John Bird: Prosperity yes, but not the kind that will drift away

"Prosperity is a prerequisite for democracy. If prosperity goes from your life, it tends to take with it all the good-flowing feelings you might have had for the world; feelings you lose when you don’t know where the next meal, bed or payslip is coming from"

For a year we had more money than we needed to live our council house life. There were five boys, the last one not yet on the cards, and my parents seemed to be happy.

Why? Because my mother had a full-time job as a clippy, that is, a bus conductor. She worked on the London buses and sold tickets to passengers. How ever tired she was, she was as happy as a pig in whatever makes pigs happy.

And we were happy, the happiest I had ever seen our family. And come the summer holidays, the smallest cafe on Earth opposite the entrance to our council flat became a second home. My mother made a deal with the cafe owner. We would be fed at midday and she would settle up on a Friday.

What we need in our developing world is ‘sustainable prosperity’. That is, prosperity that doesn’t destroy the planet, that doesn’t drain the nature, that doesn’t sacrifice the wellbeing of future of generations

Egg, chips and beans, two mugs of tea and a KitKat was often our daily fare. This was luxury and the owner treated us well, as we squeezed in amongst local workers at break time.

We had prosperity, though of a limited kind. But it was more than we had had, and more than what followed. It was an oasis among a sea of need. Today, I can still have egg and chips and feel a great warmth enter my soul.

The loss of prosperity screws the mind. It reduces one’s ability to take reversals and it increases anxiety. And a host of other things.

Prosperity is also a prerequisite for democracy. If prosperity goes from your life, it tends to take with it all the good-flowing feelings you might have had for the world; feelings you lose when you don’t know where the next meal, bed or payslip is coming from.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

What we need in our developing world is ‘sustainable prosperity’. That is, prosperity that doesn’t destroy the planet, that doesn’t drain the nature, that doesn’t sacrifice the wellbeing of future of generations.

That is an incredibly big struggle that we have yet to master. Much prosperity, in fact too much of it, is based on despoliation of our planet, its biodiversity and human health.

There is a price to be paid for unsustainable prosperity. And boy are we are paying it. Plastic bottles – that universal sign of consumer products that kill the health of the ocean and destroy our planet – is prosperity at a price.

But as it’s the wrong kind of prosperity, we will have reinvented a healthy, sustainable system of prosperity. Not the kind where often the comfortable tell off poorer, discomforted people about the need to keep the planet healthy. When, in fact, virtually all prosperity (with few exceptions) deals a death to one part of the world.

Yet prosperity is necessary if we’re to raise our political game and try and protect our endangered democracy. If prosperity goes out of the window, reaction will surely enter in.

It’s interesting to note that up until 1914, one of the best places to be Jewish in Europe was Germany. Why? Because it was wildly prosperous. And being Jewish was not an issue, especially when, for instance, if you wanted a lawyer or dentist in Berlin around 50 per cent of these professionals were German Jews. The big racist outbursts happened after the First World War when prosperity disappeared. Then, eyes were looking for a scapegoat, and of course, a vibrant and prosperous Jewish community came into sight.

Interestingly, if you look at the social complexion of the backbone of the Nazi party it wasn’t the nutters on the edge. It was often the former liberals whose prosperity had been destroyed by the First World War that led the fray.

The death of prosperity also means the death of democracy and the growth of reactionary politicking. If you want to really worry about the rise of racism and reactionary right-wing politics, think on prosperity; perhaps the best guarantee in preventing a repeat of liberals becoming illiberals through the loss of prosperity. And the bringing of the mind down to where the next meal comes from.

Interestingly, if you look at the social complexion of the backbone of the Nazi party it wasn’t the nutters on the edge. It was often the former liberals whose prosperity had been destroyed by the First World War that led the fray

I can see why many people are worried about Brexit because they dread a loss of their personal (or national) prosperity. That’s a whole new ball game, as witnessed in the US when working people – formerly comfortable, perhaps even prosperous Americans – saw it crumble away. That’s enough to make a reactionary out of the best-intended democrat.

We need to be fighting for prosperity, prosperity of a sustainable kind, if we don’t want to see reaction biting at us – and even converting former lovers of democracy and defenders of other people’s opinions into reactionaries. I have even heard people saying that The People, because many of them “made the wrong decision in the 2016 EU referendum”, should never have been asked to decide on such an important issue in the first place.

Hindsight is always 100 per cent accurate. “We should have done this, that or the other” before we signed up to such a vote.

I loved the little bit of prosperity back in the hungry Fifties, and it made my Mum, Dad and us kids that much happier. I hope we can have more prosperity for the many so that we can avoid a shift to reactionary-ism. But this time, it’s got to be sustainable in spirit and delivery.

Images: Matt Horwood/Getty