Dan Fox – Appetite for optimism: progress, growth and a culture of resilience

“To fight for a better Britain. That kind of caper.”

​            Major Harry Kitchener Wellington Truscott, 1986.

One of the best but least well-remembered situation comedies of the Thatcher era was Channel 4’s “Fairly Secret Army”, which chronicled the attempts of suburban ex-infantry major, Harry Truscott, to rid the nation of:

“Socialists, social democrats, social workers, social idlers, anarchists, nihilists, Marxists, Trotskyists, shop stewards, hooligans, queers, rapists, papists, rapist papists, women’s libbers, Lab-Libbers, ad-libbers, ad men, do-gooders, do-badders, reds, wets, bed-wetters, reds under wet beds, long hair, short hair, fringe theatre, national theatre, punks, hippies, junkies, squatters, rotters, potters, muggers, joggers, all the spare-the-rod-and-put-on-the-mockers arty crafty, airy-fairy, namby-pamby, silly-billy brigade: coves like that, mainly.”

The final episode concluded with Harry becoming a leader writer at the Daily Mail. Not really. But 25 years later, we can all recognise the mean-spiritedness and paranoia of his fictional rants in the British media’s more conservative elements.

That small “c” is intentional. For such analyses of social and economic problems are not confined to the right. It takes only a cursory glance at Leftish media, new and old, to be able to replace the Fairly Secret Army’s bogeymen with the targets of today’s battalions of bloggers, companies of columnists and platoons of placard-bearers.

Arguably, these individuals and groups are only reflecting the mood of the nation. We are not living in optimistic times. Or in a place in which we feel secure. Tony Blair’s use of the “kaleidoscope has been shaken” metaphor, when describing the world after 9/11, now seems wasted when comparing the “pieces in flux” of life in 2011.

For a Labour Party in opposition, recognising people’s fears and pessimism, while not exploiting them, is a dilemma comparable to those faced at similar times in our history.

Since the 1983 General Election, we have faced three existential problems. The first, in the wake of that overwhelming defeat, was how to modernise ourselves back to electability. It took 14 years to resolve.

The second arose in the wake of 2007’s “election-that-never-was”, when it started to become clear that changing leader had not been sufficient in our pursuit of renewing ourselves in government. That was not resolved (you may have noticed).

The third is happening now. As we recover from our worst rejection by the electorate for 27 years and attempt, in the words of Ed Miliband, to “move beyond New Labour”.

After 1994, as we rightly sought to reassure voters that we finally understood how economic and social rights had to be balanced with duties, traditionalists saw an eroding of a long-standing recognition that serious differences in power and income are ingrained in the system. Eventually, the view that empowerment of individuals both justified and required a recalibrating of entitlements and obligations, won out.

With the threat of a double-dip recession, Labour again faces a balancing act over individual rights versus collective need. The “squeezed middle” is not so much compressed from without than bursting from within. Can it really include borrowers and lenders-savers? Taxpayers and tax-funded?  The unemployed, under-employed, overworked, and retired?  The childless, child-raising and finally child-free?  Home-owners, home-buyers and homeless?

It can. Especially if we move beyond a strictly profit-and-loss view of how the banking collapse and its consequences have affected ordinary lives. This is not to dismiss the financial compression felt by so many, and fiscal policy per se is dealt with in a superior manner elsewhere in Pragmatic Radicalism. This essay, however, seeks to establish what exactly it is that we are all supposedly in together.

The answer lies in acknowledging that we are, to be sure, in a time of crisis, that is, indeed, affecting us all. At first sight, this may seem like the sort of pandering to pessimism and fear already dismissed as inappropriate. A worsening economy will vindicate our warnings about the Coalition’s fiscal policies. Its expectation can help explain our current poll ratings. Maybe it will even exculpate, in the mind of the electorate, our own policies between 1997 and 2010. But this is, of course, no consolation to those who need our help now. And sooner or later, this approach catches up with you at the ballot box, where hopeful messages tend to triumph – and certainly will in the midst of May 2015’s brighter outlook.

Crises, however, are not necessarily negative. It is impossible to resist the temptation to repeat the cliché about the Chinese having the same word for “crisis” as “opportunity” (“Yes! Crisatoonity!” © Homer Simpson) to emphasise this. Thankfully, the OED also does a pretty good job, giving a definition of:

“A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce”. (Emphasis added).

In a globalised, highly-networked world, crises are becoming more everyday and more impactful. No politician of the 21st century could refer to even the most banal of events outside of their immediate jurisdiction as affecting only faraway countries and people of whom we know nothing.

The toxic financial products that poisoned international banking emphasised that we are increasingly inter-dependent – personally, socially, economically and politically – on networks that combine extensive local and long-distance interactions. But they are far from being the only symptom of the vulnerabilities we face. On a national level, we saw a shorter-term example in the summer of 2000 when relatively few fuel protestors managed to (unintentionally) prevent supermarkets from stocking their shelves and the NHS from staffing its services.

Reacting to, and exploiting and exploring, such vulnerabilities requires a greater understanding and embedding of resilience. The second half of the equation – exploitation and exploration – is too often forgotten. As a policy theme, resilience should not simply be about bounce-back from a crisis to the status quo ante. It is about recovery being superceded by transformation and renewal; innovating and thriving on change.

It is not necessarily an approach that fits well with a culture which is risk-averse and depressingly sceptical over the extent of human ingenuity.

As Major-General Michael Charlton-Weedy, Chief Executive of the Cabinet Office’s Emergency Planning College, wrote in 2004:

“Systems, processes and physical precautions will only take us part of the way in managing this array of complex and dynamic risks. We have to attend to the vital human component: resilience is as much a state of mind as anything else. Only humans have the flexibility and imagination needed to resolve the complexity and adapt generic plans to meet specific cases; we cannot currently automate processes of this degree of variability. This dependence on people raises the premium on their functional training, and especially on the training of their leaders if they are to withstand the pressures of both the internal and external expectations that will bear upon them”.

The role for policy-makers, then, is three-fold:

1. Supporting personal resilience through education and training, and exploring incentives for resilient behaviour.

2. Coordinating businesses, community organisations and service providers in anticipating change and how it can best be explored and exploited.

3. Prioritising policies which deal with the challenges set by networks.

The complex variety of opportunities and threats offered by the global shift away from institutions and towards networks has been best described by Anthony Painter, in his Labour List column (http://www.labourlist.org/anthony-painter-a-clash-of-networks-and-institutions, March 2011):

“(it) will topple dictators, bring down governments, occasionally create terror and mayhem, create economic risk and opportunity, and quickly eliminate some traditional civic and state institutions.” 

There are six broad areas where these creative tensions are being most sharply felt: in securing networks of data, trade and people; securing capital and credit flows; matching innovation-propelled productivity gains in public services to those in the private sector; diffusing strategic rivalries over consumption (especially in hydrocarbons, water, rare earths, and food); and addressing inadequacies in international legal frameworks.

Because it is the most vulnerable in our society who suffer when crises are mis-handled, everybody deserves the chance to improve their own resilience and that of their communities, businesses and public services. All must be better empowered to benefit from the opportunities thrown up by crises and to become more resilient citizens, of a more resilient nation, of which even Harry Truscott might have approved.

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Article image by Joseph Ferris III

Dan Fox

About Dan Fox

Dan Fox is a Politics and International Studies graduate. He has spent most of his professional career as a public policy and campaigns advisor and trainer for a range of organisations, across all sectors. Internationally, his work has covered the USA, Brussels, Israel and Palestine, and Afghanistan. Dan is currently an Honorary Research Associate at University College London, working on innovation in the field of security and resilience, and coordinating a scenario-planning and crisis-response service. He has been an active member of the Labour Party for 20 years at branch, constituency and Westminster levels. He writes here in a personal capacity.