It’s up to us

I once knew a businessman from England who kept in touch with me till his death. When his wife died he went to live with his married daughter in Denmark and his letters from there were full of comment on how different life was there. He had been a member of the Lions Club and District Commissioner for the Boy Scouts. So he was used to helping others as far as he could, but he found nobody in Denmark understood why he had done these things.

The unemployed, the old, mothers and children, widows and the unemployable were all materially well cared for, but the Danes had made such good laws that they were leaving all that to the government. They had given their responsibility to the government and felt no need to do any more.

Britain had good social services, but he remembered how that started with people helping themselves through their trade unions, building societies, welfare associations and co-operatives and by people like him getting together to use their wealth and their time to help those who could not help themselves. Then they formed the Labour Party and when it became the government, it set up a state social welfare system which provided free health services, support for the unemployed, free education and state pensions alongside those organisations and to fill the gaps they could not reach. Private charitable and self-help organisations still had a place.

My friend’s children, who were about my age, were therefore in the first generation in Britain to grow up without knowing hunger, malnutrition or crushing poverty. Some other European countries, like Germany, France and Holland were similar. People organised themselves to help themselves and those less fortunate than they were and then they were content to pay taxes so that government could provide the help that needed a big organisation. Their smaller organisations continued playing their part and people felt that they were also, by paying their taxes, helping their government, responsible to them, to share the work of caring for everyone.

That worked well until the children who had benefited from all this forgot that they had received it because their parents worked together with one other and their government to provide the opportunities in life that the rest of the world envied.

The clever daughter of a small shopkeeper got a better education at her local grammar school than her parents would have been able to pay for, got a degree at Oxford on a state student grant, went into politics and eventually became Prime Minister. By the time Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street, she looked at the ladder of social services that had made her success possible and didn’t like the idea of more people like her getting to the top and competing with her. So she kicked away the ladder so that they couldn’t climb up to the level she had reached.

Even when she was only Minister of Education, Thatcher stopped the 200ml bottle of free milk every school child was given daily. She had kicked away the first rung of the ladder, so poor children suffered hunger at school. As Prime Minister she destroyed the rest of the ladder and widened the divisions between rich and poor that previous governments had narrowed.

My elderly friend could have warned us. He didn’t live to see the Thatcherites who came to power in 1980 do such damage to Zimbabwe, but we had made the mistake of leaving it all to government and we paid the price. Whether we are talking about our economic wellbeing or general good governance, we must make sure we are involved. If we only vote once for a new government or a new constitution and then sit back, leaving it all to government, we can be sure politicians, being human, will feather their own nests and sooner or later get just as corrupt as the party of liberation has.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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