In a hundred years from now our species may well have been washed away by melting polar ice caps, vaporised in some nuclear squabble between narcissistic man-babies, or enslaved by the all-powerful Lord Buckethead. But it’s also possible we might still be kicking around, in which case our great-grandkids might want to hop in their time machines and see first-hand the kinds of issues we were confronting as a society in the early part of the 21st Century. If so – and in case they are reading this – may I humbly suggest that they could do worse than to travel back to 18th April 2017 and stay for a couple of months? During that short period they would find a relentless stream of incidents that neatly encapsulate many of the problems currently facing our state.
Within hours of arriving they could witness Theresa May announce a surprise general election, easily overriding a recently-signed law that was designed to deter prime ministers from going to the polls on a whim. That announcement kick-started a seven-week soap opera in which the leading lady and many other characters bore little resemblance to real people, instead coming off as wooden and over-rehearsed. The script was full of clichés and platitudes, which might have been for the best because some of the main actors fluffed their lines when asked to say anything more complicated.
Occasionally our time travellers would see the tone mercifully become more substantive for a while, but this wouldn’t always be pretty either: indeed, it would shine a light on just how intractable some of our challenges are. Our recent debates about public services have underlined how difficult it is to hold onto principles we hold dear like free healthcare and free education when our population is growing, ageing and in need of more skills than ever before. The ongoing discussions about Brexit have highlighted how international institutions like the EU can seem overbearing to a good chunk of the electorate, but moments such as the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change have simultaneously made those same institutions seem strangely impotent. Voters have bemoaned the loss of jobs to automation, the obscene price of housing and the rising gap between rich and poor – all good points, all lacking obvious solutions.
On two occasions before the vote was held, the country united in horror at the mass murder of innocent people in Manchester and London. These horrendous incidents made some of the other debates seem trivial by comparison, and served as stark reminders that there are those among us – perhaps thousands nationwide – whose religious fervour leads them to wish death upon us all, adults and children alike. The response from most of the public was moving beyond words, but a few also used these moments as an excuse to demonise whole communities, attempting to drive a wedge between “us” and “them”, and risking more of the kind of violence that saw an MP murdered on the street this time a year ago.
Perhaps our great-grandkids would be shocked at the manner in which parts of our national press further stoked those tensions during these two months, with one calling the election a chance to “crush the saboteurs” who oppose Brexit. In this campaign, more than perhaps any other, those publications abandoned any pretence of balanced coverage in favour of vitriol and distortion – and they did so with impunity, because the party expected to win the election promised in its manifesto to abandon the modest reforms to press regulation that were proposed following the 2011 hacking scandal. The lack of a trustworthy source of printed news has driven even more people to the internet, where there is so much unverified information in the ether that everyone can cling to whatever “facts” they wish to believe. True expertise has been increasingly derided and demagoguery seems like a real threat again, both here and abroad.
We, the British public, are not entirely blameless for our country’s predicament either. Too many people think that the extent of their civic duty is to vote every few years – and even that responsibility seems beyond some, who don’t bother to do even the slightest research into the options available, making their decisions instead for a range of terrifyingly idiosyncratic reasons. On the other hand, you can forgive people for not making the effort when they probably won’t even get the Parliament they vote for – last week our electoral system produced an outcome in which number of votes didn’t even vaguely resemble number of seats, and where millions of voters were incentivised to vote for their second or third choice candidate out of tactical necessity.
Taken together, the issues laid bare by these past eight weeks seem so overwhelming that one could be forgiven for thinking that our situation is hopeless. And yet, we are fortunate enough to be living in what is surely the greatest moment in human history (so far): living conditions are the best they have ever been, with a smaller proportion of people living in absolute poverty than ever before; we have easily seen greater advances in technology during our lives than at any other time in history and we live in the same era as some of the greatest pioneers the world has known; we have access to more information than has ever previously been collected together; and despite the constant bad news we see and read, the world is generally more tolerant and less violent than in any generation that has preceded us. Put simply, there has never been a better opportunity for human beings to improve their lot than right now.
All of which begs the question: why is our list of problems so long and complex when our potential for solving them is so great? Why is there such a disconnect between what we could be achieving and the actual state of our civic life? That question is why Update The State exists: to be honest about our problems, yes, but also to explore potential solutions. We won’t be limiting ourselves to these rather lofty “macro” questions though – we will also be commenting on the political events of the day, explaining why we think people in public life are either on the right track or coming off the rails. The aim here is to strike a balance between day-to-day commentary and more long-term questions, without privileging one at the expense of the other.
A quick word about the name and scope of this blog. I chose the moniker Update The State not just because it rhymes and the Twitter handle was still available, although both of those things certainly helped to seal the deal. The word “update” is used deliberately instead of “abolish” or “overthrow”, reflecting a belief that the state can and should be a force for good in the world, even if sometimes fails in that mission at present. The word “state” is also chosen carefully, and is meant in the broad definition of the word, incorporating not only government but also institutions such as public services, the mass media, and civil society as a whole. In my view, each of these plays a role in the problems we face – this blog is not intended as a platform for single-mindedly bashing politicians.
That being said, I would like for this site to welcome a range of views – so it is entirely possible that contributors will have fundamental disagreements on what kind of state would constitute a “force for good”, and on what sort of updates would help us move closer towards that ideal. This website will hopefully therefore take us on quite a journey – and we would love for you to join us both as a consumer of our content and as a creator of it (seriously, we’re looking for writers and podcasters. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested!)
I like to think that if indeed our great-grandchildren could travel back and see what we’re doing today, they would not only be shocked at the number and size of our problems, but also proud of our resolve to work through them. I hope that this website makes some small contribution to that effort – because after all, history will judge us on how well we update our state.