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Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman: If the PM is such an idealist let's see him out volunteering

The suspicion hardens that his BS is an amalgam of long irrelevant <i>noblesse oblige</i> and barely less outmoded hippy idealism

The moment David Cameron described the Big Society as "my mission", this question was begged. Why on earth did he choose to accept it in the first place? For this is mission impossible, one that self-destructed, along with the tape, five seconds after he announced it as an electoral campaign keystone last spring, and the Prime Minister, it's increasingly clear, is no Ethan Hunt.

At its first annual relaunch on Monday, almost exactly nine months after the BS was conceived as government policy, the pregnancy proved to be phantom. All that was there, we learnt, was a tornado of trapped wind, and if one quote ever captured the nihilistic vacuity of blue sky thinking, this was it: "We need social recovery to mend the broken society," the PM drivelled on Monday, "and that to me is what the Big Society is all about."

Have you ever, in all your puff, met such utter cobblers? To saddle a sentence with one specious societal cliché, the "broken society", may be regarded as a misfortune. To lumber it with two, by lobbing in the Big One, looked like an attempt to disguise befuddlement by creating a Manichean struggle between two entities that do not exist.

This is political philosophy refracted through the satirical prism of Harry Hill's TV Burp. Mm, now I like the broken society, but I also like the Big Society. But which is better? There's only one way to find out.... Fiiiiiight!

It is Harry Hill, as the commentator Paul Waugh brilliantly points out on a political web site, who has most laconically identified the flaw in Mr Cameron's masterplan. Yesterday he went to the People's Supermarket, a community venture in Camden and the subject of a show featured on Saturday's TV Burp. In the following clip Narrator (portentously) says: "Can Arthur's dream of a supermarket that's owned and run by the people change how Britain shops for food?" Camera cuts to Harry: "No." Narrator: "Will people in the UK be so keen to give up their time unpaid to work in the People's Supermarket?" Harry (to riotous laughter): "Er, no."

In that mirth, you heard the bell toll for Mr Cameron's noble ambition. And noble it certainly is, the failure being one of neither good will nor sincerity, but of the imagination. I love the idea of volunteering to improve the lives of others. Who doesn't? But we are what we are – short of time, energy and what might loosely be called goodness – and all the Utopian ramblings in the world won't change us a bit.

They do not appear, to be honest, to have changed him. If ever a political ideal demanded leadership by example, this is it. Had he spent even an hour a week these past months working at one of the hospitals that treated his late son Ivan, and made volunteering mandatory for his ministers, the knowledge that the frantically busy were sacrificing previous free time might have fleshed out those spectral bones.

He has done no such things, and the suspicion hardens that his BS is an amalgam of long irrelevant noblesse oblige and barely less outmoded hippy idealism. If you go to SamCam's disco (all proceeds to Witney meals-on-wheels), be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

While the councils he cites as the engines for the devolution of power to us little folk are being witch-hunted, and denied the very funds required to finance charities and volunteer projects, the PM's choice of ministerial salesman seems instructive. Nick Hurd, who as minister for charities and volunteering defended the BS on Monday's Newsnight, is the son of Douglas, and the fourth generation of Hurd to sit in the Commons. Oxfordshire born and bred, Eton, Oxford, Bullingdon Club... does he begin to remind you of anyone?

Concerns about Mr Hurd's suitability have nothing to do with the politics of envy. You can no more justly damn a fellow for a privileged background than for one of poverty. Both are accidents of birth, and no doubt Mr Hurd is as sincere in his BS espousal as anyone else who once went as far as Brazil in the altruistic cause of setting up – can you guess? go on, have a wild stab – an investment bank.

The trouble is that bankers are the only minority to have benefited so far from a bespoke, retro take on the Big Society. To rescue them we all rallied round, though not as volunteers, but in the traditional manner by which unfortunates have been helped since the welfare state was created.

We saved them with untold tens of billions – much more than enough to keep our privatised libraries from being handed to American contractors, and provide respite care for parents of severely disabled children – diverted from our taxes.

To some, if not to Mr Hurd, those beneficiaries should be obliged – by law should their sense of social responsibility desert them – to repay our largesse more quickly and completely than Mr Cameron insists.

Forcing banks to lend a measly few hundred million to charities at or near commercial lending rates doesn't sound like the Big Society. It sounds like the Secret Society of like-reared and like-educated chaps looking out for one another like Freemasons.

It pays tribute to Mr Cameron's sweetness of nature that, as leader of this lodge, he believes in the power of his sincerity to persuade others to share his sense of duty.

Yet without the stick of legislation, it's hard to see bankers, or anyone else, falling for the carrot of high-minded oratory. The more frenetically he cleaves to the notion that good intentions can reshape human nature, the more laughable he may come to look on the road to electoral hell.

Loathing is something the gifted politician can live with, and even relish, as Mr Cameron acknowledged on Monday with his hard man embrace of his imminent unpopularity. Ridicule, on the other hand, is almost invariably fatal. If his refusal to ditch the gaseous nonsense makes him feel like an action hero, in fact this mission impossible threatens to brand him irreversibly as a comic turn.

Now I like David Cameron as Ethan Hawke, but then I also like the PM as Harry Hill. But no need for the TV Burp method to determine which is better. That fight has already been won and lost.