I visited some dear friends in Cambridge last week. It’s a beautiful place, and I had a really lovely, restorative few days, putting the world to rights and seeing the sights.
One train of thought kicked off by this trip was about how different places develop and maintain their distinctive characters. I am fascinated by this process, not that I really know anything about it. (I’m toying with the idea of doing an Open University course – maybe this one will help me understand cities better).
Anyway, of course, every place is a multitude of places, coexisting, sometimes competing, occasionally connecting. One version of Cambridge is the one that incubates and reproduces a significant section of the English ruling class. In this Cambridge – almost unimaginably ancient – tradition is all-powerful and it’s all about who’s in and who’s out.
I learned that if you have ever been a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, you always retain the privileges that affords you – including the right to walk on the grass, have tea in the Senior Common Room and (thrillingly) go up onto the roof of the famous medieval chapel. I learned that King’s has a reputation for being very forward thinking, having been one of the first colleges to admit women – in 1972!
In this Cambridge, the ebb and flow of politics is really insignificant. The old traditions persist, regardless of which party happens to be in office, which theory is in favour this decade. The chapel still stands, the students learn important lessons – not about their particular discipline, but about their place in the world, things change very slowly, there’s always honey still for tea.
To see it up close is both shocking and beguiling. It is a charming place, with lovely green spaces all around and in the middle of the town. The orchard at Grantchester is idyllic. The college buildings are stunningly beautiful.
And yet these institutions are an integral part of the power structures which are currently driving people (including people in Cambridge) to desperation, forcing people to leave their neighbourhoods, pushing people into food and fuel poverty and making life unbearable for people who need benefits. While scientists produce ever more dire warnings about the real and present danger of climate change, our government of Oxbridge graduates blithely offers tax breaks to fracking companies and fails to take decisive action to reduce carbon emissions.
Things need to change, quite radically and quite quickly, but standing beneath the magnificent vaulted ceiling at Kings College chapel, it’s hard to see how that could ever happen.
Here in Brighton, we live in a different kind of bubble. Like Cambridge, Brighton doesn’t care very much what’s happening in the rest of the country. We aren’t easily swept along by the prevailing flow of political ideas. But rather than floating aloof, we tend to stand in the middle of the stream and cause a bit of turbulence.
Unlike most of the rest of the country, in Brighton we do have a credible alternative to the major parties. The rise of the Green Party in local politics has given the kind of people who are disenfranchised almost everywhere else a way to express our need for real change.
A mixture of inexperience, errors of judgment and unjustified mudslinging by opponents may have damaged the Green council administration’s reputation beyond repair, but Caroline Lucas has been a positive whirlwind of fresh ideas, enthusiasm, energy and principled commitment.
We need many more MPs who are prepared to get arrested for what they believe, who understand that protest is an essential component of democracy, who are not impressed by the ancient traditions and patriarchal flummery of Westminster (PDF). We need many more, but first we need to make sure we don’t lose the one we have.
Like Caroline Lucas, I’m inspired by the people of Balcombe, who are putting their money (and their roofs) where their mouths are and taking practical action to develop new renewable energy for their village. They in turn are following in the footsteps of our own Brighton Energy Coop and similar initiatives all over the UK and Europe.
Maybe this is how the old structures will eventually dissolve – by people simply getting on with making new ones. After a sunny day in the beautiful Sussex countryside, near Balcombe, I’ll allow myself a bit of hope.