The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili is a brilliant show on BBC Radio 4 discussing the career of famous scientists with the scientist. The scientist is then able to discuss their work against the context of their life. It is a thought provoking and fascinating show which recently celebrated its tenth year anniversary.
In the opening section of that show, the panel discussed the weird stigma, othering, and decompartmentalisation of scientists as nonhumans or oddities, as well as a culture of othering which has become all the more pronounced during the time of Covid-19.
They discussed how this attitude is unhelpful for science and the cause of science, especially as scientists share the concerns of others in society. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said something which really stuck with me: everyone is a scientist.
She went on to explain that all scientists ask a few key questions: how does it work? how can I make it better? how can it be better? Everyone asks these questions about something in their life, so anyone can be a scientist and is capable of valid scientific thought.
Science is for everyone but this culture of othering renders people afraid of speaking up or contributing, when at its heart, science is questioning things to try to gain a better understanding. It is unhelpful to think of science as an exclusive, inaccessible thing, where people are incapable of scientific thought, contributions or ideas. At its heart, science is questioning things to try to gain a better understanding.
The same applies to politics
There is a lot of internet traffic about politics. People despair about what they see as a failure of the political class on all sorts of issues. This failure is happening all over the world but there does seem to be an exclusivity problem with politics, in much the same way as there is with science.
Our system seems designed to keep people out of most of the important decision-making processes governing our lives.
There is a regular invalidation of ‘other’ political voices, and an insistence on certain politicians or commentators who are regularly presented as experts or the only ones properly qualified. Sort of like, well, aristocrats. These aristocrats are the people who can heroically take the political narrative one way or the other but they are very much separate from the rest of us. Their politics is presented as valid or legitimate, whereas everyone else’s is not.
We are all allowed politics and political thought. If we are not, then we do not live in a democracy in any form other than name. Our political voices are valid. They should be assigned more value and – crucially – more power. In a sense, we are all politicians – we are definitely stakeholders.
When we are denied our voice, our political thoughts become impotent, diminished and wrongly relegated. People become disillusioned, frustrated or contemptuous which is a justifiable response to the failure of modern politics to deal with the many mushrooming crises and problems challenging nations and the citizens of the world.
High skill, high wage future
The reader maybe beginning to wonder what this has to do with the high skill, high wage future which Boris Johnson pledged at the last Conservative Party conference or, indeed, with the Midlands. I am hoping that you take the point that everyone’s thoughts or ideas are valid and that there should be a wider discussion of policies and ideas. We should not restrict our political culture to those personalities or aristocrats described earlier.
Wilson did it first
Johnson is not the first prime minister to pledge a high skills, high wage future. Harold Wilson did something similar in his ‘White Heat’ speech of 1963. Turning his words into reality proved difficult for Wilson. His attempt was arguably a failure and more of a unifying banner for the Labour Party.
It is a superficially seductive idea for the public and an equally seductive proposal for politicians too as it allows them to rally support but to conveniently defer any judgment of policies, initiatives or strategies to the future.
It is remarkable that the golden future as a political or propaganda idea still has such currency. It has been the go-to manipulative rhetoric of so many political regimes or movements throughout history, including the most extreme and violent ones.
This kind of talk anaesthetises many to the challenges and the realities of now. It stops people assessing and evaluating the things around them with a ‘jam tomorrow’ rhetoric. Luckily for a number of politicians, the rhetoric tends not to be objectively scrutinised but it works like magic for winning political debates or support in the here and now.
But right now is important in this discussion of the fanfare of Johnson’s pronouncements. It is a great insult to describe the current workforce as low skilled or of lower value.
In reality, Johnson now holds all the levers of government, yet he presides over a lower wage and income economy, inflation caused by Brexit and the supply chain crisis, below-inflation pay rises for public and private sector workers, cuts to universal credit, a devaluation of the pound, the attack on pensions, the explosion in foodbank use, benefit cuts and tax increases.
The government could have chosen differently but, right now, for the vast majority of people we have less money in our pockets and a society with stark inequality problems.
Why should we take Johnson seriously?
It is difficult to take seriously the pledges about a high wage, high skill future if your choices right now are low skilled work, lower pay and worse conditions from a government who regards the current workforce as being of a lower value.
When will this miraculous transition take place? Are we eligible for the high skill, high wage future right now or is it only for future generations? What sectors will these jobs be in? What challenges, needs, issues or problems of the economy or for society will they tackle?
Who is asking the hard questions?
These are hardly unreasonable political questions to ask but few seem to be asking them, even on the benches of the political opposition. Like levelling up, there has been little public discussion about this will all come about. If Johnson has the solutions to regional inequalities, if he knows how to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable and well-paid job, then why does he not tell us?
Not only would the British public be interested – amazed even – but the government would be giving a policy lead to the whole world. Every other government would want to learn this special policy alchemy of how to solve the similarly intractable problems in their own countries.
So far, all that has happened is Johnson has threatened to withold money from regions in order to get his way in Parliament. He behaves like the World King he believes himself to be, deciding who he will or will not grant favour to at court. Meanwhile, the regions are emasculated in terms of political or economic power and influence.
Even the governments recently published white paper by Minister for Levelling Up Michael Gove, despite its grand sounding rhetoric, does not anything like properly or meaningfully identify key sectors or industries for growth and instead is mostly proposing to reverse austerity cuts in education and training, which, bizarrely Gove oversaw when in office as Minister for Education a decade ago. So, Michael Gove, fixing the wrongdoing of previous Michael Gove’s would appear the most important strategy identified so far to ‘Level Up’.
The Midlands has real problems with underemployment, lower pay and poverty but has no say or involvement in solving its own problems. It is entirely dependent upon the whims of the aristocrats at the Westminster court.
That does not sound very democratic to me. Those who voted for the Conservative Party are not fully a third of the electorate, let alone the population (14 million votes out of an electorate of 45 million). Furthermore, it is certainly not democratic to exclude the suggestions, policies or proposals of people as to how the high skill, high wage future could be realised.
The failure of golden rhetoric like ‘high skills, high wage’ or ‘ The Northern Powerhouse’ will have real consequences for real people.