Oxford on a drab January morning and I am in town to meet Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography and fellow of St Peter’s College.
It really doesn’t feel like the great city in which I grew up. Many buildings in the centre appear to be unoccupied and outside the Westgate Centre there don’t seem to be many shops of interest. The once bustling Covered Market is a shadow of its former self – the charming butcher’s shops, where once pheasants hung outside in the winter months, have all gone and in Broad Street besides Blackwells there seemed to be no serious shops. The buildings are still beautiful, but Oxford does not exude world-beating optimism. The new Ashmolean Museum may be wonderful, but I had the feeling that the town has lost its charm. It was not the city in aquatint that Charles Ryder remembered; rather it was a municipality in monochrome.
Lunch in St Peter’s is a modest affair – other colleges provide much more sumptuous dining for their dons (not to mention palatial accommodation and private health care). St Peter’s is simpler. This was most definitely not lunch with the FT, but I like to think the conversation was just as good.
Dorling had recently been in the Netherlands, and he commented that almost everything about the country was so much more impressive than the mediocrity to which we have become accustomed on this isolated island of ours, and he should know, for as one of our most eminent geographers he certainly gets about, both at home and abroad. He particularly likes speaking in schools, and he has recently addressed audiences in some of our most exclusive establishments.
At one such place – a leading London independent day school – he surprised the pupils with the notion that they had no idea of the disparity in the wealth of their parents, far, far greater than what you’ll come across in most state schools. Think about it! Dorling is struck by the ignorance of the society in which we live. He constantly strives to make his audiences aware of how tragically unequal a country Britain is.
This is a phenomenon that has crept up on us in the last 40 years and has accelerated under the not so benign rule of various Conservative governments. Such inequality manifests itself at all levels. He points out, for example, that these days anyone hoping to read for an arts doctorate at Oxford needs private money, and quite a lot of it. Even those who have a just bachelor’s degree are burdened by student loans that weigh upon them for years – a tax on learning.
What not to do
“I like to think that we ‘did our bit’ – we provided the prime example in Europe of what not to do.”
I first came across Danny on YouTube, listening to one of his lectures on Brexit, and he is still quite clear on this issue. We have a choice between the USA and Europe and since we are a European country the choice has to be Europe, and even then, it isn’t really a choice. He has written on the causes and significance of Brexit and sees it essentially as something that had to happen – and fail – for the country to ‘move on’ and face up to its real place in the world.
Britain’s failure to address the issue of empire remains an obstacle to this process. The belief that we were rather good masters lingers on (even if events in Hong Kong and India after our departure rather contradict that view) and fuels the exceptionalism that makes people believe we can somehow go it alone. But at least we showed Europe what not to do.
Danny Dorling on ‘the aftermath of great folly’
For Dorling Britain is a failing state and Brexit a failing project that cannot resolve the causes of the failure because in reality it is a symptom of Britain’s inability to face up to its place in the world. However, he is optimistic – the Suez debacle led to change: an enlightened Labour government came to power and ultimately Britain joined the common market. The failure of austerity and Brexit will ultimately spur a reconsideration of Britain’s future.
“Britain is, sadly, a place where great progress has usually been made only in the aftermath of great folly.”Rule Britannia: Brexit and the end of empire (2020).
Dorling is acutely aware of what has gone wrong in Britain since the eighties – which is essentially all his adult life. We have become the most unequal society in Europe apart from Bulgaria, health outcomes have recently been getting worse, and the government and its friends in the media have gaslit people into blaming immigrants (and by extension the EU with its policy of freedom of movement) rather than the choices made by those in power.
“If you believe in diverting attention away from rising inequality and the real reasons that there are growing problems with schools, housing and health, then you both blame and condemn immigration.”Brexit, a Failed Project in a Failed State
Dorling points out that we need immigration, but the government has no intention of admitting this or tackling the genuine problems that hold the country back. The aim is merely to distract people and stir up fear and loathing.
So, we languish economically. Whatever the likes of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) tell us, countries like France and Germany are better off than Britain, which is now economically on a par with Italy and the Czech Republic. If decline is to be reversed, then, to start with, house prices must become affordable for all – and more houses must be built. Inequalities of wealth, health and education must be addressed. There can be a way forward only if we are honest about this, and above all abandon our delusions of grandeur. We must stop obsessing about British greatness and try to make a country that works for everyone (who was it who said that?).
Dorling is busy, so after a coffee in the senior common room we say our farewells in New Inn Hall Street and I go for a brief walk in Christ Church Meadow before returning to Crowthorne. I have to say I was struck by his optimism – great folly can lead to positive change.
I guess we must live in hope.
Ed note: Further info: https://www.dannydorling.org/. This will give details of Prof Dorling’s many books.
Prof Dorling is scheduled to speak at a meeting of Oxford for Europe on 20 March. Further info will be published on the website: www.oxfordforeurope.org.
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