The Price of the Times

Laurence Hayward makes the case for devolution and shares his own personal experiences. 

A newsagent is like a pub, just with better things to read. It’s a mixing pot of different backgrounds, classes and ages where people come to talk, laugh, complain and connect. Working behind the till is like being a bartender- people seem to trust you with the things that matter most to them. I found this out in April, during the height of lockdown, when I started working in my local shop in rural Dorset. Interestingly, newsagents were one of the businesses deemed ‘essential’ but, with two of the usual workers in the protected age range, they were desperate for another employee. I am somewhat ashamed to say that I have never been one of those ‘community-focused’ people. I’m a socialist in one of the safest Conservative constituencies in the country, so in my view most of my community were either cruel or idiotic (or both). I see now that I judged them too harshly.

My town is not, as I thought, almost entirely white, middle-class pensioners. There is a largely hidden working class, and a thriving migrant community. And, perhaps most surprisingly, they aren’t separate. Some experiences have exposed my prejudices and preconceptions; a man in his late twenties, shaved head and covered in tattoos and paint splatters, comes in to buy cigarettes. And then, to my surprise, picks up a Guardian- before chiding an elderly man in a beige suit for buying a Daily Mail. Others have simply warmed my heart; a sixty-something-year-old woman buying the Sun stops to talk to a Bulgarian woman, and makes silly faces at a giggling baby. She takes time to fully understand what the young woman has to say, asks respectful questions and offers her help and support if she may need it.

I thought that my community was divided because that’s what politicians have always said. Britain is turning in on itself: Its leave against remain and left against right; them against us. But it isn’t, or at least it isn’t anymore. During this lockdown I have heard terrible stories; stories of pensioners not being able to access social care, young parents unable to teach their children at home, prescriptions coming in worryingly late and struggles to find essentials in supermarkets. And yet, as is so often the case, these problems have been met with overwhelming kindness, decency and humanity. I have seen firsthand people taking care of one another. And it isn’t grand or headline-grabbing. Its normal people looking out for each over.

As Albert Camus wrote in his strangely prophetic 1947 novel The Plague “To state quite simply what we learn in times of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Central government should learn from this. People can be trusted to do the right thing. We need to put power into the hands of individuals. They know what their community needs, and if you give them power, they will get things done. We have already seen this: Up and down the country young people have taken supplies to elderly neighbours, local councillors have supported vulnerable individuals and small businesses have produced PPE for frontline health workers. The struggles that we have fought together must shape the policies of the future.

The left must champion devolution, not just to devolved administrations but by giving power directly to working people. This means investment in community programmes, support for individuals who want to start projects, and proper funding for local government- which has lost sixty pence out of every pound the Government had provided to spend in the last eight years.

Politics shouldn’t be about complicated theories which mean nothing to everyday people. It should be built from the grassroots level, ensuring that the small things which matter to people are dealt with. I’m always struck by how little people really want. They do not ask for much; simply that their elderly mother is cared for, or that their children are happy at school, or that they can claim benefits without facing the embarrassment of means tests. Politics matters because of these people, because they need it. It is not an intellectual exercise for after-dinner debates; it is a matter of hope and despair. The people who come into the paper shop don’t want a revolution; they want kindness (and for the Times to stop putting its price up). 

Laurence Hayward lives in Dorset, which he has represented in the UK Youth Parliament, and was a member of the Government's Youth Policy Steering Group. He is 17 and hopes there will be a place at university for him to read politics somewhere next year. 

He tweets at @politics_LH.

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