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Friday
Mar042011

Big Society

I’m going to tell you something. You are not going to like it, but never mind. Deep down somewhere, in your homogenised life, you will find that there are things you don’t want to talk about. I don’t care what you say, you are not always the upstanding citizen that you pretend you are. You have secrets.

They may not be serious, but in today’s climate, you may well want to keep them under wraps. It could be the quarter bottle of vodka that you drink between 9 and 11 pm every night. It could be the amount of food that you consume, snack by snack. It could be the internet viewing that you hope that no-one knows about. It could even be the secret ciggie that you smoke every evening, when you take the dog for a walk. I don’t care what it is, and nor should anyone else as long as it doesn’t impact them directly, but I can guarantee, there are aspects of your life that you would far rather that no-one had an opportunity to shine a bright light upon. ‘Hello, big boy’ whoops, sorry, how did I know about that? Did it startle you a bit? It’s a human condition to have secrets, and I am sorry, but if you don’t have any, you are just too goody-goody to be real. So, once this is accepted, how are we all to be incorporated into a Big Society?

I will move on to Mr Cameron’s version of a Big Society. In principal, it is a brilliant idea. Would it not be marvellous, if we could all get on together, tolerant, and forgiving, and adopting a general attitude of community collectiveness? A bit like, forgive me, communism, which also, in principle, is a marvellous idea. But, of course, and like communism, the Big Society doesn’t do tolerance. It doesn’t accept our secrets. It is designed to cater only for the warm, cuddly, public aspects of our lives.  

Outrageous?  Maybe.  But I will give a couple of recent examples. Much righteous indignation has been invested in the prospect of allowing those in prison the right to vote. ‘No, no’. cries Mr Cameron, ‘I don’t want to allow those that have been suspended from my Big Society the right to vote’. Well, frankly, I don’t care for this attitude at all.  For a start, I thought that our squeaky clean democracy was based upon a principal known as universal suffrage. Then, what is the difference between someone that is in jail, and someone that, clearly, deserves to be. Then , taking it one stage further, what other groups would you exclude from the vote? The unemployed, perhaps? Those without formal educational qualifications? Left-handed people? Once you start this exclusion of minorities business, you have inserted the thin edge of the wedge, and it won’t be too long before someone else comes along and widens the gap. But, of course, according to Mr Cameron’s  Big Society, those in prison are way beyond the pale, and can be mistreated with impunity. Christians and lions come to mind.

Then there is a further group that are, if possible, even further beyond the pale. I refer to those that have been required to sign the sex offenders register.  These individuals are collectively described by the tabloid press as, paedophiles, and rapists. Well OK, some of them are, and even I cannot drum up a lot of sympathy for them. But a surprisingly large number of them are not. Did you know that it is possible to end up on the sex offenders register without ever troubling the courts? And it could happen to someone very close to you.

Imagine you have a 16 year old son, who has a steady relationship with his 15 year old girlfriend. After a period, they indulge in consensual sex. In reality, and without moralising, this is a relatively common scenario. Then, she becomes pregnant. Her outraged parents report your son to the police. He is, in fact, guilty of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 16. It is extremely unlikely that the police will prosecute in these circumstances, deeming the prosecution ‘not to be in the public interest’. Your son is offered a police caution in respect of the matter, which you, and he, gratefully accept.

But he is also placed on the sex offenders register, nominally for two years, but reduced to one year because he is under 18. You now have, according to the tabloid press, a paedophile and rapist living under your roof. His headmaster will be informed, as will be your doctor. Oh, and local youth club leaders, and sports club managers. And if you rent your house, it is very likely that your landlord will also be informed. Sure, he will come off the register after 12 months, but the fact of his registration will remain on his record until he achieves the age of 99. Best he doesn’t think of undertaking a career in any profession that requires a CRB check. His (expired) registration will be revealed every time the check is made. He is definitely not going to be a teacher! Or a scout leader. Or do anything meaningful within his local community. Ever.

Then, imagine your husband going out early one night, bound for a stag do with the lads. Merriment, silly behaviour, and far too much drink. All very good natured and harmless, although you were probably not thinking that, when you got the phone call at 2.00 am in the morning.  Somewhat the worse for wear, he had got caught short when staggering home. He had popped into an alleyway to relieve himself. Unknown to him, in his condition, he had already attracted the attention of a couple of patrolling policewomen, and they were following him.  The powerful torches, shone up the alleyway, had captured him in mid-stream. Now, 25 years ago, he would have got a very stern lecture. 10 years ago, he would, most likely, be charged with a public order offence. In 2011, it all gets very nasty, and he has been arrested and charged with indecent exposure. If he is lucky, it will just be a caution again, and just the two years of being on the sex offenders register. And on his record until he is 99. And the great and good of local society will be informed, albeit on a confidential basis. You will never really be quite sure exactly who knows.

Disproportionate? Well I think so, in both cases. In fact worse, grossly unfair, and abuse of power. And this is where Mr Cameron is going to run into trouble. Because he can’t just have a Big Society when, and where, it suits him. He will never have a Big Society until he can lead, and govern, by the same principles that he expects us to adopt. Twice, recently, he has stamped his petty little foot in the House of Commons, fulminating at court decisions, both of which resounded with principle. Prisoners are not suspended members of the human race, and if he believes in the democratic process he should believe in one (wo)man, one vote.  It is not a huge issue to give prisoners the vote, and a principled man would accept that, and get on with it.

Worse, as a legislator, he should understand that The Sexual Offences Act, 2003 is a thoroughly bad, hysterical, piece of law, abused by the police, with the active connivance of government. It is unprincipled to point vigorously at the paedophiles, and rapists, and ignore the far smaller fish that get sucked into its gigantic seine net. And are thus subject to its draconian provisions. This law truly needs a very bright light to be shone upon it, and the courts know that. And so should you, Mr Cameron. You are reacting with the hypocrisy of a secret alcoholic encountering the town drunk.

I was once taught that the art of people management could be summed up as ‘Maximise strengths, and minimise weaknesses’.  To do this successfully, you have to recognise both. Not just utilise the strengths, and ignore the weaknesses. That becomes dangerously close to exploitation. It might be testing for our self-esteem,  but the honest among us recognise that we have weaknesses. And that makes us tolerant of weakness in others. Once we can manage that, we may have the basis for a genuine Big Society, and not a sound bite ersatz, one.