Springfield Park overlooks the River Lee and Walthamstow Marshes in East London and is becoming increasingly popular as the people of Hackney seek a refuge from the overcrowded fashion show that Clissold Park in nearby Stoke Newington has become. My wife and I took my parents to the Springfield Park Cafe yesterday on our way home from Sutton House in Homerton. As Dad and I queued up for the men's toilet, the resident Park Ranger lamented to us the difficulty he and his colleagues are having in keeping Hackney's parks litter free and well stocked with loo paper. With a wry smile he complained, 'I was here at 8am this morning waiting for Cameron's Big Society to turn up and help me clear up yesterday's litter. They didn't come; its 3pm now, I don't think they are coming are they?' I was quite moved to want to help this guy, but the thing is I really, really don't want to be one of 'Cameron's'Big Society'. He is not a leader I am drawn to follow, I'd hate to wear the 'I'm Cameron's Big Society' t-shirt. I don't want to vindicate him, he's a hypocrite. If Caroline Lucas MP asked me to grab my litter picker and pooper scooper, I'd be there, she's not a hypocrite. It's not that I don't want to help others, I continue to volunteer on projects I've been involved in for several years, but to take on any new volunteering, especially something as conspicuous as litter picking, stinks of Cameronism. I won't volunteer to help Cameron's re-election campaign.
The selflessness that should be at the core of the Big Society is a value I certainly hold, but it is not a value I easily associate with Mr Cameron and Conservative party members. There is a carefully veiled hypocrisy here and it surfaces in the Government's 'Giving' Green paper. The paper condescendingly explains to the NGO sector that to encourage selflessness you need to highlight the self-enhancing benefits of donating time and money. OK, this approach can mobilise people in the short term, but it's oxymoronic and doesn't address the root of the problem. Boiled down the message is this: Be selfless for the sake of yourself; it will reflect well on you in your social circles, it will make you feel good and make your life better and safer. 'Selfish people have been dropping litter in your park, be selfless for selfish reasons and pick it up won't you?' This, according to the the Green Giving paper, is what NGOs should be communicating to the public to create the Big Society.
Such advice is grounded in our current culture and is therefore an insufficient challenge to it. We live in hyper-individualist times where self interest is championed by the business and political elite almost everywhere we look. From adverts selling us status symbols to the recent revelation that David Miliband MP has set up a company to change and lower his personal tax burden (Labour are certainly not immune here). From this base, it is very difficult to encourage generosity, kindness, community spirit and genuine altruism. When the Big Society fails, as it surely will, Cameron and colleagues dare not accuse the public of selfishness; they reinforce it in them on a daily basis.
To lead a selflessness revolution, Mr Cameron, as the 'Prime' version, should look up the definition of the word 'minister' ('to attend to the wants and needs of others') and so should his parliamentary colleagues. They should all be exemplars of this ministering. Currently they only seem to be attending to the wants and needs of a few at the expense of the all the 'others' they have been elected to attend to. This should surely be the other way around (I do recognize the need for trade-off and compromise in Politics!) Until selflessness becomes observable in the deeds as well as words of our political leaders, they will remain difficult leaders to follow.