Saturday, 16 January 2010

Apocalypse Postponed ... Until after the Election

Mark Easton looks under stones to see what wickedness lurks in the slime below ... and produces one of his best blogs ...

If one can draw any meaningful insight from the events of one year just past, I would venture that 2009 saw people grubbing about under some of the foundation stones of our society, burrowing beneath the pillars of British life and extracting core substance which now threatens to undermine their stability.
What made those grim discoveries so potentially devastating is that they exposed institutional rather than merely individual improbity.
The scandal of MPs' expenses was all the more outrageous because it went beyond dishonourable members to reveal how Parliament itself had apparently systemised the protect itself.
The revelations that oozed from the banking crisis were all the more troubling for revealing how, as greedy individuals took ludicrous risks with other people's money, the City stayed largely silent ... to protect itself.
It was not abusive Irish priests that made last year's revelations about the Catholic Church so shocking, but the way in which the institution had covered up those vile activities ... to protect itself.
Yes, in different ways, the actions of individual priests, politicians and financiers were appalling. But the real damage was done, I suspect, by the discovery that institutional structures regarded as bastions of our society conspired to keep dirty secrets.
The response has been apologies and promises of transparency. This is a high risk (if necessary) response, at least in the short term: 2009 may come to be seen as the start of a process which continues to undermine rather than rebuild public trust in institutions.
Over centuries, church, state and commerce have employed many tricks to add credibility to their claims of honour and fidelity. Tradition and ceremony grant mystique to the mundane. Ermine and gilt act as camouflage. Exclusivity keeps a lid on indiscretion. The aim is enigma.
That is why allowing illumination of your dark corners may prove problematic. You cannot be enigmatic under floodlights ...
... what adds to the combustibility of the current situation is that the promises of transparency (and the likely prospect of further expose) come as Britain endures a period of austerity. The "establishment" is blamed for the hardship faced by ordinary citizens and there is little forgiveness left in the locker.
Last year, I think, might be entitled "Apocalypse Postponed". We were warned that we could face the worst flu epidemic and the worst economic crisis since the First World War. The implication was that we might have to endure medical and financial carnage.
And yet, here we are in January 2010 and we have escaped, not unharmed, but still in one piece. The flu bug proved to be far less virulent than feared: officials warned of up to 65,000 victims, there have been 300 to date.
The impact of the credit crunch on the real economy was dissipated by a stimulus package which delayed the worst anguish until after an election.
So, looking ahead to the next 12 months, I think the question is how much resilience British society possesses.
The currency of resilience, troublingly, is trust in each other and in institutions - presently in short supply. When things get tricky, we will need to draw on the strength of our communities to see us through.
The changed narrative, from growth and investment to cuts and retrenchment, propels a generation of young Brits into uncharted territory ... 
... There is still simmering anger at the bankers and the politicians, resentment which could spill over if the pain is poorly managed. There will be protests and demonstrations, strikes and direct action. Common sense will not always rule the day.
Whichever politicians win to run the country and whatever decisions they take, they must expect deep hostility from many quarters. It will be a year of long faces and short tempers.

Mark Easton's blog and comments.