At the start of this election year of 2024, we at the Foundation are asking the question: If what we need to rediscover as a society is a sense of radical hope, then what might that look like; and how might we feed this hope into the policy areas that are already shaping the forthcoming election debates?
This task is as palpable as it is formidable and daunting. Most people you speak to in our country are chronically or acutely traumatised by the challenges they face on a daily basis. These are challenges that we thought we had banished for ever within a smooth and untroubled narrative of technical and ethical progress and evolution.
And yet as a result of a decade and a half of broken economic and political nostrums, and more recently exacerbated by unparalleled and systematic levels of government corruption and unaccountability, old ghosts are once again stalking our land. Poverty, hunger, mental health, public disease, lack of hygienic waterways, inadequate housing, decrepit schools and failing hospitals, dangerously high levels of infant mortality at childbirth, lack of transport and other infrastructure that inhibits growth and connectivity – all conditions that we in the West used to patronisingly refer to as Third World conditions – are now perniciously embedded in several parts of British society and affecting millions of our fellow citizens.
A passing anecdote relayed by Dr Val Barron, one of our Research Fellows and a former Foundation Scholar, sums up our predicament as the UK stumbles into 2024. Val works as a community organiser in the North-East and recently appeared in a cameo role as a vicar in Ken Loach’s latest film The Old Oak. The film centres on the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees to a poor ex-mining village and the feelings of resentment and hostility their arrival prompts amongst some of the locals. They see these new arrivals as receiving preferential treatment when their own lives are so impoverished and forgotten. A Syrian refugee appearing as an extra in the film wondered aloud to Val if there was a local civil war going on. The degradation of the physical environment and the impoverished nature of people’s daily lives in the ex-mining village had reminded her powerfully of the context from which she had just fled.
In other words, for many people in this country, the sense of brokenness, and the feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness that flow from it are palpably present and pervasive.
History tells us that where this sense of disempowerment and hopelessness take hold then two reactions tend to follow. One is a depressive apathy which allows one to be gaslit into believing that the lack of decent services and opportunities to expand your family’s wellbeing is your fault for not trying hard enough, rather than the state of corrupted inequity and injustice that has held sway in this country in recent years. The other is to allow one’s emotions of frustration and powerlessness to be channelled into a sense of grievance bordering on a hatred of The Other. In this instance it is migrants and asylum seekers, 75 percent of whom, when their case is eventually heard, were granted the right to settle in this country based on the validity of their claim in 2022.
Recent European history shows how this manipulated sense of fear and hopelessness drives many into the arms of far-right or far-left authoritarian and so-called populist regimes, whose tactic is to leverage power and loyalty on the basis of ‘othering’ a minority group in society. Historically this has been Jewish people, LGBT + and Gypsy and Roma communities. In more recent times one can add Muslims and members of the trans community. Unfortunately, religious (usually Christian) narratives and tropes are also co-opted into these authoritarian narratives.
So where to define and locate a sense of radical hope in what feels for many an era of deep anxiety and uncertainty about the future? First, definitions. Radical for me has two meanings, derived from its Latin etymology of radix, meaning roots. For me, hope is anchored in deep roots that are attached to existential values and beliefs which are clearly both religious and philosophical. They invite us to excavate into the very depths of what we think is the basis of our shared human experience and the essence of life itself. In this sense hope is ontologically rooted. This ontological connection to political thought can allow a long-term perspective and therefore more resilient viewpoint to emerge as an antidote to short-term and reactive thinking. The German philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas, who is fearful for the secular legacy of the liberal democratic nation state, uses a rare word ‘autochthonous’ (or self-originating and preceding subsequent cultures) to describe what he defines as the ‘pre-political’ power of religious and philosophical ideas and wisdom. This ability to be self-originating provides a proper ethical and intellectual balance to the ravages of a deracinated capitalism, and its attempts to co-opt important ideas for narrow political gain or exploitation.
Which leads me to the second dimension of the word radical which is associated with ideas of ‘alternative’ or ‘counter hegemonic’. It refers to the ability, based on our deep-rooted beliefs and values, to call out the toxic assumptions and practices of despotic and authoritarian governments and articulate a more just and humane understanding of a shared social life. However, a common critique of what are often religiously-based calls for alternatives is that they are simply that – i.e. ‘calls’ that merely tend towards the grandiose and rhetorical. What is also required therefore are a series of well-thought through and credible broad policy ideas that are capable of not only articulating a new ontological basis for change and transformation, but also providing a road map for the implementation of that transformation.
As we know, William Temple, in his book Christianity and Social Order, published in 1942,not only articulated an alternative vision for the future of British Society that broke profoundly with the Victorian and Edwardian traditions of laissez-faire economics. He also provided, through his use of middle axioms, broad policy ideas that would help ensure this vision was enacted as actual legislation. These included the right to access lifelong education and decent housing, through to the importance of belonging to what he called ‘intermediate groupings’ that lie beyond the power of the State and the Market. (You can find further references to this historical legacy of Temple’s radical hope from beyond the UK in references from Australia and America). So radical hope for me is a forward-facing political and policy agenda that reaches out across difference and generates a sense of joyful expectation that things can and will be different. It also creates a renewed solidarity in the common articulation and pursuit of that expectation. However, the truly radical nature of that hope is only fully realised when it comes with ‘data-backed solutions’ so that real structural change has a realistic chance of being implemented, rather than just simply protested.
To that end, the Foundation is holding a series of regional events that will explore experiences of activism and partnership, alongside fresh thinking and ideas on this theme of radical hope. These events are designed to influence the political debates about the future of our society in the run-up to the General Election. Part of this initiative is driven by the fear that major, upstream questions that reflect a hopeful narrative for our society will be drowned out by counter-narratives based on short-termism and fear – particularly on complex issues such as immigration and climate change, freedom of speech and human rights in an increasingly pluralised and digital world. As well as a Westminster event, we will be curating programmes in the North East and North West of England as well as Northen Ireland where some of our current research and thinking is contextually rooted.
The calls for change are growing more insistent and expectations are rising. However, there is always a danger that the opportunity for real change at a 2024 General Election will be missed, unless the ideas of radical hope are fully embedded and expressed in agendas and policy frameworks that are visionary, alternative but also practical. It is into this agenda that the Foundation is hoping to make a substantive contribution in 2024 and beyond. Come and join us in the debate!