Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Big Society

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The Big Society. *eyes roll*. Many call it vague, many call it a smokescreen for cuts and a PR stunt, and many call it a borrowed, socialist idea. Many just hate the mere suggestion of it simply because it came out of Tory HQ. And no one seems to understand it, let alone explain it. Including those who stand behind it.

As with most ideas, especially unquantifiable, abstract ones, this is fairly easy to attack. And boy do they do that. But why? What exactly is this idea that provokes so much hatred and so many colourful words by allegedly educated and intelligent readers of the Left wing press?

The Big Society idea, as I understand it, is more than just about decentralisation, the voluntary sector, spending cuts, shedding the flab from government, axing QUANGOs, cutting red tape and bureaucracy and volunteering. To view it as just 'getting everyone to work for free' is too simplistic, makes for good anti-Tory sloganeering and is completely incorrect.

The argument that the voluntary sector will collapse due to the cuts is complete nonsense. Three quarters of the voluntary sector manage very well without funds from the government, so they won't be affected. As for the 25% that will, shouldn't they be taking a long, hard look at why they're not sustainable without state handouts? And yes, I insist on calling them handouts. Don't they know that the state borrows funds to give to them? I am assuming that the reader knows that the government borrows more than it earns. A third more than it earns. Oh, and the bit it does earn comes from the hated and vilified businessmen, bankers, kebab shop owners, waiters, taxi-drivers, cleaners, shopkeepers, etc.

Then there's the argument that more and more people will be expected to work for free. Actually, no. There's nothing new about that. Volunteers are always in short supply - with or without the cuts. With or without the Tories. With or without unbridled and reckless government spending. With or without the vote-securing-free-baubles-giveaway culture so favoured by Labour.

The best one is that we'd have to run our own post offices, clean our own streets, run our own schools, man our own libraries and police our own streets. Nothing could be further from the truth. One, you don't have to if you don't want to and two the government isn't pulling out of any of these services. Granted, there will be cuts and reductions, but many of us have switched to supermarket's own brand toilet paper and coffee. There will be a shrinkage in many things, until we can buy them with money we actually have.

People love to square up the Big Society against Margaret Thatcher's 'There is no such thing as society' quote, adding to the confusion. Well, for a minute, let's see what Lady Thatcher actually said:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it.  'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and them, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

Changes the entire context of how the quote is used, doesn't it? I'll bet most people screaming down from the rooftops or commenting under articles in the Guardian didn't know this. Or deliberately chose to remember the one line that suited them. Selective memory or plain ignorance. Just like selective phrases in a religious book justify blowing up a crowded commuter train.

While the Daily Mail-esque hysteria about spending cuts and disbanding officialdom rages on, life has to go on. People need to work, eat, raise their children, take out the trash and pay their TV licence fees. So what of the Big Society then? Well, I for one get it. In my own way of course. I think the Big Society starts with the building block of society - the individual. Me. You. Each one of us.

Lady Thatcher's comment above says it all for me. As a nation, we've grown accustomed to a perverse sense of entitlement which overwhelms our sense of duty and our obligations. Our obligations to our parents, to our families, to our neighbours and our communities. For me the Big Society is about personal responsibility and a sense of personal duty. How am I raising my children? Do I know where they are at any given time? Do I help them with their homework? Do I even know they have homework? Do I sit with them through the night helping them study for their exams? Do I ask them about their day? Do I tell them about mine? Am I instilling good moral values in them? Do I teach them to be able to fend for themselves? Do I teach them that they're not entitled to things they do not earn through their own merits? Do I know who my neighbours are? Do I even care? Do I know more people on the street I live in than people I know back at the office? Do I speak to my parents often? Do my parents know they can count on me? Does my neighbour know they can count on me? Do I offer my seat in a bus or train to someone else? Do I help someone cross the road? Do I look at a given situation and ask myself, 'I wonder if I can help?' Do I even give a monkey's about anyone else except myself? Do I avoid the race to keep up with the Jones's by maxing out my credit cards?

I would answer yes to all those questions. That's MY Big Society. And it costs me nothing. I don't have to give up my job either. Nor do I have to 'go and work for free'. It starts with me. This is how it will be built. From the ground up. One brick at a time.

The Big Society idea should strike at the heart of the general apathy that has resulted from decades of cheap entertainment, failing schools, less than mediocre education, levelling of society - downwards, low or no aspirations and no expectations from our youth. We've cocooned ourselves into our little comfort zones, drip-fed with daily doses of 39p-a-litre cider and Goody-Jordan-Katona. That's just about as far as aspiration extends in today's Britain.

The use of profanity and name-calling in an argument is admission of a lack of belief in your convictions. Which is why the debates I get into with people whose ideology is diametrically opposed to mine tend to be like an argument about Darwin and evolution at Sunday school. A few facepalm moments soon descend into "...but the Tories are nasty..." There have been moments where I have cringed at the apparent lack of common sense among some of the most educated and well-read people I have ever known and I wonder. An unlessoned, unschooled immigrant kid gets it. Why don't you?

Most of the so-called intelligentsia accuse the government (Read: Tories) of being out of touch with normal, everyday folk. So are they. Many of them don't even recognise my description of the fragmented uncaring society we have become. In their hypothetical world, almost exclusively formulated from 'evidence' resulting from anecdotes and armchair economics and sociology, there is no room for tangible, practical ways to deal with a problem. But that is to be expected in a nation where many teachers head straight from university to teaching school to classrooms with no practical life experience whatsoever, where community leaders and politicians play by sound bites rather than the hard, practical, real-world decisions they should be taking in favour of populist rhetoric backed by borrowed money. We're headed nowhere. And fast. The Big Society needs to wrest control from this headless, brainless, nameless regime of rule-books and 'frameworks' and theoretical systems that warp the natural order of human behaviour, relationships and progress turning them into neutralised, complying sheep. Throughout history in moments of crisis, people have demonstrated the best of human nature. And the worst. The question is, what are we going to this time? Should we attack, vilify and maul what seems to be the only sustainable and practical way forward? Or should we pull together, do some work to earn our keep?

I wait for the barrage that will follow this post. But please, if you must, let this be about what YOU think YOUR contribution to the Big Society is going to be. Not the bankers. That’s a different argument altogether. YOU.  

I'll talk to anyone who doesn't understand what I have said. I'll explain and I'll explain again. Some will get it. Some won't. Some will be too proud to admit they get it. Some will deny that they ever got it. Some will try to change the argument into something else. I'll lose some people off my friends' list on Facebook, some people will stop following me on Twitter. No matter. Those would be the weakest links. 


Well, goodbye!
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