The “Big Society” was Mr Cameron’s big idea, but to be honest I was never sure what he meant by it. I have worked or volunteered in what is known as the 3rd sector (voluntary and community organisations) for much of my life and I have lived much of my life in Cornwall, where I was born, and which has a firm tradition of mutual help. Our motto is, after all, Onen hag Oll – One and All. One example of this from my years with Social Services had a couple fitting a baby alarm to the bedroom of the elderly next-door neighbour so she could call for help if needed. Good neighbourliness or big society? You choose.
Anyway, I am very aware of what I thought lay behind Mr Cameron’s promotion of the idea that people would help others in need, individually or by gathering together to organise more formal support. What concerned me at the time was that I was also hearing from Mr C’s government the sort of ideological language that has developed into the workers versus shirkers, hard-working families versus scroungers narrative which is now making our communities more divided and divisive. Rather than seeing this talk of Big Society as a celebration and encouragement of the huge amount of voluntary and charitable effort that occurs in our communities, it seemed to me a cover for the attack on a welfare state that, for me, is the logical formalisation of neighbourly help in complex societies. Leaving the care of the poor and needy to the whims of neighbours who may or may not both notice and care is a very hit and miss way of meeting our mutual responsibilities. I do not want my disabled neighbour to struggle to get out of the house, or even out of bed. I do not want the family down the road whose breadwinner has just been made redundant to go hungry. I do not want the refugee from some violent or impoverished place to go hungry or be hurt on these shores also. But I alone cannot ensure those things don’t happen and I may not notice even if I could. I, therefore, pay my taxes gladly so that together we can ensure that those in need are helped. Then, with the time and money that I have remaining I can choose to help those who may slip through such safety nets as we may erect, or to help enrich our communities. The truth is that at times I too have benefitted from this net safety, when I have been sick or unemployed and when I took advantage of state funds to help rear my children. Big Society, for me, combines the two strands of the voluntary and personal on the one hand and the politically organised on the other.
However, Mr Cameron’s view seems to be at odds with mine. Government policy that is emaciating the welfare state is accompanied by the decline of the 3rd sector meaning such that all the talk of Big Society is merely a soundtrack to the dismantling of all that makes civilised society out of individuals and families and so on. Mrs Thatcher’s comment that “there is no such thing as society” begins to sound prophetic.
A Guardian report by Peter Hetherington tells of the closure of Nightstop, a Redcar charity working with homeless youngsters. Nothing unusual, sadly, in the closure of charities – I am currently struggling to keep alive our small but hard-hitting youth work charity – but the timing of this is notable, as Hetherington points out. At the same time as the Redcar charity closes – and you really couldn’t make this up – Mr Cameron honoured its sister Nightstop in Tyneside with a big society award saying, “You provide an invaluable service, reaching out a helping hand to some of the most vulnerable young people and getting them off the streets for good.”
Peter Hetherington asks, Has the big society, whether it is desperate attempt to fill a vacuum left by the withdrawal of universal provision, or genuine effort to energise community-led volunteering and enterprises, run its course?
Sadly many charities have run their courses during these austere times, and much of their work is going undone often to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our communities. However, society, as it was before any name was attached to it, is stepping into new breaches created by economic policy.
On the same page as Hetherington’s article is a piece from Patrick Butler in which he describes the growth of food banks and anecdotal evidence of increasing person to person support. He continues: This surge in destitution voluntarism has flourished without any state support, central planning or ministerial exhortation. It is big society in its purest form – in theory, a curious government success.
Big Society is working! Well it is if you see success as being, as Butler describes it, “a precarious form of welfare based on charity, not rights or social security entitlements, and entirely reliant on the kindness of strangers.”
When individuals have to donate food to their neighbours via food banks then we may recognise that people do care about their neighbours but also that failures of social and economic policy are creating needs that individual and local community voluntarism alone will not be able to meet adequately.
I am pleased that the churches are taking a lead in this (most food banks being church run) but I am saddened that there is the need. The churches support the food banks, however, because we recognise that we are indeed “all in this together”, that we share a divine image, that we have “that of God” in each of us” and that we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. This is part of how we work out our faith. I am sure that others who are not Christians or who subscribe to no religious faith also contribute to food banks perhaps out of recognition of a common humanity.
That we share a divine image or that we are all sons and daughters of the earth demands, however, something more than the sticking plaster that is the food bank movement, necessary though it has been to hundreds of thousands and is likely to be to many more yet.
Part of our response, however motivated, must be to look honestly at our situation. It has suited some either, it seems, largely through ignorance or ideology to label the poor as not the victims of austerity but its cause.
As a challenge to what has become a socially toxic narrative, a number of churches produced a report last month entitled: The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty
There is nothing new in this finger pointing by some of those with power and wealth, or the acceptance of it by those who are little or no better off. In 1753 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, “So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’.”
That such falsehoods continue to be spread two and a half centuries on is what prompted the churches to commission and publish this report which says: The myths exposed in this report, reinforced by politicians and the media, are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty, and the rest of society to avoid taking any of the responsibility. Myths hide the complexity of the true nature of poverty in the UK. They enable dangerous policies to be imposed on whole sections of society without their full consequences being properly examined. This report aims to highlight some comfortable myths, show how they have come to prominence and test them against serious evidence.
That’s the key, isn’t it? If it’s their fault, then we have no responsibility to help them. The “feckless poor” can be conveniently forgotten. It’s a convenience based on a lie, however, indeed on a web of lies and evasions of truth.
I won’t go into the report in depth here but it’s well worth a read. Suffice to say that many of the things we tell ourselves and people who should know better repeat or don’t challenge are simply not true. The poor are not a single group of lazy scroungers sucking the lifeblood out of the economy.
So how do we respond to what faces us in these difficult economic times? Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” is dead in the water, if it ever launched. The pre-existing big society of mutual help and voluntarism is under severe threat. The very cohesiveness of society is being damaged by the demonisation of groups and individuals simply for being poor, immigrant, disabled or workless. The body of our society is sick but it is not too late to be well again. All we need to do is to recognise that we are, truly, all in the same boat and act accordingly and justly. If we do not, one or two at the very top might gather up their bonuses and raid their offshore accounts to retreat behind walls, gates and guards but for the rest of us – trouble will surely come. Then there will be no one left to blame and no one to rescue us. We need justice now or we must face the consequences.
If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading! Peace.