Last Wednesday I spoke at a meeting of the Lent Group at St Andrew’s Church in Redruth. The subject for discussion was the Big Society, what it means and how we can encourage more of it. We had a lively debate.
I sometimes come across people who say there is nothing new about the Big Society. There are many voluntary groups that have practiced it for years and the Church is perhaps the longest and most enduring example of such community spirit and activism. I couldn’t agree more. The idea is not new. I see it all around this constituency from youth groups like Searchlight in Redruth to social enterprises such as CN4C and the Redruth North Partnership. Last December I attended the 10th anniversary of the refurbishment of the All Saint’s Centre in Camborne which has been a great success and now hosts a whole range of community activities from home help services for the elderly to day care and many other community groups.
But the Prime Minister has never pretended that the idea of the Big Society is something new. In fact what he is saying is quite the reverse: that our society needs to rediscover some of those older values to create a stronger society and the question for government is what policies would foster a renaissance in such community groups and to make them stronger.
During the last 50 years or so, people have increasingly withdrawn from their responsibilities to society and retreated into their shell. They are now less likely to support their local church, less likely to be involved in local politics and less likely to know all their neighbours than they once would have been. In the past, if there were teenagers misbehaving in the street, they would have been challenged. Adults feel less inclined to do so today. We have ended up treating children like adults and adults like children.
One of the reasons for this is that a culture developed where people started to think that sorting out society’s problems was someone else’s responsibility. If things went wrong, then it was someone else’s fault. As government increasingly seemed to come forward with new laws, individuals started to think they couldn’t make much difference on their own any more. The pressures of the mass media compounded the situation by demanding new crackdowns and initiatives from government in response to isolated events. This in turn created a mass of bureaucracy. The pervasive growth of “risk assessments”, CRB checks and the like has stifled the natural human desire to do a good turn and created a culture where people think they need permission to be active citizens.
They shouldn’t and to reverse the trend, we need to encourage responsibility, scrap pointless bureaucracy, be more grown up about risk. Most of all, people need to realise that they can make a difference.