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Emotions, empathy and what it means for us now.

I wrote last week about the nine things I’d noticed at the start of this crisis, but I’ve carried on watching. And I’ve since observed

  • That emotions really are the blind spot in public policy and in the way in which we talk about things. In all the words that have been expended so far about the impact of this crisis, I have not seen much attention paid to the fact that we’re all experiencing grief: grief for hopes and plans dashed, for security taken away and for some, the terrible lasting grief of bereavement.
  • And we’re all terrified: scared about what the future holds, anxious at a time of such uncertainty, frightened for those we love. And we’re angry – angry at a government that has failed in its basic job of protecting us, furious at those who we see as exploiting the situation, raging at forces we cannot control. And at times of grief, terror and anger we cannot always be rational, we are all easily triggered, so the language we and others use really matters.
  • And because language matters so much I’ve also noticed that Zoom and Skype calls, social media tweets and blogs and conversations that don’t acknowledge the pain we are feeling are dangerous places. When I hear people talk blithely about the great opportunity this is to shape our economy, or who seem to exult in ever last bit of tragic or terrifying news, I retreat in horror. I notice the armchair epidemiologists who spread fear or rush to darken any glimmer of light. I fear the Cassandras who spread gloom and despair as our predicament continues.
  • And I know that trust in these dark and difficult time, is the most precious currency. The most fundamental contract the people have with the state has been broken. We expect the government, whatever that government is, to keep us safe, and while we know that many of our fellow citizens were long ago abandoned by a state that failed them in this fundamental duty, this time we have all been betrayed at some level. We need to trust the science even while we know that science can be flawed. We need to trust the NHS even though we know its grossly underfunded and can make mistakes. We need to trust people making decisions on our behalf, and that’s really hard when so many of them have let us down so badly.

None of this sounds at all ‘strategic’, but I believe that it is. Because we are learning three fundamental lessons

  • That we need to be kind and thoughtful and intentional in the way we talk- and behave – and that is neither easy nor straightforward. But as I argued in  Kindness, emotions and human relationships will be vital in public policymaking. Indeed, the really disruptive approach is to be kind in a world which favours cool rationality,
  • That anger, like revenge, should be a dish best eaten cold. We have seen the underfunding and the vilification of our public services, and our public servants, we have watched the undervaluing of the work done by carers. Now at the time of crisis, we can witness appalling behaviour by some employers, observe the machinations of profiteers and speculators, and see the disarray in our political leaderships. We should neither forgive, nor forget. But let’s not waste precious energy right now, and risk fuelling more despair and anguish when it is already abundant.
  • And that while we plan for a better tomorrow, and we must, we need to do so in a way that recognises this is so much more important than ‘a political opportunity’, so much more profound than an attempt to simply repeat what we have always said before. We need to recognise that we are observing and learning things that challenge our most precious preconceptions.
  • Real social comfort, real solidarity and therefore real change, comes from people and the relationships they have with each other. And that anything at all that devalues or undermines those precious relationships diminishes us all, and threatens our chances of getting though this sad and frightening time.
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Nine things I’ve  noticed  this week

We’ve known that a global pandemic would come for decades, and it’s been modelled and planned for time after time. But when it comes it’s a massive and terrifying shock, and the implications will be felt for decades to come. Just now we’re wrestling with the health and economic impacts and learning things we didn’t know about ourselves, as well as confirming what many of us have always believed. And primarily it has confirmed, if it was ever needed, that global shocks hit the poorest people most badly.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to say that this extraordinary period is variously as big in its impact as 2008, or 9/11 or 1945. But it clearly is a hugely important moment in our lives and will probably change everything. I feel it’s a bit too early to make dramatic predictions (after all, what use are they just now?) but it is probably the moment to notice accurately what is going on. I often think that change happens in the most unexpected places and when we are not really looking. This is one of those occasions.

  1. We’ve learned that we need strong, trusted institutions. After a decade or more of it being easy to throw brickbats at the NHS, the BBC and the civil service, at a time of national emergency those authoritative and powerful bodies are needed more than ever before. Just notice how often senior politicians invoke ‘our NHS’.  Remember that only 10 days ago the end of the BBC was called for, and carelessly compared to Netflix.  And we’ve learned once more that trust is, and always has been, the most precious currency.
  2. We’ve learned that people do look out for their neighbours and friends, and that a dense network of connections is keeping people going, supporting their well-being and offering practical help. Support really is local, mobile and social – and the outpouring of local support and friendship has been astonishing and heartening to see.
  3. But it has its shadow side and the panic buying, stripping of supermarket shelves, and shameless profiteering is a powerful antidote to those of us who like to think that crises produce the best in people.
  4. We need the state. Anyone who in the last few years has been tempted even for  a minute by the siren voices proposing that the market or the community alone can cope, now knows the absolute importance of a connected, capable and properly powered state.
  5. Experts matter. We need to be allowed to trust the science and the advice. The clear voice of experts rings through all the noise.
  6. But in a world where everyone has access to a publishing platform, we’ve also learned of both the dangers of rumours and false information and the extraordinary benefits of rapid organisation, and the ability to raise concerns from anywhere in the country.
  7. We’ve learned that 1:10 of us in the lower half of incomes can work from home, and 9:10 of us in the higher half can (thank you Resolution Foundation) and that really matters because it makes our economic prospects so hugely different. The Universal Basic Income has its detractors (and I’ve been one) but if ever here was a time for it, it is now. It is feasible, effective and could remove economic anxiety from a nation already massively anxious.
  8. We’ve learned how appallingly degraded our public services have become over the last decade of austerity. We’ve learned that 5000 ventilators for a population this size is the lowest in the developed world. And we’ve learned how very badly some companies have behaved. We’ve learned that even social landlords needed to be told not to evict people who couldn’t pay their rent, and others in the private sector have tried to by-pass this instruction. And we see that, and we will not forget and forgive.
  9. And we’ve seen the very best of what we can do as humans, as community networks and as big institutions, moving to support, to salvage and to save. The generous leadership, ability to organise, willingness to forsake brand and position and just make change happen, has seen the very best of us at the very worst of times.

It’s been a terrifying week, and it doesn’t look as if it will get much better very quickly, but what I’ve observed and felt will stay with me for ever.

 

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Time to get serious about civil society

The end of a decade is always a time to take stock, but in the UK just now it represents so much more. A General Election outcome, more dramatic than most had predicted, has created some certainty about the way ahead, and for civil society some greater certainty about what we need to do next.

We argued when we launched the final report of Civil Society Futures over a year ago, that we urgently needed a renewed reenergised civil society to meet the challenges ahead. Well those challenges have now only got clearer and sharper.

This second decade of the century is going to be both turbulent, and fast paced. Three things we know we will face
• A constitutional crisis that for all the constituent part of the UK will involve change, attention to the national story that we tell ourselves, and the weaving of a new narrative, along with new structures and accountabilities. And perhaps for England even more than the other nations, an urgent need to develop a new view of nationhood.
• Economic volatility as we settle into new and differently negotiated settlements, and find ourselves more subject perhaps than ever before to global flows of capital. There may well be some sunny economic uplands in prospect, but the route to them will be bumpy and volatile. We know the deep and, lasting damage done in the past by unplanned unconsidered economic transitions.
• Climate emergency having real and daily impacts. The floods of this autumn are now classed as the ‘new normal’ and we can expect throughout the decade to be responding to the desperate damage, largely to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, brought by climate change.

There’s lots we don’t know, but it’s always worth articulating what we do know.

And we do know that civil society at its best, brings a number of vital things.
It brings –

  •  The ability to shape and develop a story that helps us understand and live through change. That’s what creative and artistic organisations do at their best, working closely with communities to articulate a new purpose, and renewed sense of belonging. It’s what churches, mosques, tempLes and synagogues do, bringing people together from different backgrounds and ages to think about how they want to live. It’s how universities, those anchor institutions with deep roots in a place can help to bring people together to tell their own story.
  • We’re good in a crisis – it is community organisations and neighbourhood groups that are first on the ground in a crisis, helping to plan, bringing emergency help, supporting and galvanising the helpers.
  • Our roots are in rights and resistance. We know that major change can have intolerable costs – we know how to organise to demand better, and to seek redress when those demands fail. We know how to intervene in fragile economies, how to develop skills and capabilities, how to assert repeatedly and skilfully the damage done most particularly to those who are too easily marginalised. We know  what is happening at the margins.
  • Much of civil society is in a place – both the big asset holders like universities and housing associations, the long-established local charities and so many others. And one thing we all now know is that place really matters, not in some sentimental way, but in a powerful and defining way it shapes who we are and what we care about.

And there are things we’re not so good at.

  • We’re too divided within civil society with vanishingly low levels of trust between small and large organisations, with too little money flowing from the large well endowed bodies, and too little sense that bigger charities will support their smaller colleagues.
  • We’re bad at collaborating, still too frequently worrying about brand, looking to funders, and government for approval, rather than focusing on our purpose.
  •  We’re still too timid about saying loudly what we know and what real experience looks like. This means we can look detached and far away from the communities we serve.

To be at our best we need to change. And in Civil Society Futures we were explicit about the strategic and organisational changes needed – across the country we see evidence of all sorts of organisations, taking this challenge seriously and making real and deliberate changes.

But times have changed.

In this new and exceptionally challenging decade, we will need new forms of focused accessible help.

This is not the moment for those with assets to sit on the sidelines and lament the lack of action in civil society. A few months ago I suggested three roles for funders in our troubled times, but things have got even more serious and much more urgent. this is not just about the funders – though they have an enormous role to play – its about all of those with power within civil society – universities, housing associations, richer organisations.

So just to start with a few suggestions, how about –

  •  A designated fund, available – without judgement and endless appraisal – across civil society to enable legal challenge to injustice, to allow for review of cases, to protect those organisations threatened with gagging. A fund, and expert resource,  that is as comfortable supporting necessary judicial review as it is in meeting the costs of a small organisation penalised for speaking out.
  •  A mechanism for responding to crisis. Moving money from the big organisation to the front line at the moment of emergency, not months later. We seem to have learnt how to do this after the major national emergencies. Isn’t it time we came to do this when there is flooding in a remote village
  •  Investment in the painstaking influencing of the endless trade negotiations on which we are about to embark – influence to protect and enhance environmental, consumer and workers rights at every step of the way. The costs of the deeply technical interventions might be large, but the value could be huge.

If this is to be the decade of deep connection, we need to start connecting the resource and the power to where it is most needed.

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Why make grants?

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the purpose of grant making, the role of endowed foundations and the relationship between what goes on in broader civil society and the organisations that support and fuel it. There have been critiques from the USA – from Anand Giridharadas   arguing that philanthropy is another tool for the powerful rich, from Edgar Villanueva  describing the damaging colonial underbelly of philanthropy, and from Robert Reich  questioning the impact of philanthropy on our democracy. Each of these critiques has been discussed in the UK, and while the criticisms don’t land as powerfully as they do in the USA, there has inevitably been some greater sense of self-reflection in the UK. But there would have been reflection anyway – people running foundations as staff or as trustees are reflective people, liable to consider what their place is in the world and what difference they can make. And as they survey our deeply divided society, the sense of desolation in so many parts of the UK, and the democratic crisis we face, it would be odd indeed if they were not thinking about how they can do what they do even better.

Over fifteen years  ago in the Grant Making Tango  I argued that anyone wanting to make a grant needed to decide if the purpose of the grant was to change  the world, build an organisation, or keep good stuff going. Not to know, I argued, risked disappointment at best, and massive waste at worst. Too many funders were paying for projects, and then being disappointed that the organisation wasn’t stronger and more effective. Or they were paying to strengthen organisations, and surprised that they hadn’t achieved the large-scale systems change that was then desired.

But preparing for another discussion this week about the role and purpose of foundations – those wonderfully privileged endowed organisations, withe independence hard wired, and the choice to set their own course – I thought rather differently about what foundations can do in these, very much more troubled and troubling times.

  • They can be stabilisers and stewards– supporting important organisations and groups in times of massive turbulence. They can protect knowledge, support the institutions and organisations with deep roots in communities and in our world. Just as  the medieval monasteries protected the illuminated manuscripts during the years of plague – so too we have organisations that need security and stability through troubled times.
  • They can be disrupters and agitators, making change happen, supporting the new and the challenging, avoiding the status quo, recognising the need for new and different ways of doing things. They can take risks, challenge the existing order, support the challengers against the incumbents.
  • They can be the reliable suppliers of money, support and help– keeping good things going, working with humility to support that which works and is good, valuing the deep connections that exist within civil society, and making sure that organisations across the country are able to thrive.

All three of these sets of purpose seem to me to be worthwhile, important and timely. Each of them has massive value at this difficult time in our country’s history. Each of them can be pursued by foundations – but I’m not really sure that anyone foundation can do all three. If I’m right there are choices to be made – and in difficult times, foundations know they need to make choices. That will help them – perhaps even more importantly it will help the bodies that rely on them to know what  it is that the grant maker wants to do.

 

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The Politics of Belonging – the Freedom to Belong

There’s a new report out today from Onward, the organisation which describes itself as a ‘new future-facing and campaigning thinktank with a mission to build a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders.’ With the catchy (but long) hashtag #PoliticsofBelonging, the report  The Politics of Belonging, is a data rich survey of attitudes and emotions how we live today. As I have argued that emotions are the blind spot in public policy  I fell on it with enthusiasm.

There’s lots to agree with in the findings. They chime precisely with what we heard in Civil Society Futures.In our own discussions with local people from different parts of the UK, they told us they had little control over their lives.  They felt distant  from others in their communities, and believed that their country was increasingly divided.

People also told us they felt they had not benefited from modernisation and globalisation, and that those who had, lived far away. People felt their own situation was deeply and worryingly precarious. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in their own work on modern poverty, found very similar responses about the extreme insecurity experienced by so many people.

Finally, all of this research shows that, above all, people really want to feel that they belong. This is as true of newly arrived Syrian refugees as it is for people with learning disabilities or those who have lived in a neighbourhood housing estate. All of them feel excluded and locked out of what society can offer.

They are not wrong in feeling like this. We are a deeply divided society, where the gains of modernity have certainly not been fairly distributed. There is huge tension between generations. Younger people feel angry that the benefits experienced by their parents and grand-parents are not available to them. And in turn the older generation fear the insecurity and uncertainty facing their children.

But in our Inquiry we also found hope and energy alongside the despair and anger. In every community we visited we saw people making their own solutions, supporting their neighbours, building bridges, creating a sense of belonging. Academics call it associational life – for many of the people we met ‘it’s just what you do’. From choirs to allotment societies and support circles; from residents’ associations to young people setting up their own enterprises, from Park Run to Refuges at Home, there were many examples of people contributing to the communities to which they belonged.

Churches and mosques, community run swimming pools, long established charities, and new movements and pressure groups all confirmed to us that people have a desperate, visceral human need to belong and will go to huge efforts to do so. From rural villages to inner city estates, across all ages, people demonstrated great loyalty and identification with place.  Our report celebrates the ability that civil society, in all its forms, has to bring people together.

But there was another element unearthed by our research. We found a strong desire for freedom and independence. People want the opportunity to build their own communities, in ways that work for them. They recognise that they know more about their ‘place’ than the chief executive in the town hall, let alone the man in Whitehall. We met people who wanted to devise solutions for their own problems, but prevented from doing so either by regulations, or more frequently the absence of even the smallest dollop of funding to help them get going. Many grassroots groups and organisations told us that their freedom to innovate, to engage, to really help instigate change, were being constrained by those holding power.

Civil society is about change as much as it is about conservation, and we also heard from groups actively pursuing the freedom that they strongly believe they need. The freedom from worry and crippling anxiety for parents with children addicted to drugs and alcohol. The freedom to manage their own housing estates, the freedom to worship and express their faith and their own sense of belonging.

We noted that for most people, and for men in particular, until about 15 years ago, their workplace was their strongest and most profound place of affiliation and belonging. Time and time again we were told that the changing labour market – not just the ‘gig economy’ but also the ways in which companies are rapidly forming and re-forming – meant that work provided less of a focus for belonging. Young people felt that their insecure housing meant they were unable to form the deep human connections that are so important to us all.

So, the diagnosis in Politics of Belonging held few surprises for me. Nor did some of the analysis about how people feel that they and the people and places they love benefit little from a fast-changing world which makes them uncomfortable and resentful.

Inequality and division has a tendency to have that effect.

But it was with  the final words of the report that I part company with the authors. In advice to political campaigners, (and this report speaks directly to the Conservative Party it concludes:

‘reject the freedom fighters and pursue the politics of belonging’.

A whole hearted embrace of belonging doesn’t contradict a desire for freedom and autonomy, in fact it can only enhance it. There’s only a contradiction if what we’re really talking about here is power.  I think it is. When people really belong – to a trades union, charity, community group or a campaign like Extinction Rebellion – they feel a tremendous sense of power. They also have the power to bridge across divides – divisions on grounds or race, ethnicity, faith divide and destroy. That’s why belonging matters. It allows people to set their own course. And with that power comes freedom and autonomy. To separate the two runs contrary to our most profound human impulses.

Any party that wants to achieve power has to address people’s deep sense of insecurity. It has to recognise the vital importance of belonging. And it has to recognise that it is only by strong, shared action – across all the divides that currently afflict us – that we will really achieve the true social change that is so important for our deeply uncertain future. Its only through a renewed and re energised civil societythat we’ll be able to really assert the importance of belonging, and the true value of our own very precious freedoms.

That will mean asking some deeply uncomfortable questions about who holds power, and how they use it. And it will mean recognising that we need a fundamental shift of power. That’s how the real Politics of Belonging works. It allows us to express solidarity with those who are excluded. It allows us to start to mend our dented democracy. It allows us to work together to stitch the frayed social fabric. It makes it possible for us to start making the essential, and increasingly urgent changes demanded by the climate emergency.

That’s what civil society does at is best, and that’s why I don’t think there is a contradiction between demanding freedom, craving belonging, and resisting insecurity.

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Bert Massie – A life without Limits.

When Sir Bert Massie – who was a member of the Civil Society Futures Panel – died in October 2017 I described him as a giant of the voluntary sector. Someone who had made an enormous contribution, always reminding us that we were about rights and resistance, just as much as we were about service and association.

Reading his recently published memoir – A Life Without Limits – reminded me yet again what an enormous lifelong contribution he made, and how very many of the rights we now enjoy had been gained in his enormously productive lifetime.

But his memoir reminded me of something else. It is how his extraordinary combination of passion, focus and attention to detail really can change the world.

Bert’s passion, that disabled people should live full active and equal lives, is evident in every page of this book. His personal determination to lead a full and active life sings out on every page. And so too does his passion to ensure that all disabled people – and indeed all people facing discrimination – should lead full lives.

But it was not just passion – there is a clarity of vision, a focus, and a certainty that changes in both policy and practice really can make a difference. A vision for a better, more equal world, based on personal experience and the experience of the people he grew up with and the very many people he worked with in his life. But a vison too that was collaborative and willing to make alliances. I’ll treasure forever his entertaining presentation to an early meeting of the Inquiry about the alliance forged between people using wheelchairs and mothers pushing prams that successfully pressurised successive ministers to demand better access on the railways.

Passion and vision are essential. What Bert also brought was a willingness to engage in the hard graft of good governance, of detailed policy making, of tireless briefing and engagement. Time and again he describes the processes of change, the need to work with others, and the common cause he created. Bert could fight battles, and could pick fights, but he could also make change happen, not posturing but arguing incisively, and creatively for the sort of change that really does remove the limits to lives.

I learned a lot from Bert and his work and will be forever grateful. But this memoir tells us all so much more about the way in which a Liverpudlian from a working class family, contracting policy as a baby, came to be such a giant in our sector, making changes that will be felt for generations to come. And reminding us all, all over again, that we should never take rights for granted. They need to be fought for time and time again.

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A Community Response to #metoo

 

Over the last decade our institutions and industries have been rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and harm. From the Church through the BBC  to Hollywood and to some of our most precious charities we have heard stories about behaviour that has no place in the 21st century. And we’ve heard about harm done, hurt experienced and the terrible work of both repairing the damage, and atoning for the grief caused.

Most of us have been challenged to think about our past behaviour – not just the abusers, but those of us who fear we may have been carelessly complicit. The averted eye, the nervousness about intervention, the embarrassment when we  knew things were not quite right. And all of us, whether accusers, survivors, perpetrators and institutions have known that there needs to be a better way. We need to find ways of being together  that enable fellowship and friendship but avoid causing such devastating sexual harm and degradation.

I believe this strongly. That’s why I’ve signed up to support #preventsexualharm. Supported by an impressive coalition of organisations including the NSCPCC, NCVO, NOTA, Crimestoppers and powered by Re-shape, this coalition challenges us to think about what we can do to prevent sexual harm in our communities, in our networks and our  organisations. .

This doesn’t feel easy or safe. But I do think it’s a really important way of taking back some control. And a chance for all of us to get the confidence to stop sexual harm – and that should mean that at the very least in ten years’ time we’re not looking back with embarrassment at things going on that we really should have been able to stop. After all, that certainly  doesn’t feel easy or safe .

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power

 

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All Our Children – A Play for our Times

This website doesn’t normally host theatre reviews, and I know that  I have none  of the skills or experience  to be a critic. But last week I went to see All Our Children by Stephen Unwin (full disclosure, he is my brother). It’s a moving play and  it’s brilliantly acted. It describes a particularly  hideous episode in the horror of the holocaust, focussing on the Nazi murder of  disabled young people. Of course the audience was rapt with attention.

But what I hadn’t expected was such a profound exposition of what seems to me to be one of the biggest – unspoken – social policy dilemma of our times. By using the horror of the past, the play forces us to think seriously about  what we really think about people who are never going to make an economic contribution. Those of us who grapple with public policy dilemmas would never dream of  using the harsh rhetoric of the Nazi administrator, but in our pursuit of  supposed fairness, and our obligation to make spending decisions transparent and apparently equitable, we regularly  witness decisions that ascribe differential value to human life. When the zealous Nazi administrator contrasts the vast expense of maintaining severely disabled children, with the good that could be done for so many other children, it was hard not to think of the agonising commissioning decisions taken daily in local authorities. And this is not only about austerity, or recent policy. The need to allocate money to support, ‘the few, not the many’,  in a reversal of the current Labour party campaign slogan, is a daily decision, and one which we need to talk about. Otherwise, those who don’t contribute economically are seen as objects of pity,  and discretionary generosity, not fellow citizens with intrinsic value as human beings.