Sometimes the opportunities are seized by rabble-rousing populists who claim to speak for ‘the people’ – they claim a special, privileged access into everyone’s head and heart, and offer simple solutions that experts cannot match because situations are often far more complex than can be summed up in a slogan or soundbite.
Sometimes the options selected establish an external ‘enemy’, perhaps criminals, or people of different ethnicities or faiths than those appealed to, and of course the enemy can be external. From pogroms against Jews in many places over many centuries to the wall between Israeli and Palestinian populations or the proposed wall between the USA and Mexico, threatening people with the ‘other’ has been used to create a sense of ourselves, togetherness in the face of the threat.
The trouble is that it creates a fear-ridden, negative and hateful public mood that sours everyday life for everyone, whether they are on the inside or the outside of the argued-for boundary. One doesn’t get a sense that Nazi Germany or McCarthyite America were very comfortable places for anyone and the pro and anti-EU sentiment in the UK isn’t pleasant.
There is another way of behaving that can also consolidate support, bond people together and instead of fostering conflict can create a more general sense of harmony, progress and even wellbeing. The pride in the 1940s, on the back of terrible loss, in creating the National Health Service, so memorably celebrated in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics, is felt by most people in the UK.
The Conservative Party and medical establishment opposition has largely been forgiven and forgotten, especially as each year brings fresh independent research to reinforce the evidence that it is the most cost-effective health service in the world especially when compared with the unequal, profit-driven US model.
On a smaller, local scale when communities campaign for a speed restriction in their area, or for a pedestrian crossing they find that a common, social purpose can bring people from many different backgrounds together over a common theme.
That is what our work in health, safety and environmental management can and does do. Although there will always be a few dinosaurs who don’t understand that ‘restrictions on business’ are actually both protections for workers and the environment and obstacles to unfair competition from cowboys who disdain social responsibility, most decent people recognise the value of a framework of rules underpinning good practice.
Campaigning to protect outdoor workers from the worst effects of air pollution in cities, raising understanding and taking action on improving mental health and wellbeing in workplaces, refusing to accept that it is inevitable that people will be injured or made ill through their work – this brings people together with common, positive and achievable aims.
At a time when public debate is fractured and there is lot of hostile comment between groups with entrenched views, it is important to look for what can draw us together. Recently the way that effective leadership has turned the horror of the massacre of 50 people at prayer in New Zealand into a positive affirmation of social cohesion should inspire us all.
The overwhelming role of health and safety is the welfare of people, all people, and of environmental management is looking after our planet. As part of universal human rights, which grew out of the same feelings and at the same time as the NHS, these are values that can unite us all, and certainly are the underpinning themes of the British Safety Council.