Monday 19 July 2010

A governments disassociation with reality

This isn't a political blog. I will be honest, my interest in politics is a fledgling thing, the vestiges of ignorance of which I sometimes passionately wish I could reclaim.

Frankly, the whole thing winds me up. But this wraps into social media and so please bear with me. We get there in the end. Via some irritation at the Big Society. You have been warned.

So. The Big Society speech happened this morning. I've read the speech. Sounds great - well reads great. Just the right amount of pregnant pauses (ellipses) and impassioned pleas for the coming together of a nation.

Well if we were all white and middle class, it would work. Don't look at me like that, it would. The dream of Mr Cameron's is one I have no doubt that a large amount of you share. I do too. I'm young(ish), idealistic, and full of passion, enthusiasm and belief that the world can be changed if someone just comes up with the right idea in the right place with the right people listening. I'm white, and much to my occasional embarrassment thoroughly middle class. If someone is having trouble, I offer to help. If I see someone doing something suspicious or blatantly wrong, I'll report it to the relevant people. I carry a little fireproof pouch to put my cigarette butts in when out walking or biking and I smile and greet everyone in my street. I read Exec Board meeting minutes for fun, Prime Ministers speeches for fun. I want to know, I want to be involved, I want to give time for free, hell despite my better judgement I've volunteered for the Olympics and will eventually be marshalling at a local mountain bike race series.

My neighbours are very different. But before we discuss that, so that you understand the direction this is coming from, let me tell you a story.

Someone ploughed into our lovely company car last year. It was a stolen car, we now know driven by some local Asian kids. The race is relevant, I think, bear with me on this. They ploughed into it at such speed and ferocity that the entire front engine of a VW Passatt was left hanging off, almost entirely detached from the main chassis of the car. It was a write off. I was a bit upset. My other half was pretty shocked too as was our guest who we'd been playing Rock Band with and as a result hadn't heard a thing, not the impact, and not the lovely locals who'd knocked on our door to tell us. So those lovely locals? They know my other halves mother lives 15 doors up, went and knocked on the door and told her and asked her if she could phone us. So she did.

They didn't have to bother, you know? Our street is half Asian, half white. Old traditional ingrained white Lancashire. The people doing the running around that day were Asian. The kids handed themselves in eventually, we suspect entirely down to community pressure from families who recognised the kids as they ran away. They didn't tell the police a thing, something I was monumentally irritated about at the time. Instead they went behind the scenes, called mothers of uncles of friends and got them to hand themselves in. I have an immense amount of respect for those kids for doing that and any animosity I held against them dissipated in the understanding that perhaps they'd paid their dues to their community in ways I didn't know of.

The Big Lunch still couldn't happen here.

No, it really couldn't. Here's the reason why I told you the story above first. The wives wont look me in the eye. They wont greet me, wont talk to me, wont acknowledge me, never mind pass the time of day with me. I had the strangest moment while smoking a cigarette the other day in our back yard where I saw our next door neighbours face for the first time in 4 years of living here and I don't know who was more startled, me or her.

Me, possibly. It just floored me. I have become so accustomed to the way things are here, so inured to the traditions and respectful of the flow of life that someone stepping outside of that just broke my head a bit.

This is why the Big Society wont work. For a Society to be Big, all must be involved. Until there is more understanding of the psychological make up of all those who share the ground of the British Isles, how on earth are we going to work together? We've got to start having the Big Conversation first! We must learn to co-exist side by side, respecting the flow of other lives is different to ours, their priorities the same, but that the systems to ensure those priorities upheld a mystery to us too. We must be transparent in our behaviour and motivations and open with our smiles and greetings relentlessly and without thanks in order to attempt to engage with someone - anyone - who does not have the same skin colour as us.

That works both ways.

Sometimes, I still feel alienated here. I clumsily and entirely accidentally offend, I trip over words, I don't know who to make eye contact with, I confuse people here because I ride bikes and come home covered in mud even more than perhaps I would in an entirely white street. Yet I notice that the kids a few doors up have scooters now and one of the older girls has a bike and we smile at each other, and is there a shared acknowledgement of wanting to explore, to be free, to fly? Who knows? Neither of us say a word, both of us trapped in our confusion of the social rules of the others worlds. She doesn't know if I want to speak to her and I don't know if I am allowed, whether I would be offending someone, at what age it is okay to continue to smile and encourage and past which point it becomes offensive and wrong to do so.

Our society is a minefield and the current discussion with France banning the veil does nothing to calm the seas. I don't want to live in a white middle class society, I want to live in a truly Big Society, one in which everyone has a voice. Until it is possible for that to happen, I think we're floating in the clouds.

So where does social media come in?

I don't know anything about you except the value of your words on blogs and on Twitter. The social complications are removed, I can't accidentally offend by reading or responding to the wrong thing. There are no minefields, just conversation. A Big Conversation. The web is a great leveller, removing, in some cases, your job title, your doctorate, your Honourable status and many other things besides. It means I'll talk to many people who I would probably feel a bit too intimidated to engage with off those platforms, though a tentative interaction on those platforms make things very much easier for me when a face to face meeting happens. By that point, I know the jump off points, no matter who you are and where you are from. I know the subjects to avoid, I know the subjects which make you glow with enthusiasm, I sometimes know your political direction and will never hold that against you.

What concerns me, increasingly, is the demographic of social media channels. I have a growing suspicion that they are not representative of the wider demographic certainly, of our local Boroughs. Whether that's an issue or not, something to be messed with and changed or not, I'm still quietly arguing with myself over. What I do know is that perhaps the responsibility is on us to find out where all our target audiences are communicating and discussing and to try and engage with people in their own virtual worlds. But I think perhaps someone wiser than me needs to chase that one down, because I honestly don't know where to start. And that's something I am hugely embarrassed about too.


  1. Amazing and v brave

  2. I would agree with everything you say.... but think it may be worse!

    Big Society is really made up of many Small Societies, each with their own dynamics, history and relations.

    Yes, we need to look at community cohesion first and empower communities to think they can effect change at a local level. You have identified 'race', but it's not just a skin colour thing, I could pick out 'rich suburb, buffering on poor suburb' or 'scab who worked through the miners strike against dogged striker and flying picket'. These divisions run deep.

    Then add the social media layer on which just adds to the confusion as you now have those saying 'rather spend money on beer than broadband' or 'was kicked out of school so why would i go to a library to get online'.

    With my Civil Society / Third Sector (whateva it is this week!) hat on I see local support organisations facing massive cuts in funding, staff under pressure from lack of capacity who so see Big Society (even when delivered using social media) as a challenge they really could just do without.

    It really has to be delivering proven benefits at local and street level to get their attention and engagement.

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  4. I don't think it's brave to speak the truth, but it is only my truth, other peoples may be different. I hope the post made it clear that there is a sense of community in our street, very much so, but it's a different kind of community to the one Cameron envisions, but does that mean it's valueless? I don't think so.
    I also should point out that at work things are very different. Very very different, but this post was not about work, it was about society, and specifically my bit of it, where I live.

  5. Very brave post.

    This is one of the reasons why we set up the Big Society in the North Forum (

    The Big Society messages so far have been white, Middle Class (upper class even), and SOUTHERN.

    We in the North all know how acutely our communities are suffering, and are going to suffer further, from public spending cuts. We risk have no hope at all in these communities if those who feel excluded from the message reject it.

  6. Hmmmm

    I think you are wrong to focus on race, I don't think that's the issue. Asian (by which I assume you mean India/Pakistan/Bengal and not the Orient) is a very broad-brush, covering at least 3 major religious groupings. Some of them have "ghettoized" themselves, but then so have some groups of white English.

    Some people actively don't want to be part of society, they don't want interference from anyone, from their neighbours all the way upto the government. Some people can't get their minds around the idea.

    Perhaps the big society is couched in terms of a white middle class demographic, but I think that those people are possibly the ones who need it most, they're the ones without communities in a lot of ways, despite having all the trappings of involvement. They're the NIMBYs and that attitude needs to change.

    Maybe its just different experiences ?

    And social media ? The demographic is overwhelmingly young, and generally at the better off end of the wealth spectrum. Something that should be borne in mind before launching what may turn into a very damp squib.

  7. I use the term Asian because in order to establish where someone is from, a dialogue is required, something which I am managing quite effectively not to spark, despite my best efforts. In fact, it would require eye contact, something generally accepted as being requisite for starting a conversation with someone you have no other reason to approach, no jumping off point to start from.

    I don't accept that ghettos are right or necessary. I am not asking for people to be best friends, I am asking for Mr Cameron to either take further steps than he has to actually make a big society possible or acknowledge it isn't possible and stop using such grandiose terms and couch things in more realistic terminology.
    Finally, define young. Twitter users are not, IME, young. They are 30-40 yr old professionals learning from each other, sharing ideas, inspiring each other and generally getting out there and doing something instead of sitting here nattering about it. One day I hope to follow, when I've worked out quite what skill set I can bring to the big party.
    Maybe we should have a big party. We seem to be dead good at that, as a country.
    As I said in the comment above, this is my experience. My experience in London was very different, I was a Diversity Officer in the London Probation Service and I felt entirely comfortable being so, I knew the people I was supposed to be representing well enough to do so. Here I am at sea, I don't know how to not be at sea, in some ways this post is a plea for someone to come and help me not be at sea, to help me understand what I appear to be too stupid to comprehend alone.