Lucy Mangan

“We’re too busy to be full-time volunteers”

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I have been intrigued by the idea of David Cameron’s Big Society ever since his vision for this brave new world was first announced. It must be a good ’un, I thought. It must be the most precision-engineered, focus-grouped, exhaustively researched, market-tested bit of policymaking in history. How else, I thought, would a government mostly comprising and fully helmed by marketing gurus unleash on the nation an idea that could immediately be reduced to the initials ‘BS’?

In reality, of course, grasping Cameron’s vision has been like grasping at fog. But after much squinting, it turns out that the basic idea is – everybody volunteers! For everything! Not only will this suffuse the nation with a beautiful feeling of pride and wellbeing, mending that other popular form of BS, the broken society (I was never too sure about this either, on the grounds that all the kids I see hurling themselves out of school and onto buses are no viler or more heavily armed bundles of teenage idiocy than we used to be 20 years ago) but it would also stanch the bleeding. Cuts would be made but instantly soothed and dressed by people rushing to fill the staffless libraries, day centres, municipal pools and dinnerlady vacancies quicker than you could say “wound site.”

But then I kept looking round my (fairly wide) circle of friends, family and acquaintances and I still have no idea where these volunteers can possibly come from.

Professional people maybe? Surely it’s about time lawyers at least gave something back. But when? People with virtually any kind of City job are at the mercy of the corporate ethos and its hours. Most of the ones I know would happily help man an Oxfam shop for four hours a week if they could book the time off without such an insane request either leading them to be sectioned by the senior partner or mentally labelled “goddamn hippy” and crossed off the list for sponsored_longform.

Only in the smoothly regulated world of David Cameron and his friends can the idea of the big society make sense

My teacher/social worker/already otherwise saintly and conscientious public-sector-working friends are already decanting, as a matter of course, more of their personal resources than anyone should have to give to their jobs. Most of the time it’s like talking to ghosts. Thin, grey ghosts who are so tired after a shared bottle of wine that they try to go to sleep under the table at Café Rouge and leave me to finish my steak baguette alone.

Non-working friends are, for the most part, either bringing up small children or disabled. Either of these things does tend to place certain limitations on one’s day. Freelance friends and I, of course, should do more. I have some free time most weeks. The problem is I don’t know when. I work seven days a week, but not every hour of every one. But I would be an idiot to proffer myself as any kind of reliable helpmeet to anyone. My friends generously tolerate my need to be able to break dates at the last minute. Charitable institutions and vulnerable people would not and should not.

Plus, of course, I’m skilled and trained at nothing. Nearly forgot that tiny detail.

So, what can we deduce from this? That to be a decent volunteer you need to have spare time and energy, an infinitely redeployable skillset, money to allow you time off paid work to do it and a calm, sweet-smelling, smoothly regularised existence unencumbered by other duties. Hmm. Do you know what? That sounds like a life, in short, much like David Cameron and his friends have always led.

There is not one among the titled, trust-funded lot of them who has experienced ordinary financial problems, or a personal one that hasn’t been vastly ameliorated by the downy cushion of social and cultural privilege that surrounds them. Only in that world can the idea of the big society make sense.

Marie ‘Let them eat cake’ Antoinette used to play prettily at being a milkmaid on a model farm. I bet she never smelled the BS there either. I bet they shovelled it all to the edges of her little world where it formed as neat an actual and metaphorical boundary between her and the people who really did the work as you could hope to find.

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Image credits: Rex Features and Colin Bell