Call for ReformersOctober 24, 2010
It was a time of great progress technologically, of huge divides between rich and poor particularly in the cities, of social unrest and the call for electoral reform; a time in which the population grew rapidly and unpredictably and during which huge demographic changes took place, of unemployment and protest, and grinding poverty and seemingly insurmountable social problems; a time in which the processes of government had become distant from the fast-changing reality of people’s daily lives, and in which all of society and the economy was wedded to an economic model built on slavery. Sound familiar?
This was Regency and Georgian Britain. Many commentators at the time feared that a revolution such as witnessed in France was inevitable. Few countries since that period have managed to undergo so many profound transitions – technological, demographic, and political – without violence on a large scale. And yet, something special happened in the subsequent years (alongside it must be said a host of other things that were not that positive) that was to prove the doubters wrong, something which along with a whole array of other factors, allowed reform rather than revolution to take place: the rise of the social reformer. Whether it be the great Parliamentarians who rose up to champion causes such as abolition or the extension of voting rights; or the social enterpreneurs who created the mutuals and cooperatives, municipal and friendly societies, temperance movements, schools, socially responsible companies, and social enterprises to employ the workless and house the homeless; or whether it be the social media activists of the day, with their pamphlets and novels leapfrogging the dominant press channels to reach the masses – the social reformer seemed ubiquitous and a force for improvement often against vested interests and over many decades at a time.
As we today face ourselves some of the greatest challenges of our own era – an ageing population creating huge strain on our national finances based on an unsustainable model that was for too long based on excessive debt (a kind of financial sovereign slavery), political change and a sense of alienation from politics and politicians and institutions, and vast technological progress globally which has shifted what it means to work and what skills are needed to thrive creating winners and losers – we also stand on a precipice. We can react in one of at least three ways. The first is fatalism. Let the coming years come, and give in. There is nothing to be done. There will be pain, and we cannot do much to address it, and every man to himself. The second is to protest and fight it all the way, every year, for the next few decades (since our ageing population will continue beyond the lifetime of this Parliament and the forecasts indicate things will get even worse beyond 2020). To choose to be divided, in effect.
The problem with both of the above approaches is that they are fundamentally atomistic. It is about them and us, about blame, just manifested in different forms. But there is a third approach: to reform. To say let us face these multiple challenges together: recasting our welfare state in such a way that it is affordable even with fewer people around of working age, and kinder and more personal because it draws on the actions of citizens themselves together and their passions, distributing the benefits of technological change to more people through mutualism and more modern forms of share ownership and other hybrid models; tackling the causes of poverty and unfairness at root, recognising that money on its own while hugely important is not the only factor behind disadvantage (certainly not in a life-transformative way) and that innovation and care is needed to address modern social problems because often it is about behaviour change, and that the familiar statist ways of tackling them have patently failed despite repeated attempts over the last fifty years.
To reform we need reformers. Modern 21st century reformers who not only bring the zeal and passion for social progress we may be used to, but an understanding of what it takes in today’s world to change entire systems, to navigate a complex and volatile media, and who have the skills to create sustainable solutions that can scale whilst also working locally to connect both affluent and low or no income citizens alike. I believe we have many reformers in our midst already today, but we need more. Reformers willing to tackle the challenges which austerity will present, willing to harness the energies of millions of people, to advocate and argue for change whilst being pragmatic at the same time. Reformers willing to look beyond the short-term and work with others they might not normally associate with for the greater good.
I believe for every question, obstacle, and challenge we will face in the coming months and years, there are at least one or more people with the answer and who have the wherewithal to work up a scalable and sustainable solution, and the talent to identify resources in expected places to turn their ideas into reality. Will you rise to the call of being a reformer, whether in government, business, or the social sector? Let’s get behind those who heed the call to pursue this risky path. For in their hands our society can become stronger. In their absence, the days ahead risk being very dark indeed.