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 noblesse oblige and barely less outmoded hippy idealism

Share
Related Topics

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.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past