One nation, aspiration nation or condemnation?

By Jill Segger
March 24, 2013

Politicians tend to become grandiose when they are trying to sell us an idea. The rhetorical use of the concept of 'nation' to corral us together under a conveniently high-sounding label has, in recent months, tried to sign us up to being both 'one nation' and an 'aspiration nation.'

We may have some thinking to do about this. Both phrases could be placed in that category which GK Chesterton defined as “the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” Are either of these national states desirable? Are they possible? Are they complementary or mutually exclusive?

It is very likely that those of us on the left will warm more to the idea of 'one nation'. But if we get down to asking what that might look like, we will pretty soon come up short against the huge and growing inequality of our society. If we are to be 'one' in terms of anything other than a politician's sound-bite, we need to have shared experience and mutual interests. The CEO of a multi-national and the insecure, low-paid contract cleaner who clean his office will, at different times in a 24 hour cycle, pass through the same space, but they will have so little common experience that they might as well, in Disraeli's words, be “inhabitants of different planets.”

Redistributive taxation, the Living Wage, the closing up of tax loopholes and a firmer hand over bonuses could begin to address this kind of atomisation. But what of the minorities who are in various different ways excluded and marginalised by their health, skin colour, gender or sexuality?

Whilst policy changes to ensure a more equal distribution of our GDP would assist in reducing the difficulties which they experience, the attitudes of the majorities also need to change if we are to have any kind of human and humane mutuality. And where people feel insecure about their own futures, they may easily become susceptible to the carefully engineered scapegoating and division which suits the interests of power.

If 'oneness' is possible, it will have to mean something far more nuanced and flexible than the straw man of uniformity which is so popular with the enemies of equality. It will also require us to challenge the toxins of manufactured outrage which work on people's anxieties to convince them that decent provision for need is somehow an insult to their own hard work. You do not need to be a fully paid up Marxist to see that the dignity of difference upon which a cohesive society depends, owes much to the prescription of “ from each according to his ability; to each according to his need”.

Aspiration is something of a weasel word. Upon what does it focus our ambition? I come from that stratum of the working class which used to be variously described as 'skilled', 'respectable' and 'aspirant'. In my childhood and youth, the meaning was clear: accessible education and a gradual breaking down of the old class structures offered opportunities which had not been there for our parents' generation.

We were encouraged to seize our opportunities but the pursuit of unbridled acquisition was not set before us as synonymous with aspiration, nor was carelessness of the sensibilities and needs of others seen as an indispensible component of ambition. My parents' aspiration was that I should have a degree and, in due course, my own house and car. But far greater importance was placed on the liberating and enlarging qualities offered by a free education which would be not cut short at 15 years of age by economic need and social assumptions. For me, this was encapsulated in my father's parting words as I left home to begin my undergraduate years: “You're starting up the ladder now. Don't ever pull it up behind you.”

If the ascent is a means of getting out, rather than up and if the map markers are assumed to be material goods and status, there can be little hope of a more unified society. A government determined on dismantling the role of the state in ameliorating injustice and adjudicating between conflicting interests will use the idea of aspiration in a very different way to one which has understood the words of the Christian Socialist Richard Tawney: “While ... natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation." There is little sign that our current administration wishes to encourage aspiration to this degree of civilisation. Nor does it appear that the opposition has any stomach for moving from vague slogans on unity to the challenge of hammering out policies that would build a society in which every citizen might truly feel themselves secure and valued.

The question for each of us is simple - `what is the kind of nation to which we aspire? If the answer fails to move beyond the ruthless pursuit of personal advantage on the one hand and of timid populism on the other, we will, quite literally, be living in our own condemnation.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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