I am a long-term admirer of Fintan O’ Toole’s writing but in his recent analysis of the factors which triggered Brexit (Not just the economy, stupid – Brexit is about belonging) he mistakenly suggests structural inequality and fiscal austerity had less traction in influencing vote leave behaviour than nationalism and identity politics. This is putting the cart before the horse. The cause and effect trajectory here is that 10 years of economic hardship as typified by the austerity policies of successive Conservative governments undermined social rights to such a degree that many UK citizens were predisposed towards the nationalistic fallacies of the leave campaign. Unemployment, low wages, substandard housing, declining health care, collapsing social care services alongside the cultural myths of nationalism pulled citizens over the Brexit cliff. It was the economy, stupid which lit the fuse for the turbo-charged nationalism and identity politics channelled so cleverly into a nation building and EU blaming salve for the less privileged and marginalised communities across the UK.
It is clearly the case that we cannot understand authoritarian populism and its cousin cultural nationalism without attending to the cultural mechanisms through which widening class inequality, rising poverty and the erosion of social solidarity have been legitimated in the UK and here in Ireland. Neoliberal culture and the unkind social policies it fosters works both to copperfasten consent and to breed political inertia.
Albert Einstein thought that nationalism was an infantile disease- the measles of mankind. For many Irish people it is our life blood - the political plasma of a progressive society. Above all they view the nation as an organic entity emerging out of a basic human goal - to gravitate towards others who have the same views, habits, lifestyles and appearance as themselves. However our population is now so different and has such different views, needs, attitudes and beliefs that an attempt to homogenise is certain to fail. Harking back to a hundred year old nationalistic road map where children are to be trained as citizens of a ‘Gaelic Ireland’ does not make sense now, for obvious reasons. Separating the wellbeing of children from that of their families is impractical and implausible. Family, in all its diverse forms, is the most important social institution in Irish society. As we know, the Irish State from its foundation in 1921, was economically conservative and strongly promoted a nationalistic project which re-moralised parent-child relations in order to produce compliant worker-citizens and inculcate in them a respect for religious and Gaelic cultural authority. In this politically designed project the task of parents was to socialise their children to make them ready for an educational system which was sectarian and nationalistic. In this way family life was both privatised in line with neo-liberal principles and steered according to the ideological wishes of church and nationalists. The plight of children and their families in 21st century Ireland deserves more than to be referenced in some adult-centric nostalgia for the ambiguous nationalist project of a hundred years ago.
Families and their children need sufficient income to allow them to live free of hardship and stigma. Inequality in Ireland is on the rise. In the absence of good quality public services (childcare, housing, health, education, eldercare) families must find their own solutions to life events and socially generated problems. The key organizing principle of the Irish economic system is that society works best when each person individually seeks to maximise their own utility or satisfaction in the marketplace. According to TASC, Ireland is the second most unequal society in Europe before income transfers (taxation, social welfare payments, and pensions) apply. Only high unemployment Greece is worse. Social Justice Ireland have made and continue to make the case for increased investment in social infrastructure to reduce inequality and build a fairer society for families and children. The OECD have also called for greater investment in public services.
Ten years of austerity has pushed the public realm to breaking point. The benefits of decent public services- housing, health, welfare, education- in reducing the impact of multi-dimensional inequality are obvious and well documented. Instead of the traditional algorithms of nationalism we need a shared sense of kindness and social patriotism to forge a new humanity driven approach to public policy
Unkind public policymaking manifested as ‘sticky floors’ and ‘sticky ceilings’
Evidence from the UK demonstrates that individuals who have experienced long-range upward mobility compared to their parents fare better than less fortunate peers on a wide range of dimensions (civic participation, contact with parents, close personal relationships, social support, subjective -wellbeing). Enhanced social mobility prospects affect individual’s happiness levels by improving financial security and thereby reducing status anxiety and health damaging stress levels. In addition to diminishing subjective well-being and happiness, static social mobility is likely to weaken social cohesion, heighten feelings of social exclusion, and undermine trust. Downward mobility compromises responsible democratic participation and may result in extreme or radical voting behaviour. There are policy levers available to the government which can reduce or prevent socio-economic advantage or disadvantage being passed from one generation to another.
What matters is not only the overall public resources devoted to education, housing and welfare –which clearly need to be increased- but also their quality, their emotional intelligence and kindness.
Kindness in public policymaking - the recognition of the importance of human connection and relationships for individual and societal wellbeing- needs to matter more as without acts of kindness the ‘state’ and also the market would cease to function. The choice which now faces us is whether we carry on with making Ireland a great country to do business in nationalist project and expand the vertical and hierarchical rather than the horizontal and egalitarian dimension of our society-whether we increase inequality and the status divisions between us, or reduce them and improve the quality of social relations and well-being for everyone. A recent OECD Report confirms what most people are seeing around them in Ireland today- families, children and communities are trapped on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Metaphorically speaking social mobility acts as a set of escalators which allow some people to improve their life chances and wellbeing while others fall. The speed and availability of escalators varies considerably for different families, communities and children and the chances of upward or downward mobility is therefore unevenly distributed in the population. The OECD Report A Broken Elevator? How To Promote Social Mobility details the ‘sticky floors’ which prevent people from moving up. Growing up in families experiencing economic hardship and having parents with poor health disadvantages children and affects their health too. Children with poorer educated parents are less likely to successfully progress through the education system. The occupational class of parents is a determining factor in how well individual children do in their own working lives and broader occupational social mobility prospects for younger generations are less favourable now than they were for previous generations. In addition to the ‘sticky floors’ which are restricting social mobility for much of the population there are also ‘sticky ceilings’ operating which ensure that the more powerful and affluent can pass on their advantages to their children. ‘Sticky ceilings are maintained primarily through the educational system but also by promoting better health, wellbeing and occupational choices for the children of the better off. The lack of social mobility has important consequences for society. It can reduce economic growth. Opportunity hoarding means that many potential talents at the bottom of the income ladder are missed out on or remain under-developed. Prospects of upward mobility have a positive impact on life satisfaction and wellbeing.
The vocabulary of policymaking is often dominated by transactional thinking based on facts and figures which allow for scrutiny and challenge. Public policy is also engaged with human emotions- with the needs, feelings and hopes of people. It is concerned with the fabric of people’s lives- shelter, health, care, parenting, personal and private relationships- and the emotional values of kindness, love and compassion. We are all familiar with kindness which brightens our day. However radical kindness requires major changes in the way that the state runs and manages services. The power of kindness cannot be underestimated and action on widening the radius of kindness from individuals and communities to our institutions can help to humanise and improve the effectiveness of the policies urgently required to create a more egalitarian family-centred society. Kindness has been adopted as a core value by the Scottish Government in its 2018 National Performance Framework. Ireland is facing major challenges but a commitment to a new social contract incorporating the value of kindness to enhance solidarity, trust and wellbeing will help to promote a family-centred growth model in which the wellbeing of children is the metric of success.
Dr Colm O'Doherty
Colm O’Doherty is lecturer in the Dept of Applied Social Studies, IT Tralee. A qualified social worker with extensive practice experience, he has researched and published in the areas of social policy, child protection, domestic violence, community development, social work, family support and parenting. He is the author of A New Agenda for Family Support, Providing Services That Create Social Capital (2007) and co-editor of Community Development in Ireland: Theory, Policy and Practice (2012) and Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland (2015). He holds a PhD from UCD.