Waiting for the Barbarians

We don’t often delve into the world of poetry on Red Brick – a bit of Burns prompted by a literate Scottish friend is all I can recall.  But I was struck by references to a poem by the C20th Greek poet CP Cavafy in a recent speech by Julia Unwin, head of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  

The poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ was written in 1904, the same year that Joseph Rowntree wrote his founding document for the three Rowntree Trusts.  Julia interprets the poem like this:

“Cavafy describes a town threatened by barbarians, where fear of what is to happen closes down the small town. The orators stop declaiming, the poets stop writing, people hide away and the marketplace empties. The barbarians are coming and there is no point in any creativity, any beauty, and any values. No point in enterprise. No point in education. But the poem concludes, once the word has come that there are no barbarians: and now what shall become of us without any barbarians?  These people were some kind of a solution.

“It seems to me that the biggest risk we face is to see the outside world as so frightening that we allow it to paralyse us, and therefore step back from our historic role of speaking truth to power, and making sure that the social contract for the 21st century is one that allows us to describe clearly the social good that JRF and JRHT were established to promote.”

Joseph Rowntree himself, in his founding memorandum, stressed the need to look beyond ‘superficial manifestations of weakness or evil’ and to direct more thought and effort into searching out ‘their underlying causes’. 

There are lessons to be taken from this as Labour cranks up its policy-making machine.  Especially in housing – Rowntree himself took a big interest in the land question, an issue that has never gone away – Labour could suffer from a poverty of ambition due to the sheer scale of the housing problems that will have to be addressed.  As Labour surveys the huge and seemingly irreversible changes being brought in by the Tories, it risks policy paralysis because of the dominance of the deficit in political debate (housing will never be tackled without huge expenditure of capital, which implies borrowing). 

Unfortunately this time the barbarians have made it into town, but there is strong resistance.  And they won’t be in charge forever – today they will lose many more council seats, next May they will lose London.  The challenge for all of us in housing is to grab Ed Miliband’s blank sheet of paper, apply our collective creativity and values (less sure about beauty) and write a whole new housing chapter that really does go beyond the superficial manifestations to tackle the underlying causes.

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