Trinity College Oxford
On the morning of Tuesday 13 March, instead of the standard routine of getting off a jam-packed train at Kentish Town, Albert and I had the honour of boarding a train with our business suitcases to Oxford from Paddington, to attend the Oxford annual McWhirter Conference. This is an annual conference held at Trinity College bringing together more than eighty sixth form students, from both state and independent schools, to debate a topical subject.
This year the question was: “Does economic wealth = social well-being?”
When we arrived we were given a tour of Trinity College which went beyond our expectations. The tour was given by Alasdair McWhirter who is the son of Norris; in 1975 Norris set up this foundation as a way to commemorate the assassination of his brother, Ross by the IRA. The foundation allows students to learn and reflect on their role in wider society and decide on their own moral stance.
Over the next two days we had the honour of hearing from a range of perspectives on this topical question and after each lecture we would divide into our smaller “syndicate” groups which consisted of eight people from all over the United Kingdom to continue the ongoing debate. My initial apprehension of being stranded with seven other strangers who were outside the liberal elite bubble of London (*gasps, the horror*) was instantly proved wrong.
The speakers on the first day presented different perspectives on our broad topic. The first speaker, Cecile Wright, is a lecturer by day and a ‘Momentum’ activist the rest of the time. Her lecture firmly asserted that most social problems were rooted in austerity (her definition was benefits cuts) and the negative effect of how everything in society has been marketised. Her quoting of Oscar Wilde to present how in this day and age we know “the price of everything and the value of nothing,” underpinned her whole argument. Whilst at Camden she would have been adamantly supported, at this conference she was fiercely criticised; the people argued that marketisation encourages innovation and productivity.
The second speaker, Saffron Cordery, the NHS Providers’ director of policy and strategy and deputy chief executive, argued that economic wealth in terms of health does equate to social well-being when considering the whole of society, sometimes when considering groups (but race is a factor) but never in the cases of individuals. A great problem is that the NHS was set up as an emergency service in 1948 and instead of restructuring it effectively, different departments have just been added to it. The NHS system needs to be restructured: from the old-fashioned diagnoses which are based on the medical situation of white men, more money should be distributed to prevention services, a greater focus on well-being of the staff and we must ensure more people can access services locally. This speech was highly regarded, although many in my syndicate group argued more sectors should be privatised.
On Tuesday we had a black tie formal dinner: visually this event can be compared to a perfect combination of Bugsy Malone with Harry Potter. We had a three-course meal and were spoken to by Nic Marks, a statistician, who introduced a statistical element to the discussion which promoted happiness and good citizenship.
The second day brought the environmental nuances of economic wealth proposed by Andrew Simms. He argued that economic wealth does not equal social wellbeing as this conventional economic measure only analyses the amount of money people spend. He prefers the happy planet index which quantifies: waste used, life expectancy and satisfaction. The old economic measure runs with the assumption that growth is always positive and overlooks the detrimental effects on the environment that corporations have caused and how consumerism encourages anti-social behaviour. This opinion draws on the flaws of a capitalist society and how they are detrimental environmentally and in terms of social well-being.
The second speaker Matt Kilkoyne, from the right-wing Adam Smith Institute, promoted his neoliberal ideology that wealth equates to individual happiness. He advocates that the greater the reduction of government involvement in the economy the greater the happiness of individuals. In his belief, this encourages trade and “liberates” the market; he additionally wants to replace the welfare state with universal based income. Surprisingly, a great number of people applauded this transfer of power from the public sector into the private one.
The conference ended with a question time where a member from the eight groups went to the front to answer various questions, many were as knowledgeable and opinionated, if not more so than the speakers themselves.
On my speed walk to catch the 16:00 train newfound thoughts were swarming in my head ranging from my environmental to my economic responsibility. However, one significant thought that preoccupied my mind was the importance of understanding the disparity of culture and progressive philosophies across the United Kingdom. This thought derived from my awareness that many of the other teenagers that I met had lived such different experiences to me: from their inability to access an NHS facility without driving for thirty minutes or their attendance at grammar schools or how Labour failed them by excluding their family members from higher education through the introduction of university fees or the lack of public transport meaning they can’t reduce their carbon footprint. It’s integral to our understanding of our country to recognise the way that legislation influences people in different ways especially when they live in different parts of the country.
Whilst I arrived at this conference with minimal economic knowledge (from emergency bingeing of crash course youtube videos on economics,) I left understanding not only the different nuances of the topic but also about the people around me which have deepened my moral understanding of the world (though perhaps rejecting consumerism) in order to embrace social responsibility.