When I was a 19-year-old punk with red and (some say) green hair, my dad once said to me ‘Son, the only way to change the system is from inside.’ At some point in my early life, though not exactly then, I think I started to agree with him, and grew up repeating the same to my children. They definitely didn’t agree, and are much the better for it. And their successes (and tribulations) have persuaded me that I’ve been wrong about this, especially in the last six months or so.
The expression ‘playing the system’ has mainly unpleasant connotations, akin actually to cheating, to the gamesmanship that makes a mockery of the spirit of regulations and the law in sport and life alike. To become part of the system is not to magically acquire the capability of changing things more effectively, nor does it ever result in the changes we actually need as a society. All it does is make you a first-hand witness to manipulation of the system by those who want to gain an advantage for themselves rather than for altruistic reasons. The fact that some politicians are vilified for being honest just reinforces that.
At the beginning of September, I went to Mid-Suffolk District Council’s planning committee meeting that, amongst other things, discussed the planning application for the Grove Farm development in Stradbroke (44 houses), as well as an application to site one static caravan and one touring caravan on a site in Baylham. In both instances, the presentations to elected members by non-elected officers were remarkably biased, and spun in such a way to achieve the outcomes which the officers partially preferred rather than being objective presentations which would allow the elected members to make up their own minds.
For example, photos were used for the Grove Farm application which showed deserted country roads totally bereft of traffic leading past the planned development site, while the photos used for the Baylham application were taken in such a way as to make two small caravans appear to interfere with the “natural beauty” beyond the site. Needless to say, the Grove Farm application was approved, despite the significant damage to the environment and heritage that will be caused (and the increased likelihood of someone being killed on a very busy road), while the Baylham application was turned down despite there realistically being no detrimental impact on Baylham’s environment or heritage (not influenced at all, of course, by the fact that the land-owning applicant is a traveller).
When I spoke against the Grove Park application, I was given three minutes to make my case. I made it in two minutes. When the elected members asked me questions, I began to answer. I was interrupted by an unelected officer shouting that my 3 minutes were up. It took MSDC’s solicitor to remind that officer that I was entitled to answer questions. Closed systems like this are open to abuse, of people choosing whether or not to abide by the rules, and when deciding not to abide with them making up reasons not to abide by the rules, or making up spurious rules on the spot to ensure that they have their way. A case of the tail wagging the dog? I couldn’t possibly comment.
All this, and more, has led to me, over the past few weeks, looking at my life and asking myself if being in the system has actually helped those around me the way I wanted it to. The answer is a resounding no. It has also made me evaluate how exactly the modest successes that I may or may not have had in my life have been achieved. Superficially, some might say it’s come about because I’m white and Cambridge-educated, and because I’ve been part of various systems as I’ve gone along.
But when I dig under the surface, I don’t think that’s the correct analysis. There has always been a touch of the slightly ridiculous and spontaneous in the things I do, including that, in my dotage, I still bleach my hair and am considering a sixth piercing. Many people compliment me on being a loose cannon, on my heartfelt engagement, from the outside, in the lives of people and organisations I care for.
In the last six months, though, I have achieved nothing, not for those I love nor those I care for, nor for the causes I support, hampered by rules which I, as an honest man, believe I should adhere to even when others do not, and tired of watching those rules being broken time and time again. But then I’ve never been particularly motivated by the idea of being powerful. And that’s not about to change.
Some might say that only the strong survive, but I believe that the meek shall inherit the earth.
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