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Opinion: Reflections On An Uphill Journey – Something Should Be Done

Published on: 3 Jul, 2014
Updated on: 7 Jul, 2014

UATW 002 470By Martin Giles –

Cycling from one end of the country to the other does not make you wiser – but it does give you the chance to observe a cross section of the country.

I will write further about some more general observations but this subject, I felt, deserved its own space.

It is to do with the current structure of our society, something common to practically all the towns and cities I saw. It was the existence of a strata of society that seems completely disengaged both economically and generally and made up of people who appear, feckless, rudderless, amoral even, yet often resentful and surly.

They seem uncaring, even about themselves (perhaps especially about themselves) but sadly materialistic; their aspirations, probably directed by celebrity icons, are often expressed in new cars, jewellery or so called “designer” clothes.

I suspect that their values and behaviour are a product of a poor environment, a chaotic and dysfunctional family life where there is no example of the the tenet most of us have to live by i.e. that you obtain monetary reward through work and creativity.

Of course, immorality or materialism is not limited to one layer of society, one only has to consider MPs expenses or the banking scandals to realise that, and this observation is not new, it has been made and written about many times before. But it is no less depressing for that.

One of my postings in the army was as an instructor at a junior soldiers battalion. Boys would join at the age of 16 and spend a year training before joining regular battalions.

It was common on the occasions when parents would come to watch passing out parades that they would approach us and ask us for our “secret”. How did we (often young men ourselves, not old enough to be parents of a 16-year-old) manage to change their unruly, irresponsible or lazy boy, who lacked any self-discipline, into a smart young soldier with good bearing and self-confidence? The parents found it truly miraculous.

I would reply we had no secret. There had been no miracle. It was simply the army environment. There was no option of staying in bed in the morning, of not doing something because you did not feel like it. There was a disciplined structure (although actually not of the robotic type often depicted). Everyone was given responsibility, even if it was only for themselves, and everyone was expected to carry out their duties. That was the norm.

Having thought further, I also suspect that the boys discovered that there were ways of gaining respect from themselves, and their comrades, other than academic prowess. Bravery, physical ability and stamina, being a good shot and putting others or your team first, are among attributes rightly respected in the army, in addition to intellectual ability.

Of course, we cannot put everyone who appears to be failing into the army, nor should our society become military but there are lessons to learn (or re-learn, these things are nothing new).

Perhaps some re-evaluation of our education system should be made. Perhaps we should expect more in the way of self-discipline from our students but recognise that their achievement does not have to be academic. In short, perhaps we should change the educational environment.

I suspect that the liberal attitudes fashionable from the 1960s on, however attractive and politically correct, have actually disadvantaged those who can least look after themselves, most of all. And I think it was wrong and unrealistic to aim for 50% of school leavers to go on to university. Instead, we should have developed much better vocational training, using, for instance, Germany as an example.

It is not socially responsible to ignore the problem and do nothing, resigning a large group of our population to a sad, pointless life, dependent on benefits or minimal wages. That was never the intention of those who set up the welfare state, and we all suffer the consequences.

It is an excellent thing to have a safety net but a terrible thing to encourage long-term dependence on the state because it can take away a man’s or a woman’s motivation, then their self-pride and self-worth and then, when that is gone, what is left?

Of course, it is relatively easy to write this stuff. I realise that. It is much harder to develop the policies and make the changes. The road would be fraught with difficulties and littered with obstacles. And there is no panacea or silver bullet.

But think on this: if a survey was done on what percentage of benefit payments was spent on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, tattoos and fast-food (and none of these things are cheap) I am sure that the results would be, if not shocking or even surprising, then worrying and very sad.

But it is not enough to tut and agree. We all bear a responsibility and we all form part of their environment. All the time we do not demand improvement, all the time we do not ask the awkward questions of our MPs and then think on the responses, the policies offered, all the time we do not even bother to vote accordingly we are failing in our duty and, effectively, turning our backs on those that need support.

One thing of which I am convinced, young men and idleness are a toxic mix. Young men are normally energetic, adventurous, risk taking and often mischievous. They seek peer approval. These things are part of the male condition. If they are not given outlets for these qualities they can easily be led astray. As the saying goes: “The devil makes work for idle hands.”

I don’t think that any able young man or woman (although women are, I believe, less naturally destructive), say between 18-35, should be given benefits without expecting something in return.

If an individual cannot find a job within three months I believe that the government should arrange some sort of employment for a basic wage rather than a benefit. I am sure we can all think of jobs that need to be done, repairing pot-holes to name but one.

Perhaps those without employment could volunteer, in return for their wage, for charity work, at home or abroad, or help out at over-stretched government offices. If we want a local example, perhaps a small gang of such people could repair our wretched High Street granite setts.

Any such employment must help. It would give their lives some shape, could help build their skill sets and make them more attractive to regular employers (and time to seek seek permanent employment should be factored in to the scheme).

Crucially it could make them feel better about themselves. And, although of less importance, it would also give tax payers something back for their financial support and give them less cause for complaint.

We really need our national politicians to tackle this problem. Unlike the state of the world economy or peace in the Middle-East this is a problem that is within their control.

Of course there will never be a perfect and complete solution, no one expects that. But something needs to be done. The status quo is not acceptable, it might even be dangerous because if too many feel completely disaffected, detached, even despised then civil disturbance can easily follow. What have they got to loose?

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Responses to Opinion: Reflections On An Uphill Journey – Something Should Be Done

  1. Ian Stronge Reply

    July 4, 2014 at 9:41 am

    What admirable sentiments, though it’s surely unrealistic to expect much from politicians, who’ve never satisfactorily managed to create an economic and social structure for everyone in peacetime. On the other hand, their gestures towards solving the intractable have left some tools and the occasional funding stream for others to work with outside the bureaucratic talking shops.

    I’m thinking of Community Interest Companies (C.I.C.s) and the like. We’re also lucky, in Surrey, to have plenty of rich donors to charitable funds.

    I have enjoyed your cycling saga. I suspect I, and many others, would also enjoy a series describing your efforts to bring your life skills to bear locally for the benefit of those you so obviously wish to help.

    I also believe you would gain much satisfaction from such activity around Guildford, through the Voluntary, Charity and Faith sector.

    So much is assumed about those others we rarely meet, hardly ever know. You are so well placed to introduce us to that “hidden” part of our community.

    How about it? Start at your local church, or the volunteer centre, or the youth club.

    • Martin Giles Reply

      July 5, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      I will give this idea some thought but my work on The Dragon can leave little time to spare.

  2. John Redpath Reply

    July 6, 2014 at 9:17 am

    A great article which made fascinating reading and left me with the thought “if only we could do that”.

    A question though. Is the number of people dependent solely on state benefits greater than 300 in 20,000? If not then little has changed since 1834, apart from the way they are cared for.

    Would a modern day workhouse offer a solution? It could allow young adults to experience work along with the social interaction that goes on with ones workmates. We’d just have to come up with a better name.

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