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Turning austerity into an age of hope

I was told last week that ‘You are too pessimistic, you are like Fraser from Dad’s Army – we are all doomed!’   Now when an accountant tells you that, then you know you may be going too far!

Nevertheless, I was trying to counter the accepted human tendency for optimism bias or positivity illusion. Even when things are really bad, humans tend to look positively about the future.  This has its benefits, especially when it comes to business risk taking and entrepreneurialism, but we do need to look objectively at the economic and social situation.  We must not blithely assume things will be OK. There is no room for false optimism.

David Cameron, in his speech at the party conference, whilst warning of a ‘false optimism’ sought to ramp up the positives. He urged, despite the need to reduce debt, a “can-do” attitude and invoked the need for a “spirit of Britain” to see the country through.  This echoes the optimism of the ‘big society’.  However, the reality of moving from a big state to a big society, is shrouded in austerity and cuts to the voluntary sector. The reality is that a ‘big society’ won’t fill the local void, no matter how forcefully you talk it up.

I have been thinking about this ‘spirit of Britain’, ‘big society’ and at the same time mindful of optimism bias.  Over the last few weeks, I have visited a number of communities.  I have seen the real brutal effects of austerity and local recession. It’s quite clear – any local optimism bias is cowed by the realities of growing poverty and unemployment.

Furthermore, a growing number of people are aware of a fundamental flaw in how our global economy is run.  This is happening despite the continued optimism of politicians and the schizophrenia of markets.  There is now a growing appreciation that the bankers got off lightly, that the economy is not necessarily run for what is best for people or the planet.  Furthermore, for many, the financial markets have become too complicated, and distant from society and even governments.  This realisation stretches from the tents of the occupy movement to community centre chats, conversations in pubs through to the dinner parties of the establishment.

However, with these realisations comes positives.  Take Salford and their think family approach, which I visited two weeks ago.  A city facing high levels of poverty (and the national cuts have had a severe effect on what they can do).  The Local Authority is in a difficult situation.  Nevertheless, I witnessed a collective will across officers, elected members and community sector to do new things for Salfordians.  Of course it ain’t easy, but from harsh reality, there is a sense that there is a need to work against rampant individualism, service fragmentation and a society based on ability to pay rather than need.  In particular, this is about collective action now to tackle systemic injustices, parasitic local loan lending organisations and inequalities.

The public, private and social sectors are laden with people, who appreciate the interdependencies between the sectors.  Subsequently, within the objective reality of real pain, they are acting now, to turn things around.

All of this reminds, that we should never under-estimate, the power of Local Government or forget that collective will is much stronger than individual or singular organisational motivation and interest.  This might be what Mr Cameron, is referring to in his ‘spirit of Britain’ and the ‘big society’, but perhaps not?

I suspect the English spirit stretches far beyond the youthful ‘big society’, or the acceptance of austerity and the policies for deficit reduction.   I reveal my optimism bias, but I see a growing solidarity and a recognition of interdependency.  This is a spirit which is increasingly rejecting economic inequalities, casino capitalism, damaging individualism, excessive rewards and deficit reduction at all costs.  This is an indubitable force.

We are in bad economic times, which may get worse, but even this does not need to be an austere age, mired in gloom. There is a real optimism, forged from a hellish ongoing local reality.  From this, we may even get an age of hope.

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