Sunday, 14 April 2013

A chance encounter in Whitstable defines The Big Society

Every so often a politician or government sets-out a narrative which is understood by society and supported by the public mood.
Margaret Thatcher did just that with Popular Capitalism - two words which underpinned greater home ownership, privatisation and extended share ownership, opting out of SERPS, lower direct taxes and much more.
John Major failed spectacularly with Back to Basics which, however revisionists try to redefine it, deservedly fell flat on its face. Tony Blair had better luck with the Third Way, a mixture of Corporatism and Social Democracy masquerading as New Labour, but he too failed with Cool Britannia.  I am not sure if Gordon Brown ever had a philosophy to define apart from 'It's Not My Fault'For David Cameron it was The Big Society.

I actually liked The Big Society. I immediately understood what it meant and how it was so relevant in 21st Century Britain. I knew how expanding community and social activism was vital to the cohesion and advancement of austerity Britain; how it could bring people together, replacing the state as the focus of provision, and empowering people to take responsibility for their lives and their communities. The theory is not at all alien to traditional Conservatives, though the terminology might be. We see it in action every day; the volunteers running the tea counter at the local hospital, the drivers for the local Meals on Wheels service, those on the coffee and flower rota at the local church, the local WI, Towns Women's Guild, the Rotarians, Round Tablers and Buffalos shaking collecting tins and doing good works throughout the year for no personal gain or advancement.  The first President Bush referred to volunteers and community groups as "a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."  I am not claiming that all people who do such good work are Conservatives, but I would wager that more of them support us than any other party.

I am therefore saddened that The Big Society appears to have vanished from the Coalition agenda. Perhaps it was too difficult to define, or in times of acute hardship for many, the public mood was not open to such notions. If so, we are the poorer for it.

Today, for example, in one small way, I witnessed The Big Society in action.

Steve and I had driven to Whitstable for lunch, as we often do. As we drove in, a slow moving line of cars caused concern; would there be anywhere to park? Several times in the last year we have driven into town, spent 30 minutes searching for a space before giving up and moving on to Canterbury instead. On the first really clement day of spring we were not optimistic. But as we drove down the High Street a sign reading "Charity Car Park" directed us to a local school. We drove into the school grounds and were cheerily welcomed and directed to the school playground, where probably 60+ cars were already parked. As we walked out, we stopped to chat to the volunteers at the gate. As well as parking cars and giving directions, they were also selling cakes, drinks and home produce.

It transpires the idea was down to Josh and Charlotte, two 17 year olds pictured with me (above). They need to raise £4,000 to finance their trip to Ecuador, where they were going as volunteers to teach English as a Second Language with the charity Camps International.  The car parking idea, backed by the school Head and the PTA, was just one of many things they were doing to raise the required funds; but the profit from this initiative was been shared 50:50 with the school to provide new play equipment.

Surely this is exactly what The Big Society is really all about. Here we have a group of volunteers, using infrastructure already in place, to provide a service for the benefit of others (the car drivers), which will also benefit the wider community (the town's retailers), whilst increasing resources for the local school and enabling two young people to travel to do voluntary work for the benefit of children in a far less prosperous society than ours.

Just think how this could be built upon. How many busy tourist communities and towns turn visitors away through lack of parking? Greenwich, Blackheath, Camden, and Hampstead Village are just four examples, yet each of these have numerous schools with large car parks and concreted areas which could offer exactly the same service as the one being provided by Josh and Charlotte. Imagine the tens of thousands of pounds that could be raised every weekend for no capital outlay; the new play equipment or books that could be purchased for underfunded schools, or money raised for good causes, all whilst providing a service to visitors, able and willing to pay. The possibilities in this small area alone are endless.

I was so impressed with this initiative that I probably donated 3 times what it would have cost me to park in the local car park (had we been able to find a space), but I was happy to do so. It was worth every penny to support and encourage two young people with drive and initiative whilst helping the local school too.

Come on Prime Minister - bring back The Big Society; it really does exist and it makes a real difference. All you need to do is find the language to define and promote what it really means. 

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