July 20th, 2010


Why the Big Society won't work.

I've been spending hours down by the River, with pint and cigarette, gazing at the water's infinitely changing patterns and reflections. And the River has become the source of inspiration. Water is extraordinary stuff. I think that water forms droplets and streams because water molecules are charged negatively at one end, positively at the other, and tend to form chains or strands of water. If water was like sand, it wouldn't form droplets of sand. The River just happens naturally. Water trickles down off the hills, and forms streams which flow into the river. And then the River sort of saunters its way down to the sea, as if it were slightly tipsy from having passed so many pubs along the way. By the time it reaches the sea, it is performing wide pirouettes.

The natural river might be juxtaposed with a canal. The river is unplanned. Nature doesn't come along and mark out its path with stakes. But the canal is carefully designed with gradients, and it's usually straight, and quite often has stone or concrete banks. One is the outcome of the natural flow of water. The other represents the constraint and control of water. One day, no doubt, when absolutely everything is planned, all rivers will become canals, efficiently flowing in straight lines towards the sea, with no silly meandering. But would they be so interesting? I suspect that canalised rivers are all the same. But the River changes its character from one short stretch to another, and also from day to day.

It requires constant work to maintain canals. If they stop being maintained, they silt up and vanish. Or turn back into rivers. The river lasts forever.

It was with this in mind that I came across the Big Society in Obo:

Cameron has staked his reputation on the Big Society and Labour will gun for it on any pretext (a fig-leaf for cuts being the current refrain). Cameron cannot afford to fail twice.

DP is on the case too. And the Big Society was being discussed on Radio 4's PM as well. The idea is for everyone in the country to become voluntary members of a local community support group.

How fascinating.

We used to have one of those community things. It was called The Pub. And I was, I suppose, what might be called a 'voluntary member'. It wasn't just a place where you could go and have a drink and a smoke. It was also a place where you could give and get advice and assistance in all sorts of ways. It was a centre of community. Just like a church.

That community was largely destroyed by the Labour government with its smoking ban. It shattered communities all over the country, and bankrupted thousands of pubs.

So, having comprehensively torn up the social fabric of the country, the government seems to have noticed that there's something amiss.

So what does the new government do? It doesn't undo the damage done by its predecessor, of course, and allow communities to form naturally - like molecules of water joining to form droplets and trickles - through people meeting each other, having a few drinks, and a smoke, and a chat. No. It tries instead to form a planned voluntary society from the top down, run by the government. Instead of the River, there'll be the Canal.

It's the way socialists think. They can't just let things happen. That's too untidy and unpredictable and chaotic. Instead everything has to be planned and controlled by government, with government-sponsored voluntary organisations.

And iDave is a socialist. So's Clegg. They're all socialists in government these days. There aren't any real liberals or real conservatives any more, as far as I can see.

It's easy to tell whether people are socialists. Whatever they do does enormous damage to the thing they pretend to care about most: society. Socialists are actually the least sociable of all people. I've come to think that socialists actually hate other people, and wish there weren't any of them, and that they were all dead.

Anyway I'm not a member of this 'society' any more, however big or small. I'm an outcast, because I'm a smoker. Why the hell should I want to become a voluntary member of some local community organisation when I am no longer part of that community?

It's rather like some dinner party somewhere, where all the guests are sitting round the table, chatting about this and that. Here Eddie is talking, but the hostess has other ideas:

'...So I swung from the branch of the tree onto a rock in the river. Behind me I saw the tiger emerge from the trees. I could see it gauging the distance, and crouching ready to spring across. There was nothing for it. I took a deep breath and threw myself into the boiling white water of the river. Almost immediately powerful currents tore the knife I was clutching from my hand...'

And just then the hostess sitting at the end of the table interrupts and says,

'Listen everybody. I've been sitting here listening to the conversation and I notice that Eddie is doing most of the talking. And Penelope on the end there hasn't said anything at all for the entire evening. So can you pipe down for a while, Eddie, and let Penelope have a turn.'

And Penelope says, 'But I don't have anything to say. I was listening to Eddie's story. It was really interesting!'

'And I hadn't finished telling the story!' Eddie adds.

And the hostess says, 'Well, never mind. I'm sure that Penelope has some just as interesting stories to tell, haven't you Penelope? Tell us what you've been doing today'

'I don't have any interesting stories. I went shopping at Tesco this afternoon,' says Penelope glumly.

'Still,' says the hostesss. 'I'm sure you found some interesting food there. They do have a lot, don't they! Tell us what you bought.'

'I bought some spam.'

'Is that all? Oh dear! Has anyone else got any interesting stories to tell. Flo! How about you?'

'No, I don't have any interesting stories either,' Flo says. 'But I would like to know what happened to Eddie! Do go on, Eddie!'

And the hostess says, 'We really can't have anyone being left out. Eddie's been talking most of the evening. First it was the shark attack in Sydney harbour. Then it was his brief sojourn in the French Foreign Legion. Nobody else has managed to get a word in edgeways!'

'And jolly interesting stories they all were too!' says Charles. 'Like Penelope, I was waiting to hear what happened with the tiger in Borneo.'

'But it's not very conversational, is it?' says the hostess. 'Eddie's dominated the talk ever since he arrived, telling one story after another. It's time that somebody else had a say. How about you, Marjorie?'

'I went to Tesco too,' says Marjorie. 'And I bought some cat food. And like Charles and Penelope, I've been enthralled by Eddie's stories!'

'Why can't you just let people talk the way they want to?' says Penelope, angrily. 'Why can't you just let it all, y'know, just happen? Why do you always try to control everything so much? You're such a control freak!'

And silence falls. And there's only the sound of knives and forks on plates.

The hostess is the socialist government, trying to plan and organise everything. Eddie with his fund of stories is like a smoker who fills the air with smoke. Penelope and Flo are non-smokers who don't mind smoke. The government silences the smoker, pushing him out of the door, in the hope that this will bring more people in. Instead, everyone just gets angry and resentful. The attempts to control and direct the conversation all fail. They were always bound to fail. Conversations are also like rivers. They're all but impossible to channel. And when they have been, they're stilted and strained. Planned conversations are formal meetings.

Nothing will come of the Big Society. Governments can't create communities. Governments can't create networks of support and friendship. Governments can only destroy those things.

I will rejoin society when the smoking ban is lifted, and the war on smokers and drinkers and fat people (which is pretty much a War on Everybody) has ended. Then natural communities will start to form again, like rivers. It'll all be untidy and unpredictable. But there's no other way.