The start of a new year always feels like we’ve got to the top of a dodgy ladder and fallen off, only to have to start climbing again. No guarantees and no foreknowledge of what exactly is to come.

OK, we can assume that 2011 is going to bring huge challenges to many people and life is going to be tough for individuals, families, businesses, institutions and charities:

  • as unemployment shoots up, so there will be huge pressure on marriages (undermining family stability and affecting large numbers of children)
  • history teaches us that this will put additional pressure on the NHS – particularly mental health services (which are already under-resourced and often hidden)
  • radical public service cuts will have a direct effect on local economies which depend more on public services (particularly in the north of England)
  • private businesses will consequently suffer in the wake of the above
  • crime will increase, but the police will have fewer resources to address either the real situation or public perceptions of it.

And that’s just the miserable stuff for starters. You can add in predictions of continuing public unrest, direct protests against the effects of the cuts, and a growing public instinct for ‘doing something’ about it (an expression of human dignity and responsibility?).

So, no cheer then? Well, that depends. It is unclear whether faith communities and charities will be able to plug the gaps left by local or central government funding withdrawals. Asking people to give more to charity, though always desirable, is no answer to the problem of cuts to essential funding of local agencies who meet needy people where they are. Among others, churches may be deemed the appropriate agencies for rising to new challenges; but, so far, no research has been done into either capacity or competence.

In other words, we are walking blind into uncharted territory. I have sympathy with David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society, but I have serious doubts about it being deliverable in the short term – I can see it being undermined in both practice and theory by an over-ambitious and overly-radical programme of immediate (rather than programmed/staggered) cuts.

So, given the potentially overwhelming challenges that colour our view of the prospects for 2011 – internationally as well as nationally and locally – where might we turn for an overarching theme that might shape our approach to whatever lies ahead?

I think the Guardian put it well this morning in its editorial comment:

The cynicism which pervades public life at the dawn of 2011 is … a creed that ascribes the basest motives to everybody, and dismisses the very possibility of moral improvement. … mistrust is paralysing politics. It is evident in marketopian reforms which treat public servants as knaves to be slapped into line by the self-interested whack of the invisible hand. It is evident, too, in fear and loathing between the governing and governed, and – we admit – in newspapers being too gleeful about catching yet another snout in the trough. The great injustices of the day have at times been buried in a blizzard of dodgy receipts for duck islands and patio doors. The dismal worldview reaches its apogee in the rightwing blogosphere, where pundits parade as anarchists but subtly entrench hopelessness by decreeing every call for public virtue to be a cover for private vice. None of this is to deny the praiseworthiness of doubt and sceptical inquiry, preconditions for both good government and clear thought. But it is to hope, however vainly, for a collective resolution to extend a smidgeon more trust in considering what makes people tick.

Trust is essential and central to any constructive or positive approach to what lies ahead of us – which we have the responsibility to shape and not just to decry as if we are helpless victims. Trust assumes that we will take seriously the Common Good.

This means – taking the context of the Guardian’s piece seriously – that the media have a massive responsibility not only to question and critique, but also to see themselves as ‘players and participants’ of our society and drop the pretence of being disinterested, objective observers of everybody else. The media shape public perceptions of reality and motivation – and that makes them responsible agents in shaping society and the trust or cynicism that infect public life.

In All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare put is like this:

Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.
We don’t have a right to happiness, despite the assumptions behind the American Declaration of Independence. But, we do have a responsibility to take seriously the well-being of all in our society – especially those least able to secure their own. Trust will either encourage us – or its lack will further destroy us.