For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
In her study of a provincial life, George Eliot suggests that it the unseen acts of unknown individuals that make the greater contribution. It is the little man as much as the movers and shakers that can alter the destiny of civilization as she understood it. The question is whether this is still true today. Can the little man or woman have a real influence on how matters turn out? There is the occasional example. Rebecca Hosking was so upset at the damage done to the oceans by disposable plastic that she persuaded the retailers of her home town to restrict the use of plastic bags, a decision that eventually spread nationwide. But even here there is a caveat. Did the supermarkets follow her example because they wanted to save the planet or because they could turn it to their financial advantage.
Nevertheless, recent events have shown how we should actually value the efforts of those that ‘lived faithfully a hidden life’. It quickly became apparent that the real lynchpins of society were those, in monetary terms, we valued least, the carers, the supermarket checkout operators and the refuse collectors. Most if not all were being paid the minimum wage and as often as not were on some form of temporary contract. Why, if they are so important to the smooth running of society do such people not enjoy the financial advantages gained by the hedge fund manager, estate agent or even the second-hand car salesman? The answer is that the latter are given the opportunity to dip their hands into the pot of accumulated and unregulated profit, whereas the essential worker has to take whatever he or she is given and as often as not that means what the Government thinks it can afford. And there lies the rub. Such enhanced salaries would have to be paid out of taxes and Governments of most stripes, especially the right-wing variety, find it politically inexpedient to raise direct taxation. But these same Governments will admit that the Defence of the Realm is the first of their responsibilities. As a result willingly raise billions of pounds in taxes for redundant missile systems and ostentatious aircraft carriers while closing their eyes to the fact there has been no greater invasion of these shores than Covid. Perhaps, they should consider their subscriptions to their Golf Club. To ensure that the greens are tended, the locker room cleaned and facilities provided for their post- match recreation they willingly pay a tax, yet happily allow those whose essential job is to keep disease at bay, to struggle to make ends meet,
As Joseph Conrad pointed out over a century ago, we take for granted ‘the butcher, the policeman, the lunatic asylum inspector’, the people who keep us from having to do the dirty work for ourselves. Perhaps the time has finally come to not only appreciate, but also reward, those who, at no little dangers to themselves, came and will continue to come to our defence.