Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The big society and Clement Attlee

The 'big society' is David Cameron's political passion, a vision for Britain in which a slimmed down state sits amidst contented citizens volunteering in their local communities. The Prime Minister hopes to see a Britain in which more and more individuals come together, perhaps to run youth centres which help disaffected youths or to raise funds for an inter-cultural festival. People will join together in harmonious ways and all shall be happy across the land, or at least that is the hope. Charity and volunteering undoubtedly have their place in today's Britain; both because they help others and they contribute to the strenghening of communal bonds. However, there is a point at which the time and money each person freely contributes to helping their community comes to an end, because people have only so much time and money they want to volunteer. Also, many people's charitable spirit is already eaten up by living their own arduous lives. In asking people to become energetic members of the big society, Cameron demonstrates a dim understanding of many modern families if he expects them to add this to scraping a living and raising a family.

The fact that the public only enlarge society to a certain extent exists with the fact that societal problems persist. Even though it is questionable how many will be recruited by a Conservative government urging the British public to volunteer more than they already are, there will be national ills exacerbated by a state that is withdrawing from the scene.

Clement Attlee’s life story provides an interesting example of how a big society in it's purest form,  ultimately fails, and how only the power of the state is enough to eliminate certain societal problems. Clement Attlee was Labour Prime Minister from 1945 – 51, and is considered one of the greatest prime ministers of all time. However long before he entered politics and the winding road that would end in him enacting some of the most radical legislation this country has ever seen, he was a volunteer at a youth centre called Haileybury House, in the East End of London. This club for working class youth was built in 1890 amidst the slums of Stepney, and was a small refuge of hope standing amongst the squalor and degradation of poverty. Attlee, a member of the wealthy and comfortable upper middle class, was shocked by the conditions the poor lived in. He recognised the club's importance and the benefits it provided in giving the boys activities outside of work (compulsory education ended at fourteen at this time). He became a volunteer there and then in charge of it.

However, Attlee recognised 'that places like Haileybury House barely scratched the surface of the problem. He realised... that only large-scale action by the state could have any serious effect' (Frances Beckett, Clem Attlee, Politicos). Attlee became a socialist. Nothing about his comfortable background would lead anyone to have looked at the young Attlee and foreseen a socialist, but what he had seen in the East End had changed him, and convinced him the working class' living standards were such that only state intervention could save them. These thoughts and beliefs would eventually develop into the groundbreaking enactments of his government: the NHS, educational and welfare reforms etc.

Now, it is a good question to ask how significant are Clement Attlee's views and life story on a much changed twenty-first century Britain? The slums were long ago cleared and the lives of working class Britons have been improved immeasurably since then, a great factor in that improvement being Mr Attlee. But I think what Attlee understood whilst volunteering all those years ago, and how it so influenced his political views, has a lot to tell us about David Cameron's 'big society'. The 'big society' is meant to take over where our allegedly bloated state is being cut back from. But the 'big' state is there for a reason. In terms of youth centres, community groups, healthcare and education, many of them in fact state run, government investment is enormously important. The state, whatever it's faults, is powerful enough to involve itself in solving many of the ills of society, and if the political will and determination is there, it can fund much that is socially valuable. One of the flaws of the 'big society' is that it believes the state and society are enemies, the great lumbering troll of a state disrupting the pleasant garden party of society. In fact for many the state is a welcome compliment to and part of society - take the library or any other state run institution. Libraries are government institutions and funded through taxation, but it would be nonsensical to argue they are somehow distinct to society.

We do not have the problems of Edwardian Britain, but we still have many problems, and it seems unlikely a state vanishing from the scene is going to help any of them. Of course 'big society' volunteer groups have a  role to play in fighting poverty and crime and social disunity, but as we have seen throughout history and even during the present day, charity is not enough. The big society in it's purest historical form was the time before universal education and universal healthcare. It was a time when you could fall into the muggy depths of utter poverty, and there would only be the occasional overhanging branch to drag yourself out. Today we have a safety net that protects all of us from those dangerous waters, but it is in danger of having holes cut into it, based on a misunderstanding of human nature and society.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Religion, humanism and community - Part 1

Note: When I talk about religion I am talking about a generalised traditional form of Christianity. The criticisms I make do not stand for all forms of Christianity or all religions. Also as people may point out not all religious groups are 'wilting' away. However, overall it is undeniable that in the UK it is.

Organised religion is wilting away and so far there is no unifying movement to replace it. For all religion's faults it is undeniable that it is a creator and reinforcer of communal bonds - local communities would go to church every Sunday to be as one, and during weekdays use it for religious and secular purposes such as study groups, workshops and children's activities. Many still describe themselves as having religious belief, but church attendance is at gapingly low levels. Since 1980 overall weekly church attendance has dropped by a staggering two million thirty five thousand and one hundred people and as of 2005 only 6.3% of the population regularly attend a church (read more here). Today, people are sooner to be found in a shopping centre than a church.

It is not only the steady evaporation of organised religion that has damaged communities but also deindustrialisation within working class areas and the movement of people around the country has broken up this close interdependence. These are too factors that are not going to be explored in this article but they are worth a mention. In impoverished areas it is difficult for community centres to be afforded and due to newfound uninterest in religion, churches may stand in town centres but simply as places of aesthetic beauty, largely unattended. In more privileged areas there is also often a lack of communal bonds. Perhaps golf clubs and so on bring people together, but these are undesirable as centres of community life because they are exclusive and divisive, and golf is enormously dull.

What is needed, is what religion used to do in many ways. Religion, especially Christianity, has been able to reach beyond class divides because a fundamental tenet is that all are equal in the eyes of God. Religion is able to bring people together to worship, make new friends and involve people in charity work. This union between people andthe helping of others is strongly correlated with not only happier individuals but also safer communities. This is where religion played an important part.

However for all its benefits, traditional organised religion was incomplete, because it had an exclusivity and divisiveness of its own. It excluded homosexuals, women and non-believers and it asked its members to believe in fantastical things and warned them that if they failed to do so there would be an afterlife of everlasting suffering. This has all led to its undoing.

Organised religion is leaving and there is a golden opportunity. A new form of community life can spring up and unite more people than religion dreamed of. This has already happened in pockets of the country, but more is needed. Personally I have been happiest as part of a community like my university, involving myself in events and projects which unite members of the university focus our times and energies to a common endeavour. Something which could unite more people around the country is a form of humanism. Humanism need not become a religion, but it provides a guide to a new way of uniting people. People can be bonded by their common humanity, their love of science and the arts, their regard for their community and our unending utterly human compassion for those who hurt.

Atheists and humanists have missed many opportunities so far. To many the image of a famous atheist is of sneering middle class men paid millions to travel the globe to tell people how stupid they are. AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins are very middle class and this privileged, apparent smugness, has not been helped by the creation of the ridiculously expensive private university, the New College of the Humanities. Imagine if, instead of building a college with courses costing £18 000 a year Grayling had announced he was forming a university only for the most underprivileged in society, with each scholarship paid for by wealthy humanist philanthropists. This would really emphasise the humanist commitment to education and human worth.

This is not to say that Grayling and Dawkins are elitist haters of the poor and unpriveleged; indeed both men have given money and time to charitable causes around the world. However, the image of the New Atheists is of one whereby the proponents seem more interested in making religion look silly, than putting humanistic ethics into principle. Wouldn't it be great if, within impoverished communities, where state funded centres have vanished, humanist organisations could step in? The application of humanist principles into practice is already underway as the Mustard Seed School in Uganda has proven (a secular school in Uganda funded by readers of the New Humanist magazine). But what I'm hoping for is a new ambition in the humanist worldview and a realisation that whilst the New Atheists way contribute to the steady demolition of organised religion, this leaves behind spiritual and emotional chasms which need to be filled.

Now here we meet a problem. How would this form of humanism work? Either there is a set of doctrines and beliefs which leads to humanism becoming identical to religion or there are no sets of doctrines or beliefs which removes the power to unite people around a creed. In a humanist worldview what kind of events should the community come together? Which charities should humanists give money too? These are questions which are harder to settle when there is no holy book or holy leader. I think between the two extremes there lies a place for humanism. The British Humanist Association describe humanism as:
'atheists and agnostics who make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfilment. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, individually and together.'
This is an excellent starting point. Through using 'reason, experience and shared human values' it does not seem beyond us, or confusing, to create a world in which 'the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfillment' are at the centre of them.