When David Cameron announced plans for a ‘Big Society’ in 2010, it was an attempt to get ordinary people to shoulder a bit of responsibility for a change. He didn’t put it quite that bluntly – he was trying to win an election – but that was the gist.
Roundly mocked at the time, as are all government initiatives that don’t involve free ice cream, it was quietly allowed to wither and die in the Rose Garden of Coalition.
A shame, I think. No doubt Cameron was mainly hoping to cut funding for public services so he could deliver tax cuts. But I think he was on to something.
It has long been a shibboleth of advancing age that other people, particularly the younger generations, fail to show initiative and expect everything to be handed to them on a plate. But just because we’re always going on about it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. Too many Britons now expect the authorities to protect them from threats that previous generations would have understood to be their affair and theirs alone. It is government’s responsibility to defend our borders. It should not be expected to defend our food cupboards from an onslaught of sugary snacks.
Taking responsibility can be positive
This inclination to shrug personal burdens onto the collective shoulders of the state – to see ‘society’ as the default provider of everything from litter clearance to supervised playgrounds – grows more powerful every day. Eavesdrop in any café and you will hear countless conversations in which some vague ‘they’ have failed to paint over some graffiti or clear the pavement of obstacles. It is not an appealing characteristic to cultivate.
I have perhaps, if anything, a little too much enthusiasm for direct action. I can’t see an old lady hovering near a pedestrian crossing without grasping her firmly by the elbow and leading her across, often to find she had no intention of crossing and has been mildly inconvenienced by the gesture.
Yet it can be very positive. Last summer, the trees outside my neighbours’ houses were sprouting so many low-level branches that they were hanging over their fences and becoming hazardous to get past, especially if – like 98% of pedestrian traffic – your head was bent to study your phone instead of looking ahead. Not wanting my patch of pavement to be host to a serious incident, I decided to lop a few of the branches off – with their permission, of course! I found I had a taste for it and started taking on one tree after another until, by the end of the day, a passage had been cut clear to the Tesco Metro at the top of the road. I felt something of the spirit of David Livingstone surging in my veins.
Why the envy frenzy
Don't assume someone else will do it
To assume that someone else is going to take control of things, though, is all too easy a trap for any of us to fall into. Recently, my ten-year-old son got addicted to something called Fortnite. The spelling should have been a red flag but I only encountered it aurally: in his conversation, which it dominated utterly. His bedtime and dinnertime chat were entirely governed by it. But I decided I would allow this obsession to work its way through his brain and out the other side. This laissez-faire approach, I told myself, was realistic, healthy, proportionate. Not at all lazy.
When I learned, however, that children were running up horrendous bills via the game’s in-app purchases, a quick scan of the bank statements revealed that little parcels of cash were indeed being nibbled off here and there from my wife’s and my joint account. Altogether, we were in for more than £200.
Disciplining our son was the easy part. He was, I sensed, almost relieved when we pulled the plug – I think he could sense the game’s coils around him. The bill itself was, of course, merely added to his running total, with which he will be presented on achieving maturity.
But it did make me reflect. I had avoided doing the hard work here – the responsibility for knowing what my son was up to. I had farmed it out to – what? The good intentions of the games industry, which knew perfectly well it was marketing something at children every bit as addictive as tobacco? Why had I not been protected from this?
I blamed all the other parents who had bought their kids Xboxes before we bought Edward his, and had thus created the peer pressure. Of course, any mothers and fathers who came to the party after us should really have understood the whole caveat emptor thing before entering their account number in the box.
What's the no-rest generation?
No one else is going to resolve your issues
The fact is, my children’s lack of exercise, my inability to walk past the biscuit tin, our failure as a species to consume more improving documentaries and fewer phone-vote-based entertainments on television… no one else is going to resolve these issues. Sooner or later, you realise it’s going to have to be you. By then, it is often too late.
One possible solution is to simplify things a bit. The less stuff there is in your life – on screen or off, or purely abstract, in the form of current events that you somehow think you need to have coherent opinions about – the more time you have to pay attention to the stuff that really matters. Such as your joint account, and your kids.
So, I have taken a few small steps to move towards a more community-minded ethic. Just over a year ago, I – and the kids – joined Park Run, a breathtakingly simple scheme to get people of all shapes and speeds off their sofas and onto a five kilometre track every Saturday morning.
I have also joined a book club – one that actually talks about books, though I realise that can come across as elitist – and that has had as noticeable an effect on my attention span as Park Run has on my girth.
To compensate for my son’s drastically reduced access to Fortnite, I try to spend at least half an hour a night playing an ancient and venerable game that has a folding board instead of a console and an adversary that you share a good deal of your DNA with, instead of an avatar and an array of freshly purchased virtual weapons to ‘toggle’. And the best bit is, when it comes to chess, I get to beat the little so-and-so. He can’t even castle. WIN!
This article appeared in the August 2018 edition of Saga Magazine.
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