Where is the Love? The Big Society

Leaving Bargain Booze on Lenton Boulevard last week with my stash for the party, I witnessed a University sport member hurled a pint glass into the air and shattering across the street. His two mates laughed like nerdy hyenas as cars slowed down to skirt around the glass. It was only 10pm. Maybe this is what David Cameron is thinking when he talks of ‘Broken Britain’ and promotes his Big Society policy. But I doubt it. Our fellow student merely forgot his social responsibility, the kind of role his parents hoped he’d know by now.    

Cameron has been telling us society is broken with too much marginalisation, disenfranchised hoodies, poor trust within neighbourhoods and a pervading sense of the country’s going to the dogs. His solution is ‘The Big Society’, a curious oxymoron of laissez-faire interventionism. It’s almost socialist in concept, yet with that neo-liberal focus on individualism and the bottom line. The proposed mantra is to empower communities to control of their own destiny, an idea that seems rather at odds with Cameron’s latest speech over the perceived failure of British multiculturalism. Any sociologist will tell you the notion of a ‘community’ is vague and therefore who should ‘run’ it is contentious. The idea that every village or town might be run by empowered local volunteers only brings back memories of Hot Fuzz.

But the argument is that localism will allow money to be tailored to the needs of the community sounds simplistic. The monetary gain of volunteerism could easily be lost by worthy yet unspecialised application. After all, local communities will now have to deal with global phenomenons such as migration and transnationalism.  A brief look through Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs section hardly heralds the case for greater local autonomy.  The National Bank will provide loans which have to be paid back. In sum, making a profit is a necessity.

With the present worries over unemployment, interest rates about to rise, putting pressure on mortgage repayments and the standard pressures facing the longest workers in Europe, the question is who has the time for such altruism. It’s likely to fall on the willing and the retired.  Your local swimming pool or library could soon be run by the Women’s Institute or various retired members of the community. So rather than a nanny state, we’ll have a ‘grandmammy state!’

The suspicion is the Big Society is merely a ruse to drastically cut the bloated government budget. Devolving responsibility in an era of uncertainty makes you wonder what the role of the state is, if not to protect the most vulnerable. Social and education programs require investment to provide opportunities, not just good will.  How these cuts are implemented is vital. Charities will continue to run their services and possibly fill some of the gaps but not all. The present slashing of council budgets and closing of social infrastructure is highly damaging to cohesive society.

So where is the inspiration for such a program. Sweden? New Zealand? Bhutan? Curiously it comes from the US, a society with enormous economical disparities. Yet the US does have greater rates of volunteerism than most of Europe and deep-rooted spirit of philanthropy especially in education and health on a scale the UK could never match. When was the last time you saw the Duke of Westminster handing out grants. US civil society is vibrant and there is an intense pride in being American. Meet an American and you’ll know about his childhood, family history and failed marriages by the end of the first drink. Us Europeans are disappointingly reticent, the English especially.

However the greatest empowerment is hope and real opportunity. Provide training and education opportunities and the belief there will be a job at the end of it, gives a man a stake in society and he’ll encourage everyone else around him to play along. But how is all this is going to work when even the library down the road is closing. All these ideas take investment in people.  We should be paying teachers teach and encourage self-esteem and responsibility in kids while maintaining parks and school playing fields to facilitate team activity. 

Alternatively we’ll see different sections of the community battle for grants under the auspices of knowing what is best for ‘their community,’ a return of the very identity politics Cameron has deemed failed. Within this, there’s the danger of a return to conservatism within communities if the older (usually male) members of communities are able to secure the grants/loans.

I’ve no doubt social capital, the trust, responsibility and unity in society has waned over the past 20-30 years. The failure of 1970s corporatist management and the succeeding decades of individualism has engendered a more competitive ‘dog eat dog’ Britain. But it’s not just migrants and hoodies who are marginalised in Britain. We all watch the same TV programs, yet rarely together. While mobile phones, gaming and the internet have encouraged different forms of communication, they are no replacement for a face-to-face interaction.

Its possible community interaction will increase over time as groups deem it is in their best interest to work together. Or we may consider ‘enough is enough.’ Protests have a bad name in the present media but we are talking about a watershed moment. We need to decide what kind of society we want. The planned protest on the 26th of March could imitate the present civil uprising in Wisconsin over job losses. A sleeping spirit may awake.

Our society might have its problems but lets not call it broken. The idiot who threw his glass in the street is not ‘us’.  The fact it angers people indicates we know we can do more. The solutions can be on the macro and micro-level through government investment in education, responsible parenting, greater social unity and an optimistic notion of our destiny. With a change in the rhetoric and mindset alongside a feeling of inclusiveness, altruism and volunteerism will come naturally. Volunteerism also takes diverse and often simple forms. Concern for others, encouragement and a sympathetic ear might be all some need. I’ve always though a good hug stays with you all day. But they are free David. Everything costs money.


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