Giving their all

In a thoughtful speech this January, introducing 2005 as the Year
of the Volunteer, Gordon Brown made big claims for some small acts.
Apparently, millions of us volunteer our time and effort each year,
a generosity equally well reflected in the astonishing levels of
donations by the British to the tsunami appeal. Such “noble
impulses” claimed the chancellor, who movingly recalled the
solidarity that infused his Scottish childhood, showed that we are
not just self-interested individuals but “an intricate local
network of trust, recognition and obligation encompassing family,
friends, school, church, hundreds of local associations and
voluntary organisations”.

Talk like this sends shivers down our collective spine. It also
affects our political choices. The nation rejected what it saw as a
mean, market-oriented Toryism in 1997 because there were millions
of us who wanted to prove Margaret Thatcher wrong: there is such a
thing as society.

But 2005 is also expected to be the year of the election, the year
of the not-so-small act of voting. And, as this contest approaches,
with New Labour seeking a third term in office, something in
Brown’s inspirational reflections sits uneasily with the reality of
many government policies.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of this government, that it
can talk so movingly of the collective, while privatising so many
of our public services, that it can invoke the importance of a
generous citizenry while addressing us, equally frequently, as
discerning self-interested consumers.

Some see this tension expressed in the Blair-Brown hostilities that
have preoccupied the press for so long. But, to be fair to
government, it’s a contradiction that splits the very heart of
middle England. Why are so many of us ready to give generously to
those in need, yet protest vigorously at the idea of paying any
more tax? How come so many parents are sentimental about community
and diversity yet would not dream of sending their child to the
local school?

With the general election in mind, it’s as well to remember the
role of the state in a democracy. Good government, after all, is
the expression of our collective will. Through the democratic
process we can agree to a measure of redistribution of resources to
the benefit of all.

Does anyone remember Blair’s first speech as prime minister when he
stood at the heart of a ravaged housing estate in south London and
promised that his government would work for all? Eight years later,
by any reckoning, the New Labour legacy is a complicated one.

There is demonstrable evidence of improvement in the lives of the
less well off. Schemes such as Sure Start, the New Deal, tax
credits and extra funding for state education have pushed up
standards in many ways and many areas. But there is equally strong
evidence of a growing gap between rich and poor and the
exacerbation of subtle divisions of class and status.

Political vocabulary is pretty meaningless these days; many of
these divisions have been fostered by policies that claim to do the
exact opposite. In education, for instance, the constant emphasis
on parental choice has meant, in effect, the creation of what
educationalist Tim Brighhouse has called “a dizzlingly steep
pecking order” of schools, particularly in the heart of our cities.
With the rejection of the Tomlinson report, the academic-vocational
divide looks set to grow. The government’s determination to bring
private providers into education means that many schools are not
even run locally, their fate determined instead by a possibly
eccentric wealthy sponsor.

That is why the generous impulse that prompts the act of
volunteering is only a fragment of the picture. We also need
government to shape national institutions with the same generosity
and fairness, to create public services that genuinely represent
the common good. Good local hospitals, good local schools; paid
for, and even more importantly – at least for a healthy democracy –
used by all.

Of course, such institutions could and should benefit from
voluntary help. Our local primary school has been endlessly
enriched by the time and effort of parents. Some come for just an
hour a week to listen to a child read; others give up half days of
their time to work with refugees struggling to adapt to a new and
strange culture. Similarly, in secondary schools or local
hospitals, libraries or local surgeries, parks or playgrounds,
there is a place for citizens to give their time, their skills,
their patience and their creativity.

But for this voluntary work to hit the mark, for it to help cement
social cohesion rather than merely paper over the cracks, the
building blocks of fairness need to be in place. And that’s the job
of government, not the giving individual.

Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist

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