The Big Society: What Would Clement Do?

Figure 1: Big Society In Action*

I think that volunteering is A Good Thing™. I volunteer and through my volunteering I’ve made friends, given back to the community (I wish there was a less cheesy way to say that) and improved my CV. If anyone had some free time and wanted to simultaneously improve their own and other peoples’ lives I would definitely recommend they try volunteering. However, it isn’t a replacement for the state and that is why I am sceptical about David Cameron’s Big Society initiative.

Despite dying over 40 years ago Clement Attlee wrote the perfect response to David Cameron’s Big Society in his book The Social Worker (1920):

“Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim. In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice”**

As a bleeding heart lefty type person I completely agree with the Great Clem. As well as being the perfect antidote to the vacuous rhetoric of The Big Society, the above quote reminded me of something that David Cameron said during his 2010 conference speech which worried me at the time:

“Fairness means giving people what they deserve and what people deserve depends on how they behave.”

As Attlee pointed out, if people are dependent on volunteers/do-gooders to help them in their time of need what will happen if these volunteers (who are giving their time in exchange for no wage) decide that their services are “dependent on his view of the recipient’s character” and that the recipient isn’t deserving? I have plenty of other issues with The Big Society concept but they have already been articulated by other people (repeatedly), I have yet to see this issue be discussed on the interweb or in the papers.

Maybe this won’t be a problem but like most of this current government’s policies/initiatives The Big Society doesn’t seem to be very well thought through and I worry about what is going to happen to the needy and vulnerable in our society after David Cameron is finished with his Big Society experiment.

*Image credit: LEGO S&S Wildland Ultra XT (1) by Dunechaser
**Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of Attlee’s book The Social Worker. I got the above quote from Francis Beckett’s biography of Attlee, Clem Attlee.


One thought on “The Big Society: What Would Clement Do?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Big Society: What Would Clement Do? | Jude's Journal --

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