Saturday, 19 November 2016
We must restore the voluntary ethos to rebuild Britain
For the better part of a decade Facebook has been my lifeline. I moved to Bristol to take up a role at Airbus, not knowing a soul in the South West. To this day I have exchanged more words with the staff of the local Tesco express than anybody in the immediate locality. I have made some very good friends but as a political animal I have learned the best way to keep very good friends is to avoid contacting them.
In fact, as a political animal most of my interests and passions are quite niche and I don't relate to much mainstream culture. I cannot abide reality TV, I don't like pop music, I can't really relate to TV dramas and I reject the BBC in principle. Facebook has allowed me to tailor a niche bubble for myself where I have intimate relationships with people I have never met and will likely never meet.
And though Facebook has served as a proxy social life where I would at one time enjoy nothing more than an evening of Facebook and fine malts, I came to realise that technology has allowed me to indulge my natural aversion to talking to people. We call it social media but in fact it is deeply antisocial. Even a deeply personal and introspective post on Facebook is not really communication.
It seems the curse of our age is to live increasingly insular lives supplemented by technology bizarrely in a world where populations are growing. Not coincidentally the biggest killer of men my age after heart attacks is suicide. We have moved beyond large workplaces, shared cultural experiences, shared religious affiliation, and tight community and now there is only the self - and the increasingly isolated family unit. We have made men redundant in every sense.
It is now even acknowledged by Age Concern UK that loneliness in our elderly is increasingly a problem - but I would venture that it is seen as more acute because it's more visible. I'm willing to bet it affects every strata of society and every age group. This is why in my previous article I draw specific attention to the smoking ban. As much as it wiped out the pubs that used to serve as community centres it also ruined nightclubs where dancefloors emptied as people congregated outside to smoke. I don't think the rave scene ever recovered and the commercial value of property has seen a gradual death of all the best venues.
In a lot of ways I think this goes some way to explaining the deep division in the country where just about every post-industrial region of the UK voted to leave the EU when London didn't. There was a time when communities in and around Newcastle would live their whole lives in the same square mile. The houses behind the shipyards belonged to the ship builder along with the churches. Liverpool, Bradford, Sheffield and all the towns in between could lay claim to poverty and hardship, but never loneliness or lack of community.
But that has changed now. The mines are gone, the shipyards are gone and the mills are gone. There is no going back. There is no longer a need for large semi-skilled workforces - and as much as people want the jobs back, they also miss the sense of community. For this we see the finger pointed at the EU and globalisation (which to an extent was true) but even if we hadn't let go of key industries we would have seen mechanisation and automation having the same effect.
What we have is not a crisis of inequality as the Guardian would have it but a crisis of social inclusion. And that in some way explains the resistance against immigration. Up and down the country we see immigrants forming communities of their own in what were once white working class communities and those of the white working class are excluded from it not least because of the language barrier. The sentiment that "the immigrants are taking over" is to some extent absolutely true on the more local level. As much as the working classes are increasingly excluded economically, they are also culturally excluded.
If you were born before the millennials you grew up with the fairly pedestrian expectation that even if you flunked out you would probably own your own home and probably have a half decent job and you would somehow make ends meet having a degree of job security. That has now been demolished.
There was a time when you would look at the houses on the council estates and pray that you never ended up in one. Thirty years later, thanks to right to buy, what were once ghastly pebble-dashed huts and identikit red brick terraces are now homes in their own right with each having their own distinctive character. The relative affluence of the last few years has certainly improved the lot of the working classes in a material sense.
Now though, if you go to the local authority for housing you can expect to be given what is available and you won't be expected to like it and if you missed the boat of the mortgage bubble then you are pretty much excluded from the housing market permanently. The banks are risk averse and the credit rating system is broken. Being poor is now an expensive experience.
The result of this is a society where young people are floating around merely satiating their own short term desires in the knowledge that they have no real stake in society and are consequently restless, reckless and rootless. It is why modern culture is so lamentably shallow.
There have been various interim measures to address this problem such as help-to-buy but one of the big problems in the UK is financial illiteracy so the people who have benefited from such schemes are the money savvy middle classes rather than the working class. There is still the impression that these schemes are there to help anyone but you. There are reserve support mechanisms but they are limited in order to avoid the race to the bottom that existed under New Labour.
Over the last two decades what was once regarded as a birthright has become the preserve of the already well to do in a culture that rewards conformity and punishes any deviation. Worse still is the influence of big government.
During the Blair era we saw a drift toward the corporatisation of government and we saw the quangofication of social enterprises and charities. If I wind the clock back to about 1998, I remember working as a database developer in a disability charity. In a short time I saw it close its high street charity shop (formerly a major source of funding). I saw it close its doors to community activity to become primarily a fundraising and grant chasing organisation.
Any actual community work directly for disabled people went on the back burner. And by taking over some of the statistics gathering functions of social services it become a quasi-corporate enterprise with full time staff, most of whom performed administrative functions. I have watched the same happen to dozens of charities ever since.
And then there's things like childcare. It used to happen on a community basis. Playgroups and cubs groups were commonplace. But then everybody suddenly become a criminal or suspected paedophile and everybody had to go on a database at their own expense. We saw the professionalisation of childminding which then meant registration, certification and real world adult wages. Soon after childcare become an industry and it ruled young mums out of taking part time work. If you work, you need expensive childcare. The response to this was another bureaucratic voucher system consuming vastly more money.
This gradual appropriation and regulation of just about every facet of life has destroyed the voluntary ethos and in so doing has destroyed communities and made people entirely dependent on mechanisms of the state. Our welfare policy is an extension of this. The nationalisation of poor people. The product of which is illustrated above. Little Britain is very much Blair's creation.
There are visible cosmetic consequences to this too. The park where I grew up now has expensive reinforced fences around the disused tennis courts, the park furniture is dilapidated, the pond is now a green swamp, and the local primary school has a fourteen foot high fence around it with razor wire round the gutters. They all have multimillion pound service contracts which employ thousands of people - but the jobs don't get done.
Just recently I took a drive out with dad to our favourite walking spot. We have been going there since I was very young. Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber. The land is owned by an EU funded quango. It has executives on handsome salaries but as yet there is no funding to repair the road washed away by a tidal surge. Incidentally, it's the road that connects the one full time RNLI station to the mainland.
If policy makers want to mend the divides in the country then we need to restore our sense of purpose and sense of community. In this Cameron was on to something with his "big society" but it was an idea that never fully took form and was labelled by the malevolent left as "tory austerity". The short of it is that government does too much and does more than it should. It replaces the community with the state.
What we need is a new programme of housing with community facilities but they must be decent sized homes with protections against landlords breaking up decent sized homes and turning them into cash cow flats. And in the planning of these homes we need green spaces and community facilities. The last decade saw a gradual removal of sports facilities and playing fields and North Bristol where I live has virtually no green spaces at all.
But if we are to build new communities they must be stable and that means we can't have massive and sudden influxes of people and if we want to rebuild communities then we must restore all those things that bring about a shared sense of identity. One of the most depressing acts of the Labour era was to abolish school uniforms where instead a slovenly sweatshirt become the only requirement which basically allowed lazy parents to slack off. A school uniform was integral to a community and an important part of identity. This offended Labours shallow egalitarianism thus was removed.
In just about every aspect of life Labour stuck its nose in, replacing voluntarism with officialdom and nannying, virtually eradicating social enterprise and individual initiative and reduced the working classes to supplicants. This wasn't so much with the intent of improving the chances of the working classes, rather it was a chance for Labours nannying fussbuckets to insert themselves in the lives of ordinary people and dictate their choices.
From this grew a comfortable and cosseted middle class of public servants all of whom had pension options most can only dream of - none of whom would ever consider voting Conservative on the basis that turkeys do not vote for Christmas. At peak a third of the workforce was in some way working for the state.
During the Labour era we saw a massive transfer of power from local authorities to London and the EU where powers to run our own affairs were removed and local government became central administration. Councils are not local government. They are regional development agencies where councillors have next to no power and overpaid council executives have more power than the council combined.
It seems to me that we have not seen any meaningful austerity. For sure councils have closed down all the public services that are inconvenient to their efficiency statistics but the roughly the same mouth of money is still swilling around being syphoned off. That's what happens when you centralise power over procurement from districts and place it in the hands of mega authorities.
What we need to do is take a wrecking ball to "local" councils. We need to break them up and give them real powers including the right to tell Whitehall where to go if so instructed by local people. People are not the plaything of government social policy and our communities are not petri-dishes for bureaucrats. All they need is a decent home and they can take care of the rest.
By creating social entitlements Labour created a scenario where people became ever more dependent on the state rather than organising for themselves. That lead to this state where councils gradually stop doing those things they are supposed to do like gritting the roads and emptying bins and instead providing services people could either buy with their own money or organise voluntarily.
The very essence of community is voluntarism and that is how people include themselves. Any time we get a recognition from the left that this is so their immediate response is to create a central authority to register volunteers and assign them tasks. It is engrained in the left wing mindset that everything has to be stamped, sanctioned, numbered and approved by our superiors before anything can go ahead and the natural result of that is that nothing gets done at all. This is why we should oppose authoritarians like Bridget Phillipson who want to reinforce New Labour centralism and tell people how to live.
Now that we are leaving the EU and the structure and nature of government is up for question we need to start asking how we can make real and lasting reforms to ensure that never again can the sociopathic left take the power away from people. We are not hapless serfs in need of the care of the well to do fussbuckets. We are real people with pretty simple needs. The only thing standing in the way is government which continues to impoverish us and take away those things that make us human.