Joyce McMillan: We’re not so selfish after all

Edinburghs Social Bite project helped give homeless people a better Christmas. Picture: PAEdinburghs Social Bite project helped give homeless people a better Christmas. Picture: PA
Edinburghs Social Bite project helped give homeless people a better Christmas. Picture: PA
David Cameron’s notion of a ‘Big Society’ can’t compete with the civilising influence of a welfare state, says Joyce McMillan

IT’S a couple of weeks before Christmas and my hand is reaching for the off switch on my radio, as I flinch away from the tone and the content of the supposed “comedy” show that has been nipping my ears for the last few minutes.

The show is about a group of youngish thirtysomething British adults all of whom, to put it simply, are horrible. The women are bossy and manipulative, the men are whining, stupid and endlessly self-indulgent; the humour is based on the theory that this is how people are, and that any attempt by any of these characters to claim any motive beyond greed, lust and infantile selfishness is a lie waiting to be punctured, amid gales of heavy, mirthless laughter from the studio audience.

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I can’t remember – and don’t want to know – the show’s title; but to anyone who pauses to think about its meaning, it’s bound to seem more tragic than funny; bitter, depressing and nihilistic. And while I don’t wish to dwell for long on the obviously flawed and partial account of human nature that drives this kind of comedy, it’s worth remembering just how prevalent it has become across UK culture, as we turn our faces to the real world we inhabit this Christmas, with all its joys and contradictions.

For if there is one abiding truth about the kind of tragedy that hit Glasgow this week, it’s that such events remind us – in the most painful way – of the things that really matter to us, at Christmas and always. Faced with a horrific accident like Monday’s tragedy in George Square, we see not greed and selfishness, but the courage and calm of the emergency services, the kindness of passers-by, the empathy of strangers.


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And we also know this: that the families of those who lost their lives would give all they have, and every glittering Christmas present they have ever received, to roll back time, and to have their loved ones with them again.

What we know about human beings, in other words, is that while we need the basic means of life, and will grow desperate if deprived of basic security when it comes to food, shelter and safety, our other needs are less tangible, and often have more to do with finding a sense of purpose in life, with creating something worthwhile, and with forming good relationships, than with ever-increasing material wealth. The idea that material greed and self-aggrandisement is always the central motive of human action is useful, of course, if you are running an economy and politics based on the idea of perpetual material growth.

Yet the weight of the joyless propaganda about human nature needed to sustain that idea, the increasing social and environmental destruction imposed by it, the structural failure of the unregulated financial system it has spawned, and the sheer inefficiency of the grotesque economic inequality it produces, suggests that the “Selfish Gene” era of western politics is at last drawing to a close, with even some centre-right governments now attempting to introduce measures of “wellbeing” alongside those of crude economic performance; and that one New Year’s gift we could give ourselves might be to stop wasting time on the idea, routinely disproved by experience, that people will never make material sacrifices for gains that they value more than wealth – for love, for security, for community, or for a richer quality of everyday life.

Then secondly, we need somehow to stop wasting so much political energy on the abstruse right-wing notion – popular among transatlantic elites, but almost entirely rejected by ordinary voters – that the state has no role in expressing the most positive or altruistic aspects of human nature, and should back off and leave them to private charity, or what David Cameron once called the “Big Society”.

The theory is that if the state takes on the task of housing the homeless, healing the sick and supporting the needy, moral decay will set in, as people shrug off their moral and social responsibilities and leave them to faceless bureaucrats. It is a Victorian argument, and one from which British society was supposed to have moved on more than a century ago; but it enjoyed a strange rebirth in the neoliberal 1980s, and is now alive and well in some of the policy decisions of the present coalition government, including the staggeringly punitive and undignified “sanctions” regime under which British benefit claimants now struggle, vividly denounced this week by the Scottish Government’s new economic advisor, Harry Burns.

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And to this, all that can be said is that there is little or no evidence to support the anti-welfare state thesis. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the countries with the highest levels of welfare state provision are also those with the most active civil societies, and the highest levels of general wellbeing and, even more importantly, that in a functioning democracy, citizens regard the state not as some distant bureaucracy to be mistrusted and attacked, but as a primary representative of the people’s collective decisions and values, to be held firmly to account from day to day.

If the people of Glasgow show magnificent levels of compassion and solidarity in a time of tragedy, in other words, they do so not in conflict with official agencies like the police, the NHS, the fire service, but in harmony with them. And whatever name we give to our politics, I think we can reasonably ask this, as a vital element of the living democracy about which we have learned so much in Scotland this year: that our political institutions reflect not just one aspect of us, but strive to work in harmony with whole complex truth of our nature, including the kindness, compassion, and faith in each other that so often comes to the fore at this time of year – sometimes, alas, for the saddest of reasons, but also in the quiet happiness we feel when we finally come together to raise a glass with our nearest and dearest, and to share those moments of memory, understanding and laughter that we miss most when loved ones are lost, and on which no-one – mercifully – has ever been able to put a price.


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