Alex Massie

The Big Society vs A Culture of Hopelessness

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As we all know, Dave has had some problems defining his Big Society idea. It's more conducive to thumb-sucking pieces than snazzy tabloid headlines. Sometimes, however, it might be easier to sell in terms of what it's not. Consider this story, warning that there might be lots of snow this winter:

Council chiefs have sparked outrage after proposing residents dig themselves out of the snow as Britain braces itself for another winter of Arctic conditions.

As long-range forecasts suggest the country will be hit by blizzards and temperatures plummeting to -20c, bosses at Camden Council prepared to hand out spades.

But their solution to the bitter weather has been slammed by those who remember the headache of last year's gritting crisis which brought widespread disruption and left people trapped in their homes

The north London council's proposal involves a 'self-help' scheme in which people can ring and request a shovel.

The authority plans to give out more than 2,000 spades to community centres and groups, shopkeepers and families to help clear clogged-up roads and pavements. Actually, a proper "self-help" scheme would involve, at most, a telephone number concerned citizens should ring to listen to a recording reminding them that they should have bought a shovel. But it gets worse:

Eleanor Botwright, director of Castlehaven Community Centre, said: 'It is not quite dig your own grave but it is a double-edged sword.'

"In some instances I am sure it will be helpful but if people pay their council tax, that is supposed to be used for that.''

"And what happens to the weak and the frail or people with buggies?' It really couldn't be less like digging your own grave. If you wanted an example of the opposite of whatever the Big Society is meant to be then this is a decent starting point. Not that expecting people to clear their own patch of pavement is the cure to everything; rather it's this underlying attitude - even culture - of utter hopelessness that is the killer.

Perhaps it's also sadly telling that the director of a Community Centre takes such a nit-pickingly transactional view of the public good (that's what council tax if for, innit?) and seems incapable of supposing that people can do anything for themselves (or for their "frail" or elderly neighbours). No, in the name of god, we must think of "people with buggies" and wait for the council instead. Jesus wept.

As I say, a minor but revealing illustration of a certain deeply-depressing mind-set. Clearing snow from in front of your house or shop is a small thing but if people can't manage that for themselves then god help us all. Worse still, perhaps, is the notion that people shouldn't be expected to do their bit even in unusual or extreme circumstances.

One man, however, has a keen eye for the fatal weakness of, well, just about anything that requires the Great British Public to do anything:

Tony Hillier, chairman of the Heath and Hampstead Society, added: 'I think it is a daft idea. All the shovels will be stolen.'

That's the can-do spirit! David Cameron used his conference speech to challenge Britain. On the evidence of this story, Camden isn't up to meeting that challenge. This is a culture war just as much as it is a political struggle and the government should remember that.


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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