Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Spending Review and the Big Society

So we've had the Spending Review and the big speech by George Osborne in the House of Commons (very nicely delivered, I thought, in the face of not much in the way of heckling from the Opposition, who were clearly out of their depth). Everyone had the jitters beforehand, it seemed, and now the Press, various pressure groups and other organisations seem to be keen to tell us that the brunt will fall upon 'the Poor', which makes it all (as they point out stridently) a travesty of fairness and social cohesiveness.

This all sounds dreadful, and if it were really true in the literal sense, would indeed be dreadful. I don't think anyone (including the Coalition) wants us to go back to some Victorian scenario where orphaned children are imprisoned in the workhouse or sent up chimneys, or worked into an early grave by cruel masters, simply because their parents left them penniless and there is no safety net in place. No one wants, either, to see hordes of homeless people living in cardboard boxes in the arches of London, as was seen all too often thirty or forty years ago, nor do we want to have miserable families without enough to feed and clothe their children properly. But on the other hand most of us realise that the welfare state has not produced the Utopia that its founders longed for and expected. The NHS does a reasonably good job, and so does the education system (could do better, both of them, but a long way from failing). But the payment of benefits is a shambles, and an expensive shambles at that, one we as a country can no longer afford. It isn't surprising that when everyone is finding their incomes having to stretch to meet higher costs and prices, those who are working and paying taxes are not happy to see those taxes being used to support in idelness people who could be economically active - many of whom would in fact prefer to work but are better off on benefits. This is a central plank of the Spending Review, that work should be rewarded, and it is an important one in terms of justice and the encouragement of a work ethic, as well as in the realm of debt reduction. If it is, as I suspect, mainly the welfare benefits cuts that lead some groups to think that the poor will be poorer as a result of the Spending Review, then we need to consider what the alternatives might be. Whilst the economy is still teetering on the brink of recession, the Coalition have declared their support for the wealth-creating potential of business, and small businesses among them. Not everyone in receipt of benefit is an adequate whose employment potential is small. Some are keen to break out of dependence, and a small business start-up would be a great way to do that. There is lots of part-time work around for which income support is still available as a back-up, and the freelance and informal economies are booming. Having earned my own living (including three years as main breadwinner for our family in the early 2000s) as a freelance, I know that whilst it looks insecure, it doesn't have to be, if you work hard and are good at your job.

So it seems to me that the government are trying to create the conditions where national debts can be paid off and the 'real' income-generating private sector can flourish. I've no doubt they haven't got everything right, and there are obviously compromises between fairness, affordability and political reality that George Osborne has had to make - but is it fair or sensible to expect everything to be perfect in a government policy? Imperfections in the Spending Review shouldn't give us an excuse to sit on the sidelines and snipe, as it seems to me that both the Opposition and some charitable bodies are keen to do - an attitude which is at present earning them my contempt. We all need to take responsibility for our own lives and communities including our fellow-citizens. Check your neighbours are okay; get to know them so that you can help when they need you, and see the favour returned, possibly in some quite surprising way. Get involved in your community, even if it's just by shopping locally and going to local events. (I cheered when I heard George Osborne say that the network of local post offices would be supported.) These are the things that David Cameron means by the Big Society - at least, I think that's what he means. It's a difficult idea to get over, which is why I can't be sure. But it's really quite a simple idea in the terms I've used for it, and the social concept has economic corollaries. To take a small personal example: babysitting for us is helping a young woman of my acquaintance to save up for her driving test, an absolute necessity in a rural area like this if she is to access the employment market. In the process she has become a friend, with her own individual contribution to our relationship, and my daughter loves her. The contact didn't come from an impersonal employment agency, but via our involvement in the local church.

The Big Society is in our hands now, not the State's. That is the point of it. This is the way we can pay off our national debts without causing greater hardship to the poor. This is how we can be 'all in this together', as the rather irritating Coalition catchphrase has it. In other words, George and Dave and Nick are doing their bit. If the country now falls apart as a result of social unrest, or there is deep suffering among the poorer sections of society it isn't the Coalition's fault, it's ours. We have to look after each other, and in doing so we will become stronger, as well as quite possibly happier and more self-reliant both individually and comunally.

It's up to us now.