Social progress has often depended on people being prepared to break the law or engage in acts of civil disobedience. Faced with oppression and injustice, men and women of principle have taken a stand and, despite the personal consequences, helped to bring about important reforms. The challenge to racial segregation in the southern states of America and to apartheid in South Africa depended on such acts of courage.
In Britain, examples include the fight for trade union recognition and the suffragette movement which led to the franchise being extended to women. More recently, the campaign against the imposition of the poll tax was a powerful instance of collective action forcing an unpopular government to abandon a flagship policy. The protesters' strategy involved refusing to register for the tax and contesting liability orders from councils (thus clogging up the legal system). A mass protest in London in 1990 attracted a crowd of 200,000 and culminated in a riot.
I am sometimes surprised that this country has not experienced more social unrest. Confidence in the capacity of government to shape the nation's destiny is poor, as attitudes to the Brexit negotiations demonstrate. There has been a manifest failure to manage the effects of globalisation and control the actions of gangster capitalists. It would not be surprising if those on the margins of society began to feel justified in taking some form of direct action.
For a short time, it looked as if the Grenfell Tower tragedy might serve as a catalyst for wider protests about official neglect and bureaucratic incompetence. But that did not happen. Presumably those directly affected have been too busy attempting to rebuild their shattered lives, not least trying to secure decent accommodation, to have time to engage in sustained political protests.
Problems encountered by people affected by the introduction of universal credit, replacing separate benefit schemes, might also have been a trigger. The original six-week wait for the transfer to the new system showed just how out of touch ministers and officials were about the personal circumstances of many claimants. People who live a hand-to-mouth existence, with no reserves to fall back on, could not be expected to cope with a sudden loss of income, even for a few weeks. But despite hardship cases being highlighted in the media and street rallies in various parts of the country, nothing close to civil disobedience has emerged.
What would it take for this to happen? In America, populist protest against the political establishment led to the election of Donald Trump. I fear the discontented working class, many of whom voted for him, will soon become aware that his promises of jobs and prosperity are not going to be fulfilled. Who knows what will happen then, but it is unlikely to promote social stability. Politicians in Britain need to be aware that they could be in the last-chance saloon. If Brexit fails and the prospects of reducing the gap between the rich and poor recede further, it would not take much for the touch paper of social disorder to catch fire.
When I retired from full-time employment, my sister presented me with a fridge magnet which she hoped would inspire me to a change of lifestyle. It featured a drawing of a man of mature years, wearing nothing but a complacent smile and riding high on a swing. Above the drawing it said: 'At your age, people expect you to be calm, dignified and sober.' Underneath were the words 'Disappoint them.'
The magnet is still on my fridge and every time I see it I think of my sister (who is now dead) and feel I have not really fulfilled her expectations. There was never much chance that I would take to drink. I am not teetotal but have seen enough of the damage that alcohol can cause not to be tempted to join the increasing numbers of over-60s who drink to excess.
My record on calmness and dignity is patchier and might receive qualified approval from my sister. I have been known to get agitated about issues and am quite capable of launching a minor rant on a number of subjects. There is no shortage of topics to provoke justified anger: the poor quality of political leadership; the efforts of tax lawyers to protect the super-rich; the way in which many public institutions place their own interests above those of the people they are supposed to serve; the complacency and ineffectiveness of regulatory bodies; the persistence of poverty, homelessness and avoidable ill-health.
As for being dignified, I have never been impressed by those who use badges of office to maintain their self-esteem. Thus, the trappings of royalty, members of the House of Lords and the judiciary have always seemed ripe for ironic treatment rather than deserving of deference. It would be quite inconsistent, therefore, for me to be concerned about my own dignity. But I suspect my sister would have liked to see stronger evidence of a willingness to abandon the respectable conventions of professional life. I fear, however, that it would require a major change of mindset, if not a personality transplant, for me to embark on a course of late-onset delinquency.
In a recent talk I criticised universities for the boastfulness of many of their websites. They are full of grandiose 'mission' and 'vision' statements and make extravagant claims about their standing compared with other institutions. I suggested that this was evidence of the extent to which the values of public relations had overtaken those of honest description. 'Spin' had supplanted truth.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that the Advertising Standards Authority has taken some universities to task for making misleading statements. The University of Reading has been required to remove a claim that it is in the top 1% of universities on the grounds that it could not be 'objectively proved.' Similarly, the University of Bedfordshire has been criticised for stating that it has achieved 'gold standard' for teaching quality when, in fact, it received a silver award in the most recent teaching excellence ratings.
There are now so many league tables and systems of ranking universities that it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons based on agreed data. Some institutions describe themselves as 'world class,' but it is often not clear whether this is a claim about the institution as a whole or is confined to expertise in a specific field of knowledge.
Part of the reason for the inflated and boastful language is the competition to recruit students and maintain levels of fee income. This is especially true of newer universities which are anxious to increase student numbers. Thus, it is quite common to see full-page advertisements in national newspapers seeking to attract applicants. Staffing levels in marketing and PR departments in universities have expanded, and sometimes seem to be regarded by senior management as more important than academic departments. This helps to intensify the cultural divide between commercial and intellectual values in the academy.
The situation is not without irony since the Advertising Standards Authority is not generally regarded as a stout defender of factual accuracy. While it is justified in castigating universities for misleading claims, there are many other topics deserving of attention: for example, the pseudo-scientific nonsense that is a regular feature in the promotion of cosmetics.