Two Political Paths
Last week I spotted a small story in the South London Press that shone out like wintry sunshine to relieve the Covember gloom. Underneath a photo of some beaming Bermondsey residents was the news that they and other volunteers were planting 10,000 tulip bulbs to commemorate the founding of the Southwark Beautification Committee one hundred years ago. (I love the scope of the ambition implied in that name!)
The founder of this group was Ada Salter, the first female mayor in London. I hadn’t heard of her before, but when I consulted her Wiki entry – well, what a woman! As a committed Quaker, she insisted on living and doing social work in the slums. She co-founded the Women’s Labour League, researched social housing, successfully campaigned for the creation of the Green Belt, recruited women to the National Federation of Women Workers, and, at a conference in Switzerland she and Margaret Bondfield opposed Lenin’s motion for armed revolution – he lost.
As mayor of Southwark she planted 9,000 trees in the borough, filled every open space with flowers, demolished slum housing and in the teeth of fierce opposition built ‘utopian’ council houses at Wilson Grove that still stand as a model of good social housing. At the end of her term, she had spent hardly any of her expenses allowance. (Note that this brief summary hardly does her achievements justice.)
This faint glimmer was extinguished a few days later, though, with Gordon Brown’s warning that many developing countries will have to sacrifice their health and education budgets to servicing their debts, pouring their funds into City asset management companies – The Observer gave as an example Black Rock, which employs ex-chancellor George Osborne as an adviser on a salary of £650,000. At this point I felt I’d plunged through a mirror into a world devoid of sense or logic.
Leaving aside the trivial matter of his jobs at the Evening Standard as editor and subsequently editor-in-chief (which you would have thought wouldn’t leave him with enough time to perform duties worth £650,000 p.a.), this is the man under whom we lost our AAA credit rating, the balance-of-trade deficit worsened, and who imposed swingeing spending cuts knowing they were likely to lead to the loss of 1.3m jobs.
He has of course been comprehensively rumbled. It turns out the necessity of balancing the books was not as pressing as he made out, and that his insistence on austerity ensured that the precariat was on its knees when Covid hit, and public services had little resilience to cope with the surge in demand.
But Osborne sails blithely on, untouched by any of it, and bounding free of any consequences of either the Deripaska scandal (when he is alleged to have solicited an illegal donation from a foreign citizen) or the Parliamentary expenses scandal (in which he was said to have benefitted from ‘flipping’ his main residence). As with so many others in this and the previous Government, he has moved seamlessly from a prestigious public school to Oxford to the Commons, with politics a passing phase – a little go at leadership because that’s what they’re entitled to. But do any of them have a far-sighted and inclusive vision for their country?
The boarded-up neighbourhood policing centre at the bottom of our road, the insanitary warrens of office blocks converted into substandard housing – or 10,000 tulips in Bermondsey? I know which legacy I’d rather have.