Campfire democracy?

Tom Bannister
15 June 2010

“… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” This was Margaret Thatcher talking to Women’s Own magazine in October 1987. She went on to talk about neighbours but the phrase was made. ‘Thatcherism’ came to be seen as an ideology in which the role of the state was to encourage individuals to make it in the market place without the security and support that comes with good government.

As a central part of his strategy of transforming the image of Britain’s Conservative Party into one that is ‘compassionate’ rather than ruthless, David Cameron has backed what he terms the “Big Society”. He contrasts it with the state. In this sense there is a direct continuity with Thatcher’s argument that people must not look to government for ‘entitlement’. But at the same time there is a welcome call for individuals to behave in a collective spirit that starts small. 

It is a point that David Cameron has made in his calls for a greater role for NGOs and volunteers and also, unsurprisingly, a design that is central to the Red Tory ideas of Phillip Blond. What is essentially being referred to is civil society; the non-profit sector in between the state and the economy. However to make civil society grow, social capital needs to grow first. Social capital makes the difference between participation and non-participation in civil society and, some may claim, between voting and not-voting, between health and illness and between caring and not-caring. And how, you ask, can you increase social capital? Think woggles, think tents, think jamborees and above all, think ging-gang goolie.

Social capital is the glue that binds society together; it is, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s words; the art of association. Social capital means involvement, it stands for co-operation and reciprocity and it means thinking in terms of we rather than I (or, as Geoff Mulgan writes about civil society in general; between ‘we’ and ‘me’). What this country is lacking at the moment is social capital. When the Prime Minister talked about Broken Britain prior to the election, many of the problems he was referring to were problems compounded or caused by a lack of social capital.

Social capital is generated by just being with other people. By talking to your friend you are generating social capital because you are not only strengthening the bonds between two people but you are also interacting and thinking with, and about, others. By playing sport in a team or participating in any other form of organised activity you are again generating social capital. You are living life alongside other people. You are acknowledging the fact that there are others living this life alongside you. In this way social capital crucially generates norms of reciprocity. If I help you, you will help me. If you internalise this state of mind then not only will you help me, but you will also help your other friends and associates. This is a ‘good society’ but not yet a Big Society. The Big Society idea comes when social capital leads to a jump in civic participation. When you realise that helping your friends is not enough and that actually, you would like to help out other people as well. This is where the volunteering that Cameron is talking about comes into play.

However, social capital can expand society yet further. Through civic participation, perhaps it could be through volunteering at a local charity or writing for a local newspaper, a level of political awareness emerges. By getting involved at a local level you develop an interest in the national level and from there to interest in the global level. This not only strengthens democracy itself by increasing voting numbers, it also leads to the beginnings of a global civil society, something that is clearly desirable in today’s globalised world.

If social capital is therefore taken as desirable then it is clear, like so many other things, that it must be generated during childhood for an individual to become used to the ideas of association and co-operation. What better way to do this than through participation in organised activities such as scouting? It is reassuring therefore that scouting numbers are on the rise. However this trend must be continued and broadened to ensure the growth of other types of youth organisations. The type of organisation that a youth participates in is not what matters; the participation itself is the key. The path from the campfire to the ballot box may be a long-one, with many detours along the way, but it is a realistic one. Furthermore the possibility of re-making a Broken Britain whilst on this path remains possible as well. Tighten those woggles, toast those marshmallows; Big Society starts small, and it starts with a campfire.

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