Do we REALLY want a “big society”?

3 05 2010

Over 20 years ago Margaret Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society.

While she did restate her position at the Keith Joseph Memorial lecture in 1996 as “I have never minimized the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the state rather than other people”, it still seems odd that David Cameron has set his big idea as ‘big society‘.

In the Conservative Party manifesto there is a call for ‘people power‘ and ‘social responsibilty not state control‘. But do people really want to get involved? There are already plenty of volunteering opportunities and community initiatives out there so why are more of us not already involved? As Oscar Wilde put it, “the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.”

But it would be possible to argue that more of us are involved than ever before. We have witnessed a plethora of blockbuster fund-raising events over the past 30 years, with TV spectaculars like Sports Relief and Children in Need and mass participation events such as the London Marathon. Certainly these activities raise many millions of pounds and it would be wrong to dismiss them, but my feelings are that these bursts of activity are actually detrimental to building a coherent socirty.

We may run a marathon or abseil down Big Ben and raise money for a charity without having to think too closely about the cause we espouse. How many runners in the London Marathon know how there money will be spent? How many really care? To an extent running the marathon and handing over the sponsorship money absolves us of the need to think; the need to really get involved. It is an easy and acceptable way to do our bit.

But how much better it would be if our efforts were appropriate to the needs of the charity and those it helps? If we were really concerned about cancer care, how much better to visit people in a hospice or to spend a few hours a week caring for the gardens so the terminally ill had a pleasant environment during their final days?

Many of the events organised for International Womens Day started and ended on that day, with well educated, middle-class women talking to other well educated middle-class women and each telling the other how wonderful they are. How much better it would have been if each of those women, instead of attending yet another empowerment conference, had done the shopping for an elderly female neighbour or provided a few hours respite care for a young girl caring for a sick parent.

And you see it with some ‘Secret Millionaires‘, a quick visit to a poor area, a few cheques and away again. And the free publicity they gain in the process couldn’t be bought!

If we really do want society to be improved I believe that we have to make long-term commitments to do something for our community and not just care in short bursts or give money as a substitute for really caring.

If you need inspiration read this and this and this, then make a long term commitment to improve our society!

Running and giving – marathon displacement activities

25 04 2010

Millions and millions are raised for charities each year.

For most of us our attention is drawn by the huge media spectacles – sports relief, children in need, the London marathon.

More and more I am feeling myself wondering if this is all just a massive displacement activity.

I’m sure that the hundreds that will be running the London Marathon on behalf of cancer charities do care about the plight of those suffering  but why not do something more relevant to the illness. A sponsored bed bath marathon, for example. The truth is that those raising the money don’t really care how the money is spent. I’d be surprised if the participants have much idea about the structure of the organisations they are running for. How much of the money raised goes to research, salaries, administration and the like.

To a large extent they are running 26 miles in 4 or 5 hours so that they don’t have to think about these things! They can drag themselves around the streets of London dressed as the back end of a pantomime horse, send off the sponsorship money and forget about the charity for another year. They have done their bit!

And the competitive element, particularly amongst the celebrities in the television spectaculars. It used to be acceptable to sit in a bath full of baked beans but now it is necessary to cycle across Europe by way of the international rugby stadiums, waterski across the channel or canoe up the Amazon. While it was heroic and glorious for Phidippides to run 26 miles to tell of a crushing naval defeat Eddie Izzard feels compelled to ape this effort by running 43 marathons in 51 days!

The point about the marathon is not that it is impossible but that anyone can do it! It isn’t that it is easy but it is just at the end of what can be achieved with some discomfort but without having to change your life. This makes it the perfect displacement activity.  Those sitting at home watching will be in awe of the sweating staggerers as they head up The Mall will be back at work on Monday none the worse for their exertions.

Endurance events have replaced genuine heroics. Climbing Everest cost Sir Edmund Hillary his life but now Josh Lewsey can set out in his footsteps for fun – and for charity – of course.

Charities have been very good at letting you do what you like doing, like running, and pushing the boundaries just enough so that even though anyone can do it the coach potatoes are impressed enough to dig deep into their pockets so that they can avoid doing anything at all – by raising themselves off the settee long enough to dial the freephone giving line they have done their bit too!

The charities have been so good that if I wanted to run a marathon just because I could, I would feel guilty that I wasn’t doing it for charity!

But the runners are doing something – however tangential to the needs of the sufferers – to raise money to be spent even though they know not where. How much more of a displacement activity is watching these spectaculars, picking up the phone, donating an easily affordable sum and thinking that’s good enough.

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