I once worked in the Economic Development section for a local authority in South Wales. There was a project run by our department that focused on young people, an officer would visit Comprehensive Schools and run a competition that aimed to develop the youngsters business and entrepreneurial skills.
As a marketing professional, I would sometimes attend the workshops in the schools and assist or provide guidance relating to the marketing aspect of their project. It was a positive initiative that encouraged teenagers to think outside the box and expand their interpersonal and vocational skill base.
I will always remember visiting one school in the Afan Valley (an ex-mining valley in South Wales) and the look on the faces of some of the children when we were trying to engage them and inspire them to learn something new. It was the look of lost hope, of no ambition and of no self belief. I can remember the attitude that lingered over those same children, they couldn’t see outside their small valley in Wales and their future to them seemed already set there; a future of unemployment, alcohol or drug dependency and of poor health care. This was the reality that some of these kids had grown up in, they didn’t know anything else, it was possible that their parents were unemployed and alcohol or drug dependant, and their future for them seemed set to go the same way. That was why they carried a vague and empty look in their eyes, why ambition and belief were vacant.
My first assignment at Cardiff University as an undergraduate was to define ‘culture’ in two thousand words. The lecturer at the time proclaimed it was one of the most difficult words to truly define and after carrying out the assignment, I would have had to agree with his statement. But now, ten years since graduating, with more experience and having travelled extensively throughout the world, I would have to argue from a different perspective. Although ‘culture’ may be difficult to coherently define, what is more difficult in reality is to actually change ‘culture’. Culture is the most difficult thing to change within our world. Those who architect culture are those who control the world.
The Afan Valley and much of South Wales was the heart of the British coal industry. When Thatcher and her Conservative government closed the mines, overruling and disempowering workers, she was transforming the culture of thriving communities. Employment, wealth and prosperity were replaced with unemployment, poverty and social deprivation. Three or even four generations later, social deprivation has grown and within it, the bleakness of increased crime, drug and alcohol problems and kids growing up with no ambition, hope or belief. For some, there is a negative culture, a spiralling vicious circle of decline that is hard to escape and that can be seen by the simple look that is present, within some of the kids’ eyes.
Since 2010, we have seen austerity, first with a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, and then secondly under the sole guidance of the Tories. The worrying scenario we are in at the moment is that seven years of austerity within the UK has negatively impacted our culture; it has become the norm to accept that the NHS is underfunded, that there are cuts in education resources and that wages have frozen or declined. We have culturally accepted the major gap in inequality and have adopted a simplistic, but quite pathetic view of ‘that’s just the way it is’. The fear mongering press have doomed reality and people seem to live in the shadow of fear regarding terrorism, the failing economy and uncertain future. As my lecturer once pointed out, ‘culture’ may be a difficult word to define, but I think a fair evaluation of modern UK, is that the roots of our culture are in a state of decline. Our youth are not brimming with optimism and opportunity but faced with debt and unable to get on the housing market; four million children are living in poverty; health professionals are more or less screaming for help (there are videos across social media of doctors pleading to end austerity!) and our entire education system is underfunded. At the same time, under the conditions set by this Tory government, the rich are getting richer. Since when did greed and dominance come into fashion and replace compassion and unity? Why is the fifth richest country in the world operating like this?
The British government play a fundamental role in providing certain conditions for culture to flourish. If we are to continue with a Tory government and agenda, I do worry that what we’ve seen in the valleys of South Wales over the past few decades could be replicated across major parts of the UK. Will more children carry that look in their eye of lost hope, no ambition and of no self-belief? Is that the road we really want to take? Do we want to live in a society where the inequality gap is sickening for the poorest among us? Such poverty, I witnessed in parts of India and my opinion is that it needs to be removed from the world, not encouraged.
It’s a universal law, change is the only constant. It is now our time to elect a transformative government willing to invest in the NHS, education, infrastructure, industry, create a publicly owned National Investment Bank and secure workers rights. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour government have produced a manifesto and indicated costs that will transform the UK. It is one that shows hope, ambition and will instil belief; all essential ingredients for culture to flourish positively. With such policies being implemented, we will be the architects of a future offering opportunity for the many, not the few.