Just how much appetite is there for David Cameron’s Big Society? Not much, according to the chattering classes. One of the more bizarre sights on the day the Conservatives’ launched their manifesto was watching the liberal left poo-poo the notion that ordinary people could be ‘prised away from the telly’.
Jackie Ashley in the Guardian, for instance, had never heard of such a preposterous idea. ‘Modern life is so busy, with longer working hours, 24-hour TV, emails, blogging, tweeting and the rest, that I wonder how many people will find the time to go along and organise their local school or hospital or police force,’ she wrote.
Funny to think that empowering ordinary citizens was once a rallying cry of the Labour party. I expected journalists like Jackie Ashley to reject any attempt by the Tories to hijack workers’ co-operatives or free schools and stake out a claim to being the true custodians of progressive values. Instead, it’s as if the Guardian has swapped places with the Daily Telegraph. One of the main arguments advanced by the new Bufton Tuftons is that most Britons are completely unwilling to perform voluntary work. Randeep Ramesh, the Guardian’s social affairs editor, pointed out that the percentage of the population willing to do unpaid work to help ‘other people or the environment’ for at least one day a month has been stuck at 28 per cent for the past five years.
But surely it’s a mistake to imagine that more than 28 per cent of the population needs to be socially active to bring about a transference of power from the state to civil society? Take education. I’m currently leading the efforts of a group of parents in West London to set up a new taxpayer-funded secondary school. There are over 500 local parents who have signed up to the campaign, but only 12 of us who actually give up our time to attend meetings, write reports, and so on. If we succeed in setting up the school it won’t be because an army of people has been mobilised. It will be because 12 individuals thought they could do a better job than the state and set out to prove it.
Now at this point critics of Cameron’s big idea complain that it will only be middle-class people who become involved in running public services. ‘I can see cliques of middle-class parents getting into this — social exclusion yet again for the working class,’ wrote Linda Heaven-Woolley, a retired head teacher, on Left Foot Forward.
Yet if middle-class people are incapable of transcending their own narrow self-interest, isn’t Gordon Brown, a self-confessed member of the middle class, unfit to run the country? It’s a rubbish argument. When it comes to education, the Conservatives aren’t proposing to allow free schools to just admit middle-class children. They will be bound by the School Admissions Code, just like every other taypayer-funded school.
The same will be true of other public services taken over by citizen activists, whether job centres, post offices or refuse collection. The majority of the people doing the legwork will be middle class, but that doesn’t mean that working-class people won’t have access to these services. The idea is to run them more efficiently than the state — to offer the taxpayer better value for money — not to make them more exclusive. And they will still have to operate within a legal framework guaranteeing equal treatment for all. No one’s proposing that the state should ‘wither away’ completely.
Will enough people be willing to come forward for Cameron’s vision to become a reality? I think they will. Let’s not forget that taking over a role normally performed by the state is a lot more stimulating than helping deliver Meals on Wheels once a month. About half the people on my 12-person steering committee don’t have children — they’re intellectually captivated by the challenge of trying to start a school. To be honest, that’s as big a part of my motivation as wanting a good school for my own children.
It’s funny. I used to be a cynic myself, complaining about the fact that the country was going to the dogs. But then I tore myself away from the telly and decided to do something about it. I’ve become Jackie Ashley and she’s become me. I just hope she enjoys carping from the sidelines as much as I enjoy being an activist.