Can we attain content?


There is a lovely little verse by Dorothy Parker to which I resort when feeling gently resigned and needing a reminder that solace is possible. She wrote, if I remember it properly,

“Three things in life I shall never attain,
Envy, content and sufficient champagne”.

Envy, though it drives people much more than they like to admit, is pointless and champagne can be acid and tends to lead to a regretful headache but is worth it for the buzz – but content? Surely that is something to desire and strive for. In this month of evasions, lies and counter-lies, otherwise known as an election campaign, it is perhaps time to consider what would make Britons content enough to get on with worrying about the things we want to – our relationships, gardens and holiday plans.

The answer may be two things that our multi-layered governments have only delivered at fleeting moments in the last hundred years: confidence allied with comfort.

The confidence that we can get on with our lives without having to fret about things outside our control – and to be able to do so in reasonable comfort: warm, well fed, unstressed by lack of facilities and able to reassure ourselves that our friends, family and neighbours can say the same. That means high standard public services that can be relied upon and global governance that delivers global solutions without repression. That phrase, without repression, implies that we can hold off the proto-imperial powers emerging from the east too, so defence and intelligence has to be upgraded as much as domestic capacity.

We want short waiting lists (no-one minds a bus queue if we know the bus is coming in ten minutes and will have space for us – same with surgery), roads without holes, education that leads children out with skill and imagination, access to libraries, concerts and theatres, high-quality media, protection against disaster – whether natural or manmade.

We want things to be fixed when we complain and for corporations and bureaucracies to work for us, not themselves. Most of all, we do not really want to notice governments very much between elections, happy in the conviction that they contain clever people who know what they are doing.

That absolutely none of these things is the case at the moment guarantees that all politicians and public service managers are going to get the rough end of our cynicism. If citizens do bother to vote this year, it is unlikely they will do it because they believe in the policy menu; it will be because they cannot stand the thought of listening to the current ragbag of ministers any longer.

Whoever finds themselves in government, whether elected or appointed, would do well to come up with a different set of solutions to those on offer. They should look carefully at those countries that seem to be able to get through economic storms and still have money enough for services that satisfy – or at least keep dissatisfaction to grumbles rather than howls.

Britain, with the exception of Shetland, failed to build a sovereign wealth fund from North Sea Oil revenues, unlike sensible Norway. England has history on this. The Duchy of Lancaster has its own Chancellor but its revenue goes straight into the current account. It could have been used as an endowment fund for the last six hundred years, after the Wars of the Roses. So could the Duchy of York. Imagine if royalties (literally) had been salted away into an endowment from all those coal mines and fisheries when they were at their most productive.

We could now treat energy revenues the same way, whether from renewables or nuclear, instead of handing profits to shareholders. We could start making National Insurance what it says – a fund, not an annual revenue stream – so that it is an asset, not a black hole unable to support pensions, benefits or the health service when the Treasury is short of money. Both things would, it is probably true, take a couple of decades to build up to their full glory.

In the meantime there are surely enough of those from the Keynes and Galbraith schools of thought to find ways of handling the money markets to provide enough cashflow for funding service improvements, knowing that Britain’s assets are maturing nicely in unraidable reserves.

This may be anathema to those who had their education warped by Thatcher, Keith Joseph and Milton Friedman monetarism, but their half-century old orthodoxy is not the only way of thinking on offer. The position I come from, the point where arts and politics meet, is more a place for questions than answers. Equally, every politician and teacher knows it is unwise to ask a question you do not have at least half an answer to. Our current answers are not good enough so we have to think of lots more.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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