people will be expendable. Some systems may fall by the wayside… those that protect the expendable: our health and welfare services for instance.
The preservation of the dignity of our fellow citizens is no longer a democratic priority. We now believe that our dignity is of our own making. An individualist endeavour. In England we are allowing school system to emerge which primarily honours those who break through the rank and file of the average to become the extraordinary. Its whole function is designed for them. For the successful. It doesn’t matter what happens to the average or below average. As long as we tried to give them a chance.
Ricky’s new Scotland, should they find independence, maybe slightly poorer than England. It may be slightly less competitive in the big wide world. But it will be a democracy that preserves the dignity of the individual, which accepts less collateral damage, where people travel together with more equality. A nation that looks on the English, as they always have, as a people who don’t care about those whose toil built its wealth, preferring to return to the myth that the wealthy, with all the culturally legitimised swagger of self-made glory, are the real nation makers.
‘And I’m thinking about hope, and all that that means,
And a place in the winter for dignity.’