All my adult life, I’ve loved British folk music. As a teenager, I loved the robust choruses of the MacAlmans and the Corries. I rapidly fell for the fantasy of Steeleye Span, re-imagining the old ballads to a driving rock sound. I found my voice singing shanties, shape note hymns and lusty choruses full of ale and ploughs and hunting. It was all jolly fun.
It went with the “escape to the country” Grant and I engineered when we first set up home together in the late 1970s – not far into the country, it has to be said, since we were only thirty miles from London, but then we both had to be able to commute to London in order to pay the mortgage. All £12,000 of it.
Politics back then was a see-saw between Labour and Conservative, and I never imagined it would be much different. When Margaret Thatcher came into office, I was quite pleased by the prospect of a woman Prime Minister. The idea of leaving more money in our pockets so we could choose how to spend it sounded reasonable to a naïve eighteen year old. Aspiring to buy your own house was what everyone did. Working hard and earning an honest living seemed fine.
We sang the old songs about doffing the cap to the masters and fighting their wars, about hard times in the weaving trade, rural life and rural poverty, in cheerful ignorance of what they really meant. That was all history. I’d ‘done’ the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution which preceeded it at “O” Level, the Enclosures, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Luddites. The Corn Laws. Peterloo. The Irish Problem seemed more relevant (though I never did understand it all) as we phlegmatically dodged around the IRA bomb scares. But in 1970s Britain, we had democracy, universal sufferage, we were a world away from the Poor Laws and the workhouse. A world where a shipyard worker could be sealed inside the double hull of a ship rather than delay its launch date. Where the widow of a shepherd killed in the First World War could be evicted from her tied cottage with her children. Where people who were homeless and destitute were left to fend for themselves or die on the streets. We had the NHS. We had council houses. We had social security.
Interesting that the term “social security” has become “benefit”. Think about the words. Social security implies that every citizen is valued just for being a human being, and the state provides a safety net for when they fall off the capitalist bandwagon. Benefit implies charity. The rich choosing to give a pittance to the deserving poor, as long as they know their place. Doff the cap. Fight the wars.
How far have we fallen. How much we have lost since the days of my youth. And how on earth did we let it happen?
Well, for evil to triumph it is necessary only for good men and women to nothing. And nothing is just what my generation did, in terms of furthering the cause of freedom and justice. We sat on our backsides and listened to loud music. We talked about what to do while propping up the bar and ended up too drunk on our theories to ever see them through. We went to festivals, shared the love, went back to work and crucified love all over again.
With freedom comes responsibility. You don’t protest by smashing a guitar. You protest by smashing the established power – the age-old power the rich hold over the poor. You do that by empowering ordinary people, the aspiring middle-class.
In the Thatcher era, “empowerment” meant making everyone think they belonged on the “rich” side of the power divide, through property ownership, credit, and ever-rising wages. It worked for many of us. It’s only now that the credit bill has arrived on the mat alongside a big delivery of disruptive technology that the cruel emptiness of that cynical promise is apparent. Far from empowering ordinary people, that way of thinking now enslaves them. Those who have a job are generally up to their ears in debt and work all hours for fear of losing the means to service that debt, those who don’t have a job struggle to survive at all. There is no empowerment in that way of life, as the UK government is demonstrating all too graphically. It no longer even pretends to serve ordinary people. It serves the financial backers who buy power for their chosen front-man.
So what does that term really mean, empowerment? We frequently sling it about, usually to make sure someone lower down the pecking order can be blamed for systemic failures.
Empowerment in political terms means the ability to work together to achieve a common goal. Given all the insecurity, stubbornness and blind egotism inherent in human nature, this is not easy to achieve. It needs to be cultivated. It needs to be learned. Above all, it needs to be practised.
Empowerment means an equitable distribution of wealth. A human being continually worrying about putting food on the table and staying warm and dry is inclined to feel insecure, stubborn and self-obsessed. He/she is inclined to mental health problems and aggression; and inclined to reject the rules of a society that is excluding them from its riches.
Empowerment means knowledge. Understanding how much you don’t know, and wanting to know as much as you can. Knowing yourself. Understanding the emotional triggers that drive the decisions you make. Knowing when to speak and when to listen. Respecting the experience of others. The ability to conduct root-cause-analysis rather than just look for a scapegoat, and the ability to foresee the consequences of certain courses of action. When we don’t even teach respect for knowledge any more we are not only disempowered, we are ceasing to behave like intelligent humans.
With true empowerment comes freedom. The freedom to be the best human being you can be. To do what makes you whole. The freedom to respect the freedom of others, as you wish them to respect your freedom.
We have done none of that. We did not consolidate the freedoms our forebears fought for, and so, little by little, we have let them go.
We need human beings to be the best people we can be to survive the multiple environmental crisis our indolence has created. We need to start making up for lost time. Because our current ‘leaders’ are making us all into the worst of humans.