“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…“
Charles Dickens’ summing up of one particular period in history could serve very well as an epitaph for many years in this century, or any other – but few more so, surely, than 2012 – a time of unity, yet a time of division.
This was a year of high peaks and deep troughs. From a United Kingdom perspective, we can look back with pride on a triumphant staging of the Olympic Games and the Paralympics in London last summer. Rarely can a sporting spectacle have so united people; many who would normally fail to show a flicker of interest in sport were swept along on the wave of enthusiasm generated by the performances and achievements of our gallant competitors.
Sport in a wider sense came to the fore as a catalyst for optimism and togetherness. Andy Murray had his best Wimbledon ever, won over cynical hearts with his tears after narrowly losing in the Final, and then swept to Olympic gold and – at last – won a Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open. The Ryder Cup golf team, having dug themselves into a frightful hole, emerged gloriously as winners in the end, a comeback as miraculous as any other in that competition’s history. Even the Test Cricket team, having started the year poorly, ended it victoriously, winning in India for the first time since 1984.
As we are always being told, though, sport isn’t everything. In a wider sense, the news has not been so good. Austerity continues to cast a shadow over all of us – though that shadow appears to be significantly longer for some than for others. The mantra chanted by our rulers is “we’re all in it together”. But the question of just what we’re in, and to what depth, is left open.
What seems undeniable is that there are unsettling signs of division being created in society as a matter of policy. Divide and rule, as the old saw has it. The arithmetic of recovery seems to dictate that the way forward is belt-tightening all round. But some sections of the population are in danger of ending up so emaciated, that however much tighter they might fasten their belts, they’re still liable to be caught with their pants down when the bills fall due.
People claiming benefits – even the majority who claim in-work benefits – are being cast as the villains of the piece when culprits are sought for the mess we’re in. The marginal effect of cuts to income at this end of the scale is far greater than could be perceived by – to pluck an example out of thin air – a City banker. But such cuts are proving to be a popular measure, and this is due largely to the rhetoric directed against those whose circumstances force their reliance on state benefits. And let’s not forget that many of these citizens are just as industrious as anybody else, but are forced by low pay to seek financial assistance from the benefits system. Then of course there are the genuinely disabled. Who’s the real villain here?
Benjamin Franklin, prior to signing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, memorably stated “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. The message that no group of people can succeed and prosper who are divided against themselves, applies equally to society at large. We must beware the toxicity of creating schisms among our populace, however pragmatic an approach this might appear in Whitehall or Fleet Street when harsh measures need to be justified.
The feel-good factor of 2012 was all about unity and pride in the nation and its achievements; anybody who witnessed the Olympics, or Wimbledon, or indeed the traditional Last Night of the Proms could bear witness to that. The contrast with this current process of division is stark, and telling. Any policy that promotes whispering campaigns, suspicion and dislike of any group of people, merely to popularise draconian financial sanctions, is negative and unjust in the extreme. We must surely look to the good of last year, to unity and positivity, as embodied when the nation as a whole got behind our athletes and parathletes. This is the ethos that should drive any programme of recovery, not a selective demonising of a whole, hapless section of society.
If we really are all in it together, then we have to stick together, and succeed together. Surely that is the best lesson 2012 has for this New Year.