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!

Shiny Happy People

28 01 2010

Pretending that everyone can get what they want so long as they believe in it enough is not only nonsense but potentially damaging.

It absolves us all from tackling the injustice, inequality and unfairness that still exist in our societies.

It places the responsibility for failure entirely with the failed individual and fails to acknowledge the part others may have played in individual success.

Surely there is a debate to be had about how much individuals are responsible for creating the good life and how much is down to us all. Or as Margeret Thatcher would have had us believe, is there no such thing as society?

There is a balance to be had between, for example, providing uplifting articles about how to find time to build a businees from home while juggling the conflicting demand of business/hom,e/family and obliging us all to lobby for decent maternity/paternity leave and payments.

Please don’t misunderstand, I think that we should celebrate success, after all the3rdi magazine which I co-founded and edit, is full of inspirational stories from magnificent women, but my concerns are threefold

1) that because obstacles have been overcome by one individual in order to achieve success we as a society are tacitly given permission to ignore the persistence and even the very existence of those obstacles. For example a black man is now president of the United States of America and rather than this being an opportunity to look more closely at the obstacles that have kept black people away from high office for so long it has allowed America to continue to turn a blind eye to inequality…if Obama can do it any black man can and, more worryingly, anyone who can’t must be stupid or lazy or both. In this way predudice is reinforced.

And as President Obama, the YES WE CAN president is himself finding out, at least in Minn??, No you can’t or at least not all of the time.

2) We undervalue the success for real stars. If all that is needed to succeed is to offer up your desires to the universe and the universe will deliver the positive attributes also needed to succeed, such as hard work and perseverance are undermined.

At the risk of offending the hundreds of self-styled patriots that have sprung up recently, our soldiers are not all heroes. Most of them are just young men whose job it is to be part of the army. Some of them behave appallingly and there are many cases of torture by British troops of the citizens of Iraq under investigation. Most do the job that they are paid for without incident and some do something heroic. They undertake an act of selfless bravery above that which is required or expected as part of that job. To call all soldiers heroes is inaccurate but worse it undervalues the actions of the real heroes amongst them.

3) It assigns those in society who are not at the very top, who are not shiny, happy people to the eternal role as second class citizens and makes it their own fault. Surely this cannot be right.

And so much of the tyranny of the positive soundbite socity is that it smacks of the celebrity obsession that pervades our whole society. I dream a dream is all well and good and it is fantastic to see the success of Susan Brown, but it also spawns Jedward, where fame and fortune are entirely uncoupled from talent.

Neither am I advocating a Victor Meldrew style pessimism and curmudgeonism that holds sway in a some parts of British society. What I am proposing is a return to reason.

A positive attitude may be a better starting point from which to change your life for the better than determined defeatism but it should not be used as an excuse not to tackle the basic inequalities that do still exist in our society.

You cannot reverse the effects of climate change, for example, simply by thinking positively about the problem. A positive attitude may allow you to believe that it is worth the effort of trying to make a difference but it is the action that we take that will actually make the difference.

And finally, it is all relative. I might look at any of the fine yachts in Inverkip harbour and think that it is big. Roman Abramovich would look at the same yacht and, in all likelihood, think it small. It is only when we get out a tape measure and see just how big it is that the yacht is removed from the subjective to the actual. We have restored some reason. And it is only when we look at the job we need that yacht to do, sail the high seas or manoeuvre through the twist and turns of the Crinan Canal that the value of each yacht is revealed!