Putting the Great back into Great Britain


Last Saturday, when Boris Johnson declared that he would campaign for Great Britain to leave the EU, he said that he wanted to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain and that we needed to ‘take back control’ of our lives. These are obviously populist remarks and play into the deep, emotional longings of many people. For that reason they are worth examining.

My parents era (born circa 1920s and 30s) were brought up with the idea that Britain was a great force for good in the world. Our colonial history was something to be proud of. We had brought civilisation to so many areas of the world. Our education, our science and engineering, our laws and our institutions and, most of all, our values were a beacon of hope in a dark world. These days we don’t see these things. Instead we tell a story of oppression and corruption. Warren Hastings is seen as leading a systematic extortion of India. Our treatment of indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand was cruel in the extreme. Our role in the slave trade was diabolical. The list goes on, but there is no doubt that those of us born in the 50s and later find it hard to tell the old story of our history today. This shift in narrative has been very painful for the older generation, but it has made us more humble participants in the world. We find it easier to draw alongside other nations that have their own histories, where Britain is not centre stage, or not loved. There is something exclusive about ‘greatness’, which is why it is no coincidence that those who want to put the ‘great’ back into Great Britain also want to leave the EU. So, I guess, one of the dynamics of the upcoming referendum will be about what story we tell about ourselves as a nation, and what story we tell of others.

Underneath and determining the outcome of this storytelling process are our systems of belief, values and commitments. The idealistic view of Britain’s past is surely a form of myth-making, close to a religious belief. That is why such people love to sing ‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s pleasant land… and ‘I vow to thee my country… and other such hymns. These hymns stir the soul, inspire the passions, rekindle the devotion. Meanwhile others of more recent birth have an empathic sensitivity forged in a quite different furnace. They agonise for the slaves, the impoverished and the exterminated. Their passion is no less. Their belief is no less idealistic. And the test of civilisation is probably whether we can hear the voice of the other and reach a greater truth that neither side on their own can provide.

Here is an extract from my forthcoming book ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ that makes this point.

Human beings negotiate their deepest commitments through story. Every society needs to examine the quality of its storytelling. A good story challenges us to our heart. It opens up new ways of seeing the world. It shapes our politics, our faith and our life. It can topple the most entrenched bigot. It can release fountains of joy. There is no one right story. There are always many ways a story can be told, but each, like the stroke of an artist’s brush, provides a new colour to the world.

I hope to cover the ‘take back control’ idea in a future post.

Darkness descends – but there is a way forward


This weekend I felt a sense of deep foreboding . Events in Syria are looking more and more like the sort of conflict that could result in a world war. At the same time the global economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, having learnt none of the lessons of the previous financial crisis.  This could spell the end of the neoliberal dream and of capitalism as we have come to know it.

As we look over the cliff edge, how can we find hope and new purpose?

I believe that human beings can find hope today only by uniting in the one true global cause that is worthy of the dedication of every living person on earth. This is the call to live in harmony with the earth. There are three compelling reasons to do this and they add up to a moral imperative for this age.

  1. We know that we are currently spoiling our planet, that the atmosphere is being polluted, the climate altered for centuries and thousands of species exterminated, all through our actions. This is reason enough to act, but there are two further considerations.
  2. The search to live in harmony with the earth would be good for us. It would give us a cause to live for. It would call forth all our ingenuity. It would revive community life. It would unite us as communities across the earth at the very time when we are tempted to enter into a process of mutual destruction.
  3. It would be the ultimate quest. Every religion and every humanist venture has a dream of what the world should be like. These dreams are the energy that lies at the heart of so many of our lives. The call to live in harmony with the earth is an ultimate quest that has the potential to unite all that has gone before into one. Only this is big enough to hold our imagination, fire our hearts and unite our actions.

How much horror will we need to go through before we hear this calling?

Burning out and other perennial problems of working for social transformation.

We are privileged to live in days of transition, when great vistas of opportunity are opening up to attempt a new type of life that is more kind to the planet and ourselves. The problem is that many of those who bravely set out to deliver social transformation end up exhausted, disillusioned and even psychologically scarred.  A recent post by Sophy Banks on Transition Network highlights the potential for ‘burn out’ among transitioners. It is a tragedy. A whole set of interrelated issues are usually described.

I have been privileged to be part of teams that have delivered a number of projects in Bristol UK and share some ideas here from my own experience about keeping projects on track and our lives in balance.

  1. Retain Focus
    The biggest danger in regard to burn out may be loss of focus. Don’t try to do everything. Resist strenuously the person who wants the project to develop down a whole new pathway. Define what it is about and make that all that it is about. If someone does not want to do this, they will go away.
  2. Work in a team
    Projects that are initiated by just one person are terribly vulnerable. Try to create a stable project development team, built around a clear purpose and shared values associated with that purpose. Take time together developing a clear statement of your aims. These conversations will also be an unstated and even subconscious means by which you assure each other of your shared values and so build trust. New people will join this as the project grows, but beware of too many people drifting in and out. Communities need stability in order to build effective trust.
  3. Leadership
    One of the great advantages of working with shared values and clear purpose is that it allows a group to work consensually and gets away from the standard dominant, defined leader models. Because you trust one another in terms of the basic project, you can genuinely listen to different ideas brought in by members of the group. That way you will be most creative. This will tend to favour co-operative forms of governance for the project as it develops.
  4. Allow the project to mature
    Projects go through a life of their own. The early stages are typically voluntary. Then some grants may be awarded and staff appointed and paid. Finally the grants run out and the project faces the hard test of financial sustainability. At the same time, through this process, the corporate structure will change. External funding demands definition of roles, salary rates and strict accountabilities. There is no alternative to this process. Sometimes people at the more idealistic end of the spectrum try to avoid structures altogether. Unfortunately this leaves them open to losing public confidence and prey to dominant leaders, who simply take over. The maturing of a project that has depended completely on voluntary energy can be a real trial and is not easy to do well. Some people, who are very clear in regard to values, are very weak in respect of financial realism. A realistic business case needs to be built into the project from the start and progress must be checked against this, so that when the grants run out, the project continues. This is easier said than done.
  5. Become aware of your own skills
    As your project matures you will become more aware of the particular contribution you are able to make within the team. A project in its initial stages tends to have everyone involved in everything. As it matures, so the different aspects of delivery are delegated. There are different tasks and roles and responsibilities and you will not be involved in it all. That is a good thing and an opportunity for you to be clear about what you can specifically offer.
  6. Ground yourself
    My forthcoming book ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ is designed to give a philosophical and emotional context for social transformation. It is an attempt to help you reflect deeply on the state of our humanity today, the strengths and the weaknesses of human society and the enormous social and envirionmental issues bearing down on us. More than that, it is designed to give you the tools to think and reflect about your own practical projects and how they begin to address these issues.  It is all too easy to be overwhelmed by the state of the world today, but if we can connect our own projects with the big picture and understand what we are doing in that context, then we can say ‘I have seen the needs of the world. I have felt the needs of the world. I know I cannot do everything, but this is what I am doing and why.’ If such a statement can be a conscious part of our life, then it is a powerful inner defence against burn out.
  7. Risk failure and know when to withdraw
    Every transformative project is a risk. Some are very public risks in the sense that your reputation will be at stake. There will be many moments when the project teeters on failure. And the great danger is that you will then personally step in, take responsibility for it and try to cover its weakness. If you are genuinely working in a team, then the team should be held corporately responsible for the project, not you personally. The team needs to maintain a difficult balance between a realistic awareness of weakness and a resolute confidence in the possibility of success.The emphasis on team working should also mean that you are free to leave when you need to. This is very important. Burn out comes to those who feel trapped in their obligations. There is a moment when you have done what you can do for this project. It can go on without you. It may not feel like it can, but actually it will survive, and even thrive, if you withdraw. There is also a moment when some of the initiating team should withdraw for the sake of the project. The energy and enthusiasm around the launch of a project can be very different from the mature delivery phase and the people required for each phase are usually different. We need to recognise that.


This article is an edited extract from the forthcoming book ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’. Advance notice of the publication date will be given in this blog.

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