Big Society: an idea whose time has past

Just for the moment, let’s believe that Mr Cameron’s big idea about the Big Society is genuinely more motivated in concern for the way civil society functions than it is a cunning wheeze to cut public expenditure.

That probably came out more cynically than it was meant to, because there are serious issues to be thought about here. One does not need to subscribe to the “ain’t it awful” school of sociology to be concerned about some aspects of modern British society. It’s hard even to mention some of them without being accused of a range of offences against liberal sensibilities, from feminism to gay rights via a pleasant excursion along the byways of anti-racism and secularism. Part of the problem here is that asserting that some of the functions of “traditional family life”, for example, are critical to society’s broader health is often seen as a commitment to such family life as being the only possible vehicle for those critical purposes. So in what follows, I am trying to point to a few of these important functions, rather than to express a view about how they should be delivered, or via what structures. My selection is purely for illustrative purposes, and there are lots of others, of course. So by way of being merely examples:

  • Children need civilising. We find it very unfashionable to express it so baldly these days, but it’s a fundamental truth all the same. Left to their own devices this is not going to happen.
  • We need to have broadly accepted rules of engagement for the conducting of our relationships with others, and we need a means of enforcing them when they’re violated.
  • We need to have some sense of commonality with those we live amongst.
  • We need to have a sense of contributing to the common good, and a means of doing so.

I do not think that all these functions are being successfully delivered in our society today, and insofar as this is what Mr Cameron means by a “broken society” then he has a point. Unfortunately his prescription for dealing with these issues is hopeless right from the beginning. The big society as thus far articulated at least (and in truth that’s not very far at all) seems to consist of letting people set up their own schools, take over in some unspecified way the provision of public services, and chum the police along whilst they’re on the beat. Forget for the moment the considerable stumbling block presented by the fact that there’s no reason at all to suppose that, even if these remedies were implemented, they’d fix any of the aforementioned broken things, just who does Mr Cameron imagine will have the time or the resources to implement them anyway? The front runner on the “I’m going to invent my own school” side of things is Mr Toby Young, gourmand resident somewhere between Wandsworth’s ever-so-desirable commons. And that is as far as the idea will reach into “commons”, I’m prepared to wager.

No, Mr Cameron, your big idea is predicated on a society that simply no longer exists. We don’t have enough people of independent means, a social conscience, and an understanding of what needs to be done to get stuck in to the self-help agenda. Late 19th century social conditions can’t suddenly be conjured up at the beginning of the 21st. If your big society takes off at all, it will take off for the likes of Toby Young. Some of the scaled back resources of the public sector will be syphoned off to subsidise his pioneering efforts. Mr Cameron, wittingly or not, is about to usher in a new era of Robin Hood but in reverse, stealing from the poor to give yet more to the rich.

Thus I have less argument with (some aspects of, anyway) Mr Cameron’s diagnosis than I do with his anachronistic prescription. There is a lot in our society that cries out to be fixed. Some of that brokenness is due to the loss, for example, of effective family life for many of our children without a new way of providing the important functions that families at their best delivered. It is true that as a society we have sub-contracted too much of our communal life to state provision. Too many of our communities aren’t places where the social rules of engagement are respected. The Big Society just doesn’t happen to be a credible way of fixing those things.

And in any case, Toby Young has already shown us via his participation in Come Dine with Me that he can’t organise even a simple dinner party without constant support from his all too long suffering wife. I sure as hell wouldn’t have sent my kid to his chaotic school.

Responsibility, accountablility, and stopping bucks

Mr Tony Hayward is not going to be exactly impoverished when he quits as Chief Executive of BP. And so, inevitably, an awful lot of pulpit thumping is going on decrying the £600,000 per year pension, the accrued performance pay, the share options, and all the other titbits that are coming his way once he reaches the ripe old age of 55. Most of it will be misplaced.

In the first instance, a lot of the angst is centred on the sheer amounts involved. Unless you also take the view that the captains of industry are paid obscenely too much in general (a view with which I have more than a little sympathy) there is no case for bemoaning the payout in Mr Hayward’s case. These are the sums he is entitled to contractually as a consequence of his 28 years with the company. It’s to embark along a very dangerous road to propose that because the popular mood is angry, contracts should be cheerfully ripped up and ignored. It will not only be fat-cats that are in jeopardy then. And it’s even more dangerous to suppose that the public mood is justification in itself, regardless of contractual mishap. The papers and individuals frothing at the mouth about Mr Hayward and evil BP are the same papers that support deep water drilling, and the same individuals that put the results into their cars without a second thought.

But what might legitimately lead to the conclusion that Mr Hayward has in some way so fatally broken his side of his contractual obligations to BP that they are entitled to put the contract aside? In this case the argument, and not a very considered one, is that the Gulf débâcle is in some way Mr Hayward’s personal fault. I’ll come back to that in a moment. Or else that his lapses of judgement in his dealings with the media have been so heinous that they in themselves justify tearing up his contract. Poppycock. We no longer have trial by ordeal even for the chief executives of oil companies or where the ordeal is that of dealing with a hostile and self-righteous media. So Mr Hayward is entitled to have his contractual rights respected, and if you don’t like the results then it’s the contract, and not Mr Hayward, that is remiss.

Let’s go back to that issue of personal fault. We get very confused, I think, between fault, responsibility, and accountability. Each of these terms it seems to me describes increasing distance between the individual and the acts or events that give rise to them.  Let me illustrate, by reference to one of the things under my wing at work: health and safety.

Suppose that there is a fire in a set of premises that my company owns and manages, and as a consequence someone dies. This is hardly a set of circumstances that stretches the imagination, and it’s a possibility that causes me more than a little anxiety. To be at fault over something means that you have done, or failed to do, something that directly results in a bad thing happening. In this case perhaps a caretaker, who is responsible for ensuring that no combustible material is allowed to gather in communal parts of the building, has failed to do that and the cause of the fire is determined to be in the rubbish that he or she has allowed to accumulate. That person is clearly at fault. They should personally have done something, but they didn’t. However, the caretakers have a supervisor who is charged with training their staff, and ensuring that they have the wherewithal to do their jobs properly. If in this case they didn’t do that effectively, and the caretaker received no training, then they are responsible for the fire as well. Their failure did not directly cause the fire, but I think most people would agree that they contributed to its occurrence. A member of my team holds the brief for health and safety, including training. I would be holding them responsible too if it became clear that they never provided training or advice to the caretaking supervisor about their role in fire safety. It might be that I had done everything I was supposed to do. I had issued instructions to my H&S team; I had ensured that proper policies and procedures were in place; I had regularly reminded all concerned about their various responsibilities. Would I be at fault, or responsible for the death of the person in the fire? No. But I would be accountable. Fire safety is part of my watch. Regardless of fault and responsibility, the plain fact would be that something had gone terribly wrong, and that it is a something that I am relied upon by our residents to prevent. In such circumstances it might be right to remove me from my job, but not, I think, rip up the contractual obligations that my employer has towards me.

So it is entirely fair to say that the buck stops with Mr Hayward, and that when something goes as wrong as it has done for BP in the Gulf, he should ultimately be accountable. That does not make the Gulf disaster his fault. It does not even necessarily confer on him any responsibility whatever for the terrible consequences. It certainly doesn’t make his 28 years’ service to the company null and void. I don’t think Mr Hayward has much to complain about in losing his job. And I don’t think we’ve got much to complain about in his keeping his pension entitlements.

Unless of course you believe that it’s wrong to issue such generous contracts in the first place. In which case, say so. Mr Hayward is rightly accountable, but that doesn’t legitimate turning him into a scapegoat.

Nothing new here

I venture once again into Venables territory. When Jon Venables was last in the cross-hairs of the media’s AK47 it was all about the “right” of his victim’s mother to know what the charges were going to be. You’ll remember that I took a dim view of that argument. Now the hot topics are whether or not the probation service did their job properly, and about whether the perpetrator’s new identity should now be revealed. I intend to tackle neither of them.

Rather, I’m simply going to reflect on what we’ve learned through all this long, 17-year, tragic drama. And the answer, it seems to me, is absolutely nothing that we didn’t know all too well before.

We’ve learned that if very small children are treated with appalling neglect and brutality, they might well be seriously damaged. A new insight? Hardly.

We’ve learned that there is no limit to the potential of human beings to inflict pain and death on one another. I think we knew that already as well.

We’ve learned that if you inflict the indescribable pain of having her small son tortured and beaten to death, then you’re likely to end up with a mother that is angry and vengeful. Again, hardly news.

We’ve learned that if an already damaged child is then incarcerated and institutionalised, the prognosis for restoring that child to health is bleak indeed. News to anyone?

We’ve learned that the adolescent and the young adult that emerges from all that trauma is very likely to seek relief in alcohol and drugs. Amazing.

We’ve learned that the guilt and stress of living an outward lie whilst knowing the inward truth breeds isolation and despair. Surely not.

We’ve learned that the spirit for vengeance and punishment is frighteningly powerful, and that it takes very little effort to stoke it into brutal expression. I don’t think this is an exactly revolutionary discovery.

In other words, all we’ve learned is that causes have effects. When the causes are deep and multifarious then of course the effects may be expressed via a circuitous route and be long delayed. But that merely complicates. One of those complications is that the effects will not be mechanically predictable, and they may not be inevitable. There will not be the satisfyingly obvious link between cause and effect that there is when I hit a nail with a hammer. It will be more like the web of causes and effects that leads me and that particular hammer to come together. There will have been many other ways in which those causes might have played out that would not have found me holding that specific implement.

So it is no argument to say that there are many abused little children who do not go on to smash another child’s brains out, and that therefore Jon Venables must have been, and must still be, intrinsically evil. Indeed, Robert Thompson, his accomplice, appears not to have been damaged by his post-conviction life in the same ways, or with the same consequences, as Jon Venables clearly has been. It may seem churlish to say it, but it’s also true that there are other mothers, equally cruelly deprived of their children, who have not been as unable as James Bulger’s has been to move past anger and recrimination. We are all different. But that’s not news either.

And it’s certainly not news that the tabloid press in this country is depraved and despicable, and that cases like this are the most vivid reminders of that fact.

I suppose, also, it’s not news that individually and as a society we are so incapable of learning from what we already know so emphatically.

Serendipity, coincidence, and selective attention

One of those bizarre juxtapositions of events happened to me this morning. A couple of years ago – through Facebook as it happens – I made contact with an old friend from 25 years before. We had been really close (yes, really close) and it was a joyous reunion. There were none of the potential disasters that can accompany such blasts from the past: I haven’t rushed into divorce proceedings, nor broken my wedding vows. Inevitably in the first rush of excitement we met up frequently and spoke regularly, catching up on a quarter of a century of our separate lives. Equally inevitably, as time’s gone on, we’ve sunk back into the more normal rhythm of friendly contact – well certainly normal if one of the partners is a bloke, and even more so if that bloke is me. I am possibly the world’s worst maintainer of contact, even with those where I’d be devastated were I to lose that contact.

And so it was that whilst shaving this morning my friend drifted across my consciousness, along with the realisation that we’d not touched base for several weeks. As I scraped away at the haggard visage that is my morning (morning? Who am I kidding? All times share equally in this dreary attribute) face I also reflected that on this occasion the culprit was not me. This is, I suspect, another mostly male notion, but I tend to run all my communications as if they were conducted on short-wave radio. Once I’ve said, “Over, Roger”, my responsibilities are discharged until the other party responds. I mean, for me to initiate contact again might look like harassment, surely. The only exception that can be made is if the re-initiated contact is dripping with irony and humour, and thus can insulate me from any suggestion that I might be feeling needy or any of that other emotional guff. So between razor strokes and vigorous rinsing of the blade – there is no electric razor permitted in my house – I began to construct the text that I would send later in the day. It was to be full of “if you’re still alive”s and “not sure if you’ll remember me”s and other indicators that this was a merely casual and light-hearted prompt fully free of any taint of hurt or regret. My friend was supposed to feel guilty, but also to know that it really didn’t matter to me at all and I wasn’t in any sense pining for her electronic touch. Actually, I’d missed her quite badly, but I could see no benefit whatever in letting her know the fact.

At that very moment, the irritating chimes of my text-received indicator went off in the living room. It was a cheery “long time baby!!” from none other than the friend we’ve been discussing. Of course, all you hard-bitten scientists and high-minded sceptics will even now be marshalling your arguments in anticipatory refutation of even a scintilla of a suggestion that there might be anything happening here beyond the mighty and dispassionate hand of cold coincidence. And I know you’re right. I know all about the arguments that crush any possibility of romantic fantasy by reminding me curtly that for all those times I’ve thought about my friend and no sudden text has been received I’ve never felt it necessary to comment on the event. The dog didn’t bark, and that’s that. So what that it now appears to be yapping like an especially annoying Pekingese?

Well, actually, I don’t give a toss. Life is entirely meaningless unless we construct a meaning for it. If you want to live in the arid conviction that nothing can be significant in your life unless it can be tested in a conveniently situated Large Hadron Collider, then be my guest. I’m thrilled that my friend has contacted me, and the delicious coincidence of that contact being made at the moment that she was also in my thoughts adds to my pleasure, and heightens its apparent significance. Yes, I have selected this event, and yes, I am giving it my attention. It pleases me to do so. And anyway, where’s the proof that there isn’t something else going on here?

Doh! Homer isn’t classical enough

It is not sufficient, apparently, merely to have the name of an ancient Greek poet. Not at least according to a Mr Reynolds who is incandescent with rage over his local Somerset school’s decision to use The Simpsons as a vehicle for teaching their 12-year-old pupils in Year 8. If The Simpsons are to be mentioned at all within the hallowed halls of this learning institution, so Mr Reynolds argues, that can only be as a sort of educational loss-leader for stronger stuff.

“If you want to use The Simpsons once in a while as a hook to get kids interested in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or get them interested in some other stronger content, I think that’s great”, he says. But never as the main course, to mix my metaphors. That’s because “there’s a big difference between [using the Simpsons as an appetiser] and actually teaching The Simpsons for six weeks and I think it’s a waste of the kids’ time.”

In its defence, the school points out that the kids will “also learn about different aspects of the media; audience, visual narrative, presentation and stereotypes, and some quite high level thinking ideas like satire, irony and parody.” But that’s not the half of it, and the school should really be castigated for not realising the true breadth of insight that The Simpsons can provide. A quick perusal of titles that could be set for homework reveals “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer”, “What’s Science Ever Done For Us: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe”, “Machiavelli Meets Mayor Quimby: Political Commentary in the First Season of The Simpsons”, and for light relief, “The World According to The Simpsons: What Our Favorite TV Family Says about Life, Love, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Donut”. What the hell has A Midsummer Night’s Dream got to offer in comparison with that? Faeries and dressing up as a donkey. QED.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not seriously suggesting that Shakespeare should be dumped in favour of Groening. And there is probably more to be extracted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream than how to put on a donkey’s head and have a slightly scatological name. So my argument with Mr Reynolds is not that he’s an old fuddy-duddy that likes to stuff the Bard down his children’s throats and those of their comrades. It’s much more to do with his reasoning. It transpires that what really gets his goat about the school’s curriculum is that it has “kind of fallen back on a weaker programme here just because kids like The Simpsons.”

And so here we reach the nub of the argument. For Mr Reynolds and his ilk the worst thing a teacher can do is to pander to his or her pupils’ pre-existing likes and enthusiasms. That is arrant rubbish. It is precisely in harnessing those likes and enthusiasms, and through them leading their pupils on to other, and yes, sometimes better, things that the most gifted teachers prove their worth. For Mr Reynolds’ puritanical view of education the idea that kids might actually enjoy learning is anathema. Long may his petitions to the school’s governors be ignored as this one was.

Oh, and whilst we’re rubbishing the man’s misery-guts approach to the classroom, we might also point out “kind of fall[ing] back” on something is a construction he has more likely picked up from his own studies of The Simpsons than from immersing himself in Shakespeare.

The Tories soon got bored with compassion

Mr Cameron has made much since his arrival as leader of the Conservatives about how they’ve changed since the 1980s and thrown off forever the tag of “the nasty party”. Now gay-friendly (not always successfully: sorry, can we start this again?) and worried sick about the fate of the “poorest and most vulnerable in our society” the party is constantly wittering on about how the deficit-cutting pain is going to be shared amongst us all, and that those with the broadest shoulders will bear the greatest responsibility. Like all those gold-plated claimants of disability living allowances and housing benefits. But that’s OK because their pain is mirrored by the huge forbearance shown by the middle classes in their stoic acceptance that inheritance taxes can’t be lowered just yet. How I love the new caring, sharing, Tory Party.

Of course the riposte to this kind of criticism is that hopeless romantics like me have no understanding of realpolitik and we need to shape up and smell the deficit coffee. Tories would love to be compassionate – yes, they really would – but Labour’s profligacy has simply rendered it unaffordable. But actually, whilst there is of course some truth in the notion that there are an awful lot more poor people who need help than there are rich fat-cats with pips available for squeaking, it’s not in these economic and large scale policies that the Tories’ boredom with their new-found toy of compassion is most clearly seen. No, it’s in the Tories’ preferred battleground of individualism that their true colours are showing through at their brightest.

Mr Cameron has castigated all those who showed “sympathy for callous murderer” Raoul Moat by joining the Facebook page devoted to his memory. Apparently this demonstrates their moral incompetence. Alongside Mr Cameron’s exceptionally clear grasp of moral theology, Mr Hague has been cosying up to the Americans with his denunciation of the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Compassion is evidently only a limited quality in the eyes of top Tories. After a short while compassion suddenly becomes transmogrified into collusion with wickedness.

This is fundamentally to misunderstand what the true nature of compassion is. Compassion is not part of a kind of moral arithmetic, such that if you do something very bad then your deficit is so great that the sympathy of others is unable ever to rescue your balance of payments problem. In Raoul Moat’s case the final hours of his life were tragic, and they are not made less so because they were preceded by wicked acts on his part. And it is a fine and good human response to be touched by that tragedy, and to try and enter imaginatively into the horror of those hours. As for Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, there was serious doubt amongst many about the real extent of his involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, and he was terminally ill. Compassion shown to miscreants is not a slap in the face to victims. We do not have fixed reserves of compassion, such that if we spend it on perpetrators we must be withholding it from victims. Compassion is a quality that is indivisible. It has nothing whatever to do with being deserving or undeserving, and all we as individuals should be doing is cultivating our ability to respond compassionately to all situations that require that response.

I’m perfectly well aware that it’s not only our new Tory ministers who have very little understanding of what compassion is really about: they are simply the most current pedlars of public hypocrisy on the subject. And they are also prone to wear their religious convictions on their sleeves. Messrs Cameron and Hague should try reading what Jesus had to say on the subject.

SatNavs and how I grew to love them

I’m not one of those people that spend their time and money desperately keeping up to date with the latest technological marvel. I possess nothing foisted upon the world by Mr Jobs’ poisonous-apple-logo-bearing technological top-hat, and generally I am proud of my allergy to anything that begins with an “e” or an “i” when it has no business to. It’s not that I’m a Luddite, but novelty in itself is not enough to make me fork out the hard-earned. If there is something that I’m interested in and want to use, then I’m very happy to spend shed-loads as my wife’s incredulity at the cost of my camera kit will prove. But my camera kit is also as it happens a good example of my restraint in the face of mere technological sexiness. I have a Nikon D300 which I bought in perhaps obscenely rapid succession to its D200 predecessor. The improvement in quality and usability between those two models is quite marked: but when Nikon upped the ante with their full-frame D700 I told them metaphorically to stuff it up their jumpers. Of course the bigger sensor provided a further boost in performance, but on the other hand I can print perfectly well up to A3+ from the D300, and into order to take advantage of the D700 I’d have to buy a whole new set of much more expensive lenses. Not even a flicker of temptation has ever passed across my mind.

My lack of being anywhere near the cutting edge of the techno-wars meant that it was quite a long time before my consciousness even acknowledged the existence of the satellite navigation gadget. And when I finally did, in about 2006, it was only in order to be able to mock it. A friend and I drove to a destination only about 30 miles up the M1. I was to leave the car I was driving there, and come back with the friend. I said I’d bring a map. A look of pity overtook her as she asked me what I wanted to do that for. All I needed to do was to follow her, as she would be arriving courtesy of directions given to her by a Mr Thomas Tom. I should of course have brought the map anyway, but I was so humiliated by her disbelief that I was still thus wedded to the technology of Mr Caxton that I was too embarrassed to do so. Suffice it to say that I got a lot more practice in 25-point turns in tiny country lanes with the very large and unfamiliar saloon car that I was driving (a Mercedes or Jaguar or something like that) than I either wanted or expected. When we finally arrived at the house we’d already driven past three times headed in various directions, my scorn was unconfined. It didn’t help that the friend was a woman who had proudly told me that although she had no idea where she had actually been in her many trips in Thomas Tom’s robotic company, it didn’t matter since she always arrived on time and devoid of any trace of fluster. As I acidly pointed out, not quite always.

A large part of my scorn was concerned with the very point that she had presented as such a benefit. By blindly following the device’s instructions, the traveller builds up no mental picture of where he or she is. It is an inevitable road to dependency, and that’s the only road the user gets to know. I used the same irresistible logic on my wife when she applied for a subsidy to purchase one for herself. Actually, the logic wasn’t all that irresistible as she managed to resist it with the simple riposte that that was fine, but in advancing the argument I was also guaranteeing to get her to, or rescue her from, the location of her choice at any time of her convenience.

Thus did one of Mr Thomas Tom’s closest relatives come to take up residence in our house. And not so very long afterwards when I had cause to go to an unfamiliar street I thought maybe I’d save myself the trouble of looking up my trusty A-Z – and in that fateful moment I was sucked into the satellite navigator’s deadly embrace. But I have managed to keep some small semblance of pride in my headlong fall under its spell. I use it mostly when in France, and I never ask it to work out the fastest or most efficient route. Rather, I require it to tell me the shortest route, and in doing so its literal computer mind takes me down all kinds of tiny roads and offers me wonderful vistas that I’d never think to seek out if I were using a map. And so I love my SatNav, but I love even more making it an unknowing accomplice in my most romantic and inefficient self-indulgence.