Just what I say (or said): Brian Nicholls

Date: Tuesday 10th April 2018

I HAVE been writing this column for a little over 16 years with only about three or four missed during that time mainly because of foreign trips or, in the case of one absence, a spell in hospital when I had cancer.

That is about 420 columns altogether, which amounts to about 630,000 words, some of them possibly words of wisdom and some of them clearly not.

When the first tentative effort was printed here we were just under two years into the new millenium and Tony Blair and New Labour’s brave new world was still promising much and, in those early days, actually delivering, but I, along with so many others, allowed hope to overcome experience and in doing so we set ourselves up for the usual crushing disappointment.

We now have a Tory government and for me Tory governments never disappoint. They always deliver exactly what I expect them to deliver and this one adhered to the doctrine of austerity and its unquestioning and blind support for a discredited free market system which they allowed to walk away unscathed and unpunished from the economic mess and recession it created, and for which we have all been made to pay for the past 10 years.

If there is one thing I have learned in the last 16 years of close political observation it is that you can rely on our two main parties once they have gained power to revert to type, no matter what they say or what airy-fairy promises they made to deceive the electorate.

Labour quickly forgets where the tax money it so glibly hands out comes from and sees nothing wrong in squeezing more tax from the same ordinary working families to subsidise others and then can’t understand why traditional working class voters switch to the Tories while Labour spends another two decades out of office.

The Conservatives, of course, welcome these new supporters with open arms and open promises of a fairer and more equal society and then set about creating the exact opposite by inventing new types of schools which serve the few, the well-off middle class Tory core voters but neglect the many.

They systematically destroy local government by making its role impossible but that is a long-held objective of theirs and the destruction of services to the most vulnerable is a price the Tories are always willing to pay. There is always a decline in the NHS under Conservative stewardship coupled with a rise in privatisation, which is another cherished ambition of theirs even though we have seen the failure of this policy time and again over recent years.

Enough of politics where nothing really changes because politicians never really change. They are still a bunch of self-deluded egotists who live in one world but try to run another, which is the one we inhabit and suffer in because of their incompetence.

So, what about other changes since 2002? If you ask me if life has improved and if Britain is a better place now, my answer would be a resounding “no” and I don’t think that is just the natural and expected reaction of an older person who, like so many Brexit voters, just wants to go back to the mythical golden era of yesteryear.

The sinister trends in our society which this column has highlighted over the years not only continue but are increasing to the point where I genuinely believe that we are no longer the masters of our own lives or fates. We are controlled and manipulated in almost everything we do and the worst element is it has been done so subtly that few of us even know it has happened. And as the majority never question this new form of serfdom it just continues to grow.

The great demon is technology which, we were told, would cure all ills, widen our horizons and bring the world and its wonders into our homes and work and that the globalisation which it would generate would bring prosperity for all.

Nothing could have been further from reality. There have been benefits without doubt, but we have also allowed the creation of a monster which cannot be controlled and it is control which is the real issue.

Our lives are increasingly controlled by others and none of them are elected by anyone to exrecise that power. We believe we have free will and choice in everything we do, but that is not the case.

No-one consulted us about how our food should be packaged and sold and yet without our consent almost everything we now buy is wrapped in several types of plastic. If you shop in a supermarket you either buy plastic or you don’t eat, but when David Attenborough highlights the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans it is the consumer who gets the blame for being irresponsible.

Is it our fault that the retail world went plastic mad and continues to shrink wrap melons and even individual apples but expects us to pick up the tab for clearing up a mess we had no part in inventing?

The same people have now decided that we will all end up being carried in driverless cars whether we agree with them or not. We will end up with no choice.

Worst of all, the very thing I began by mocking with gentle humour not so long ago, which is smartphones and social media, has fulfilled all my more negative predictions and become even more sinister than any of us expected.

We now have a generation who confuse or perhaps don’t know the difference between information and knowledge. The ability to instantly access information, which is just as instantly discarded and forgotten, means that many people actually know very little about the world they live in and, tragically, they don’t know that they don’t know anything but they don’t care, because knowledge is no longer valued while the ability to push phone buttons and watch dogs eating ice cream is.

If you are wondering why I am indulging in this rather depressing retrospective, it is because this is the last Just what I say column I shall write, so it seemed appropriate.

I have moved to Warwickshire and it is difficult to keep up with local events in Cumbria. We now live in a village about five miles outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where I am a volunteer guide at Anne Hathaway’s cottage for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and I very much hope to encounter some familiar faces there in the future.

Do I miss Penrith and Cumbria and will I miss having the privilege of sharing my thoughts with you in the future? The answer to all three is, of course. “yes”, but I also enjoy new challenges which later this year is set to include training for a pilot’s licence.

I lived in this community for more than 30 years and it is a community. Despite my pessimistic review of the world in general, there are still pockets where values thrive and giving time for the benefit of others is still a strong tradition, and Eden is one of those places.

I hope I have played my part in that. I’m quite proud of the CV I have built up serving our community here. Local police officer in Penrith and the Eden Valley and Carleton Hall headquarters followed by a teaching career at Ullswater Community College, where my proudest achievement was helping to extend opportunity for our young people by being involved in setting up the new sixth form and raising expectations and achievement in general.

While I was teaching, and against the odds and expectations, I won a seat on Eden District Council and served Penrith East and Penrith Carleton for 12 years, most of which was spent rattling the cages of the complacent. I really enjoyed that.

After having to take early retirement and after recovery I worked as information officer on the Lake District osprey project and also began writing for this and other local newspapers and did some items for BBC Radio Cumbria as well as charity work for a cancer charity and volunteering for the National Trust.

Yes, I guess I have had a full life in and on behalf of this community — some people get MBEs for far less (www.gov.uk/honours) — and I hope that may continue for a long time in my new life. Thank you for reading and thank you for all the comments over the years, supportive and critical. They have helped to make being a columnist for this newspaper so enjoyable and rewarding.