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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Mark Steel: The caring, sharing way to bad times


Mark Steel

The first troubling side to the Big Society is no one can explain what it means. You might not agree with them, but at least policy initiatives such as the Five-Year Plan, Thousand-Year Reich or Holy Jihad were clear and got their point across. But ministers explain the Big Society with statements such as, "It's a brave optimism vision that instead of statedom fills a voluntary doingness not interferencing and oooh it will be so BIG and, 'Neighbours, [sings] everybody needs good neighbours', and I'm excited let's deliver more chickens to old people."

They might as well say "David Cameron has always believed passionately in his vision of a Giant Whatnot. And believe me, once you see doings, all our lives will be transformed by that whatnot." But it is used to justify their cuts. So they're not just shutting things down to save money, they're helping us out. Now instead of being stifled by the state providing services, we can have all the fun of volunteering to run them ourselves in our spare time.

Libraries, for example, must be one of the best examples of society, paid for communally, in which everyone has access to books, newspapers and computers. So a Big Society would surely build more of them; but instead it's shutting hundreds down, presumably because we're all sick of the stifling nannying ways of the library service.

All you get from them is, "Borrow this, look up that", but at last that dictatorship is coming to an end, to be replaced with a voluntary system in which people will ask a neighbour for a book about the local canal system in 1817, and when told they haven't got it, they'll be free to give up.

And this system can be applied everywhere. If we have a heart attack, we won't rely on the bureaucratic NHS as the cardiac unit will have been sold off for flats, so we'll enjoy the voluntary aid of a local Methodist who can pray for us, or, if we're not religious, get the man over the road to rub ointment on our chest. Yesterday, as the Big Society was being paraded by the Government, Manchester Council announced that its £109m cut will force it to close down nurseries, youth centres, sports halls and every public toilet except for one.

Instead the Big Society will cover all that, I suppose. Nurseries will be replaced by volunteers who say, "You don't know me, but I'll take your toddlers off yer hands. Now then, who likes having fun with fire?"
Zoos and city farms will be freed from Government funding, and replaced by a scheme called "Wild Animals in the Community". This voluntary initiative will mean children can view beasts every day, as lions sit under a cashpoint machine going, "Excuse me mate, you got a spare zebra?"

But if Cameron really believes the voluntary Big Society provides better services, then why doesn't he apply it to Government institutions he doesn't want to cut, such as the Army? If he's right, then the defence budget should be halved, and regiments in Afghanistan replaced by volunteers in yellow jackets, wandering through Helmand province saying, "Now then you holy warriors, instead of blowing yourselves up at a police station let's see you tidy up a few of these roadside bombs, then we can sit down with a Thermos for some well earned tea and muffins." 

And yet the idea of every citizen helping each other in their community does seem to be on the increase as a result of the Big Society campaign.
For example, last Saturday was Save Our Libraries day, when every threatened library was packed with hundreds of people protesting against the closures. There were kids carrying placards, mums making speeches, and residents who've never done such a thing before pledging to defend the community. Cameron must be delighted, as presumably this is exactly the sort of voluntary neighbourly action he had in mind. 


The Independent Wednesday, 9 February 2011

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