Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Big Society First Needs A Small Society

With thanks to Multi-Generational Life
Jim Baxter's recent post Cultural Differences pointed out how Muslim families in general take responsibility for looking after their elders within the home. In my experience this is mirrored in Hindu, Sikh and Chinese families as well.

Of course this practice happens as well, though to a much lesser extent, in white British familes. Before the creation of the Welfare State and the promise of care from cradle to grave, the alternative was charitable almshouses or, dreaded as much as the shame of a pauper's funeral, the workhouse. For reasons of love and duty and stubborn pride in standing on one's own two feet and looking after one's own, it was the social norm to care for aged relatives in the family home. The generations experienced each others' wisdom and charms. Toleration of differences and making allowances were vital lessons learned sharing an often crowded household. It wasn't perfect by any means but it worked for the few years of retirement that the grandparents had earned.

As British society grew wealthier and individual rights and expectations were recognised so, paradoxically, dependence on the State grew. People moved away from their home towns to seek better jobs and houses, equal opprtunities and equal pay legislation and contraception empowered more women to seek careers, and incomes and aspirations leap-frogged upwards. Despite all the alleged benefits of the modern age, people work as hard and as long as before to afford necessities that were luxuries or unheard of by their parents' generation. As a consequence, care for children and the elderly and infirm was gradually contracted out to the State. After all, the Welfare State was a right and it had been paid for through tax so people were only getting back their dues. What was intended as a safety net for the needy became an easy chair for all.

And so the majority of our old people live for their final months or years in nursing or care homes and hospitals. Often the family home has to be sold to meet care home fees, causing anger that the State has broken its promise and deprived the family of the parents' life's work and an inheritance for the children. Care of the elderly has become professionalised, taken from the amateur with intimate lifelong knowledge of the personality and tastes of the individual to changing teams who, with the best will in the world, can not provide bespoke care and understanding to patients they have only known as bundles of symptoms causing inconvenience and trouble.

Because caring was historically undertaken voluntarily within the family, it is now a low-paid occupation. Regrettably, this tends not to attract the best candidates. To improve their status and self-esteem, some carers consider themselves superior to their charges who, especially from the viewpoint of some workers from poor countries without a welfare state, are unwanted and at the bottom of the social pile because they would otherwise be cherished and cared for at home by their families.

Nursing was originally a caring profession for women acting in support of male doctors. With increasing aspirations for higher status and the increasingly technological nature of medicine, nursing has become a graduate profession. In addition, the curse of professional managers has resulted in increasing demands for productivity on wards. All activities must be paper-trailed to satisfy the accountants and lawyers. There is both less time for nurses to care for patients in the old sense and an unfortunate attitude that some jobs are infra-dig for BScs rather than duties to be taken in one's stride. Ensuring patients are fed and watered clean and finding five minutes in a day to hold a hand and chat are surely the minimum that should be expected.

But is it right that we offload our parents,the most valuable members of our families next to our children, onto the State? The State that struggles to grit roads in winter yet subsidises windmill companies, that loses our tax details, that wastes hundreds of £billions in schools that still fail to teach the basics of reading and writing to a quarter of pupils after eleven years? Would you lend your MP your car to drive?

Who do you trust with your family's lives? Who knows you all best? You and your wife. So before we moan that the government should work better, let's take a reality check and realise that the only people with our best intentions at heart are ourselves. We must rediscover what our ancestors knew through experience, that independence from charities or the State based on close family bonds , what I call the Small Society, is the best and strongest building block of a Big Society. For only when we can guarantee our families' well-being through mutual trust and self-reliance can we begin to trust and care for others. And only then can we honestly claim to have a Big Society fit for purpose. There will be a cost to our standard of living and our individualism may have to take a back seat occasionally, but the change from the rat race to the human race will be worth it. And the government, banks and big business will hate having their power challenged as we cast off their chains of unreachable affluence that bond us to them.


Jim Baxter said...

Rat race to the human race puts it perfectly Biran.

O/T I owe you an apology for my strange remark about your Mitre Box post when it was in another place. Not only did I completely misread it, I didn't realise it was yours and misattributed authorship and so was not talking to you at all. Too much, er, 'flu-medication'.

It's a good post and although I am hamfisted in the creative arts of woodwork I identify with the philosophy. With me it manifests as attempts to make noises on a Spanish guitar.

Jim Baxter said...


Hmm. Lord Biran perhaps. I'm off the flu medication now too.

Brian said...

No worries, Jim. Biran is as good as Brain. I thought you were just showing off your speed-typing skills :) One advantage of unidigital typing is that I have to look at the keyboard and the screen. So no mistakse.