Volume 14 Number 1
Still Time, but Only Just
01 February 2001

Bill Midgley retired after 20 years with the Newcastle Building Society in 1998, having been CEO and Executive Vice Chairman. Among his present roles, he is Chairman of Durham County Cricket Club. He writes a regular column for 'The Journal', Newcastle upon Tyne.

The euphoria and many of the good intentions evident at the start of the new millennium have died down somewhat. Those major commitments to change that were around on 1 January 2000 now seem to have sunk back into obscurity, as most people revert to the normal pattern of life. We have seen a number of buildings erected as monuments to the millennium, attempts at personal or corporate gratification, not all entirely successfully. But what difference has the introduction of the millennium made to the way in which our society works together and tackles the real problems that face our communities? 'Not much' may be a fair answer.

The word 'inclusivity' is much used these days. There is hardly any government minister, local authority or quasi governmental organization which doesn't claim to tackle the problems of inclusivity. But does it happen? I question whether many who trot out this word really know what it means. To most it's something that has to be said--a 'buzz word'. Organizations seem to feel that if they use the vocabulary they are acknowledging their social responsibility.

Society in the United Kingdom remains alarmingly divided between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. The haves seems to be less and less willing to take any responsibility for helping the less well off in our communities. As those who gather ever more wealth seem to be more interested in spending that wealth and displaying the trappings that surround it, they spend ever less time on trying to understand why such a large part of our community is disadvantaged and perhaps no time at all in thinking whether they have any personal responsibility for this.

Communities stand or fall together, and society stands or falls together, and all must take responsibility for their own actions. The business community in particular has a responsibility to ensure that the wealth that it generates--and there is nothing wrong in the generation of wealth--is put to good use with a fairer distribution. Of course it needs to pay its employees and to pay them at the appropriate--but not obscene--level for labour that is worthy of its hire. And if that rate is expensive, then so be it.

However, such rich and powerful organizations should be putting more back into the community from which they generate their wealth. Statements to the effect that the creation of wealth is fulfilling that need are simply not enough. The despair that is seen in many innercity areas, the lack of hope because there will be no more employment, the situation which has created poor health, unacceptable levels of attainment in education and the resort to crime and drugs as a means of finding a way out are things that a 21st century civilization cannot and must not tolerate.

Governments have their responsibilities, but we put governments in place. We have our own obligation to ensure that, whilst governments are delivering what we demand of them, we, the whole community, also understand the needs of society and contribute towards a solution.

Building an inclusive society will only be successful if that broad range of our community takes on board a personal commitment for what they can contribute. The ability of some to contribute may be small, but nevertheless the cumulative effect would be enormous.

A society which stands by and tolerates such a widening gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged will create social disorder at a level which, in our complacency, we always thought we would avoid in the UK. Indeed it is already happening in many of our inner-city areas as witnessed by some of the appalling crimes of late.

We have to inspire our young people in particular to believe that there is hope and a future for them as full members of our society. But it will be increasingly difficult to instil that view in those who over the past generation have been promised much but have received little.

It is more than promises that will be necessary. What is needed is real action creating real solutions, creating hope, developing trust, removing despair and ensuring that all our people work together. Perhaps that doesn't seem a radical proposition, but it is, because it simply doesn't happen.

Those who feel they have salved their consciences by putting £10 into an envelope to their favourite charity over the Christmas period might just sit down and consider what their real debt is to that community of which they claim to be a part. Do they meet that obligation, or do they owe much more than they are prepared to admit? It is frustrating that government does not demand more of individuals and companies--not necessarily by higher taxation, which is the simple way out, but by constructive thinking on how each can play a greater part.

How all of us fulfil that responsibility is the true rent we must pay for our space on this earth.

A 21st century inclusive society is still a dream. In the words of Neville Shute in that harrowing film, On the beach, 'there is still time brothers'--but, in my opinion, only just.
by Bill Midgley

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