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'The public sector attack will turn society into an uglier place'


I was reading recently about a group of older Japanese scientists who have volunteered to go and work at the still stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant in a bid to make it safe.

The logic of the scientist who brought the group together, Yastel Yamada, is as clear as it is generous. He says: “The cancers that are formed by the radiation take 10, 20 or 30 years to appear. Most of us will be dead by then.”

Their aim he says is to “put the nuclear monsters to sleep”.

I have mentioned this story to a few people and the responses are interesting, not so much because of the different take people have but because of the emotions that underpinned their responses.

Some considered it brave, others logical. One said: “I bet they’ll want big money.” Another said: “Are they retired kamikaze pilots looking for glory?”, which struck me as cynical or at least disrespectful.

Other people doing something noble or good can make us feel uplifted or humbled, perhaps. Or maybe it can make us feel inadequate, slightly lessened.

I wonder if the latter set of emotions may be underpinning the current Tory led-assault on public service workers.

They say it is about economics. We hear politicians argue about what is economically desirable or possible. That it is not possible for the public sector to continue to drain on resources. We are told off for running up the national debt and given dark warnings about the deficit. The economics of cuts are thus presented not as political - that is a choice about how to express power, vision or values - but as inevitable. “We have no choice,” they say, “we have to do this.”

Now, personally, I don’t think they do. I think there are probably other ways of reorganising our collective wealth that would enable us to get through these difficult times. Cut back on the wars, for example. Or tax avoidance. Or re-examine the surreal relationship government has with the banks, perhaps. However, none of that is going to happen, so arguing about economics seems a distraction. So perhaps we should argue about politics.

I was chatting to a colleague who was talking about his wife. She is a social worker. By all accounts she is a brilliant social worker. She has been working with vulnerable people for 22 years and earns £30,000 a year. What is notable is that she will probably never earn much more than £30,000, no matter how brilliant she is.

Her doing that job makes our world a better place. Not only is she being useful for not very much money but also she is contributing meaningfully to making our society more civilised, more considered and more generous. Without her work, or the work of nurses - who are society’s main manifestation of caring being a social responsibility as opposed to an act of charity - our society becomes a darker, uglier, less civilised place, doesn’t it?

Politically speaking, how we value things like duty, responsibility, generosity and kindness are rarely discussed. Yet they define us.

The nature of the assault on wages, funding and pensions is at best graceless, isn’t it? It is not respectful nor considered but aggressive and confrontational. I wonder what underpins it. Is it dislike? Embarrassment? Misanthropic intolerance?

Or is it a political attempt to shift our values fundamentally to the point of eradicating the social expressions of duty, responsibility and a commitment to the wellbeing of others?

It feels like the latter to me. This is all about politics dressed up as economics.


Readers' comments (45)

  • It's certainly a brave and noble sacrifice, I have great respect for the Japanese as a whole, where their society seems much more willing to produce this kind of gesture than ours. A result of culture and socialisation I expect.

    I also 100% agree with your other points. There is absolutely so many other ways of saving money than attacking essential public services.

    It is about HOW our public services, and those in it, are perceived in this society. As you say, duty, sacrifice, responsibility, those traits that define many of us in public services and drive us toward them in the first place, are only valued in this society in as far as they can take advantage of them. Those traits, and those who display them are certainly not respected or valued.

    The attack on public services is disgusting, and it is short sighted in the extreme. Without healthcare, without education, without internal and external security in the way of Policing and Military, etc, you do not have a society. Perhaps people need to be reminded of that? Perhaps we should force a fundamental shift in values. Without us, the country will grind to a halt and regress a few hundred years. It is about time we fought back, and by putting aside for the moment the ideals that brought us into our particular services for the moment, we can take these essential services away from society, and show those in charge just how essential we are, and they mess with us at their peril.

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  • michael stone

    The Japanese scientists are displaying altruism and logic, as it happens.
    Your overall 'flow' is very complex, but reducing this type of stuff to 'our job is more important than yours' is simplistic, because if you remove one cog-wheel from a long chain of them , it all stops working: which does not make any one cog-wheel 'more important than the rest'.
    I fear this particular debate, is too wide-ranging for me !

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  • Hello Michael, I wasn't trying to make a point about our job being more important than another, I was trying to make a point about how social relationships are fundamentally changed when the role of public service is attacked.
    A society where we contribute to institutions that look after people is more civilised where that kind of relationship only exists because of market forces. I think.
    Not sure about cogs and wheels, I'm not very technical :-)

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  • There is a 'then' missing in the above between 'civilised' and 'where', sorry.

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  • I agree wholeheartedly with you Mark. I think this shows why everyone is confused about Cameron's Big Society idea.

    It seems clear to me that the attacks on the health and social care sector do try to inculcate a view that they have less worth. I believe this has been a carefully orchestrated campaign between the Tories and the right-leaning press. It's a very sad time for our society.

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  • michael stone

    Thank you Mark, but it was towards mike that my 'series of cog-wheels' comment was aimed: mike gets quite hot under the collar, over a 'nurses are no less important than doctors' issue.
    As it happens, I think I agree with the point you were making, but I am not quite sure 'where it goes to'. Also, I think that fundamentally people should be 'rewarded' for the amount of 'effort' they put in to something, not necessarily just their 'ability to do it'. If someone cannot reach something in a supermarket, and I can, I just reach it for them - because it would be an effort for them, but is easy for me. If something is easy for me to do, and I can do it at no cost to myself, but it would be hard for someone else to do it, then if they want me to, I'll just do it, without expecting any particular thanks.
    As it happens by some measures, I am 'quite clever', but I was born that way - I can't take any credit, for being clever. On the other hand, plenty of my fellow students at university worked much harder than I did, on our chemistry course, but were never going to be 'as good at it' as I was: I 'grasped the subject' better, for much less effort, but I can't take some sort of 'moral credit' for that.
    If your point was that society must benefit everyone within it, not just some people, or else it isn't legitimate to expect those who do not benefit from society's rules to follow those rules, then I tend to agree with you. And I also think, for reasons which I cannot 'logically defend', that a civilised society does not simply 'improve itself in Darwinian terms'. Nazi euthanasia apparently 'improves society' but almost everyone, including me, instinctively objects to the idea that you can kill people merely because they are crippled, or old, etc, and 'are not useful'. On the other hand, I think I am overall in favour of assisted suicide, because I think a person is the judge of how acceptable his own life is - if someone claims to be suffering intolerably, then I think it is very cheeky to claim that you know better (I'm keen to keep God out of this !).
    I just think, the breadth of this topic, is too wide to be easily handled, unless I am misinterpreting the fundamental point ?

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  • Well said Mark. Straightforward and spot on as usual.

    michael stone | 30-Jun-2011 12:05 pm

    Michael, interesting point that work should be rewarded for effort rather than ability alone. If that principle were to be applied to Nursing, then this country really would not be able to afford our profession (along with quite a few others).

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  • michael stone

    Mags | 30-Jun-2011 11:27

    It is more the converse, which I believe in: just because there are less consultant doctors than nurses, does not entirely justify a huge pay gap, if the people who end up as consultants, found it no more difficult to get there.
    This is moving way off topic - but I think society would be much healthier, if the wages at the top of an organisation, and the bottom, were not too far apart. If the cleaners are working fairly hard, and getting £15,000 a year, then the Chief Executive probably only deserves £75,000 a year, or even less, if he is working equally hard - not 20x as much !

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  • Michael, I think that you may have misunderstood me. You and I are making the same point.

    However, I would go further. It isn't simply about paying the Chief Executives less (which should happen anyway), it's about paying Nurses what they are worth. In all the hoo-ha about the state of the country's deficit and the subsequent attack on the Public Sector, what has been forgotten completely is that Nurses remain underpaid. Only in very recent years, have we secured better pay and conditions, but not nearly good enough. I have been nursing for almost 30 years, I have three degrees, a variety of post grad diplomas and certificates (and my learning is continuous), and massive experience which I know contributes to the well-being of others and saves lives. I also continue to work very hard. In other words, I'm just the same as many other Nurses. And like the Social Worker in Mark's article, I will most probably never make much more than £30,000. My pay and increments are being frozen, and now my pension is under attack. The treatment of my profession by this and other governments, and now by increasing numbers of the general public IS disrespectful and intolerant. Don't be surprised when we start to bite back.

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  • Well said Mags, I really could not have said that better myself.

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