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Reasons to be cheerful from the past, present and future

Written by Steve Moore

On Christmas Eve Billy Bragg tweeted ‘the best thing about this time of year is that everything stops for a while. I hope you find some peace this Christmas’. He added a link to a YouTube video of one of my favourite tracks of 2011, Holocene – go have a look; it is wonderful song. But the message of stopping at Christmas struck me as being particularly powerful after a hectic 2011 and before , what everyone seems to have concluded, will be a very tough 2012. Stopping to spend time with our families and cherished friends. Stopping to sleep longer and better. Stopping to catch up on music movies and reading. The Christmas and New Year was for me a required stop. I hope you stopped too.

Reacquainting myself slowly with the life in real time in the first few days of 2012 I was struck by how – perhaps serendipitously – much optimism, or rather, clamorous pleas to think optimistically about the year ahead I came across. As an irrepressible optimist I do tend to heat seek these kind of voices and views but three in particular struck me as having particular resonance going into this year.

Firstly, two consecutive posts here and here by the revered JP Rangaswami on ‘Why I’m Excited about 2012’. What is so striking about JP is both that he makes no attempt to understate the scale of the challenges we face; ‘a whole new class of problem for humanity to face, global in their construct, immense in their complexity’ but of confidence that we can create new tools to help us solve them; ‘So we need new tools, tools that allow people to collaborate with low cost of entry, low cost of operation, low cost of change, low cost of exit; tools that work globally, consistently, across culture and geography and language; tools that are device- and location- and scale- (and for that matter socio-economic grouping-) agnostic’ ne

Secondly, I chanced upon an interview on The Browser with Roman Krznaric. Krznaric’s new book The Wonder Box asks the question ‘what am I doing with my life?’ I am naturally wary of this time of thing being very sceptical about the self-help movement, but I stuck with it and am delighted I did. It is brim-full of insights drawn not from philosophy, religious teachings or psychology but drawing on the writing and lives of great writers including Tolstoy, Thoreau and Orwell which he uses to answer the question about both the Art of Living and the Art of Dying – or deathstyle as prefers to call it. The book also introduced me to Albert Schweitzer a now largely forgotten 19th century literary and intellectual superstar who trained as a doctor, left Paris and went to work in a leper hospital in the West African jungle. He went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his medial work there. He uses all these insights to weave together a compelling, fresh argument about how we conduct our relationships, make decisions about the life we lead and the crucial importance of empathy. He concludes that ‘The traditional way to think about social change is about changing political institutions – new laws, new policies, overthrowing government and so on. I think social change is actually about creating a revolution of human relationships’ 

Finally, yesterday, the think tank Policy Exchange published a short pamphlet by Anthony Seldon the distinguished historian and teacher on The Politics of Optimism. It sets out not just an abridged history about how 20th century Government succeeded and failed but also sets out a framework to  revivify the Big Society concept and to rediscover the entire purpose of Government in the 21st century.

His central supposition is that the Coalition Government needs to take a more activist role to redress the damage done by government over the last 50 and more years.

This creates the ironic position that government action is needed to help ensure that the role of government is reduced in the future. Since the advent of the welfare state, government policy has eroded the capacity of individuals, families and communities to look after themselves. It has degraded individual autonomy by its intrusion into the lives of individuals and families, and by reducing personal responsibility. It has nurtured the belief that others are to blame for difficulties and misfortune and that others will solve the problems, rather than the individuals and families themselves. It has corroded autonomous bodies and actions within communities, often for the very best of motives, but with a diminution of individual and community agency’

Seldon goes on to argue that schools and universities need to play a more prominent role in developing a Big Society, that more should be done to support the traditional family, to recommend a whole suite of community initiatives and to champion more ‘early intervention’ measure around public health, youth unemployment and social housing.

Seldon calls for activism and optimism to be a the heart of the next stage of the Big Society evolution to restore trust in Government and institutions, to help the Coalition define its domestic programme and to help Britain come through the current economic crisis as a stronger more cohesive society.

Seldon is no naive optimist. He has a peerless insight into how modern British governments operate and the statecraft required to make them effective.

Seldon’s New Year political message is a measured but hopeful one. Krznaric sees the lessons in the past as guide to how we can develop an art of living,  a way of conducting our relationships and of bringing about enduring social change.  Rangaswami looks to the future and the technologies we have at our disposal and open data ‘the new raw material of the 21st century’ as ways of usurping institutional inertia and stalled progress.

From there different vantage points they offer up fresh ways of thinking about how Government operates, how we can conduct our human relationships and how we can harness the unique affordances of our age to create a bigger, better and more open society.

Over the coming days and weeks I will be setting out how the Big Society Network – an organisation built on optimist view of human nature and upon enriching human relationships and how technology can aid and support these ambitions – will engage with partners to deliver ambitious plans for 2012.

Happy New Year!

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