Actor – or Spectator?

Edging it

Facing the Void?

Last month, Philip Boxer published a blog entitled ‘The journey at the edge.’ No doubt this has influenced me as I look back over the past few weeks in an attempt to pull together and make sense of a period of extreme, frenetic activity. Has it all been ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’? What have I actually been doing or achieving or – as Jane McGonigall suggests – are these the wrong questions? In truth, have I been avoiding the Void?



Once again, I’ve seen how easy it is to be captivated by the ephemeral – though important – news story of the moment: the downfall of Rupert Murdoch and all his works, for example? Perhaps, momentarily, that might have seemed the end of the ‘evil empire,’ until the unbelievable horrors in Norway knocked it from the headlines.


These unfolding  stories are as fascinating to watch as News of the World revelations used to be  –which is troubling!


Once again, I feel like a voyeur – rather than acting, I’m a spectator. The distinction was made by Kant of the observers of the guillotine during the French Revolution and there’s something about my involvement with Twitter that brings this to mind.


Nevertheless, the distinction between actor and spectator is a fine one.


In these past few weeks, I have also been following a more local story which has not quite the same headline force but is nevertheless of great importance.


Barnet Borough Council decided, under its previous leader, Mike Freer, who is now an MP, to ‘outsource’ in a big way – so much so that it was proud of its sobriquet ‘EasyCouncil.’ It was going to cut expenditure by emulating a budget airline, that is, by ensuring that only essentials were available and anything else would need to be paid for. Incidentally, the Conservative gains in the area were so great that another member of the Council, Matthew Offord also stood for Parliament, and was elected for a Barnet constituency, Hendon.


Now chickens are beginning to roost, and, in the way that these things happen, very small events begin to signal something rotten. The small event here was the filming of residents attending a Council meeting by MetPro, a security firm, supposedly contracted by the Council. When the residents complained, the whole sorry story began to come out. MetPro, now in liquidation, was not ‘contracted’ – there was no contract, no vetting, no scrutiny, nothing but payments of £1.5 mill.


This is an old story (well, perhaps two months old) and most Barnet residents are unaware of it or dismiss it as the usual incompetency. They would, of course, be right – but it is rather the tip of an iceberg: Iceland, of course, being another embarrassing Barnet disaster. This was when the banker Mike Freer did, or did not authorise, or subject to due diligence, £27 mill of Barnet’s funds being invested in Iceland before the banking collapse. True, other local councils did the same – extraordinary rates of interest were attractive, even if those in charge might have smelt something fishy about them.


Now, there is an even worse story, resulting in the death of a young resident in a Council home because the care that should have been in place was not.


Some diligent local residents have been searching out these stories assiduously, Mrs Angry, Mr Mustard, Mr Reasonable, Julia Hines and Barnet Eye amongst them. One form of communication has been twitter and their tweets have also been picked up by the press: David Hencke and Patrick Butler of the Guardian. There have even been stern warnings, even rebukes from Conservative Central Office and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP.


It is here that the contrast between ‘actor’ and ‘spectator’ begins most strongly to force itself upon me, in conjunction with that other ‘local’ and ‘global.’ If we are to bring about change in the global, there needs to be ‘joined up’ thinking and action in the local. Systemic change depends upon identifying those ‘acupressure’ points, through which, for example, the ‘steady accretion of facts’ and other initiatives can lead to a sudden shift or tipping point. We have been observing this nationally with News International, BSkyB, suspicious relationships with the police and undue influence and cosy relationships with politicians.


But these exciting domestic shenanigans are mere sideshows compared with the chaotic global situation which we now face. The greatest of these, as far as the human species is concerned, has to be climate change with almost all the other issues – overpopulation, water shortage, world economy, resource shortage (including oil), environmental degradation and devastation of species – connected to it in one way or another. James Greyson, who can be followed on twitter!/blindspotting and through his web-site, provides a good analysis and draws on Dana Meadows for seven ‘policy switches.’


Currently, there is widespread concern about global finance, potential debt default (even, inconceivably, by the United States) and the increasing poverty that is being experienced in the most powerful nation in the world.


A couple of days ago, I sorted with my wife through our accounts, preparing to fill in our annual Income Tax and pay a second instalment. There’s a ‘reality check’ involved here, something we have to do in common with almost all other adults in the UK (and most of the rest of the world.)


Reading recently William Hague’s biography of William Pitt, I was reminded that this is relatively new. It was Pitt who was responsible for much development of our taxation system, mainly to pay for wars. The book was easy to read, somewhat apologetic –Hague made no secret both of his sense of affinity with Pitt and of the ‘political’ interest that he found in researching and writing about his subject. But there was a superficiality in that so much was dealt with at the level of personalities so that explanation in depth was missing.


I went on to read Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution which partially deals with the same period and the difference could hardly be greater. Here is erudition, a gathering together of facts in great swathes of historical understanding – and Pitt is not even mentioned!


The contrast between these two books illuminates the issue that has most been exercising me: the chasm between the endless fascination with the immediate, as exemplified by the Murdoch story and endless twittering and deeper satisfaction provided by working on the allotment or composing a substantial piece of writing. Is it about ‘productivity’ – or even, a contribution to ‘growth’ or the Gross National Product? As McGonigall suggests, probably not. It has more to do, I suspect, with the ‘edge’ that Boxer looks at – and I was confirmed in this by a Transition Town piece from Norwich


There’s little doubt that for many people throughout the world their situation is rapidly getting worse.  They need tools (practical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual,) to see ways forward. I hope that, one way or another, they will find what they need.















Dear Mr Hughes,


I am shocked at your decision not to instigate an immediate investigation of Barnet Council. Initially you rejected the approach because it might ‘undermine public confidence in a public body.’


But we ratepayers are already deeply concerned at the incompetence of our Council in entering into poorly formed contracts and enforcing them with insufficiently robust scrutiny. Cutting posts in the relevant department can only make matters worse.


The MetPro incident is simply one example; others are still coming to light.


This is not a Party Political matter. It is a matter of urgency before other inadequate contracts are entered into for the privatisation and outsourcing of our public services.


We hope very much that you will reconsider.



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