I think my hearing might be going. That or I don’t listen properly (a constant complaint from my hubby). Either option is preferable to what I fear may be the case: that we are living in a country where the government has taken leave of its senses and we are all on the fast track to hell in a car driven by Freddy Krueger.
I was listening to Francis Maude of the Cabinet Office, AKA the Ringmaster of the Big Top, being interviewed. Oops, obviously that should be ‘Big Society’ not ‘Big Top’. In my defence, this confusion is easily made. Whenever the idea is mentioned, I get an image in my head of that scary League of Gentleman Ringmaster, Papa Lazarou, presiding over a circus where the lions are out of control and have started eating the audience. One of my friends captures my fears perfectly: the Big Society should, she said, be called ‘Amateurville’. (She wishes, by the way, not to claim credit for that brilliant and perceptive term, as she works for the Beeb and does not wish to bring Aunty into disrepute. I think the existence of BBC3 does that on a regular basis, but there you go.)
Anyway, back to Maude and my declining hearing.
In response to the interviewer’s question about the philosophy underpinning the Big Society, Maude commented that the problem with questions of this kind was that they betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Big Society worked. The Big Society, he continued rather wearily, was much more fluid than such conformist notions allowed for. At this point my ears pricked up, in time to hear – or at least think I heard – the really scary part. (Those of a nervous disposition, head for the nearest duvet now, and don't forget your teddybear.) Sighing, Maude continued, in a tone that suggested he was talking to a particularly dim child, that it was quite possible that as volunteers got together to shape this brave new world out of their own time and the goodness of their hearts, some things currently taken for granted might “fall through the gaps”.
"Fall through the gaps." I must have misheard him. I think many bad things about this coalition of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but surely they can’t seriously be intending to replace the vision of a state which cares for its citizens from cradle to grave with something so haphazard and ill-thought out? When Maude talks of the gaps that might open up in the provision of services, what exactly does he mean? Will libraries fall through those gaps? Mental health provision? Care of the elderly? Just how big are these gaps going to be?
The welfare state came out of the realisation that charity and volunteering could never adequately respond to the needs of the people. The nation became convinced that you needed a strong state that addressed the suffering that resulted from a society where some people were allowed to fall through those self-same gaps that Maude now seems so calmly to accept.
Much criticism has been made of the Nanny State, from councils refusing to let to children play conkers, to the over-bureaucratic regulation of volunteers working with children. But we should remember that this heavy-handed state also ensures employers can’t fire at whim one of their workers, and supports people when they are disabled or too sick to work.
As I listened to Maude I became increasingly nostalgic for Nanny and increasingly fearful of what the Big Society will mean in practice.
When Saint Augustine sought to define evil, he said it should not be understood as an entity in its own right but as 'the absence of good'. Maude might speak blithely of the gaps in state provision. He can afford to. My fears are for those who can’t, because what is absent can hurt you just as easily as that which is there.