Matthew Norman: Quit the carping and give volunteering a go

Get Pickles cleaning bins, Fox delivering babies, May counselling prostitutes, and Osborne wallpapering care homes in Tatton. We know they're busy. That's the point
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The Independent Online

By what collective act of suicidal idiocy does what passes for the Left find cause to hate The Big Society, other of course than the name? It is a shocker. Play School infantile, it subliminally echoes the vacuous drivel that was Mr Tony Blair's "Big Conversation" (remember that affectation of inclusivity? Me neither).

Yet there is neither any evidence, factual or anecdotal, nor the vaguest intuitive hint that the present Prime Minister is less than genuine about what he may curse himself for not calling The Volunteer Society. It won't radically change the country in a hurry. Evidently, as Andy McSmith deconstructed in this newspaper yesterday, David Cameron's speech on Monday contained its coded economic storm warnings. It may well not work at all. For all that, what's not to admire about an attempt to encourage people to help each other, for their own benefit as well as the assisted?

Millions do so already, as prison visitors, deliverers of meals-on-wheels, unpaid tutors to the illiterate, or whatever, and enjoy it. Where is the cynicism in wanting to cajole millions more to do the same? On what crazy grounds should the word "philanthropist" continue to be prefaced by "billionaire" (as in "billionaire philanthropist Sir Allen Stanford")?

Of all the reflex put-downs deployed by Labour MPs, much the most cretinous is that it's a ruse to "disguise public spending cuts". It is no such thing. Cuts like those coming cannot possibly be disguised and Mr Cameron is far too smart to try. The public is far less stupid than those who imagine it fails to recognise them as the unavoidable price for the cosseting of reckless bankers at which Gordon Brown, whose loyalists lead this Light Brigade charge now, was such a star.

What this fallen dunceocracy fails to understand is pretty much everything: that when times are brutal, there is nothing immoral about urging those capable of alleviating the pain the less well off will feel; that most of us, finding the idea of volunteer work incredibly appealing, would welcome a well organised system to nudge us in that direction, and the relaxation of laws like the one intended to prevent a friend taking the Alzheimer's sufferers she visits the peppermint creams she made for them at Christmas; and that the vinegary carping from the Labour leadership candidates confirms their unfitness to govern, and will do them more harm if and when it becomes a success.

How Mr Cameron can make it so remains a touch opaque, but I have one suggestion. In the style of Churchill leaving the government during the First World War to serve as a captain in the trenches, he needs to lead from the front. With his own experience, he might, for example, spend a little time each week helping to care for disabled children.

In fact he should go much further, and make volunteer work a condition for serving in the Cabinet. Eric Pickles, currently obsessed with rubbish collection, could reinvent himself as the Eddie Yates of Ongar by spending a few weekly hours on the bins. William Hague could teach judo to disadvantaged children, while Theresa May's taste in footwear suggests a sympathetic presence counselling heroin-addicted prostitutes in Maidenhead and other leading centres of urban deprivation.

Liam Fox, once a GP, could deliver babies when the midwife shortage hits North Somerset, Nick Clegg lend Dutch, Russian, Linear B, Klingon and his 127 other tongues to the modern languages department of a Sheffield comprehensive, and George Osborne's family business makes him the obvious chap to wallpaper the care homes of Tatton with the sort of £70 per metre prints once favoured by Derry Irvine.

I'm not, just this once, being entirely facetious. This idea is at risk of being stillborn, strangled by the umbilical cord of ridicule, or at best brain damaged by the oxygen deprivation of indifference. It requires the oxygen of publicity, and more than that the clearest demonstration of serious intent. We all know Cabinet ministers are frantically busy, and that's the point. No one should pretend there isn't an element of self-sacrifice in volunteer work. If these buggers can carve a few hours away from their red boxes, it would encourager les autres.

Nor should anyone deny a healthy element of self-interest. Although shamefully I do sod all for my fellow creatures (though were I shamed into doing some unpaid hospital portering, I know I'd love every second and feel the tide of self-disgust ebb a little), I've seen true altruism and the happiness it brings.

Long before Samantha Cameron gave her old man the brilliant line that "there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state" (hats off to the fancy stationery girl for that one!), a couple of teachers in north London started a tiny youth theatre group they called Chicken Shed after its original home.

They threw it open to everyone, gifted and less so, wealthy and dirt poor, able-bodied and disabled, in some cases as severely as the Camerons' late son Ivan. For years it survived entirely thanks to the dedication not only of its founders but parents and supporters – some rich and celebrated (Diana, Princess of Wales among them); most penniless and unknown – who lavished on it their time and love. Today it is housed in a magnificent theatre of its own, producing original and consistently excellent musical theatre, and doubling up as a college of higher education. If Mr Cameron is looking for a paradigm of his Big Society in action, he should nip around the North Circular to Southgate. What he will find there is the closest thing to a utopian ideal perfectly realised you could ever behold, and it all happened with the most minimal help from the state.

You cannot leave Chicken Shed, or countless other volunteer-supported organisations across the country, without the overpowering desire, however tragically short-lived, to be better than you are. If that is the emotion Mr Cameron wants to excite in those of us who feel guilty about our abundant selfishness, and if he hopes to persuade us to do something about it, there are less noble ambitions than that. If it also happens to be politically expedient, and even an economic necessity, what brand of twisted fool would you need to be to give a damn about that?