Sometimes I think this must be what it is like to have a comfortable retirement. Every day, I go out into the garden, potter, pull up a weed here or there, think about which plants are in the wrong place and can I move them; I gain pleasure out of discovering which survived a move last spring and are putting out their first, tentative shoots. Most days, I go for a walk with my daughter. Not too far and nothing too strenuous, just around the block or down the lane and across the field (we saw a deer the other day); we soak up the early spring sunshine and delight (well, I do, anyway) in the faint fuzz of green that is beginning to decorate the hedgerows, the freshness of the ploughed fields. There is, despite my anxiety about the news, always the news, a positive to be found in my relative privilege; a home on the outskirts of town, a small garden, a daughter and two sons who don’t need me to supervise their every move.
If you care to look, there are plenty of good things. There is more time with distant family, my parents and my sister; it’s easy to be consumed by working life, to put off the phone calls and wait for news second hand. This crisis has prompted us to create family group chats, video calls and, when we at home have become tired of constant requests for bingo, they have stepped into the breach to help us out. And all those thousands of volunteers. Deliveries for the vulnerable, stepping up and into roles they wouldn’t usually do. Countless people making useful things, from re-purposed pillowslips, a drawstring conversion so frontline key workers don’t have to shake the laundry out, to masks and scrubs and 3D printed visors. Communities are reaching out, beyond the 2m distance. It seems that government is surprised that the people have acted to protect their loved ones. It gives you a lift when the anxiety fades.
It is always there, though, just under the surface. While I’m in the garden I can pretend, if I choose not to notice the clarity of the air, the silence punctuated by birdsong and the occasional wail of an emergency siren, that nothing much has changed. It’s the Easter holidays after all, and we’d be hanging out at home, not doing very much regardless of what was happening in the world. But everything is different. Check out ladies are putting their lives on the line every time they go to work. I feel like giving the bin men a round of applause. There is a strangeness about it all; the burgeoning spring, birds nesting and trees bursting into blossom, the results of two weeks of sunshine following an interminably wet winter are a strong contrast to the constant reports, the rising numbers of disease and death. We, the privileged inhabitants of 21st Century Western Europe are getting a taste of the knife-edge lives of our ancestors. It hasn’t taken long. The cracks in our communities have been sharply focused. It makes you think.
The other day I posted a Thread of Things. You can read it and the comments/additions here. It’s a brief list of ideas that I think would make our lives better, once the danger of this plague has passed and we can all breathe freely again. I was pleased with it and I told my dad (he doesn’t approve of video calls, so we had to make to with the phone – the house phone, no less). After we’d discussed the relative improvement of our respective gardens and considered whether it all might be getting a bit competitive, we talked about how many of my ideas are not so much a description of how things might be as of how things were.
After I’d written this, it occurred to me that this desire to go back to an era when people felt more ‘heard’ and more at the centre of policy-making that there might be something of Brexit about it, so I am re-publishing my thread here, with ideas in more of a logical order (as opposed to as they happened to pop out of my head) and I’d be interested in your thoughts.
- Housing standards. Regulation on the size, occupancy and outdoor/green space for dwellings
- Cost of living, in particular mortgage size. People shouldn’t have to have two people working flat out to pay the rent/mortgage.
- Price of food. We have become gluttons. We can choose anything and have it any time. We have lost the specialness of foodstuffs and that needs to change. Supermarkets as the mode of distribution – we should probably think about that a bit more
- Abattoirs. I know it’s not the most lovely of things, but there needs to be more, smaller ones so that animals are not transported so far.
- A continuation of working from home for at least part of the week where firms can. This would have all sorts of improvements for everyone.
- Working practices and contracts. Self employment should not have to happen because it’s cheaper for firms to have people be self-employed rather than employ people properly (see: builders and gym workers – I suspect there are more) – the same goes for zero hours contracts.
- There needs to be a greater recognition of the responsibilities of private life in public work. We need greater capacity in our workplaces to ensure that people can have time away from work if they need it. We could start with public service jobs.
- More bank holidays. I’d have at least one between September and December, and possibly increase half term to ten days in October on health grounds.
- Local authorities. a. We need them and they are massively understaffed, particularly in the area of social care. We need people doing face to face things like meals on wheels and being home helps b. Disability social care – for adults and for children. We cannot carry on like this.
- Regulation of water and water supply. This needs to be done by a person not remotely – and we shouldn’t be relying on a single reservoir to serve whole portions of the country.
- The role of competition in public service. Competition is not what brings about better public services. Public services are not businesses. Good supervision and accountability is what makes improvement.
- I don’t really need to say anything about ownership of public utilities do I?
- Education – to start with, a focus on wellbeing rather than exam success (although the two are not mutually exclusive). Wouldn’t it be great if we took the opportunity to look again at how we could make our system properly inclusive
- I do think that capacity (lack of) is a major contributor to strain in education, health and social care work. We need more people doing the work and more admin staff to support.school term length (thanks to daughter for this one) 8 weeks is too long.
- Terms should be no longer than 7 weeks max.
- Do I need to say anything about change for the accountability system in education? Anyone want to say what they think it should look like?
- Education – funding for higher education (you know what I think about that, right?) I’d wipe out remaining debt for students who had to pay, too.
- A set of regulations about car use/emissions in towns and cities. Quality of air would help us all to live better lives
- Air travel. We don’t need to be zipping around the globe like demented bees. One flight (there and back) should surely be enough. Any more and it comes with a serious price tag
- A review of the role of charities, in particular where they are performing the functions of the state. We cannot rely on ‘good will’ for essentials.
- The constitution. I’m not convinced on the need for a written constitution, but I do think we could have some constitutional reforms for better clarity and greater checks and balances. E.g. a redesign of the upper house with room for proportional representation.