This is in response to a comment by a reader about my ‘Big Society’ blog posting of February 13, 2011. Like most arguments from the Left or UKUnCut, the comment appears to take the default setting of ‘Oppose the Tories regardless’. The usual generalized assertions are made, however being from someone whose opinion I admire greatly, there is a great deal in it that I agree with. Excerpts from the comment are italicized and in orange. The comment in its entirety can be seen at the end of the said post.
David Cameron is not clear about what The Big Society is: Probably. The message does appear muddled and confused. You are right when you say the Big Society has always been here, quietly and not making a fuss, but around us and with us in our Communities and does not need reinventing. I agree. But it does need reinvigorating and reiterating. And it’s not big enough. The ambiguousness of the name doesn't make it an easy sell and I will admit, it has been a sitting target for naysayers and sceptics, who roll their eyes as they would over a pun in the Sun. But as you say, it has triggered a national debate about our communities and the part that we play in them, and for this alone, I am interested. Good. At least we’re talking.
You say that my interpretation of the Big Society is personal responsibility and a sense of duty. For so many, this is inherent in their way of life. It doesn’t need to be said that we engage with our children, our parents or our neighbours. In suburbia, maybe. There are sections of our society that include benefit dependent families but there are some people who would rather die than take benefit. Of course there are. I know some. And that’s the problem – I know some, not many. In my 11-years in the UK and because of the work I do, I would have touched 30,000 lives, directly or indirectly – I have found little evidence to suggest that a sense of responsibility exists. The benefit system is more hammock than safety net for more people than anyone from the Left will admit. I get the feeling we inhabit completely different worlds. The growing underclass of benefit dependants and feckless individuals, completely neutered by years of molly coddling by an all pervasive state is a problem you are probably sheltered from. I live among them. I work with them. I try and help them. The rot is deeper than you think and is quite perversely tolerated and even celebrated. Here’s an interesting take on one of Aesop’s fables to illustrate this.
We have always been in debt; borrowing more than we receive. Why? Does it occur to anyone to think why that is even acceptable? For how much longer is that sustainable? Shouldn't we stop to consider that? The government can’t make money – only the private sector can. We already pay £120 Million a day in interest payments. Each day we wake up and whether we achieve something or not, whether we produce anything or not, whether it’s a weekend or bank holiday, our government owes another £120,000,000.00 regardless of its ability to pay it. And that’s just to stand still. The money we owe stays the same. If we do not make moves to show we’re doing something about it, the credit scoring of the nation could be affected. This could mean higher interest rates and the £120,000,000.00 climbs yet higher. It’s not like the Left do not know or comprehend the scale. It’s just them thinking of the here and now. About themselves. Their generation. The next election. Each child under the age of 10 in this country will enter working age with a debt far greater than at any point in history. I think that’s mighty selfish of the wilful deficit deniers. Some estimates state that the first 2 months of the year everything we earn goes to the state. With each expanding deficit year, this will rise. How long before it’s 3 months, 4 months, or even 8 months? Now how would you define bonded labour? Or slavery? Okay, that’s a bit dramatic – but then isn’t living in the la-la land of borrowed money taking us there? It has to end before it ends us. The Left often accuse the Tories of living in a bubble, but they are closer to reality than you think. Actually it is the Left that are living in ivory towers – what are we waiting for? Divine intervention? Foundation X? Reality check please!
Vodaphone! Philip Green! I hear you say. Of course, how can there be a discussion about taxes without discussing the evil and greedy economic engines, which are responsible for all the real jobs in this country. If all, yes ALL tax avoidance, (which as I pointed out – is legal, not a crime and in accordance with the law of the land) were stopped by changing taxation laws, it still wouldn't make a dent in the size of our debt. We are living beyond our means on an unimaginable scale. And there’s also the risk of losing our competitive advantage to countries where a strong work ethic is not dulled by the ‘all must win prizes’ attitude in the United Kingdom. Actually we started losing that with the introduction of the National Minimum Wage. Strange beast, the NMW; it rises each year, adding to costs and therefore inflation, necessitating further rises, and the cycle continues. We’re world beaters in the international widget market, but it’s only a matter of time before the kids in Mumbai and Bangalore start making them in their college dorms. We have few industries with an international standing. Apart from financial services and banking. Ouch! Some research on how much the financial sector contributes to the exchequer will reveal a shocking number. Some wealthy individuals/corporations are socially responsible and give back to the societies where their wealth originated; some would rather play the game of avoidance. Good for the ones that do and more power to them. But for the ones that don’t this is a personal morality issue. Surely you’re not suggesting we force donations out of people. They’re saving as much as the law allows them to. Corporations are nothing but individuals in self-interest groups, and like any other self-interest group, they think differently. More on this further below.
Labour during it’s time, has introduced hundreds of initiatives (read: attempts at social engineering), most of them half-baked, untried and untested – and mostly theoretical, each one undoing the work of the other, each one undermining the individual, removing any sense of responsibility rendering them completely and utterly dependent on the state, each one allegedly fighting an imaginary or perceived malaise, depending on which vested interest peddled the case for it. The pervasive sense of automatic entitlement is a direct result of this. For example, are race relations any better as a result of the much championed racism ‘industry’? Many borrowed millions later, all we’ve achieved in this country is the creation of a class of politicians, public servants and self-styled community champions that suck the state for all its worth. No, they feed off it. Divide and rule, fine tuned for the new century. Paid for by my children and their children.
Against this backdrop, the spending cuts are essential. There may be room for compromise but for most part many of the baubles and things we cannot afford will have to go. Good ideas when we could afford them, but no longer viable when we can’t. Compromise does not mean the government should give in to all self-interest groups. You talk of people moving to "protect their local communities" as though they are being plundered. I think that is alarmist and irresponsible. There are cuts across the board and it is something we all have to live with. There will be pain, as there is with any kind of austerity program. When I have a low income, piano lessons for my daughter are the last thing on my mind. Rent, food and school are more important. You cite the example of the forests - a U-turn is not a defeat. The government floated an idea the public said no. There was no outcry when the Labour government sold large tracts, there was no consultation then. But then Tory-bashing is much more fashionable, isn’t it?
Spreading the pain (as opposed to spreading the debt) is not always easy in a democracy. Local authorities and government departments, QUANGOs and charities, unions and community groups are all run by people. Collectively they become self-interest groups. This is where it starts going all wrong. They start acting in self-preservation, whatever the cost, regardless of whether their actions bear any resemblance to realities on the ground. Their only purpose becomes their continued existence and overriding importance. Like religion.
Take the case of Local Authorities or even the NHS. They’ve lost sight of the fact that they are a customer focused business (for want of a better word). More money is spent on the managerial, administrative and back office functions than on front line services. Strangely, the wages at the sharp end (the customer facing roles, loss prevention, etc) are significantly lower than the pen-pushing, bean-counting jobs. When the axe falls, where are the cuts made? The front line of course! So when your local hospital cuts a few nurses out of their staff, it wasn’t David Cameron who made the decision – it was management looking after itself.
It’s same with local authorities. Some have even seen salaries at the top rise while making cuts further down below. See examples here, here and here. There is suggestion that some authorities are using this opportunity to cut essential services, knowing fully well the blame will fall on the government. I believe that to be true.
Contrast this with what I have done. Business is down to 40% mainly due to spending cuts. The directors including myself have halved our wages. There have been some redundancies – mostly back office and management staff. What has remained intact are the teaching and training staff and their salaries – the lifeblood and sharp end of my business. Some of them have taken on additional responsibilities, picking up new qualifications and skills because of it. I have increased my workload to fill the gaps, roped in my wife and son to chip in when they can. We’re saving on paper, electricity, have asked the landlord for a rent rebate – and he said yes, we have asked the Labour controlled local authority for a rates rebate – we’ve heard nothing yet, I don’t think we ever will. We’re going to come out of this alive and well, leaner and meaner, better skilled and much, much stronger for it. Without whinging.
Oh, and my second centre is in a different borough, where the Tory-led council is running a scheme whereby new businesses get an 18-month holiday on business rates. This could help me pay for a member of staff I would not have hired otherwise.
There are aspects of societal decline that you mention such as binge drinking & cheap television that, for me, began with the greedy “gimme gimme” nation of the Thatcher years. It may be linked intrinsically to accessibility, but not wholly. I blame the lack of responsibility, a whole generation failed by the watered down education system and the ease with which is it possible to survive without working – for generations. If Cameron wanted to be truly paternalistic, no, he doesn’t. He shouldn’t. If anything, he’d like to dismantle the nanny-state. People need to start thinking for themselves. Up till now they’ve had no reason to. Molly coddling hasn’t helped. Perhaps tough love will. Hence the Big Society.
Career politicians cannot truly represent us, until they have been one of us. If a less elitist man, who’d shown empathy with the working man through his background and his working life, rallied our country through tough economic times by calling for us to all be in this together and to engage more in our communities, then he would have more credibility. As it is, his words ring hollow. I disagree. I am of the opinion that due to the influence of more centrist Tories, the LibDem partners in the coalition, the vastly influential lobbies of self-interest groups and an extremely narrow election win in a nation hooked on sustenance by the state, David Cameron is not going as far as he probably could. Or should. He has a huge task on his hands. And no, he does not have the heritage of the Thatcher years to address. There’s a more urgent legacy that needs undoing. Labour’s. Besides economics is just one of the functions of a leader. I’d rather have a well-educated, erudite well presented statesman and diplomat represent me and my country in the world than any rabid communist.
Be careful what you wish for though, a less elitist man, who’d shown empathy with the working man through his background and his working life would be nothing like David Cameron. Anyone who after a ‘working man’s life’ worked his or her way up to being leader of the largest party in the country and then ended up as Prime Minister, would not be as kind and forgiving. The scale of waste and irrelevant spending would shock someone with more modest origins. Like a certain greengrocer’s daughter for example. Or think Alan Sugar, think Apprentice, think “You’re Fired!” Yes, yes I know he’s a Labour Peer. I’ll bet inside he’s more surprised at it than I am. What would follow would make David Cameron’s cuts look like keyhole surgery.
The world you describe exists, only it’s in individual bubbles, within little gated communities in expanses of green far removed from the kind of communities I know live. I say live, ‘exist’ is probably more fitting. They’re like zombies, numbed by what the state has done to them. I read many, many reports on poverty, economic dependence, worklessness, etc that cost thousands to produce and none of them look anything like the grey gritty street they’re meant to be about. Much doesn’t get said due to political correctness and fear of being branded either a racist or worse, a right winger. These sanitised reports then inform policy. Flawed, useless, expensive policy. Paid for by debt.
I take on board your suggestion of further exploration of the UK; I could use the experience and the education. It would greatly enrich my kids’ experience of the country that is now their home. It’s something I have thought of for a long time and something I will definitely do.
When I can pay for it.