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Archive for August, 2010

Let’s Swap the ‘Big Society’ for a Big Laugh

I read a fantastic article in last Saturdays Times by Tanya Gold. It concerned the BIG Society that Mr Cameron is imagining, but seems that no one else can. The article was written with wit and gusto, and had me chuckling in to my cup of tea while choking on cigarette smoke. But it got me thinking.

It was the writers last few comments that began it. She talked about how the ‘Big Society’ could only be a concept that could be dreamt up by someone that had never wanted for anything before, and has no real idea about certain demographics in our society. I have been thinking about this problem for a while, and it is one of the reasons I try and avoid dabbling in politics – it’s just so frustrating!

Why? Because it has been my humble opinion for years that the gap between politicians and people is too insurmountable for us to bridge without desperate measures. The ‘Big Society’ of Cameron’s dreams is so opaque a concept that it is less a policy and more of a vague idea. It is hard to imagine a world where everyone’s nice to each other, bravely soldier the burdens simply in virtue of the fact that they’re there, when you come from a reality where some, or a few, or many, or everyone, aren’t pleasant to one another.

This was actually pointed out over 2000 years ago by Plato in Republic. At the conclusion of one discussion he informs his interlocutors that those who rule must receive no benefit for ruling. For those who rule must not rule because they want to rule, but because it is best for society. Hence we had the scandal over MP’s expenses claims, we should have seen it coming. Because it is so easy to let them get on with running the country, which I assume must be very boring, than to get more actively involved, so we let them get a few benefits here and there. But a couple of houses? I don’t think so… This is the problem with the notion that society should shoulder that extra burden, we vote for MP’s in virtue of the fact that we don’t want to do to shoulder ourselves!

Of course, I know there must be a few intelligent, witty, charismatic and idealistic individuals entering British politics every year, but the problem is by the time it takes them to get anywhere where they can remotely make any changes to the system – real changes like reducing stupidly high MP salaries, or a proper voting system referendum – they’ve spent so long striving and battling their way up the ranks that when they are eventually promoted they’re not particularly likely to say: “Now I’m here I think we should abandon all the benefits being here rewards us with.” Clearly after working so hard they too want to enjoy these benefits too. And unfortunately, no matter how hard they try to hide it, they lose their sense of humour very early on. A shame, because with a touch of humour we could have the best political system in the world. Ruled by people with wit, charisma, intelligence and idealism – no, not Plato’s Guardians, but comedians!

Good joke I hear you cry, but wait for it. I know most us love good comedy, especially political satire, impressionism, and panel shows – ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’, ‘Mock The Week’, ‘Have I Got News For You’, and ‘Brass Eye’ spring to mind. And the reason comedy is so funny is that 90% of the time it is so clever. All the panellists on these shows are sharp enough to disect our society, our politics and what is wrong with them with not only intelligence, bur humour. They are some of the keenest political analysts in the our country, and they are intelligent enough not to go into politics, but to make their living making people laugh about politics. This is a wonder in itself, because to make a lot of us in this country laugh about politics they first have to make us understand politics. This is something politicians in countries all over the world think is generally beyond most of their voters, so they either don’t try, or over-simplify issues, an insult either way you take it.

So lets get the comedians in to power. Of course, there’s no guarantee that comedians could run the country any better than our current politicians, but it might make people take more notice. Through engaging with an audience, a good comedian can get you to understand an issue, laugh about said issue, and actually come away liking them too – wow, who in British politics can do that?

 

Guide Dogs Not Children

Guide dogs not children, birds not the environment, lifeboats not human rights. People all over the UK seem more interested in the three former than the three latter, yet when push comes to shove children, the environment and human rights are an investment for the future that we cannot fail to neglect. I doubt anyone would claim to believe anything different, but when it comes to raising money for these charities we can see that where this sad trend might originate.

We’ve all been hassled on the high street by over-enthusiastic chuggers ( charity muggers, for those in the know ), and I’m sure we would love to give them the five minutes they need, if you weren’t carrying myriad shopping bags, late for work, or just looking forward to a drink in the pub. It’s even worse when they call you – it’s like a house invasion. People just don’t want to be told what’s going wrong with the world while they get on with their daily lives – fact!

This is why, when cold-called from Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Cancer Research, or one of the one-hundred and seventy thousand, nine hundred and five registered charities in the UK listed by the NCVO ( National Council for Voluntary Organisations – http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk ), people don’t want to hear about the problems these organisations are trying to solve. It tends to leave a blemish in peoples tidy lives, and this is why, on the street and over the phone people prefer to give money to guide-dogs, birds and lifeboats – maybe…

The cold, hard truth of the matter is that charities make a lot of money. The RSPB is the largest environmental charity in Europe. It has over a million members making regular donations, not to mention it’s lifetime members paying in excess of £900 for the privilege, plus all the one-off donations it receives. Each member pays approximately £36 for the year ( based on the minimum donation of £3 a month ), this would give the RSPB somewhere in the region of an annual income of £36 million a year! However, calling RSPB members on an uplift campaign ( asking, as politely as possible if they can raise their regular donations ) you will find quite a number of people who give a lot more than the minimum membership. If you average out donations at £5 a month the RSPB must make £60 million a year, and it gets this money by appealing to people’s sentiments about our national bird life. In fact, after checking the RSPBs’ Trustees’ annual report and accounts 2009 – http://www.rspb.org.uk/about/run/reportaccounts.aspx – I can tell you the RSPB raised £86.3 million all told, more than two thirds of which comes from donations, subscriptions and legacies.

This is fine, all things considered. I am a massive fan of the RSPB, and do not begrudge birds all over the world millions of pounds a year. It’s how this charity, and the Dogs Trust, and Guide Dogs for the Blind, can appeal to people’s sentiments to raise that money that irks me. Not because I feel anyone’s exploited, nor is it the charities fault. It is the fact that other charities, who do just as important work, can’t appeal to people in the same way. If you were called up out of the blue, and asked to set up a regular donation of £5 a month, being told that every £19,000 pays for a guide dog from infancy to adulthood, including full-training for dog and owner, you’d have to hate dogs to not want to help. However, if Friends of the Earth, an environmental charity called up, telling people that unless they help with £3 a month, the ozone layer would disappear, or the Amazon rainforest would be deforested in 2 years, or one of the many campaigns they run, it is far more likely they will do everything possible to not hear about it.

This all indicates that sponsoring a cuddly puppy, or protecting birds from oil slicks, are feel good issues that people all across the UK are willing to embrace with gusto, while children charities, environmental charities, and human rights charities, just don’t tell people anything quantifiable i.e. they can’t give a definite figure of how much money will make a difference. It is the suggestion of our responsibility that people don’t like, or the suggestion that they can help but are choosing not to, that really brings on the irritation. To be called and told you can help train more guide dogs doesn’t irritate in the same way as being told you are responsible for deforestation in the Amazon by buying palm-oil products, or factory farmed meat, but you can make amends, just help our charity with £3 a month. The other side of the coin is that they will say: “How does donating £3 a month do any good?” This is a very good question, because unlike guide dogs, environmental work has no fixed price. If Greenpeace could call up and say, “If we can raise £1 million we can stop deforestation, full stop, capital letter, new campaign,” then more people would probably be inclined to help. But the truth is they can’t, and this leaves people wondering how their money can help.

This is why people in the UK prefer to hear about animal charities, and environmental charities are left in the cold. We all know the state of the environment is our responsibility, but to be told this is irksome – it annoys me too, so don’t presume I’m on my high-horse. I know how annoying it is to be told something you know you should do but haven’t done yet, it’s just like your parents repeatedly telling you to clean your room when you complain you can’t find your favourite toy. You know you’ll find the toy when you clean your room, but the idea of cleaning your room is irritating, so is helping charities protect the environment. Because giving £3 a month does nothing unless you change your behaviour as well. You don’t have to change your life to feel good about giving money to Guide Dogs Trust, the RSPB or RNLI ( Royal National Lifeboat Institution ), because just in virtue of donating a little money you can feel like you’re making a difference. However, just giving £3 a month to FOE, or Greenpeace, or WWF, means nothing if you still drive a four-wheel drive in the city, or eat battery farmed eggs, or don’t bother to recycle.

When push comes to shove, children, the environment and human rights problems are not what we like to take the time to hear about. They can’t give a definite, be-all-and-end-all solution, nor can they tell you how much it will cost, in both hard currency and effort, nor can they tell you how long it will take. This is of course why, when someone says, it will cost you £3 a month, to help us raise £19,000 to train a guide dog for it’s life span ( say 10 years ), to help an individual blind person it is very easy to bring yourself to donate. But we must remember that the environment and human rights are for our children, and I hope people will agree that even if there is no deadline, nor quantifiable figure for protecting their future, it is definitely worth investment. The environment is under threat now, people’s human rights are being violated today, but with investment and effort they might not be tomorrow. Isn’t that what’s important?

 

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