David Cameron hankers for a society in which everyone knows their place, writes Deborah Orr in the Guardian
George Bush Sr, while seeking re-election as US president in 1992, said: "We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." Over here, 20 years on, David Cameron has ambitions that seem even more absurd. He appears to want Britain to be a lot more Downton Abbey and a lot less Four Lions – the former being assumed as a sound prophylactic against the latter.
Last year, when Downton Abbey became a huge Sunday-evening hit for ITV, some argued that the popularity of the series, set on a country estate early in the 20th century, might be culturally significant, signalling a nostalgia for a time when Britain had a more settled class identity. The show certainly offers a rose-tinted picture of life under the wing of the English aristocracy, as conjured up by Downton's creator, Julian Fellowes. (He was made a Conservative peer in the last New Year's Honours List, for services to coalition cabinet fantasy.) But there are few signs of a hunger to doff the cap in real life.
The coalition's rhetoric, the insistence that "we are all in this together", building a "big society", is often dismissed as meaningless, or even sinister – a mendacious cover for an ideologically driven economic rout against the people of Britain, on behalf of the wealthy elites. My suspicion, however, is that these inchoate phrases really represent a perfectly genuine ache in the Tory soul for a vision of Britain – especially of England – in which the Women's Institute runs the fete on the village green, there is honey, still, for tea, and everyone is content because everyone knows their place. Cameron is not dangerous because he is cynical. He is dangerous because he is sentimental. Politicians often are, the idiots.
The trouble with the big society is not that it is a hollow excuse, dreamed up to shift responsibility for deficit-reducing cuts from the state to the people. It's that it is a genuine and heartfelt nostalgic dream. Hopes that the big society will quickly become a reality are supplying an unfounded optimism within government about the shape of things to come. They actually think it's all going to turn out OK. Of course they do. That's why they are in such a hurry to get some results before the next election.
The faith of the big society's cheerleaders is touching. The financial crisis has got everyone used to hearing once-fantastical numbers being bandied about quite casually. But the numbers being cited in defence of the big society are often tiny. Michael Gove's free schools, often portrayed as likely to bring the comprehensive system to the point of collapse within weeks, have got off to a slow start. "The Department has received 258 free school applications," the Department for Education website says. "Forty of these have now been approved to move to business case and plan stage, and of these, nine have been approved to move to the pre-opening stage." Nine, eh?
Likewise Phillip Blond, the self-styled Red Tory who runs the think-tank [lol – Ed] ResPublica, makes huge claims for the potential of the big society, but small ones when he's dealing in the actualité. ". . . the Mutuals Information Service, set up just over two months ago to help public sector bodies, is working," he asserted in yesterday's Independent. How did he know it was working? It had received "more than 200 inquiries".
Now, mutuals are a good thing, and government moves to support them should not be denigrated. But "more than 200 inquiries" is not a sign of overwhelming grassroots excitement. Perhaps if there were some tight-knit and homogenous social structures out there – lots of villages with stable populations, their hierarchies dominated by certain families by virtue of the fact that they owned everything – then there would be more clarity about where people power was going to spring from. But in reality, even the countryside is a good deal less homogenous than it used to be, while cities are teeming with multicultural diversity, whether one ever subscribed to the "ism" or not. Social capital is least likely to be found in the places where society is most diverse and least cohesive. The big society is likely to thrive most where it is needed least.
Yet the really awful thing is that even though Conservative ideas about past English identity are rose-tinted, worries that no modern English identity has coalesced to replace it are not entirely unfounded. The English currently seem very preoccupied by what they are not, in class terms, rather than what they are, or might be, in any terms. The comfortably off, even the clearly posh, are at pains to insist that they are not so very silver-spoony. Middle-class individuals, which must be quite a lot of people, are barely ever referred to without the suffix "wanker". That young people with private educations are currently heading "popular beat combos", is seen as some sort of birthright theft, although a lot of people seem just as disgruntled when public school types stick to their traditional career paths and run the country.
As for social mobility, sometimes I wonder if it is even wanted. People who have made something of themselves tend never to stop defensively reminding whoever will listen of their humble beginnings, as if an evil prince had bundled them away one night and forced them to undergo wicked success. The better life with more privileges that everyone is supposed to aspire to is viewed as corrosive to the character, and therefore, surely, undesirable after all. Perhaps Cameron is not the only one who subconsciously hankers for a society in which everyone knows their place.
Deborah Orr, the Guardian