Saturday, 31 July 2010

Neither Big Society nor rural idiocy!

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx's paean of praise to the achievements of capitalism (no, really, in part it is), he says:
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.
In trying to get my head around David Cameron's Big Society idea (or is it just a soundbite?) I have this image of Olde England, Britain as it used to be, in short: village life.

Just that, villages, hundreds of them, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them, who knows. An even blanket of villages across the whole country, none of them very big, all having, with the odd minor variation, the same social structure: a church with its clergy, a manor house with its gentry, shops with their tradespeople, cottages with their rural labourers, and a few professionals living in desirable multistorey houses on the high street.

In this map of just a small part of Hertfordshire, even today, many village names survive, although some of the original settlements have grown a lot bigger, and some have shrunk, and most of them have got joined up somehow.

In village society, which British society was for hundreds, even thousands of years, you could hope that if you were old and infirm someone would come and dig you out if your cottage got snowed in in the winter. Yes, life was shit for most people, and everyone knew their place, but at least you had the obligations of a small society to fall back on.

Jump to the 18th and 19th centuries. Huge numbers had been driven or drawn to the burgeoning cities; the old social patterns, ties and obligations were gone; the working classes did their own thing away from the prying eyes of their betters, and built their own "big society" to help them get by.

Jump to the 21st century. We still have the welfare state, which the majority of people voted to establish and the majority still support today, even though the media and political classes are doing their best to make it seem unfashionable.

Unless Cameron has some Maoist plan to drive us all back to the villages (I think mine is in Kent), we will continue to need the welfare state. Elderly people in Barnet will continue to need to ring the local authorities when there is cold weather and they need their path clearing so that they can get to the shops. Neither Big Society nor rural idiocy but democratically accountable, high quality public services!

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