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Tragedies, communities and the political space

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01 August 2017, at 1:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

THE NEWS OVER THE LAST MONTH has been momentous – for the country, for its government and for all sorts of people. Perhaps it’s one of our greatest subliminal fears that we might find we’re not safe even in our own beds and, somehow, on the back of serial news stories about those people and organisations who would wish us ill, the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower came as an even greater shock for many of us. The mantra of the moment is that someone, perhaps anyone, should be seen to be at fault and, while the principal culprit here may well prove to be regulatory confusion with no one apparently very clear about the rules, one can see with both understanding and a heavy heart the escalating clamour for people to be brought to book. Maybe this tragedy and the subsequent discovery that most highrise buildings across the UK (and probably in many other countries too) are all equally at risk will accelerate the end of benign government in the UK. There’s nothing like legitimate outrage to open a nation’s welcoming arms to more centralised legislation and control and, one imagines, nothing like a long period of subsequent calm in which to regret the continuing attrition of our previous way of life. Maybe the events of 2017 – multiple terrorist attacks, Brexit, the snap General Election, the mesmerising gavotte inside the SNP about Indyref2, the Grenfell Tower fire and the discovery that young people have an opinion as well as a vote – all herald a significant shift away from what we may come to recognise as a way of life that had served its purpose and was now spent and overblown. They say that old people live their lives in the past, young adults live their lives in the future and that the young live in the moment. If so, we shouldn’t be surprised that the young find idealistic ambition so seductive; wouldn’t we all if we had not somehow become a tad jaundiced by the reality of the last two or three decades? The political avalanche where people around the world have been rejecting big government and elitist politics is based on a widening recognition that millions have been disenfranchised by rampant globalisation and are sensing that this is their moment for peaceful protest through the ballot paper. In his book, Age of Anger, Panrak Mishra writes that this process has been building since the First World War and even earlier, so a lasting political solution of any colour would provide a lifeline. Such a solution seems even further away, just at the moment. What will make the situation far worse would be any further widening of the gap between those who have and those who don’t have much. Whatever the reasons for the austerity measures of the last few years, and many of us remember them well, a continuing freeze on the public sector will have lasting ramifications not just for the families concerned but also for the deep thoracic rumblings of dissent in the nation’s engine room. At a time when we need stability, even if no one could call it strong, our leaders need to recognise that there are major inequalities needing urgent re-assessment. Just as mainstream advertising has become fragmented and effective messaging now has to take account of several, powerful new social media platforms, so it is in politics with divisions opening up between ages, geographies, types of homes and employment prospects. The latest election shows that with absolute clarity and it may well be that some will be left behind. There is one group who are in real danger of being left behind completely and it might surprise you, as it did me, to know that they are young and sometimes very young indeed. In 2016, 56,600 exclusions took place from UK primary schools, affecting 33,290 pupils. That’s enough young people to fill White Hart Lane stadium, or similar venues in Derby, Southampton, Cardiff or Leicester. Overall, every year in the UK there are over 300,000 school exclusions affecting over 200,000 pupils – that’s more than the entire population of Aberdeen, Bolton or Bournemouth – but what is frightening here is that, when we look at young people in young offenders institutions, 88% of them had been regularly excluded from school. A study on adolescence, conducted in 2013, showed that one in 10 children in the UK feel unable to cope with the school day, and while that might not lead to frank exclusion from school, it remains an enormous statistic and possibly a social time bomb. We all recognise that this profession has its own problems with growing and ever-changing pressures on businesses and individuals alike, but the fact remains that we are privileged – by intellectual aptitude, by educational attainment and by more or less ensured future prospects for employment and life. Some might argue that today’s society lacks an economic, moral or spiritual compass but, as the tragic events at London Bridge, in Manchester and at Grenfell Tower so clearly showed us, there remains a widespread willingness among people to come together in times of need; people from all walks of life, different races, faiths and economic strata. In one sense, that reinforces our understanding that community is precious – although that has usually been easier to see in more rural rather than urban settings – and in another sense it draws our attention to the realisation that tragedies change minds, question the establishment and create political space. Our old way of life was to sit back and wait patiently for someone to fill that space but, in today’s brave new world, that may no longer be a wise strategy. Few of us doubt that some seismic changes will happen around the world in the next few years and it seems even more important now that our veterinary practices should be at the heart of our local communities rather than as lone sailors on an uncertain sea.