Eyes on the prize


Max Cotton says it’s time to stop being distracted by political divisions and prioritise the challenges posed by climate change.

My father was sitting at a set of traffic lights in his Ford Prefect in the late 1950s. He lit up the last of his cigarettes – Players’ Navy Cut – and tossed the empty packet out of the window. Within a second the packet was back up in his face – speared on the end of a rolled umbrella – and a suited and bespectacled old lady was glowering down at him.

‘Young man.’ She said ‘Do you want this?’ Dad said he didn’t. ‘Well neither does Guildford.’My old man used to laugh when he told this story – a callow and mortified young chap and an indignant doughty citizen who wasn’t going to take any crap – not after Hitler’s bombs. 

The real reason it was a good story was because it was so unusual. He chucked a fag packet out of the window. So what? We used to do – well, pretty much what we wanted. Every other carriage on the tube was a smoker. I remember the pavements of Fulham in the 1970s as sea of dog shit and – horror of horrors – my initials, along with many other Wiltshire school boys, are neatly carved into the rocks at Stonehenge.

The idea of asking a British citizen to go through their rubbish and separate it out into four different bins would have seemed preposterous a few decades ago – unless it could’ve helped make Spitfires. So the gulf between the children of the 60s and the millennials seems huge. 

And yet post-war governments did whatever they liked too. Any social history documentary about the 1960s would list the abolition of capital punishment, the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adult men and the Abortion Act of 1968 as absolutely fundamental to the development of modern Britain. They are the headlines of the 60s.

Max Cotton is a broadcaster and former political correspondent for the BBC

Asking a British citizen to go through their rubbish and separate it out into four different bins would have seemed preposterous a few decades ago

Eyes on the prize

But was an end to hanging in Labour’s 1964 manifesto? Was it hell. Was the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 a big doorstep issue in the 1966 general election? Not on your nelly. Our society was turned on its head between 1964 and 1969 with no mandate whatsoever from the British people. These were not bottom up changes. They were imposed on us against our will. Among Conservative party members, 54 per cent still support capital punishment 50 years after its abolition.

Today, millennials tend to take the built and natural environment seriously; they are blind, without many exceptions, to race and sexual orientation. The real change came when Home Secretary Jack Straw first linked the word ‘rights’ with the word ‘responsibility’ in 1998. As a concept it has taken hold and is written tall and bold across the citizenship ceremonies of western Europe. 

It came at a time when political solutions to the problems of a rapidly changing society became less obvious; when post-Thatcher governments started to struggle to meet our expectations.That failure has meant that in many ways we now take responsibility ourselves rather than wait to be told what to do.

We faff around putting our rubbish into different bins. We queue for ages at the dump with garden waste. Someone smoking near a pregnant woman can expect to be told to do one. Throw a cigarette packet or a pizza box out of a car window and you are likely to be stopped by the motorist behind you. 

We are also honing our views on what is and is not OK in other directions. More of us believe that immigrants speaking English and understanding British values are important than we did 10 years ago. More of us see skills as a determining factor in accepting migrants than we did 10 years ago.We also have a society that is confident in its ability to regulate itself. But what does this mean for the challenges we face?

Mostly, it means that we have to learn to put aside our differences; to take a long deep breath and agree on the issues that matter most.

Is there general consensus that we need to address global warming? Won’t the government – of any colour – cave under the pressure to address environmental issues? Yes. Just as long as our environmental concerns do not become too polarised. But Brexit has completely polarised our political world. Most of us believe that how you voted in June 2016 tells us a lot about who you are: I’m Leave and a bit of a petrol head; I’m Remain and a bit of a hippy. We can only address the challenge of climate change if we put these differences aside. All of us need to just lie down, shut our eyes and think of David Attenborough.

Not smoking in someone’s face and caring about what we do with our rubbish have become the norm because most of us thought they should. Bluntly, citizen power will only work if  White Van Man and crusty jugglers can be on the same page.

Author bio

Max Cotton is a broadcaster and former political correspondent for the BBC.

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