Am I living in the same country that I grew up in? Is it still recognisably the same? Frankly no. Do you remember when you were growing up and you felt sure of certain aspects of your life? You knew that if you were ill, you would be able to see a doctor, or go to hospital. And, if you did need medical treatment, it was free at the point of delivery.
Can you remember banking on the certainty of a train running to take you somewhere, unless there were floods or leaves on the line? Can you remember never doubting that schools would be open, whilst always hoping for a ‘snow day’ and that teachers would be in every classroom?
We knew that our postmen would deliver our post and have a friendly conversational exchange on the doorstep. Do you also remember that if you were out, he would leave your parcel with your neighbour? Do you remember when they checked on elderly neighbours? In fact, I believe that still happens.
Thinking further back still, as I am a baby boomer, I remember a time when even though I was teaching in challenging schools in deprived areas, that there was no one who didn’t have a home. This was the age of social housing: the wonderful provision paid for by taxes to prevent homelessness. I can honestly testify that I never saw a homeless person until the Thatcher government came to power (and I was living and working in London).
Crisis in the public sector
At the time of writing, it is difficult to think of many public sector professions/occupations that are not unhappy, who are not striking or severely disgruntled. Every day, on the news, we can see new sections of our public sector work force that are unhappy: airport baggage handlers, criminal lawyers, it appears that the list is endless…
All of this is deeply disturbing and shocking, but what I find so absolutely unforgivable is that nurses, teachers, social workers and many others have to resort to going to food banks to feed their families. Given their difficult jobs and relatively low salaries, “utterly shameful” doesn’t even begin to describe how awful the situation is.
Most of us don’t see our doctors and nurses regularly, but almost all of us see our postmen every day. I have been closely following their strike. Our postman and his colleagues are held in high esteem in our neighbourhood – they are a vital part of our community, so it would be callous not to be involved or supportive during this crisis. However, these terrible times have shown us how empathic or compassionate other people really are and sometimes it has been disappointing to discover a different set of values. There are those who are proactively supportive and there are bystanders who seem to have no idea of the trauma that comes with losing a job, especially now when the safety net is in holes and universal credit barely covers the basics.
A divided country
We are more divided than I ever remember. A state of affairs where we have people – and children – who are so privileged that whatever they want they feel they are entitled to get immediately, whereas many families can’t afford to feed themselves. This exceptionalism is ugly and it is to this country’s absolute shame that there are children embarrassed at having no food to eat when other children are demanding the latest phone or expensive activity. This illustrates clearly how in this country, we haven’t just got a public sector crisis, or an austerity crisis – we have an identity crisis, the root cause being an acute empathy deficit.
I have found it difficult to observe the fear of the future in the eyes of the public sector workers that I have come to rely on and who we now regard as friends. These people who have the same core values as I do, have more in common with me than people I have known for many decades, who have different politics.
Profit before people
I am very angry about how all our public sector are being treated, but as a result of my daily contact with our postman and his colleagues I can feel as if I have a front row seat to this ugly saga. I’m well aware of the possible job losses (like the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads), the long hours, the poor pay, the diminishing worker’s rights. I read about the details daily in the newspaper.
Talking to a retired postman very recently, I was struck by the similarities between what is happening to Royal Mail and what has been happening to the teaching profession: the tracking, the constant accountability and ticking boxes. Pupils or customers and the workers in these (and other) sectors are low down on the list of priorities. The main driver in our public sector jobs never used to be profit; now profit is more important than people. Now the most important consideration is the size of the manager’s remuneration.
This battle for the soul of this country is now being fought by our public sector workers. We know who they are: the nurses, doctors, paramedics, ambulance workers, train drivers, teachers, airport staff and postmen – among many others. This is their and our last stand. This is about the fight for humanity and decency, the fight for a country where people matter more than their bosses’ bonuses.
They need to win; we need to support them for all our sakes, and for the sake of decency. Be under no illusions, people will remember who was supportive and who just didn’t care.