Magazine article The Spectator

Aesthetic Disaster

Magazine article The Spectator

Aesthetic Disaster

Article excerpt

AS I walk through the centre of Bournemouth I see brand names, shops, hamburger joints that are identical across the world, and which so often in places less pleasant produce ugliness, sameness and blandness. Such sentiments are not those of an anti-globalisation Luddite. They are those of a true Conservative.

For too long politicians have assumed that good economics equals good politics; they have behaved as though standard of living and quality of life are synonymous. The view that endless material advance is the utopia to which all policy should be directed has dominated political debate for 50 or so years.

Because quality of life has awkward associations with values and morals, it became convenient for politicians to retreat to the safer ground of managing the public purse and advocating ever greater material consumption. And yet the material success that most of us enjoy is not the same as true fulfilment.

Yes, money is welcome, but the hours committed to generating income are increasingly onerous, leaving us with little time for family, friends and culture. Enjoyment of daily life is routinely diminished by everyday incivility, and increasingly by the fear and reality of violent crime.

The most important challenges we face are not economic, but social and cultural. The interests of trans-national capital, particularly its need for limitless flexibility and mobility, may sometimes militate against the sense of community in neighbourhoods and the solidarity of the extended family. We need to develop policies in response to these pressures.

Those who view politics as discovering final and complete solutions to all human problems seek big ideas and big structures to deliver them. Impatient with the imperfections of humankind, they are seduced by the tidiness and wholeness of pannational or trans-national grand designs.

But the glory of trusting local people to run their own affairs is that the solutions they devise will be sensitive to local needs and different from one village, town, city or nation to another. Big government is not the only threat to our way of life. Many soulless and rootless big businesses demonstrate little loyalty to local producers and only the minimum necessary commitment to consumers. The ubiquity fostered by multinationals is an aesthetic disaster. Its consequence has been the standardisation of our townscapes. Everywhere the same shopfronts selling the same products. Local delicacies are replaced by the predictable uniform flavour of a bland burger supplied by the same corporation operating from Bournemouth to Bombay.

To the political pan-nationalists, universal prosperity is seen as the most likely guarantee of world peace. One of the most commonly vaunted and facile arguments for transferring more power to the EU is that there are no more European wars. Even a cursory study of world history illustrates that central domination and the attempt to extinguish local traditions is a frequent cause of conflict.

Yet New Labour has exacerbated the problems of scale and uniformity because it misunderstands and undervalues diversity and localism. Mr Blair has presided over a massive increase in red tape and a significant increase in the complexity of the regulatory burden. By design or accident this, like workplace-administered tax credits, has hugely favoured big over small business. …

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