Already tired of Cameron’s BS
I was walking down the Strand last night and out of a doorway came a voice, like increasing voices heard from increasing doorways lately: “Spare some change, mate?” I absent-mindedly patted my pockets and said “Sorry”. The voice from the darkness came back: “That’s not very Big Society of you, mate.” The comment touched a chord.
Only a few hours earlier I had watched David Cameron give his big relaunch speech on the subject. I dismissed it as more waffle. But it obviously bothered me more than I cared to admit. Why? I reflected. The truth is that at its core the speech had something unsavoury, something cynical and dark, but I could not quite put my finger on it. I went back to the BBC website and listened to the speech and the Nick Robinson interview that followed it again. And then, I had it!
In the midst of this time of crisis, uncertainty and fear, where millions like me don’t quite know how long the current job will last, when the next one will come, IF the next one will come, Mr Cameron stood there and told me that I was not a good enough citizen. That was the kernel of the sermon. I should be doing more to help other people. I should be doing more to help the country. I should be pulling my weight more. Not so much “we’re in this together” as “you’re in it and it’s your fault”. What followed was rage – and judging from the BBC message board it is a rage shared by a great many people.
So, what is the Big Society? I decided to go “back to basics” (ha! see what I did there?) and read the Conservative election manifesto. Pages 35 to 37 provide no clue. A lot of high rhetoric, but no tangible definition or explanation. Interestingly there is a clue to what it is not: “building the big Society is not just a question of the state stepping back and hoping for the best”. Sorry to interrupt the inspirational speech Mr Cameron, no need to come out from under your desk Mr Clegg, but isn’t that precisely what is happening right now? It certainly is what Liverpool council felt was happening when they withdrew from the pilot scheme a few days ago.
It is a striking paradox that at the core of this BS (and I use the initials quite deliberately) is the idea that local communities understand best how to do things; central government must listen to them; government does not have all the answers. And yet, as soon as a local community like Liverpool has said “Erm… You want us to do what with no money?” it is dismissed by central government as political posturing . When Manchester City Council makes the cuts required, government steps in and says MCC got it wrong.
When faced with dissenting voices the PM (in interview with Nick Robinson) remains resolute and beautifully eloquent: “Now, people that say ‘oh, that’s naive’ I don’t care, that’s what I think, that’s what I think government ought to be doing”. The contempt for reasonable debate – a lot of it from within his own party – is positively Mubarak-like. And things did not work out too well for him. Even The Daily Mail roundly condemned the scheme!
Still Cameron drones on with that rosy-cheeked, Look-Master-Geppetto-I’m-A-Real-Boy! expression: “in my own constituency, for example, there is a proposal to buy the local village pub”. Hold on – I think he’s on to something. This could be a winner where I live, in Bermondsey. True, banding together and buying The Ancient Foresters will not do anything to replace the hundreds of front-line services which are being cut, but perhaps we will all be too drunk to notice.
Flailing on, he accused Manchester council of cutting services instead of looking at savings. He held up the example of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington and Westminster councils merging into a super-council as the sensible way to go forward. Hold on one momentito – so, so sorry to be interrupting again. I thought the whole point of this BS was localism. So, how exactly is the merging of councils the right way to go forward to achieve this? Maybe all the councils should merge together – massive savings to be had there! Oh wait – that is called central government. Moving swiftly on.
Cameron continued “I blame the banks that got us into this mess… but I have a choice in this job. I could spend the next year kicking the banks, or do the responsible thing and say: look, we’re never going to get this economy to grow unless we have banks that are lending.” Pardon me Mr Cameron, and I know your response will probably be ‘I don’t care’, but banks do not lend as a favour to government. They assess the risk, lend on commercial terms and make piles of money out of lending. In the last few years the problem has been stopping them from lending too much.
And then the most laughable of all examples: crime. The idea that, as police numbers are being savagely cut, community organisations can step in to cover the gap. Join your local church’s vigilante group! Perhaps members of the RSPB could double up bird-watching with neighbourhood watch schemes. Better yet, after a good night out in the local pub, which we now own, let’s go out and patrol the streets as self-styled, inebriated, super-heroes.
Ultimately, the most damaging element of this risible fiasco is that it is in danger of making those of us who already volunteer, cynical and sceptical about continuing. I do not, after all, want the work that I do in the local shelter to be politicised and claimed as a victory by HM’s government. I do not want to be complicit in the Tories’ ideology-driven, public service cull. I want no part of your BS. The nature of volunteering is precisely that it is an extra, something that moves out of charity and humanity, not forced. Don’t believe me? Listen to the words of The Bard from the Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
And still, having read all this and much more, I have no clues as to what is the BS and who is part of it. Different approach then – let’s start from who is not part of it.
We know that the banks are not part of the Big Society – Barclays have just announced excellent profits and they are about to distribute billions worth of bonuses as we speak (also the recent revelation that last year it awarded its bankers three times as much in bonuses than it paid its investors in dividends). Banks have just received the tax break to end all tax breaks which will cost this country billions.
We know large corporations are not part of the Big Society – even Cameron’s own backbenchers are screaming blue murder over “sweetheart deals” done between the tax office and multinationals over tax already owed. Former Home Secretary David Davis MP’s question asking “how many companies have had outstanding tax liability of more than £100 million forgiven by HMRC in each of the last five years” remains unanswered. Corporation tax down from 28% to 24% from this April – nope definitely not part of it.
We know members of the Tory party are not part of it. Last week, at their Black and White Party, there was an auction for five trainee internships in large City banks. They were bought by wealthy Conservative supporters for their children. The £14,000 raised went to funding the Tory party.
We know that members of the cabinet are not part of the BS. Listen to this simultaneously infuriating and hilarious segment of a recent interview of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude by Eddie Mair, where he is pressed to explain for what he volunteers.
And suddenly it dawns on me! Maybe it’s just me. Maybe the Big Society is just this one bloke in Bermondsey. Maybe it is up to me to pick up the pieces for the mistakes of the previous government and the disastrous choices of this one, the banker’s bonuses, the bail-out deals, global recession, Thatcher’s privatisation programme, tax cuts, MP expenses, the war we should never have entered. Maybe it is up to this one man to plug the gap that these savage and unwise cuts will leave in front-line services.
So, enough of this blogging lark. It seems I have A LOT to be getting on with.
And if any of you homeless bums dares to question my civic responsibility ever again, I will now be able to come back with something pithy, in Francis Maude’s fashion:
“I do… Golly!… What do I do? I do… all sorts… Gosh, that’s a really unfair question.”