Deep in the Sussex Weald lives a group of somewhat elderly friends, self included, mostly comfortably retired after working lives also spent trying to make a difference to others: as teachers, political activists, community volunteers and/or charity trustees. All of us have benefitted, to a differing degree, from the post-war decades of improving affluence with: easy travel; free healthcare; university grants; plentiful, well-paid and secure employment; generous guaranteed pensions; inflated property values resulting in unexpected wealth; and peace. Yet we also all acknowledge we face the prospect of dying disappointed. This disappointment concerns our legacy to future generations but has nothing to do with money.
Yes, legacies usually refer to money or assets, which many people are not fortunate enough to accrue anyway. Those who acquire wealth by whatever means are free to pass it on to descendants, with little or no regard to its use for any social good. Sadly, all too often we see those who have the most being insatiably greedy for more, as with a past Prime Minister, inheritor of wealth, seeking further enrichment through seedy backchannels. It seems that wealth creates both influence and aphrodisiacal power, motivating such greed yet further. The combined wealth and power of a tiny minority, passed on to their future generations, perpetuates gross inequality in society, which separates people into alienated classes.
Those who receive such legacies are under no obligation to use them for good, though clearly some choose to do so. There are indeed dynasties of benefactors, and we all acknowledge that money has its uses. However, legatees may just as easily lack any social or moral compass; may unedifyingly fight over their slices of the cake, while causes in need should surely not have to depend on the whims of the fortunate.
No, the legacy of money is not behind the disappointment of our little group but what lies beyond our gift: the future others must live in. Whether poor or affluent, every citizen has, in theory, the opportunity to vote for those who may represent them both locally and nationally. These in turn act on behalf of the electorate to run the country. For some of us, the reality has produced failure, despite well-intentioned endeavours. Instead of seeing a future for the country (and our descendants who still dwell in it) of increasing social justice, excellent public services and the rising standard of living for which we have campaigned, we see our country descending into moral decay, corruption, and economic decline led by those actually elected.
We have campaigned passionately and yet our chosen candidates have too often not prevailed, our votes for losing parties wasted; we have tried to set examples but the system generally ignores us, so we are generally disappointed. If anything, though, our greater disappointment is in witnessing the systematic neglect of causes we hold dear: educational special needs; refugee support; science funding; language teaching; and European citizenship, to name just a few. Child poverty is increasing. Housing is unaffordable to many. Public services are shrinking. Jobs are ill-paid. Democracy has been sidelined. Progress should surely mean that the country we leave to others is a better place to live in than the one we joined, whether by birth or immigration? Yet here we are, in post-Brexit Britain, and this is the political and social legacy which so disappoints my socially and democratically minded friends and me – and no doubt many others throughout the country.
All is not lost, though. Whatever our material legacies, large or non-existent, everybody’s life bears other fruits: our effect on others; successes to which we have contributed; what we have created; the good we may have done. I am personally most proud of the legacy I leave the world in the form of my fine children and grandchildren. What they most want and cherish from our generation are examples of ethical values and wisdom, along with happy memories of (for the most part) stable childhoods and ongoing unconditional love, support and encouragement. These memes constitute true wealth, the sort most worth having and giving. With these behind them, it will be for them to address the agendas that I already hear most matter to them: commitment to science and climate action; a more inclusive, fair and decent society; well-being for all.
Financial wealth may continue to enable some undeserving inheritors to pursue further self-enrichment or privileged idleness, but I have faith that our next generations can and will find ways to inhibit its malign and divisive effects, and of using such resources they possess to make this country a better, less nasty place for everyone. They may also remember that even if my friends and I failed, we tried.