When I was a small kid, I found some butterfly eggs on a rockery leaf, looked up in my Boy’s Book of Nature how to hatch them out, and then fed the resultant caterpillars (to my mother’s horror) on nasturtium leaves.
If you’ve never seen a caterpillar become a chrysalis, I’d strongly recommend you do it before eating. It’s a revolting sight: the grub turns itself inside out and, in a pulsating and gyrating pantomime, reveals a soft inside that must then go hard. Even a tiny volume of air creeping in before this operation is complete with kill the mutant thing sitting inside its new cocoon. It hangs by a thread from its stem of choice. A reasonable gust of wind would blow it to the floor, and make survival difficult. Suspended animation then takes hold.
A few months and a winter later, I got up for school one morning and – on checking the old aquarium where these Quatermass-style things were hanging up everywhere – saw movement. Another incredible sight awaited me.
A butterfly attempting exit from a chrysalis shell is a study in determination. Its shape has changed entirely during the transformation period, and the wings – still floppy from being unused – are an obvious encumbrance. It is literally like watching a ship in half-sail trying to get out of a bottle.
Having made it out into the summer air, the new insect is highly vulnerable to any predator. It must now find a sheltered, vertical plane on which to grip tight and let its wings fill out. The only one available being the white splash-tiles on our kitchen sink, I sat and watched as half a dozen brand new cabbage-white butterflies – the sole survivors – struggled out one by one and hung between the two old iron taps. My parents and brother joined me, until all six had fluttered through the window for a Day in the Life. For the first and only time in our family life, everyone was late for everything that day.
More than half a century later, I recall this episode not to suggest I should really have won the Nobel Prize for entomology, but rather to offer a sort of sermon about transformation. And as it’s Sunday, what better day could there be? Except that this is a sermon for the Church of Mammon.
The USA and Britain may not have any truly special relationship any more, but they still have a number of things in common as social and economic cultures. Above all, they will undertake any level of denial, and postpone any amount of drastic remedial action, in order to postpone pain. And in the economic arena, this was never more apparent.
The economic and fiscal problems we share are near-identical: decades of making losses on sales (and giving the staff high salaries with nice perks) mean that we have deficits so obscene, international lenders and geopolitical competitors have doubts about our ability to repay – and thus commentators with an agenda continue must insist that this is all quite normal at the cutting edge of capitalism, so just leave it to us and butt out.
The final shared problem is the obvious result of all this: we got smug and fat and lazy – and the 2% who got filthy rich at the top told us we deserved to. (Anything but have their scam revealed). So we make things that are too expensive, technologically behind the music, and out of touch with what emerging markets need.
What we need is transformation. This will involve turning ourselves inside out painfully, taking huge risks, and being prepared for species change that will never reverse. It’s bound to be scary: and decades of earnest people telling is that Safe Is Good means we’re largely still inside that chrysalis. We don’t want to come out. It’s dangerous. We’ll have to learn to fly. And it’s nice and warm in here – why change a winning formula?
The answer is, because it has become a formula for failure – and, ultimately, insolvency.
So far, all Obama and Cameron have done is mouth the sort of tough platitudes we’ve heard to so often before; but as ever, they remain scared of giving people the unvarnished truth. And of course, both Establishments – be they the lofty British academician redistributionists, or the Friedmanite US economics tendency – want to tell us that too much tinkering will make the sky fall in, Chicken Licken. But what they really fear is that radical change will remove their raison d’etre.
There are problems in the representation of our two Peoples. There is too much process and not enough creativity in society. Too much consultancy and not enough craftsmanship in business. Too much hesitation and not enough entrepreneurial spirit in the media. And above all, too much undeserved privilege getting in the way of reforming money, business and politics.
It’s tough, dangerous work taking to the skies. We are about to learn exactly how tough. But to do nothing would doom us all to mediocrity and poverty. One very important thing we need is the inspiration and leadership of people who have guts as well as mouth. We’ve had too much of society’s leaders looking down on us: now we need people we can look up to.