Sunday, March 27, 2011


Distressing article in the Observer today (starting like that has made me feel quite old). There are quite a few things that are troubling in there: the threat to the very nature of academic research (its not like map reading, it's like map drawing – you don't know what you're going to find until you've found it) being of course the biggest, leaving aside the fact that if they want a definition in under four years, from someone who isn't knackered, penniless, and a little bit obsessed with formatting footnotes, it may not be the best route anyhow. But another troubling thing is the quote from the PM (from last month): "We do need a social recovery to mend the broken society and to me, that's what the big society is all about." Troubling because of the way it talks about society. Politicians often talk about it this way, and the advent of BigSoc has made this all the more prominent.

According to the quote, there's a Big Society, which (according to the rest of the article, is currently conceptual and in need of definition, but once defined) will provide a social recovery to mend the broken society, which is presumably actual, and different from the society that's involved in the Big Society, although they're both social enough for one to be able to facilitate the recovery of the other. Where is this broken society? Has it been put on the kitchen window ledge with the broken wine glasses which at some point Britain will get round to wrapping in newspaper and putting in the bin if you're really sure we can't recycle them? Did we break it ages ago and then whack it in the cupboard under the stairs and forget about it until now? Has one of the kids hidden it in their room because they're frightened we're going to throw it away and they think it looks a bit like a cat?

The thing is, whether it's broken or not, society is us. It's people. People, and the shit we do. It doesn't exist separately from us, in laboratory conditions, where it can be fine-tuned, or altered; it's not stuck on a hard-drive somewhere, and we just need a patch to recover it. Every single thing that every one of us does is what society is. And that includes – in fact, given the nature of our representative, non-referendum driven, parliamentary democracy, it gives a fair whack of priority to – politicians. You could argue that they are basically our nominated society monitors – we go off to our jobs, whatever they may (or, more and more, may not) be, and politicians keep things in order, re-organise them if necessary, order in new stuff as and when. A bit like librarians, but shoutier.

Based on government actions since it formed, a definition of the Big Society along the same analogy might be a new ITV1 documentary – When Librarians Go Bad – watch in horror as the Head of Reader Services makes a bonfire of about 85% of all the stock, arguing that several people he's had round for dinner own all these titles anyhow and might lend them to other people if they're asked nicely and can be bothered.

Because if you actually can break society (seems English might be owed an apology for that turn of phrase), I would imagine that a good way to go about it might be to chip away at the opportunities of the vast majority of people, whilst making sure a small minority (who happen to be just like you) retain them, simultaneously attempting to make this everyone else's fault but yours (I'm thinking especially of the council grants here), and doing all of this from a central power base in the name of minimising the state in order to encourage the growth of social responsibility. Tying a pretty bow on chaos doesn't make it a good idea. It doesn't even make it an idea.

Living in a democracy comes with the risk that, on a potentially pretty regular basis, you will have to live under a government with which you disagree. At these points, it would be comforting if you could at least believe that they weren't incompetent. That their plans were planned. That they could actually explain what their driving philosophy is. That they didn't make policy in the way toddlers make sentences from alphabetty spaghetti - hurling the whole lot at the wall, and praying that some of it sticks. And that they realised that they are a part of society, and their actions have consequences, not just for their careers, but for the society of which they are a part, and which their actions shape.