Friday, April 15, 2011

What is the Big Society?

This is a biscuit-and-a-cuppa post, I’m afraid.

There's a lot of guff in the British press these days about the 'Big Society'.  According to the powers that be, the Big Society will devolve power to local authorities and (I quote) "is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together."   

Oh yes, all very dig-for-Britain but the truth is that most people feel that it's simply a way for the government to stop funding local services and in fact we're NOT all in this together – we’re dumped on and being asked to like it. 

The thing is though that the Big Society isn’t some government fiction – it exists and is everywhere around us – people have always looked after each other and this is what it boils down to – all of us taking care of each other and of our environment - streets, gardens, local bits and bobs.   People take care of each other all the time – no government initiative is going to change that.  Yes, we should all step up; but not as part of a government cost-cutting exercise designed to bail out rotten financial institutions; we pay taxes so the government can support us – they serve us, not the other way around.  If we serve anyone, it should be each other.

Horace and Edith (not their real names which is ridiculous, but there you go) have lived on our street for going on 50 years and are both about to hit 80.  We’ve lived next door for the last six and a half and have struck up a genuine friendship.  Horace was a handsome bugger in his day and Edith a slip of a girl, they’re easy-going, friendly, funny and great neighbours.  They braved a mixed-marriage in the 50s at which point much of her family cut her off, however they have a wide circle of friends, a son, grandchildren and quite a bit of extended family.

Last year Horace was diagnosed with a massive tumour and had extensive, successful surgery; however had to return recently to have two massive hernias done.  On her way to visit him a few weeks ago, Edith fell in the street and damaged her shoulder so badly she’s had to have it replaced; so they are in adjoining rooms on the same ward of our local hospital at the moment.  The same week, they lost their son to a heart-attack.

We have always sort of looked out for them and they for us. In the snow we sweep their pavement, we occasionally do their heavy shopping, we drive them to hospital and generally, along with quite a few of our neighbours, check in on them.  In return they keep an eye on cars and front doors when people are on holiday, do occasional cat-sitting and can be relied on to know any bit of relevant gossip in the area.

A few Saturdays ago we had a panicky call from Horace’s hospital bed telling us the bad news about Edith and begging us to feed their trio of rescue cats.  We have each other’s keys and this was no problem, however on entering their flat I realised why we’d not been invited over for a while – this is Edith’s second broken arm in 8 months and with Horace suffering from hernias, the last year has seen them barely coping and too proud to say.  So, with their permission we’ve cleaned and renovated their kitchen so they can reach things and have more storage space.  We’ve run errands, we’ve mowed the lawn, we visit them in hospital, they’re recovering fine and should be home soon.

I tell you this not because I want to wave a flag about how lovely we are, but sort of as a caution.  The Big Society works – it works because we are social animals and we like to keep in contact with people (or most of us... frogs excepted J) and it works because 80% of the human race are actually decent people and another 19% will step up if pushed. 

The Big Society works and further, it needs to keep working.  Horace and Edith have family and friends – loads of them.  However, due to recent family deaths and either the extreme youth or extreme age of the remaining people, they are effectively alone.  This, my friends, could be any of us.   You might think you have a strong support network around you but ask yourself – will that hold up?  Will it be there in 40 years?  50?  Will your children be on the same continent?  Will your friends be fit enough to help? 

The truth is that you just don’t know these things – you can’t know.  For many of us, we may never need to know – we may keep our network local and strong.  But for more of us than we might like to consider, the Big Society is what is going to keep us going – government directives or not.


mum in meltdown said...

What a great post. You are right it really could be any of us in that position in the future. They are soo lucky that they have you to help but it's sad that age group feel as though they don't want to bother people and try to cope on their own and yet others of a much younger age have no scrouples and think the world owes them everything!

Sparx said...

Mum in Meltdown - you're quite right; most of us would prefer to think we can cope alone, but really nobody should be afraid to ask for help. Hopefully those who feel the world 'owes them' will grow up and realise the truth... thanks for commenting and dropping in!

Muddling Along said...

One of my problems with the whole concept of big society is that for a lot of us it is going on already and will continue to but I don't see how politicians banging on about it is going to make a change and make some people less selfish and self obsessed - around us, a nice little middle class ghetto there are various groups that are crying out to volunteer, can they find helpers no, and it keeps falling on the same group of people to prop things up and I don't see that changing

We need a societal shift so that people are made to feel that helping is the norm and that living outside ones own narrow family life is a good thing

Sparx said...

Muddling - you're absolutely right - but if that doesn't start when people are young, should the government step in? I just think it's going to backfire....

jaguarish said...

I've had to luck to recently join a company with a genuine mentoring program including an inclusive environment where I have been informally mentored by almost everyone I've met so far (and it's only been ten weeks!) I've often thought that a government sponsored (or even required) buddy system would be a great way to start changing our societal behaviour, hopefully to the point where it became the ingrained way of treating others.

Sparx said...

Jaguarish - Sounds like an interesting company. Mentoring is a great thing if done right - to embed it into society in the way you suggest would be a major sea change - but I agree, worth it.