“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad“. Sophocles did not, of course, have Boris Johnson in mind, but the dramatist’s line from Antigone has survived the passage of time, and two recent speeches – coupled with Johnson’s usual insouciance about the gathering storms that beset us all – suggest that Greek tragedy may be more relevant today than we think.
At the Glasgow COP, Johnson tried very hard to lighten the atmosphere, showcase his wit, and make hundreds of delegates laugh. The speech kicked off with a laboured attempt to recruit James Bond as an eco-warrior, and many of the delegates, far from amused, wondered whether this blond apparition had stumbled into the wrong gathering. Barely weeks later, in front of the CBI, he mumbled on about Peppa Pig, talked nonsense about ‘funkapolitan cafes’, and lost his place in the mountain of lazy bluster that masqueraded as a speech. At the end, one reporter enquired whether he was OK. Good question.
But Sophocles, it turns out, had another point. In these nervous post-Covid days, the real bill for a decade and a half of Tory austerity, coupled with the disaster that is Brexit, has landed in all our laps and cast a menacing light on the notion of consequences, intended or otherwise. Put David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson in the same sentence and you get the worst of all possible worlds.
Take Exmouth, where we happen to live. Nature has gifted us with a near-perfect location: the seaward view is flanked by the glories of the South Devon coast, while inland, beyond the dock and the marina complex, lies the gleaming expanse of the Exe estuary. The town, mercifully, has been largely spared the curse of high-rise development and retains the feel of a pre-war resort. No wonder visitors have shaken their heads in envy and delight.
But look harder and the real face of cheese-paring, dog-eat-dog Tory England is impossible to ignore. A town centre dying on its feet: roads falling apart; library hours savagely curtailed; a lack of drivers for anything, from buses to garbage trucks to delivery vans; house prices beyond the reach of Exmouth’s younger buyers; boy-racers helping themselves to remaining pockets of peace and quiet; a near-invisible police presence on the streets; raw sewage dumped in the sea for lack of long-term investment; areas of the town blighted by civic neglect; care homes on their knees. Plus the thousands of other irritations, big and small, that fill the letters column of the Exmouth Journal.
To be civic-minded, to care a great deal about the death of the smaller courtesies, to wonder how we’ve ever allowed ourselves to get into this state, is to be maddened by the passage of events. Happily, there still exists an urge to get to the bottom of this dung heap, and a friend of ours has decided that enough is enough.
He has a huge job in the real world. He has a private life he’s determined to protect. Yet somehow he’s made the time to establish a network of like-minded souls who – like him – are determined to call a halt to the rapid surrender of everything we’ve taken for granted. The post-war years have generally been kind to communities like Exmouth, but that long Indian summer has come to an abrupt end, and so something – anything – must surely be done.
If you fancy becoming a citizen-warrior, never under-estimate what this entails: winning hearts and minds; making connections that may prove useful; organising and chairing Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting in a bid to build a case and maintain momentum; keeping a critical core of fellow-travellers abreast of events, largely via e-mail; and finally, exerting the kind of pressure that will effect real change. The latter is the buried treasure at the end of the civic rainbow and turns out to take some finding. Why? Because real change, in most cases, lies in the hands of local government. And local government – at every level – is skint.
This simple truth is the elephant in our friend’s front room. We’re still lucky enough – just – to be living in a democracy. Every so often we have a vote, and at local level – though thinly cast – these votes should give us a say when the Town Council, or the District Council, or Devon County Council (DCC) decide how to spend what little money is left.
Councillors embody our voice when it comes to these decisions, and when money isn’t at stake this system of representation can be very effective. We had a personal planning issue earlier in the year that was resolved by a cross-party coming-together of councillors instructing EDDC to back off, and it was a surprise – as well as a comfort – to watch that happen. Local democracy in action. Brilliant.
Other issues are more complex, and more costly. Slowing the traffic, investing in speed cameras, protecting cyclists and pedestrians, getting boy-racers off the road, offering proper provision for overnight campers, protecting key amenities: all these measures carry a price-tag. Tory councillors in particular learn this very early on in their political careers, and there comes a point when you begin to wonder who – exactly – they’re representing.
All too often, letters to councillors go unacknowledged and when repeat requests finally produce an answer, you can hear the can tinkling off along the road. Nice idea. Deep sympathy. Muted applause. Stay tuned. On one occasion recently, a local councillor went into print with the news from DCC that imposing a 20 mph speed limit would be pointless because drivers ignored the current law. In which case, one wonders, why bother with any law at all? In the interests of a lower council tax and a quieter life, wouldn’t it be more realistic – and cheaper – to sack the police, dispense with the law altogether, and thus save squillions of dosh?
It’s at this point that our friend begins to lose it. Wherever he turns, whichever official door he knocks on, the result appears to be the same. He and his team can spend endless time they can’t afford marshalling the facts, sharpening the argument, raising awareness, gathering support, only to feel the dead hand of local (and national) government settle briefly on their shoulders. Sorry, sorry, sorry but our too-difficult basket is already full. No can do. Not now, and probably not for a very long time.
One word for our current troubles might be inertia because delay, sweetened by apology, costs nothing. Another is madness. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy …