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.