Friday, October 08, 2010

Cameron's Big Society Explained and Laid Bare

< 'We are a little worried about our landlord'
Acknowledgement: Walterton and Elgin Action Group. Artist: John Phillips.

For most people who take an interest in politics, one of the major mysteries of our present age is "What is Dave on about with his Big Society?"

The Mabinogogiblog can reveal that he is talking about community action.

This came up on #bbcquestiontime last night, when "Baroness" Warsi hectored us with a description of Big Society as "mucking in". She quoted the example of a local car park, cleaned of syringes &c.

I tweeted: "Ah. It means community work. Will there be funds for community work?"

@Cbrenchley, a Tory, but of the decent  Tory persuasion, responded with a series of tweets, which neatly encapsulate what Dave is trying to do:  "Mucking in means you do some hard work to make your environment better, not for pay. Take some responsibility for yourself! The point is that community work doesn't need to be state funded or state directed. Small things count, like not just clearing your drive of snow, but doing your elderly neighbours too. And the road. If enough people "muck in" the road is cleared quicker and sense of community is reinforced."

Which is fine, and something that I have practice to some extent, over the years, and could practice more of. It could be called "Small s socialism". It is an expression of the fact that we are social animals, and is a practical refutation of the absurd philosophy of Individualism, which underpins the Free Market Fundamentalism that poses a far greater threat to our democratic civilisation than Islamic Al-Qaeda fundamentalists could ever aspire to.

The voluntarism described is good, nay splendid, but it does not come about in any major way, the way Dave wants it to come about, through political rhetoric. It usually comes about s a response to a specific threat or problem in a community, whether that be political violence (e.g. Mairead Corrigan who founded the Community of Peace People in northern Ireland), or local drugs activity (cf the project in South Bristol, set up by local mums, whose name evades me at present). Scores of other instances come to mind. In my book Bills of Health, a friend was living in a high rise flat which was threatened with demolition. He said "We were transformed in an instant from a set of individuals filed away in separate boxes into a vertical village". They fought successfully to oppose the council's demolition plans. Until asbestos was discovered, which scuppered the community attempt to buy their high rise.

So a threat can bring about the social cohesion that Dave seeks.
Where is the major threat to our communities?
Well, three come to mind.
  1. Traffic. 
  2. Dog poo. 
  3. George Osborne.
Of the three, Osborne is arguably the major threat.

Unfortunately the nature of his threat is likely to cause social disruption rather than cohesion, because Osbore's policies are specifically designed (no matter what he might say) to increase wealth inequality rather than reduce it. Dave just does not get equality. The Tories have skilfully finessed the message of the Spirit Level into a series of woolly aspirational guff.

So, I am not among the knee-jerk oppositionists who simply reject the idea of Big Society as an evil plan to replace public services with voluntary work.  Communitarianism is fine and good, and the sense of community is exactly what we need, but the big question is - how can it be fostered?

I went into this in Bills of Health. As we came up to publication, we realised the book was too long, so I had to cut out the chapter on social breakdown as a cause of ill health. That was OK, because I was unable to quantify the cost of social breakdown.

So I put the social chapter up here. Click on "social conditions" then search for "Stimulating" and you will find that the way to stimulate the sense of community.
It is to provide modest funds
(a) for a community worker, preferably chosen from the local community, and
(b) a community space. The rest flows.

Now this funding aspect will bring the Tories out in an immediate urticarial rash. An irrational rash. They are allergic to spending, because they want something for nothing, they want to reduce the deficit and cut spending everywhere. (Apart from expenditure in blowing Afghan wedding parties to lumps of quivering red jelly, and on Trident, and £3000000000 wasted on GP commissioning bolox NHS restructuring/privatisation and so on).

Osborne sees the budget as a simple exercise in sums,adding up and taking away. Especially the latter.
Osbore does not understand Investment. Therefore they will not invest even the tiniest amount of money, not even one Trident Hour (the amount of money wasted on Trident in one hour, £200,000 in 1996).

So that's what the Big Society means. Community action, social cohesion, voluntarism, all good ideas. But nothing to back it up. Hot air. Bricks without straw.

*tear slowly rolls down cheek*


rob said...

Ah! You know when you are getting old when you remember the old Thatcherite days and phrases like "knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

Has anything really changed since then?

BenSix said...

This is when the Class War jibes have some effectiveness. What in the heck do Cameron/Osborne know about communitarianism? The closest they'd have come is toasting some prefect's muffins for them.

I agree with you that it's desireable but hard to reach. Especially as overwork (plus overtime!) ensure that people spend so much of their lives getting shafted they'll be underwhelmed about the prospect of submitting to some more.

DocRichard said...

It has changed, but the more it changes, the more it is the same bleeding thing.


I'd rather step in an Osborne.

DocRichard said...


Would it not be better to form a neighbourhood group to go out and scrape all the Osbornes off the pavement?

Which reminds me: dog owners in my location take the trouble to put their dog's excrement in a plastic bag, then dispose of the plastic bag beside the path, or hang it from the trees. Thus stopping mother Earth from taking the poo back into her endless cycle. *further sigh*


Hello DocRichard

The local hound walkers round our way carry bags to give the appearance that they're going to pick up their dogsbornes but then just leave them there - disgusting.

DocRichard said...

Ah, so it's not just Dolberrow. It is a universal misunderstanding. I suppose they are half way there: they do the bag thing, but their imagination and understanding fails at that point.

It's a slow job. Or should that be, it's a slow Osborne?