It is no exaggeration to say one is grappling with a sense of gloom and doom at this point in time about what is happening or is in prospect on the global front. By now you the dear reader will have heard it all. Old alliances and associations – born of 20th century politics - are being tested and may soon be replaced as new leaders and nations emerge to take control of our 21st century realities. Donald Trump has made no secret of what he stands for and what he wants to do. He is sure to turn the conventional art and forms of diplomacy and governance into his unique brand of brash insults and confrontational provocations. That is the worst case scenario. On the other hand, is it not possible that wiser counsels may prevail to calm things down after initial excesses? Let`s see. Beyond America, however, there exists a bigger and more complex world whose concerns and needs also matter. How then these dynamics play out is the real question. We are indeed on the threshold of a new order in the making.
But from the general to the particular, let me fill this column with my own take on things happening right here in Britain. Brexit has been previously discussed and nothing further needs to be said at this time. What is bugging me however is the state of the country. Quite simply, it is in decline. The rot had begun some years ago but is now too stark to ignore. It cuts across most areas of our daily lives. Long established civic institutions and structures are being eroded. There has been a scaling down of public and social services, and of the welfare state itself. Public toilets in streets and market places have more or less disappeared. Public libraries are being shut down, though fortunately many of them are being taken over by local community groups and run by dedicated volunteers. Schools and colleges are increasingly being taken out of traditional local authority control and turned into profit-making academies. Higher education establishments are also under attack and now there is even a move towards marketisation of universities, which will inevitably damage the UK`s reputation for academic excellence and independence and lower their profile generally. Our much cherished National Health Service remains in a permanent and acute state of crisis in terms of funding, staff shortages and a whole range of other systemic problems, with severe pressures on accident and emergency services. Road, rail and other transport infrastructure is also much diminished, with far reaching adverse effects on the economy and movement of people and other traffic.
These examples of what is going wrong in Britain at this time may to an outsider appear to be the murmurings of an affluent society`s malcontent, but they do nevertheless represent a real downgrading of the nation`s self-image. And there is more. Police stations are also shutting down, which means crime reporting has to be done by telephone, not always recorded for statistical reasons, and is often diverted to outsourced agencies accessible online only. This is dictated by policy decisions and guidelines for cost saving and other resource constraints, such as a rationing of vehicular capacity. Fire and ambulance stations are also suffering from the same fate. In short, there is a general squeeze on every aspect of living for the majority of the people, though the very rich are of course able to escape its harsher consequences.
The one shining exception to this long list of existential ills (and there are many others I haven`t touched on) is that we do not have a culture of corruption, despite a creeping commercialisation of public services. The police do not expect or exact a bribe for reporting or letting one off a crime, nor do civil servants or local government officials or judges for doing their duty. Nobody is scared of facing or being stopped by anyone in uniform or authority. All persons in positions of power are expected to conduct themselves responsibly and are accountable for their actions. This permeates all areas of government. Of course there may be the rare rogue exceptions, but then there are systems in place for dealing with maladministration at all levels, in both public and private sectors, and these do work.
How does this compare with other countries, more particularly in the so-called Third World? We know there is a tendency on the part of British journalists, commentators, writers and other observers to make critical judgments about, say, a country like Kenya. There are umpteen documentaries, articles, news items and case histories that regularly feature in our print media, tv and radio programmes and online outlets, detailing horrendous conditions that blight the lives of Kenyans – the crime-ridden shanty townships and potholed roads of Nairobi and other cities, the poor health care, the lack of essential amenities and other deprivations suffered by ordinary people. Mostly such reports are sympathetic, some though may be tinged with a touch of condescension or incredulity, but all on the implicit assumption that an appreciable gulf separates the Third World from the First. That may be true at present but surely the gap is bound to narrow because, according to my analysis, our standards are falling, aggravated by the demands of a growing older and retired population (including yours faithfully!), while those of the developing countries appear to be set on an upward curve by all accounts. A point of convergence between the First and the Third Worlds may seem like a pipe dream now, but who knows what may happen in the next few decades?
That is all in the future, but for now what about the endemic corruption that affects relations between the citizen and the state or is otherwise rampant in the developing world? Will the Bribery Act 2016 passed by the Kenyan Parliament (modelled on the UK Bribery Act of 2010) at the year`s end make any difference? Of course it may be a while before the Act is brought into operation, if there is a will and preparedness to do so, but there can be no denying that it is ambitious in its intent and scope. In Britain there have already been several successful prosecutions under the 2010 Act - among them one of a court official taking a bribe to falsify the court`s database, another of attempting to bribe a driving test examiner for a favourable outcome, and thirdly of a university student offering his professor a cash sum of £5000 to pass his failed test – all of which involved men of Asian ethnicity! These could be described as cases of domestic bribery, but there has been at least one recently involving a large corporate body where the unlawful activity (failing to prevent a subsidiary company from paying bribes on its behalf during a three year period) took place in the United Arab Emirates.
From the particular to the personal, am I excited about the coming year? Not really, because I think the ill wind blowing through Europe and America in the wake of Brexit and Trump is sure to gather hurricane force as it speeds across to the rest of the world from both east and west. More immediately, on my home ground here, old moral inhibitions are fast disappearing. Partly this is the result of a no-holds barred kind of public discourse that has now become the norm, in this age of the internet, twitter and instant messaging via smartphones and other electronic devices. The populist mood, the nationalist fervour, the xenophobic environment, has loosened tongues and the people feel freer to express their views, grievances, prejudices and other vile thoughts.
For example, one often reads of incidents where a native Briton may be heard shouting at fellow bus passengers, conversing with each other in Polish, to `speak English`! Never mind the hypocrisy and ignorance in such outbursts. I also regularly witness shoppers at my local supermarket avoiding any check-out counter manned by a hijab-wearing cashier, because the anti-Muslim sentiment is rarely disguised nowadays. That said, the tradition of fair play, basic decency and common courtesy that the Brits are renowned for does still govern their public behaviour, in contrast to the reluctance or failure of many foreign born newcomers to adopt the social mores of their adopted country. Be that as it may, I fear things are going to get much worse during 2017, and so as the new year dawned and the customary greetings were exchanged, the words that came to my mind were `What now?`.
Ramnik Shah © 2017