None of the above

Susan Harrison
16 May 2001

I was born in Worcester, above the family business – my father was a baker and confectioner, and I was the youngest of four. When my father retired, my mother ran a successful boarding house. I suppose that’s the word for it, though with very respectable people... I went right through the state system here, then to Cambridge to train as a teacher. I met my husband there, and we got married a year after we graduated. Then we moved back to Worcester, and it’s worked out fantastically well.

There are a lot of people here who are proud of being Worcester born and bred. My husband has lived here now for twenty-eight years and he thinks he’s almost been accepted as a Worcester person now. I don’t speak with a Worcester accent but I always say that Worcester doesn’t have an accent, it just has lazy speech. I suppose it’s a pity if the diversity of accents is lost, but on the other hand somewhere like the Black Country has a whole different language. Still, I get very cross that the Midlands is thought of as a kind of non-area. People talk about the North-South divide, but where do we come in? Really it’s not a North/South divide, it’s the London/South-East divide from the rest of the country.

My husband is more involved in local activities than I am. He’s a Rotarian, so I belong to the Inner Wheel. Also, we’re both involved in some campaigning at the moment, because a supermarket wants to buy up our local school and develop the land. It’s our real bit of democracy, where we’ve actually got up off our bottoms and done something. It’s also been our entire social life for the last ten months, which is great.

I think Worcester has forgotten its roots. Although there are one or two people who seem to be trying to make it something it isn’t, it’s basically a cathedral city, still just a small town. There’s a touch of the parish pump about things, so you have to be careful what you say, because it’s amazing how word gets around.

Personally, I’d say I’ve got a small-town mentality. For me, Worcester will probably always be as I remember it as a child. Then, you had your little shopping area near where you lived, and most people rarely went beyond there. You went uptown once a week. Sometimes I find myself wishing that we could go back to that.

The ballot box doesn’t work any more

I am not a very political person, though up until recently, I felt very strongly that one should vote. People went to such tremendous lengths to get us the vote, especially the women, and I think it’s important to use your vote. It’s terrible that people don’t. But I must admit that the last few elections, be they national, local, or European, I’ve been hard pressed to find anyone I would wish to vote for.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone who I have anything in common with ideologically, or who I can trust. Politicians have only themselves to blame if they’ve had a bad press over the years. They’ve been put in a position to represent people, yet I get the distinct impression that a lot of them are there not to represent their constituencies but themselves.

I’ve only ever missed one chance to vote, and that was because we got back very late in the evening. It was the European election, which I had less inclination to vote in anyway. I usually vote Liberal, but I have also voted Conservative and Labour.

I’m full of misgivings about the next election. I shall go and vote, but I shall probably do what we did last time. We both effectively defaced our ballot papers. We wrote on the bottom of it, “We do not wish to vote for any of these people” – or words to that effect. I might well do that again. Because there should be some kind of category or box that you can tick and say “None of the above”. I’d like that. I’d like to register the fact that I have taken the trouble to vote, have thought about things, and yet there isn’t really anybody whose opinions represent mine.

Co-operation is the only way forward. “Power to the people” used to come through the ballot box. But the ballot box doesn’t work anymore. So you need to write letters and have public marches, peaceful protests and sit-downs – though sadly demonstrations have a horrible way of going wrong, because they get hijacked by the wrong people. I don’t do enough of this kind of thing. I marched against Vietnam, though I wasn’t involved in the fighting that followed, I hasten to add.

At one point I thought we should be like the Australians and make it compulsory to vote. Because it’s no good complaining like mad about the government if you haven’t voted to do something about it. But on the other hand, if there’s no one you wish to vote for.

At the last general election, I voted Conservative. It was purely tactical, as I thought the Labour chap was going to get in here, and I knew the Liberal chap didn’t have a chance in hell. So I voted tactically. In fact, the Labour chap did get in, but it was pretty slim. They’d changed the boundaries and taken out a fair bit of the county from the city, which made it much more obvious that Labour would win.

The cattle market might become an Asda

Thinking about our local MP – Mike Foster – I can’t ever imagine what possessed him to put forward that bill against fox hunting. I mean, he had the choice of doing so many things. Personally, I would never hunt foxes, or anything else. It doesn’t appeal to me. But then people who live in the country probably have a better idea how the countryside needs managing. And foxes are hardly a problem in Worcester city.

Personally, I don’t feel touched by the Countryside Alliance because I think that Worcester city has become divorced from Worcestershire. We haven’t really got all the old countryside things in the city. The cattle market is still on the go, but it might become an Asda. And that really is the final link we have.

I think it’s so sad that there is a differentiation now between the town and the countryside – but there probably always has been. I’m appalled in some ways, because my grandparents were farming people. So I do know one end of a cow from another, but I wouldn’t know how to actually deal with a cow or a sheep or anything, and I think that’s a shame.

Everybody’s lost their connection with nature. Come the nuclear bombs – if the world goes that way – we’re going to be in a really sad plight because most of us won’t know how to feed or clothe ourselves. Meanwhile, without agriculture, all there’ll be is endless housing all over the countryside – which is really worrying. If Desert Island Discs became a reality, the human race would be in a pretty bad way. They’d choose a Waitrose instead of a record.

Petitioning not voting

It’s not democratic policy-making when big supermarkets can buy influence off the local council. A few years ago, Sainsbury’s attempted to build on what for years has been a public park. And they were very strongly backed by the council, which had a Labour majority. There was a public outcry, and we marched with our placards to the town hall.

The upshot was that the Labour councillor who was going to be the next Labour parliamentary candidate, not only lost his seat at the next election, he lost his candidacy. He was also mayor-elect, so he lost that too. It was a real bit of local democracy that actually worked. And it gave them all a bit of a pull-up. There are one or two councillors still sitting from those days, and you only have to mention this to them and they get extremely anxious.

That kind of direct action needs to be encouraged. At the last election there were only 5,000 people this side of the river who bothered to vote. And when you compare it with our petition of 4,200 people who don’t want a Sainsbury’s here – that’s 80 per cent on paper. So if people can be bothered to sign a petition, it’s rather sad that they can’t be bothered to go and vote.

The national and the local

You have to start with local issues. They’re more important, because if you can’t convince your local councillors about what you feel, I don’t think you’ve got any chance of influencing Members of Parliament. It’s sad that local politics has become so very party political. As a child, I remember that there were independents and ordinary local people standing for office. You just don’t get that any more. Even on local issues MPs are being told by the national party machines which way to vote. They have party whips on them all the time and they’re not even looking at local issues.

Take our issue at the moment with the supermarkets. There are three supermarkets trying to build here. No one is prepared to make a decision without consulting at the national level. Massive amounts of money are involved, both openly and behind the scenes. And then Lord Sainsbury is in the cabinet, so what can you do? There is a strong odour of rotten fish about these types of things.

I’m quite sure it’s the same in Westminster. It’s almost as bad as America, where there are lobbyists at the politicians day and night with millions and millions of pounds behind them to do it – which is very worrying. A very few players end up controlling everybody.

It’s difficult now, because with such strong images of being so firmly Labour or Liberal or Conservative, there’s very little scope for anyone running for parliament who hasn’t got the financial backing of one of the three major parties – unless you’re Martin Bell in your white suit.

Now that everybody is better educated they’re a little more conscious of what is going on, and able to speak their minds. There’s fragmentation. So it would be nice if there was a little more scope and diversity than just the three major parties. And though they’re forever banging on that we should have proportional representation, I think that would be less a parliament than a committee – and committees only design camels.

When people within the same political party oppose each other on some issues, like whether to abolish the pound, then we must have a referendum. If they can’t make up their minds then they should go back – not just back to the ballot box – but to the people who put them there to do the job in the first place.

Part of a global picture

I voted to go into Europe, so I’m very sorry that it has become such a ghastly bureaucracy. It’s just jobs for the boys. The world is shrinking, and it’s very important that we become more a part of Europe, more linked up, with everyone kind of holding hands.

Our national identity will not be lost – both the good bits and the bad bits. You can’t get rid of some people’s attitudes. Some are always going to think that other nations can’t be trusted – that the Italians, Germans, or whoever shouldn’t be running things. Fortunately, this attitude gets less and less the more people travel.

It’s good that people are moving around and visiting, though I’m not in favour of them settling wherever they like. That will cause problems. Still, it’s great that the younger generation realise that just because they grew up in England, it doesn’t mean they have to live here. You can work somewhere else and enjoy someone else’s culture.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that we’d have a thriving Chinese restaurant across the road. As a nation, we often take on an immigrant’s eye-view as well as their culture. When I’m in America, I’m staggered how parochial their news is, as though they don’t understand there’s a world outside their own nation. Here, the lead story on the news is the lead story – regardless of whether it is based in England or Rwanda or wherever. In America, Rwanda may be mentioned in the last few minutes at the end. Here we realise we’re a small country but also a part of the overall global picture. And that’s very good.

But Britain is more American than European – there’s a common language and culture. While I am not a little Englander, I do think we are rather special. I certainly wouldn’t like us to be America’s little brother. I didn’t do economics but it’s amazing to me that a country with America’s financial clout should also be the world’s biggest debtor.

Integrating and fragmenting

If the Euro comes in, I will have no objection to using it. It was very sad when we lost pounds, shillings and pence but you get over it. It is an economic issue rather than a political one. And I’m sure that trading in euros will be very advantageous for big business. But as long as the Queen is head of state I think her head should be on the euro coin. Why not? The rest of Europe can have someone else on theirs.

I wouldn’t have the Queen’s job for the world. She’s on a hiding to nothing. But I am full of admiration for the way she’s always held herself above everything, regardless of what is happening in her family life, or in politics – though there have been some Prime Ministers she’s obviously been less happy dealing with. And I wouldn’t like us to have an American-style president because that’s just about who has the biggest wallet.

I consider myself British. My mum’s Welsh so I wouldn’t dare say I feel English! I’m rather sceptical of the Scottish parliament because it raises the question that if Scotland has its own parliament then why doesn’t England have its own one, too? Especially as so many of the front bench are Scottish anyway. It seems unreasonable to have two bites at the cherry.

It’s weird that we are trying to come together in Europe, yet fragmenting our own country. It’s as though the smaller the world gets, the more you have to establish your own independence. It’s a little baffling. I suppose the closer you push people together physically, the more they want their own space.

I don’t see the point in regional parliaments as I’ve no faith in local councils, though they should have more say in how their money gets spent. But there should be much more uniformity across the country in things like education. I wouldn’t have chosen private education if there had been an adequate school in the area. Now they’re being dropped in favour of a more selective system, I feel very sad for all those pupils who got stuck at a comprehensive.

No childhood and no responsibility

My involvement with the church is absolutely nil nowadays. I’m acutely aware of having been brought up in the Church of England, and I always took my children to church on a Sunday. Christian religion is every bit as important as any other religion. Whether Jesus was real or not, he’s had a huge influence on our culture. But I don’t have faith, though I’m happy to listen to anybody’s beliefs as long as they don’t try and ram them down my throat, or convert me.

So as far as I’m concerned, when you die that’s the end. There is no life after death, other than your memory living on in other people. My children make me carry a donor card, so I don’t think they’ve got any problem with the fact that once I’m gone, I’m gone. In fact, they’ve probably helped me on my way. Having said that, our middle son is having a church wedding and I’m quite happy to go along with that because I still think that people should get married, especially if they are having children. They should make a commitment to one another.

When I was a child there was a more widespread religious value underpinning society. I went to a church school, and even if people have no religious convictions they still see the value of moral education. Now, as a late middle-aged woman, I find it so sad that children don’t have a childhood anymore. This is the fault of aggressive advertising. Children think that by the age of eleven they’re entitled to all the things you have as an adult. On the other hand, they don’t seem to have the same level of responsibility as they had a few years ago – either to one another, or to society in general.

The issue of how to raise children has become very emotive. It’s complicated by there being a big difference between protecting your own children and protecting all children. It used to be that all adults were responsible for all children, so if you found a child crying you’d pick it up and cuddle it, but nowadays it’s, “Gosh, you can’t do that.” There’s a climate of fear, as though you’d be interfering. It’s gone too far when people are worried about intervening.

Some people are never going to look after their own children and you’ve got to make provision for those. Most parents want their children to have more than they did, be better educated, go further, have more opportunities. But it’s bloody difficult bringing up children now.

Society has alienated children. In marketing terms they’re just something else to be exploited. The other day, I saw a child of about twelve coming out of HMV with his new CD, his skateboard and his mobile phone. That adds up to a lot of money, and either somebody is going without at home, or he’s helping himself. Even under-tens have all this designer gear rubbish – something I’d change straight away. Label-consciousness among children is absolutely ridiculous. I’d like to see more responsible advertising of things like consumer durables, and much less advertising being aimed at children on TV.

Overall, the impact of corporations incredibly is incredibly worrying. They’ve got so much financial clout. The issue with our local supermarket shows how easy it is to end up with a big monopoly. People haven’t woken up to this. Every city is going to end up the same. Even now, every high street has all the major players, so there’s not much difference where you are shopping. I think this is even worse in poorer countries, which get picked on even more. If you don’t sell your cigarettes here then you go and flog them in Africa.

The major worry for future generations is the elderly. We’re the baby-boomer generation, and there’s just not enough money in the kitty to deal with all these old people. We’re running out of the people who do the caring. These are crucial issues. But the things that are most important are never the glamorous things. People are so hot on figures for heart transplants and brain surgery, but nobody ever gives the figures for the number of bed-sores that have been reduced by 50 per cent, because they think, “Who gives a toss?”

Looking at all this on a global level, there are just too many of us – says she with three children! Yet so much could be solved, for a start, by writing off third world debt. They’re never going to be able to pay it off anyway. So what’s stopping us?

In the end, I’m an optimist. And I think that the earth is pretty good at fighting back. Geologically, I imagine we’re going to have a few cataclysmic explosions that will make Hiroshima look like very small beer. The question is, how would we cope? The human race will be forced to go back to the way people live in the rainforests and remote parts of Africa. We’ll have to get back in tune with the world, discover for ourselves the benefits of nature. There’ll be no other way. It’d be more than just growing carrots! But I have great faith in human resilience. I believe that human beings have a wonderful capacity to solve problems.

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