Much like Parliament, Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time appears focused on movement over though. Image: Public Domain Wikipedia
Wherever I go now I am always reminded of the future. Whatever I do, I find myself thinking of future generations.
I walk incessantly when I’m in London or other cities. And I keep thinking, among other things, about a conversation I had with an MP who asked why she should support my Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, which is passing through parliament.
“What will it do, this Future Generations Bill, for my constituent who comes to me with an incredibly pressing problem today? Will it help her?” My reply was simple: “No, it won’t.”
“So why should I help your Bill?”
“Because if your predecessors as MPs had done their job 20 years ago, she might not have a problem today. Most of what you’re doing today is making up for yesterday’s future not being worked on and supported.”
In other words, ignoring the future brings you the problems we have to deal with today.
I have become a bit of a scratched record regarding future generations, bringing most discussions back to why we need to push government into not always doing the short term, the getting by. Discussions I had with two other MPs last week were about their interests in stopping the stopgap. It was refreshing as they were in different parties, but both came back to prevention as the best way to face the future.
The story of how I got into parliament, or why I even wanted to, is pure prevention. Pure and simple ‘future generations NOW’ thinking. My mad ambition to turn government away from the short term towards a prevention-loaded future that spends our pounds wisely on stopping the stuff hitting the fan in the first instance.
My rejection and the disillusionment of being described as a ‘fine case of a person thinking outside the box’ caused me to realise that that’s because the flipping box ain’t working. And that the box is government, is parliament. Parliament, which seems increasingly to remind me of the White Rabbit running in its panic through the labyrinthine corridors of Alice in Wonderland. That yes, there is a need to keep running, keep moving, but we need also to stop and think: “Where is this getting us?”
But in my reflections I have also concluded something obvious but often missed about governments. They start off as parties aspirationally hoping to win elections, and they promise and aspire and offer blandishments that disappear soon after office is assumed.
One of the reasons for this disappearance, but not the only one, is that the winning party is like a large elephant which squeezes itself into a building whose layout is already determined, so to speak.
This is the shape of government with its silos of different departments, its inability to address our needs and problems holistically (a nice word devalued by overuse and misuse). A government unable to see that most of the problems with health and its provision are caused by social stresses which are not resolved through education, work, social care and support.
Most of the problems of poor education, crime and depression are to do with the shortfalls in social opportunity and level playing fields that many encounter when they enter life.
Last week I went to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and saw the Poussin exhibition. I love Poussin and was delighted by this brilliant 17th-century painter who worked mainly in Rome, surrounded by the ruins of a civilisation long since disappeared.
I was shocked by what I saw. A whole host of paintings in the exhibition called Poussin and the Dance that seemed to underline my preoccupation with a parliament that seems intent on moving, but not on thinking. That seems intent in just making do.
This is what happens, I have to admit, when you carry concerns about the future around in your head when visiting art shows: the thinking gets into the paintings, so to speak. It happened a few weeks ago, you may recall, when I went to the Constable exhibition after my visit to COP26. I couldn’t but see the climate crisis in every painting I looked at, Constable being a painter of countryside.
There seems to be no getting away from pulling the future into today and making it the fight for life and the continuity of life in a new future that isn’t a repeat of the old, poorly put-together future we are having to put up with today. If you see what I mean.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. @johnbirdswords