I am an avid watcher of Gogglebox and have often found it to be a decent barometer of the views of non-politicos like myself. Indeed, an article in The Spectator recently showed Keir Starmer failing the “Gogglebox test” when his ambiguous policies on tackling coronavirus caused consternation among the viewers. And with the pandemic and summer scheduling leading to shrinking content and increased focus on the political realm there have been plenty for the Goggleboxers to react to.
Sadly, what I’ve witnessed over the last few months further confirmed a worrying trend in our country: people have become too willing to surrender responsibility for themselves in favour of complaining about the powers-that-be.
The most obvious example on the show is every time there is an announcement of new rules or guidance to tackle Covid-19, there is derision about how unclear they are. This was even the case when the rules were at their simplest at the beginning of all this. It has been well-reported that the UK Government has had a communications problem over the last few months – demonstrated by that very complained-about lack of clarity – but are they actually too difficult to understand?
Yes, there are contradictions within guidance that can make things sound a bit nonsensical, but it seemed a lot of the complaining was down to rules not being so specific as to govern each and every action one took from whether to put one’s left or right foot forward first when walking. It was odd to see people complain that they weren’t being governed by diktat enough. The rules were and are not perfect but a great deal of people were being obtuse in their complaints, failing to exercise any common-sense whatsoever. Why think for yourself when berating politicians is so much fun?
I do not know what started all this: it could be social media pushing people towards having an opinion on everything or the “austerity” narrative of the previous decade making us all think the state is not doing enough and should be spending more of our money and increasingly intervening more in our lives. Whatever it was, the result was so much political discourse over the last few years focussing on asking government to do more so we can do less.
Another example has been the discourse surrounding post-Brexit trading agreements: public figures, inside and outside the political realm, have called on the UK Government to ban the import of certain foodstuffs. Why are people not trusted to make the choice for themselves what they want to buy in the supermarket? They can make the choice to support British farmers and thus the rural economy by buying high quality lamb or they can buy hormone-treated American beef. I know I would prefer to buy the former but why should I be prevented from buying the second? Why are consumers being denied the responsibility of making that choice, let along the freedom?
More recently there has been the debate on maintaining free school meals (FSMs) over school holidays. Devolved governments have guaranteed this but the UK Government is resisting doing so in England after buckling to the pressure of the campaign led by one of my favourite footballers, Marcus Rashford MBE, back in the summer. I have no doubt that his campaign is sincere and motivated by the want to do good for those who had a similar upbringing to his. Additionally, with this only applying to England and Wales (where I live) being a net receiver of Treasury income, it will have little effect on me other than the cost being a small drop in the ocean that is the UK’s ballooning debt.
Yes, it is wrong for children to go hungry in our country, yet some in the Conservative Party seem to be the only ones that recognise the slipping of self-responsibility here. This country, as the Prime Minister recently stated, can rightfully boast it has made free school meals in some form or another available for over 100 years. Now, those struggling families will rightfully be able to access a more generous Universal Credit system to help with their shopping bill. One could argue that free school meals are, thus, being provided but in a different form through increased welfare payments rather than possibly patronising food vouchers. However, it is the responsibility of parents to feed their children – the state should be the provider of last resort.
My concern stems from that it always harder to take something away than to give it – “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” still endures nearly half a century on. Opponents of the Government have already been accusing ministers of taking away FSMs when, in reality, they are not being extended. If the UK Government were to buckle, I am worried that the measure will stay in perpetuity.
If so, then governments that have introduced the measure have then told a certain group of parents in this country they are never responsible for feeding their own kids because the government is doing it for them, in and out of school. Perversely, this could entrench an attitude of decreasing responsibility amongst some of those parents (by no means a majority) for their children, something to which Ben Bradley MP alluded.
There is also a contradiction here that those pushing the most for free school meals are the ones that complain the most about foodbanks. The difference is food supplied by the state, the other local communities. Although the fact foodbanks need to exist is obviously a tragedy, they show that individuals have felt a responsibility to help their fellow man in need rather than shirk their shoulders and say “not my problem, let the government deal with it”. Our sense of self-responsibility does not simply mean one must simply look out for oneself, but others too.
Indeed, the stories of businesses stepping up to the plate and offering to distribute food to the less well-off is not only heart-warming, but very much demonstrates that it is unnecessary for the UK Government to do what campaigners are demanding. This is the “Big Society” in action and it should be applauded. Rashford himself has praised these generous offers. Although I accept the point that his campaign and the Government’s decision to take the political hit is what inspired these actions, they undermine the argument that further state intervention is needed.
It is a shame that this sensitive issue is where the debate about self-responsibility has emerged. Nevertheless, re-instating that outlook is essential to ensuring our society functions and political discourse can cool down after being so fiery of late. The less responsible we become for improving the country as individuals, the stronger the state’s control over us becomes.
If we do nothing to stem the relinquishment of common sense and self-responsibility, we will see the nationalisation of ethics by default. And I am unsure what worries me most if that happens: that we don’t notice or that we don’t care.