Monday, 13 June 2011

British Paradoxes

"London, where the streets are paved with gold, and the gardens with cement", leads a Guardian article on the loss of wildlife habitats resulting from people paving over their front gardens.
The biggest survey ever conducted of private space in the capital, taken by the London Wildlife Trust, shows it is getting greyer – threatening its reputation of being one of the world's greenest cities because of its extensive public parks and gardens.

The city is losing the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hyde Parks of greenery a year from its private, domestic gardens – about 3,000 ha (7,410 acres), says the report.

Lamentable. So what is to be done? Legislation, perhaps, or biodiversity conversation areas to go with the existing system of conservation areas? But what about the Briton's inalienable right to do whatever he pleases to his home? But of course we are in the fork of a defining British paradox. We have this generalised sense of a shared patrimony that must be protected, which we sum up as our "heritage". And yet we also have this pugnacious sense of private property and natural justice, of rights and entitlements. So the very person who might complain about the loss of butterfly habitats and deterioration of streetscape caused by his neighbour's concreting of his front garden might be apoplectic at rage if the council stopped him putting up a shed in his back garden. Both sides of this paradox are of course "common sense", and reason buckles under the distorting pressure of its internal contradictions.

Similarly, everyone wants a home with a garden - surveys repeatedly show that this is the national preference. If this is what people want, then it must be right, that's just common sense. And everyone wants total protection of the green belt, and indeed all undeveloped green space. Where are these homes going to go? So we end up with absurd, cramped brick boxes on ludicrous coasters of turf - an attempt to meet a typological requirement in defiance of all reason. We very obviously share many things - our cities, our countryside, our past. And yet we despise the idea of dealing with them in a communal manner.

These paradoxes - and there are dozens like them, on everything from the "nanny state" to the BBC - are the logical outcome of 30 years of government according to the vindictive petty jealousies of the Daily Mail. They are rooted in that poisonous discourse, in which it seems every politician talks to you, personally, as an individual - you are of course responsible, hard-working, ordinary - in order to warn you about the others, the ones who are taking advantage and ruining everything. It is a mean, small-minded pattern of thought, the politics of Gollum. It has stacked this country with lose-lose paradoxes and zero-sum games, and at times it feels as if these paradoxes are about to block out all light from above and hope of change. Like when a Labour leader stands up and - instead of announcing a national programme of housebuilding, which would allow thousands more to share in the benefits of a council home - announces that "hardworking, responsible" people (like you!) would be given preference for the existing tiny number of council homes, over the "shirkers" (you know, the others).

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