Friday, 31 August 2012

The Bigger Picture

Well, as predicted we have a double dip recession. No one should really feign surprise given the turbulent world economy and the complete failure to date of the Eurozone to make decisive and effective plans for their intra economy. How we dig ourselves out of this mess is becoming more urgent an issue which is going to require action rather than merely babysitting the economy until it gets stronger.

I'm no economist, and thankfully no politician either, but I suspect it's going to take a situation more desperate to precipitate the necessary action for recovery, whatever that may be. Far reaching, bold decisions which focus on the "bigger picture" are rarely popular, neglect the individual and compromise the many "smaller pictures" of which they are composed. Who is to say which is right, let alone preferable, but changing direction with a heavy load in tow - be it massive debt, unemployment, social deprivation or all of the above - is never easy.

Whilst I admire those who take such bold and frankly terrifying decisions I'm not sure I could ever ignore the individual to such an extent. Sir Winston Churchill made a first class leader during wartime Britain because he possessed this attribute - yet not so many years later Britain's electorate was quick to dismiss an apparently uncaring politician. But tough times call for tough measures - the Battle of Britain would never have been won if Churchill and his government had allowed themselves to focus on the individual pilots, giving way to misty eyed sentimentality would have cost us the War - and the future of millions. But how you justify the decisions taken on such a large scale when those very decisions cause the suffering of many individuals is a dilemma as old as time.

Take the Greek debt - the country's people suffer now, will suffer far more if the debt is to be paid off anytime soon but without paying that debt off, at least in part, the future of Greece economically, socially and politically is extremely fragile. Yet who is going to take tough decisions for the many at the expense of the few?

I think the crucial point is support and endorsement. If, as in Britain in 1940 there is a clear and definite threat, an almost certain future which is far less attractive, or more terrifying than any short term or individual sacrifice then there is invariably popular support for decisions aimed at a larger purpose which neglect the individual. But the current economic situation - whilst in desperate need of some far reaching, bold and decisive big plan lacks the social and political support it would need for any hope of success.

History used to be the "History of Great Men", the storytelling Whig History of the nineteenth century. Men like Macaulay and Trevelyan allowed for sweeping generalisations to facilitate their seemingly impossible task of chronicling History to portray the bigger picture. As an historian myself I abhorred the obvious neglect of the less important individual, of social and economic trends and the use of the past to justify the present but undoubtedly without their brave attempts to achieve so much we would have been deprived of the fascinating stories which contributed so much to the understanding and appreciation of our shared past.

Sir Herbert Butterfield pioneered a more rigorous and philosophical approach to History which continues to this day, and my subject has become more vibrant and far reaching as a result, but as it seems with every strand of life political correctness has stifled and devalued any recent attempts to focus on bold and revolutionary strategies to see themes and to "bravely go where no man has gone before"visualising the bigger picture.

What the present economic situation makes abundantly clear however is that we are a society of individuals, with overlapping, similar yet fundamentally different needs, desires and aspirations. Obtaining political consensus today is far more of a challenge than it ever was in the past, yet I shudder to think the desperate situation that might be needed to precipitate the necessary agreement for moving forwards. The bigger picture will eventually take primary importance and must do so if we are to escape the current recession - but I sincerely hope we don't neglect too many individuals in the process.

If this is making you think of the current political situation in the USA, you're not wrong. The Presidential campaign in America makes this clear as the two candidates attempt to bring millions of people together in their support, people from such different states as California and the Carolinas, Kentucky and New York. The bigger picture is at the heart of American politics, as candidates cleverly (or deviously!) hide their bigger goals with heart string twanging slogans to pile everyone on the political bandwagon. For me this is a clear warning of how focussing on the bigger picture must not disenfranchise swathes of people, of individuals in the process. It would take a dire situation indeed to legitimise such a process in the UK and we need to hang on to this thought as we seek a bold and daring strategy to escape our own economic turmoil that does remembers we are not, at least not yet, facing a situation as desperate as that of 1940. Business undoubtedly needs tax breaks, we need to stimulate growth without further burdening the country with debt and spending cuts from the heady days of Labour spending may well be necessary. But when I see those cuts falling disproportionately on the most disadvantaged in society I believe there has to be a better way. I'm all for bold, for brave, for aspiration and growth, for the bigger picture, for progress........ but it does not have to impact unfairly on those least able to speak up. Facebook is awash with comments about Romney's archaic posturing, but we need to stop and think before we do something similar here too.
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