I’m still trying to get my head around “The Big Society”, what the Prime Minister David Cameron describes as his “vision and passion”. I am particularly keen to understand how it is to be reconciled with the view that “there is no such thing as society”, articulated by Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister back in the 1980s.
On the surface of it it would seem to be something of an oxymoron. If society doesn’t exist then it cannot be big. Or, conversely, if it is indeed big then the view that it does not exist has to be wrong.
So what exactly is society? What is this thing that is simultaneously big and yet not really there?
Society in its most basic form must be that state in which we live beyond our own selfish existence. It is that common experience that we share whenever we interact, be it socially, in the supermarket, at the bingo hall, down at the local pub, even indeed passing each other in the street and acknowledging the fact that the other person is there.
It may also be, if you prefer, the way in which we support each other by using the skills each of us possess to benefit others, whether we do so for a wage or out of purest altruism. It could be the shopkeeper taking our order, the postman bring our mail, the doctor making us better, the bus driver getting us to where we want to be. We cannot do all these things for ourselves, but by plying our particular trade in the service of others we all manage to muddle along somehow.
The voluntary aspect of being a society is altogether more special. After all it is something from which we derive no personal gain, and which we really don’t have to do. Running a scout group, giving advice, helping out at the local school, organising a residents’ or tenants’ association or an action group – all of these things serve to make life more enjoyable and the environment in which we live more pleasant.
So when Mrs. Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society was she denying that the altruism of what is admittedly an active minority actually existed, that there was behind all of it an ulterior, selfish motive? Or was it just an expression of wishful thinking?
To say there is no such thing as society suggests that people in general are concerned only with Number One, with the furtherance of their own careers and the unrelenting accumulation of personal wealth. It is a call to those who give of their free time to call it a day and to return home to the counting table. It envisions the whole of life as a metaphorical ladder upon which the objective is to climb whilst if necessary treading on the head of the person below.
If this is indeed what Mrs. Thatcher meant then why is it that a quarter of a century on another Conservative Prime Minister sees fit to champion what he calls The Big Society? He after all has never, as far as I am aware, denounced nor even distanced himself from the shocking opinions of his distant predecessor.
In the light of the commonality that exists between the Thatcherites of old and adherents of modern Conservatism it is reasonable to look upon Cameron’s Big Society with a certain degree of scepticism. What is it about the society that the Prime Minister envisages that would find favour amongst those who continue to venerate the undisputed champion of the culture of self?
The answer must logically be found in the fact that the voluntary sector offers something that professionals employed in the public sector per se cannot – work done for free. Why pay a librarian when a retired person looking to get out and meet people or a student in need of work experience and a reference can manage the local library on a day to day basis for nothing?
This cheapskate cynicism is rightly condemned by the Conservatives’ traditional opponents in the Labour Party. Sadly though the criticism focuses usually not upon the exploitative instincts that underpin the Tories’ new-found commitment to a society the very existence of which they were denying not so long ago, but upon the very rationale of volunteering and community self-help.
“Ordinary” people, we are told, are too busy scratching a living to be much bothered about putting anything into the community of which they are a part. All the average (acknowledgements Neil Peart) are concerned about is putting food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs.
Fortunately, so the argument continues, there exists an expert political class (them) whose calling is to manage all our society’s affairs for us. That political class comprises a social elite (whether by education or birthright is unclear) that is specially and uniquely trained to understand all our needs and to deliver them to us in the way that only it knows best.