Jayne Dawson: Life but not as we know it

Prime Minister David Cameron makes a speech on the Big Society to social entrepreneurs. PIC: PA
Prime Minister David Cameron makes a speech on the Big Society to social entrepreneurs. PIC: PA
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I know it’s not quite the done thing to say but David Cameron is filthy rich, isn’t he?

And his wife Samantha is filthy rich too, and so are both their families.

In fact, on all sides our prime minister is surrounded by people who are filthy with riches and privilege.

Out of his cabinet, eight went to the same school as him, and that school wasn’t, needless to say, a failing inner-city comprehensive, or an academy.

Nor indeed was it a decent, solid state grammar, or even one of what people refer to as the “minor public schools”. It was Eton, the most famous school in the land, where the basic fees are around £28,000 which is more than the average annual salary.

His wife, who David once said owned a field in Scunthorpe, is actually a member of an aristocratic family that owns 3,000 valuable acres of prime farming land in the area, plus David is apparently so overburdened with property that in an interview he was once unable to answer the seemingly simple question: “How many houses do you own?” Somewhere between two and four was his best guess.

He and Samantha have also been estimated by a financial expert to belong to families with a combined wealth of £30 million, which is an unimaginable amount of money, though Mr Cameron denies that figure.

I mention all this not because I am envious, I’m not, though that has less to do with my total contentment than with the fact that we tend to envy those who are close to us in the money pecking order, if we envy them at all. Those in the Cameron league are in such a different stratosphere as to render the gap between us meaningless, so we don’t waste our envy on them. That’s just the way it works.

But, envy or not, I’m bringing up the money situation because I think it’s at the heart of this Big Society idea.

I believe David Cameron’s personal wealth is the reason why he believes such a strange, plainly unworkable concept is a good idea.

Only this week he has been defending his bizarre vision of a do-it-yourself/self-help country, throwing our money – not his – and all his smooth politician’s rhetoric at it.

My theory is that his personal enthusiasm stems from his own life – one of such great wealth, providing such a big, fat cushion; such a great, big safety net, that it is impossible for him to understand how relentlessly gruelling life is for most of the rest of us.

His benevolent view, formed during a life of privilege and plenty, is that all we have to do is work together and help each other for everything to be all right. I imagine cups of tea figure in there somewhere.

At least I think that’s it – because actually no one is quite sure what he means by the Big Society.

But certainly it seems to involve saving money by using volunteers, by relying on charities to help those in need and by expecting communities to pull together to create whatever they need, if not to actually get out hammers and knock it together.

It’s an idea that invokes wartime pluck and the spirit of the Blitz, combined with some over-the-garden-fence neighbourliness.

If the Big Society was a television programme it could only be Dad’s Army, with its cosy view of British life.

The only problem is that none of that exists any more, and probably never did.

The Blitz might have brought out the best in some, but equally it turned parts of London into lawless places where the strongest survived and the weak suffered.

And these days most of us don’t know our neighbours’ names any more, let alone chat over the fence to them.

As a theory, the Big Society does have a superficial attraction, a bit like a good old British film made at Pinewood Studios come to life.

In reality though, we’re all too fully occupied running faster to stay in the same place to join in.

Those of us with jobs are working ever longer hours to cover for those who have been made redundant: we’re trying to cope with rising prices and pay freezes, we’re paying through the nose for childcare or trying to give a leg-up to our adult children who can’t afford the basics of life, like a home.

We feel squeezed, burdened and tired – and unequal to the task of gentrifying our entire neighbourhood in the half-hour left between completing our nightly tasks and falling into bed.

We just want to watch a bit of telly, pay our taxes and have experts organise stuff for us – which is such a good idea, come to think of it, that it is exactly the way modern, democratic countries have run for quite some time now.

So far as anyone can tell, choice and charity are at the heart of the Big Society – both of them much overrated concepts.

Too much choice is exhausting, time-consuming and irritating. We want good services, not lots of choices.

As for charity – well, charities are great, aren’t they? But let’s not forget that no-one has a right to be helped by them.

If you or someone you loved was in dire need, would you rather rely on the benevolence of a charity, which might or might not decide it had the means to help you, or would you rather have the right to assistance from a welfare state, a system which would be both more reliable and more likely to keep your dignity intact?

So where does that leave the Big Society? I’d say it leaves it nowhere.

The Big Society is, in truth, more of a big fantasy – and perhaps a rich man’s toy.

PIC: Simon Hulme

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