Despite having lived away from my birthplace (Birmingham, UK) for half of my 75 years, I still have a strong sense of the history and development of the place. In fact, my interest in it has increased in the decade and more since I returned here, mainly because I have had a lot more time to research Birmingham's history more thoroughly. I have to say, though, that over 60 years I have had the privilege and enjoyment of utilising three generations' worth of Birmingham Central Library facilities, now called the Library of Birmingham. Our forefathers deserve a huge "thank you" for their foresight in caring to provide this magnificent free facility over 150 years ago. It has only got better as time has passed.
On the matter of care, one of the most important points that I discovered more recently is that whereas the north of England - particularly Manchester - became famed for the virtual enslavement of its workers during the 19th century following the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham was of a different order. It is true to say, however, that the character of Birmingham did change as the 19th century progressed and as tides of people rolled in from the countryside, but maybe up until as late as the 1840s there was a considerable sense of cooperation between employers and their employees. So much so that Thomas Attwood successfully led a considerable political reform movement in the 1820s based on that cooperation and common cause. The outcome was the great democratic stepping-stone, the 1832 Reform Act. And it is hard to believe now that only then did Birmingham gain its first-ever elected representatives in Parliament.
|Thomas Attwood addressing the masses on Newhall Hill|
I was quite astonished to find out that fact about Boulton, especially as he did not seem to have any special religious basis for his philosophy as was found with those later great Quaker benefactors, Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry. But of course, Boulton was a member of the famed Lunar Society, a Midlands-based brains trust of eminent minds of the day including the Unitarian minister and polymath Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles), and other great names. I believe the great American 'father' Benjamin Franklin also attended some of their meetings. Their enlightenment must have had a great influence on the thinking of Boulton.
So, alluding to my previous article about the Mumbai incident in 2008, and the attitude inculcated by the management of the Taj Hotel (and the owners, the Tata family), my mind switched to how things might have been here (in Birmingham) at the turn of the 19th c., and how the well-being of employees was even then recognised (at least by some) as a responsibility of the employer. It should, of course, be a truism that the more contented an employee happens to be, the better for the employer in terms of his reputation and that of his company, even producing an outcome in the quality of the company's product or service.
It is so regrettable, therefore, that the idea of employees and their employers working in harmony was reduced to the 'philosophy of more' that permeated the minds of the industrialist entrepreneurs as the 19th c. progressed, and has never truly gone away. Today there are still many employers who cannot see the benefits of an enlightened attitude.
But the get-rich-at-all-cost attitude of the industrialists left a job for others to mop up the situation that ensued. The living conditions prevailing in the area considerably worsened as the 19th c. progressed and such was the growth of industry and the population that the great strains of expansion put a huge burden on the local infrastructure, particularly the water systems, both fresh and foul. And the quality and availability of housing too. Indeed, it was not until a man of the Unitarian Church became a member of the Birmingham Council in the 1870s was there a radical attempt at putting those matters (and associated major health issues) straight, well after the time when much-needed rectification was identified.
That knight errant who arrived on a white charger was the businessman Joe Chamberlain, who went on to serve Birmingham and then Westminster for 40 years. But he was not the only local voice for social reform. There were also George Dixon, George Dawson, Jesse Collings, John Bright, Joseph Sturge and others who made their voices heard to good effect. Further, Dixon and Chamberlain were greatly involved in pressing for state education in the late 1860s onwards while Sturge is not-well-known as a man who forced the end to slavery in British territories when the plantation owners hesitated to fulfill their obligation.
Nearly all of these men that provided the radical energy towards a revolution in local issues possessed a social conscience formed out of religious conviction. Members of the Quaker and Unitarian churches were very often the people who stepped forward to make a difference. The Cadbury family created the Bournville Model Village near Birmingham (of a design that was ahead of its time) and then people such as Charles Booth (a distant relative of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army) and James Rowntree performed massive studies into poverty that greatly influenced Parliament in its policies, in one case resulting in the creation of state pensions (1908).
It was not by leadership from within politics alone that great social developments occurred in the 19th c. and turn of the 20th c. It was the conscience and drive of (mostly) people of the church that made the key difference during that time. It was their sheer character born out of a practical conviction that forced through necessary changes, showing clearly that religion is embedded with the appropriate core values for social justice. The courageous early leaders of the Trades Union movement also possessed similar conscience and drive, usually stemming from the Methodist movement.
For many decades we have not heard much about active religious conviction in our politics, and we seem to have lost our way as a result. Have we ever seen such squabbling before, both within political parties as well as against one another? I would suggest that party politics and trades unionism is now a sterile mechanism and what is now needed - again - is the religious (nay, spiritual) conscience to come alive to provide ethical direction and social justice based upon true human values. Science, which is the bedrock of our education and perhaps now seen as the very basis of civilisation, cannot seem to provide those values, so where else can we find them but in spiritual understanding? However, perhaps money is an obstacle to true ideals.
On the last issue, a spiritual master on the subject of human values stated, in recent years:
The conviction that money can achieve anything has grown in people’s minds, though it is impossible to promote peace and security through the accumulation of money. Money can buy plenty of food; it cannot buy appetite or hunger. Money can buy medical care and medicines; but it cannot buy health and immunity. Money can buy servants; [but] it cannot buy goodwill. It can buy comfort, but not happiness. It cannot help to promote character or morality. This truth must be understood by both students and teachers.What is "character" that is mentioned here? Isn't this the very attribute identifiable in the Victorians mentioned above? It seems to me that it is a faculty that can be recognised when we apply our real human traits of care, including sympathy and compassion and even renunciation. By the demonstration of our character we reveal our true selves to help trigger essential change and rectify the current deplorable and worsening state of affairs in the world.
Zoologist Desmond Morris, I believe, helped massively to set the wrong tone in thinking when, in 1969, he published his massively popular book he called The Naked Ape. Part of it was serialised in a Sunday newspaper. I took quite a lot of notice then about what he was alluding to, and he seems, in a truly scientific fashion, to have succeeded in taking our focus away from what humans really are. He was more concerned about what we had seemingly become rather than what we should become.
Humans are not just animals: in reality, we have better traits than they, but for some reason, we do not often want to employ our higher traits - unless they are awoken by spiritual conviction. We seem content to see ourselves as just another animal species, but even animals often show greater consideration to one another than we. Everyday 'practicalities' and masculine logic seem to get in the way, but, after the damage has been done we rue the fact that the state of things is not what we would hope for and usually expect others to sort it out. "I'm alright Jack" seems to be the prominent outlook - an attitude I believe that is inculcated in both much of our upbringing and in our educational system. And as a result of the modern phenomenon of gadgets and instant communication.
One aspect of how society has developed is the ever-increasing reliance on laws, as though that, by itself, is the solution to our ills. And who is it that is to oversee the successful implementation of those laws? If it is the seemingly ever-decreasing police force that is to be responsible then we have a fat chance of many laws being practically applied. I would suggest there should be a lot more encouragement or education towards making us into becoming our own policemen, but that depends on a proper sense of human values being communicated.
It is an interesting thought that the more we elect leaders who are educated in the pervading western system, the less commonsense and care they seem to possess. The more it is we seem to move away from consensus and peace towards personal gain and thus to division and the spoiling of planet Earth. In fact, I strongly suspect that the education system we rely on is a root cause of our problems, as I discussed in an earlier post: "What Is Education For?"
That old epithet "choose head over heart" has a lot to answer for, especially as even science now proposes that it's the heart that is the real generator of fine reasoning (see Greg Braden's book, Resilience From The Heart). Answers to the big challenge are not to be found in cold logic. Deductive logic - by itself - has had its day.
But the impact of social media is surely another major concern. I will just utter two phrases - SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica. From that you should be able to deduce what I allude to. Yes, the SCL Group has apparently now closed down its operations, but I believe its former owning company still exists. The idea has not closed down. The fact remains that our fixation on social media has many inherent dangers that can generate a great deal of mind manipulation. Orwell's 1984 is, belatedly, taking shape.
That last issue provides even more reason for us to think independently and strongly, and not be dragged along by peer pressure. My Dad said, "Stay away from pack mentality". How right he was.
Conscience brings Care. Care is Key.
Note: For those wanting to know more about the Lunar Society, I recommend Jenny Uglow's fascinatingly insightful book, 'The Lunar Men'. And the Lunar Society still exists: click here to see their website.