Friday, 18 November 2011

London deserves better than this

The balance of power around the globe may well be shifting dramatically from the old capitals of the west towards the economic powerhouses of China and India, but it would be a churlish person who denied London’s continuing status as one of the world’s great cities. It seems astonishing, therefore, that the choice facing voters in the 2012 mayoral election is between an eccentric toff, an uncharismatic former police commander and a leftist relic.

The relic in question, one Kenneth Robert Livingstone, was quoted today in the London Evening Standard as encouraging members of the public to bring a ‘private prosecution’ against former premier Tony Blair for ‘war crimes’. I don’t want to get into a full-scale debate of the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq, as they’ve been rehearsed too many times before. What interests me about Livingstone’s outburst is that there is surely no one else of prominence in the Labour Party – even those who disagreed vehemently with Blair – who would endorse such an extreme point of view.

What does Ed Miliband think of these opinions? Privately, I’m sure he is angered by Livingstone’s position on this – and a host of other - issues. The Labour Leader almost certainly sees the potential for continual embarrassment in the run-up to Red Ken’s defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson next year. But does he have the gumption to do what actually needs to be done? Can he establish his authority and replace Livingstone with a candidate that ordinary Londoners will actually want to support?

Of course, Livingstone did come through a democratic process, defeating the altogether more progressive Oona King in a vote among Labour members. The former mayor’s mandate does not, however, give him carte blanche to express any view he wishes. He either represents the Labour Party or he can choose to stand again as an independent, which would probably be the best course of action for all concerned.

My worry about Miliband is that he is a weak leader who is already being seen as some kind of caretaker by those members of the electorate who actually recognise him. The London elections really matter, because as things stand, the Tories are likely to come out of the contest looking good. Isn’t it preposterous that in a climate of austerity, with Cameron, Osborne and their Liberal Democrat pals plunging us back towards recession, that Labour should be on the back foot in the capital city? And preparing us for four more years of bumbling Boris?

I imagine the off-the-record response would be that Ken was elected and we don’t much like it, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Digging further, however, Miliband probably feels there’s simply no alternative candidate. He’ll remember the fiasco of Frank Dobson’s doomed mayoral campaign and perhaps imagine that there’s no one better around.

David’s not free by any chance, is he?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Isn't it time the Lib Dems saw a shrink?

Chutzpah is a great Yiddish word. It describes the kind of bare-faced cheek that takes your breath away and leaves you scratching your head in amused bewilderment. It’s always good to have a word like this at your disposal when the Liberal Democrats are in your neighbourhood delivering their propaganda sheets.

The latest edition of “Twickenham & Richmond News” (sic) arrived on my doormat in the past few days, thankfully proclaiming that it is ‘paid for by individual donations at NO cost to local taxpayers’. It shows the Liberal Democrats to be stalwart campaigners for local services, sworn enemies of the Conservatives and valiant crusaders against government cuts.

Let’s just take a pause at this point while we slap ourselves vigorously, stick our heads in a bucket of ice-cold water and check that we’re actually awake.

CUTS TOO FAR screams the splash on the front page of the tawdry tabloid, which is packed with endless snaps of Munira Wilson, a Lib Dem candidate in next year’s Greater London Assembly election. Tory-run Richmond Council is supposedly hoarding millions of pounds while ‘needlessly’ cutting services.

This is the politics of the madhouse. The Lib Dems seriously believe that they can form a government with the Tories and help them to implement a nationwide austerity programme, while at the same time pretending in local constituencies that the cuts are all the fault of the Conservative Party.

Note the weasel words. Conservative-controlled Richmond has taken the cuts ‘too far’ and is slashing services ‘needlessly’. Presumably, the Lib Dems are happy with a lot of cutting, but become a little concerned if it passes some completely arbitrary threshold. What shameless hypocrites. If their Tory pals are indeed taking things to excess in south-west London and are sitting on some hidden surplus, then why doesn’t Nick Clegg have a quiet word with David Cameron? Or, better still, make a public announcement condemning the Tories?

Let’s be clear what’s going on here. The Lib Dems believe in coalition with the Conservatives, but know that this is poison for them in certain constituencies. Business Secretary Vince Cable MP goes into every election in Twickenham, for instance, explaining that he is the only viable anti-Tory candidate and that Labour supporters should rally to his cause.

This long-standing claim is now exposed as complete bunkum, but Vince and his band of two-faced followers return to the theme, because they have absolutely nowhere else to go. Even now, they say ‘elections in Richmond and Twickenham are always between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives’.

Wow. What a great choice. Which Chuckle Brother would you rather have deliberating over the hard economic choices? Paul or Barry?

I have no doubt the Lib Dems would make a great psychoanalytical case study. They have forged a marriage of convenience with someone they previously told all their friends they hated. When their domineering partner is away, they slag him off to anyone who will listen, but are all nicey-nicey to him in public when he’s back. Friends feel sorry for their former mate, but start to drift away. There’s only so much sickening hypocrisy they can stand, after all.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

If the Euro goes down, democracy may fall with it.

It’s impossible to tell exactly how the Eurozone crisis will play out, but there’s a danger the political dimension to the ongoing drama is often overlooked amid the economic tumult. When we talk of worst-case scenarios, involving Greek default, countries withdrawing from the single currency or maybe even the collapse of the Euro itself, the financial consequences are almost too big to contemplate. Bank exposures to sovereign debt may lead to a complete unravelling of global markets and a worldwide depression. But what of the politics? Can we be positive that the democratic certainties of modern Europe aren’t in danger of collapsing into the Mediterranean?

One thing that’s easy to forget for those of us born from the late 1960s onwards is that there is not a strong history of democracy in southern Europe. Up until 1975, General Franco ruled the roost in Spain – a fact which didn’t deter the growth of package tourism, as Brits and many other northern Europeans are notorious for putting a spot of sun ahead of any human rights considerations. While students were getting battered by the police in Spanish universities in the late 60s and early 70s, working-class families abandoned Clacton for the Costas.

Greece is another favourite holiday destination with an ugly past. After various constitutional crises and red scares, a military junta brought tanks onto the streets of Athens in 1967 and seized power for a seven-year period. And what about Portugal? The small, western European nation doesn’t tend to get a lot of pages in the history books, but their military actually did its people a favour back in the 1970s. Around the time the Greek Colonels were being forced out of power, Portuguese junior officers brought to an end the Estado Novo (New State) of Antonio de Oliveiro Salazar – a stifling, authoritarian Catholic regime that certainly wasn’t very ‘novo’ by the time it met its demise.

Of all the southern European nations currently in the Eurozone firing line, only Italy really has a claim to sustained democracy since the end of the Second World War. Weak government, corruption, terrorism and organised crime have, however, been a terrible blight on Italian political life. And the cult of personality surrounding Silvio Berlusconi is hardly a model that many democrats would embrace with open arms.

Does all this political baggage actually matter? My feeling is that it matters a great deal. In times of huge economic turmoil, austerity and social unrest, there is every possibility that the ‘normality’ we’ve known for the past few decades could be turned on its head. Greece is the obvious candidate, perhaps, because of its disastrous financial predicament and volatile street protests heavily infiltrated by anarchists.

Let’s imagine we head towards a disorderly exit from the Euro and the creation of, say, a ‘new’ Drachma which is worth very little. People who have already taken pay cuts, lost their jobs or seen their standard of living decline may end up finding half their life savings disappearing too. A whiff of the Weimar Republic would be in the air. At that stage, there’s a danger that any political or military force with a populist agenda might have a strong appeal or be able to fill a vacuum created by the failure of the democratically elected politicians.

Could a country such as Spain really abandon democracy 35 years after Franco? The chances are probably small, but I would hesitate to say they are non-existent. It’s important to remember that there’s a strong strand of conservative sentiment that runs very deep in the country. While Falangist parties get virtually no support in elections today, there’s undoubtedly an older segment of the population that has a nostalgia for the days of authoritarian rule. More worryingly though, almost half of the young population of Spain is currently unemployed – a situation which is pretty incompatible in the long term with a healthy, functioning democracy.

We are used to dictatorships falling. Just in the past year, we’ve seen the obliteration of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and, of course, Libya. It’s important to remember that democracies can fall too. The decadence, liberalism and economic growth of the Goldene Zwanziger in Germany gave way to the Great Depression, hyperinflation, instability, mass unemployment and – ultimately – the brutal oppression of the Nazis.

Europe comes with a lot of history. Merkel, Sarkozy and the others who are dawdling over economic solutions need to remember the potential political costs.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Is there a doctor on the ward?

The findings of the Care Quality Commission in relation to the appalling treatment of old people in many NHS hospitals will come as no surprise to many families. If you’ve visited anyone on a geriatric ward recently – as I have – the sorry story of neglect and disinterest will ring an awful lot of bells. Unfortunately, you can ring those bells for 45 minutes and nobody takes the slightest notice.

There are a number of fundamental problems at the heart of the UK’s National Health Service and they have nothing to do with the total amount of money in the system. Lack of cash can exacerbate the problems, to be sure, but the problems actually revolve around culture and organisation.

The first thing I’d observe is that many hospitals have the right procedures and approaches in place. They can show you paper policies which sound entirely reasonable and forward-thinking, but they struggle to put any of them into practice on the wards.

A few months ago, I conducted a survey of London NHS Trusts under the Freedom of Information Act to find out how many of them operated what they call ‘protected mealtimes’. This marvellous idea is that patients should be left in peace while they scoff their grub, but if you’re elderly or confused, maybe you forget that someone’s left you a plate of food. Perhaps you don’t even realise you need to eat. Many of the nurses and auxiliaries simply can’t be bothered to help, while others are under severe time pressure with a list of tasks to perform and are unable to spend five or ten minutes spoon-feeding nutrients into the nearest OAP.

Who takes up the slack? Why, the patients’ relatives of course. They are usually committed to the wellbeing and recovery of their loved one and will happily assist at mealtimes. Except... err... they’re not actually supposed to be there. Mealtimes are protected, you see?

Now, here’s the interesting bit. When I surveyed the hospitals, they all came back with reams of policy documents about ‘red tray’ systems to identify the poor eaters and told stories about how flexible they actually were in allowing relatives to stay on the wards and help with the feeding. But my real-life experience of a south London hospital earlier this year was that we were not wanted on the wards at mealtimes. The well-meaning policy blurb means nothing to the people who are slapping trays of food down on tables and doing a runner.

This is a cultural problem. There is no real leadership on NHS wards and an incredible amount of drift. Doctors are a big part of the problem because they are never actually there. There’s a way of working – which dates from the year dot – which says that the medics do daily ‘rounds’, although no one ever knows when they are. The staff members have a very vague notion and the patients and their relatives have no idea whatsoever.

Typical scenario in an NHS ward: an elderly relative has a fall and breaks something. She ends up in a geriatric ward for a couple of weeks, until such time as she has recovered well enough to return home. The family comes to visit. Has she been seen by a doctor, they ask? She can’t remember. Surely a member of staff will know? Unfortunately, they’re vague and evasive. The doctor will be coming tomorrow morning. Everything’s fine. Granny’s having her blood pressure monitored every 15 minutes by someone who’s been taught the skill in the same factory that Charlie Bucket’s grandfather learned to screw lids on toothpaste bottles.

Charts of readings and vital signs are left lying around, but no one ever interprets them or acts upon them. What medicine was our elderly patient taking before she came onto the ward? One of the tablets has been stopped and another one’s been added but no one will explain why. Perhaps no one really knows. It was the doctor, you see.
So, when is the patient going to be coming out? Who can tell? It may be tomorrow. It may be the next day. She’ll need to be seen by the doctor. And when’s the doctor coming? Jesus Christ, are we getting a sense of déjà vu here?

Sometimes when I walk into these places, I really do think that I could make a difference in 24 hours. Communication, communication, communication. Between the doctors and the nurses. Between the nurses and the ancillary staff. Between the staff and the patients. Between the staff and their relatives. All people want to know is what the hell is actually going on.

Major improvements could be made if people simply talked to one another and there was a clear record of what had happened to each individual patient – perhaps in some kind of easy-to-read electronic format. But in itself, this isn’t enough. It doesn’t get over the problem that many of the staff are poorly motivated and lack proper supervision. There’s no easy fix to this and it’s impossible to deny that the jobs are poorly paid and unattractive. Leadership has to play a critical role here in terms of increasing motivation and a sense of purpose among the nursing and support teams. Someone needs to be there to observe and correct poor practice and we also need to provide proper recognition and reward for those people who are getting things right.

The current management of NHS wards is grossly inefficient and leads to so-called ‘bed blocking’. People are often kept in the hospital for days and days unnecessarily, as staff wait for doctor’s assessments, meetings of interdisciplinary teams, visits from social workers and occupational health experts. Until this bureaucratic and uncommunicative culture is tackled, the sad stories of neglect and indifference will continue.

Friday, 30 September 2011

We should put our foot down

You can always spot a Tory, can’t you? Transport Secretary Philip Hammond wants to increase the speed limit on Britain’s motorways to 80 mph because it will be good for business, even though it’s acknowledged by experts that the change of policy will lead to a greater number of accidents and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To a Conservative ideologue, the economic advantage always outweighs any potential social or environmental cost. In this respect, Hammond follows directly in the footsteps of one of his barmy predecessors – the chain-smoking old Etonian, Nicholas Ridley. As Secretary of State for Transport between 1983 and 1986 in the Thatcher government, Ridley – whose head was packed full of Hayek and Friedman – was known for his eccentric obsessions. If I remember correctly, Ken Livingstone, who led the socialist Greater London Council at the time, discovered that Maggie’s ministerial pal favoured getting rid of traffic lights because they disrupted the flow of vehicles.

That’s the logical next step, isn’t it? In fact, it’s a wonder Philip Hammond isn’t saying exactly the same thing. Because if we believe in freedom to pursue enterprise, regardless of environmental impact or injuries to members of the public, then where do we draw the line? Why 80 mph? If that extra 10 mph rescues us from the recession being nurtured by Hammond’s own government, why not make it 90 mph or 100 mph? In fact, why bother with a speed limit at all? The success story of the German economy has surely been built on the reckless and unrestricted driving pursued on the Autobahns over the years.

Is there any serious economist who has plotted speed limits against GDP? The United States would be an interesting country to study, wouldn’t it? The highway patrol would pull you over for doing sixty. It’s a wonder there haven’t been riots over there. Forget Barack Obama’s healthcare policies. The real socialism is happening right there on the roads, where armed government officials are stopping enterprising citizens from pursuing their God-given right to pursue the American Dream.

We don’t need a PhD in transportation studies to work out that the ‘economic boost’ from increasing speed limits is a disingenuous smokescreen. Hammond’s announcement is purely political and aimed at demonstrating that the government is on the side of the motorist, who – according to tabloid folklore – has been under bombardment over a number of years from do-gooders, eco-freaks and health and safety killjoys. No minister wants to be seen as anti-car. But no government with any integrity can afford to be pro-car in a world where temperatures are inexorably rising due to manmade pollution.

Where are the Liberal Democrats in all this? Claiming perhaps that they have a pathetic concession of more 20 mph zones in urban areas, although this is far from certain. If they go along with this anti-environmental measure, we can only hope that it will shake a few more of their complacent and naïve followers into realising the obvious: that Clegg and his friends have abandoned all principle for the sake of two or three years of power.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The middle class of London has had its bluff called

Many years have passed since I last sat in a university sociology seminar, but there’s one thing I can tell you categorically: if people don’t want to be governed, they won’t be. Prisons, for instance, are balanced on a precarious knife edge between order and anarchy. To a large extent, the warders rely on the inmates accepting their authority and taking on the role of the prisoner. In return, the prisoners come to expect certain kinds of behaviour from the guards. It’s an uneasy and difficult relationship, but 99% of the time, it gets played out satisfactorily. When the delicate balancing act collapses, we get to hear about it, because it usually results in violence and disorder.

A feature of any riot is that the accepted norms have broken down. Historically, people have often protested at brutality and oppression and the outbreak of violence and lawlessness symbolises to the authorities that they will no longer accept the status quo. If we take the Brixton riots of 1981, for example, they were a response to perceived harassment of the Afro-Caribbean community in an impoverished part of London. Using the so-called ‘sus’ laws, officers stopped and searched black youths on suspicion that they might commit crime and there’s little doubt that there was a large degree of what we’d now describe as ‘institutionalised’ racism in their actions.

The Brixton experience was shocking. The police had no formal riot training or protective gear. There was an obvious racial dimension to the clashes. A huge amount of devastation was caused to an already very poor area. But out of the riots came a new kind of accommodation and politics, thanks to a report from Lord Scarman. I later became involved personally with one of the initiatives he recommended – a scheme called lay visiting (today, independent custody visiting), where members of the public are authorised to arrive unannounced at police stations and check on the conditions of detainees being held in custody. It added a level of transparency to policing which had never previously existed and was one step along a long road to more sensitive, community-focused law enforcement. Although everyone would want to avoid the bloodshed and upheaval, it is difficult to deny that it resulted in some kind of catharsis.

What made the recent London riots different? Well, beyond Tottenham, they had no political dimension whatsoever. The core participants were looking for the thrill that comes through battle and having the run of the streets. Hangers-on opportunistically saw an opportunity for theft. In many ways, the psychology of these riots is more akin to the organised violence between football ‘firms’ than the politically-motivated riots of the 1980s. We’ll meet you at such-and-such a railway station at 6pm and it’s all going to kick off. (The profile of some of the defendants in court, incidentally, mirrors that of the football thugs. They’re not all lumpen lowlife. Many have – or aspire to – decent jobs.)

The areas affected were unpredictable and not necessarily reflective of the capital’s pattern of wealth and poverty. Ealing is a prosperous suburb. Croydon is very socially mixed. In today’s Brixton, the traditional Afro-Caribbean community shares space with young professionals and newer waves of immigrants. The fear that Londoners felt on Tuesday morning could be summed up as follows: the violence can happen anywhere; no one is safe from the mob. If they can smash up Clapham, they are getting too close to the respectable middle classes.

The other thing which obviously changes the nature of the riot is the use of instant messaging via smartphone. In the past, one advantage the police have always had over the rioters is the availability of sophisticated communication channels. This allows them to organise tactically and keep one step ahead. In recent years, the people causing the disorder – whether for political or hedonistic purposes – have had access to more sophisticated communication channels than the police. They are highly mobile and can appear and disappear almost at will. And let’s add in another dimension. Their mobility is aided by the fact that they don’t necessarily have any clear objective other than to cause maximum mayhem. Compare this to the old-fashioned march on a police station or government building. Predictable and largely static.

These various factors have led to a great deal of confusion. Londoners have been confronted by technologically savvy, fast-moving gangs who have no clear objective other than to maximise the amount of trouble they cause. Overstretched police officers have tried to confront them with tactics designed for political demonstrators in a bygone era. Unsurprisingly, the forces of law and order have come up short. This is why there was such a stench of anarchy wafting from that burning party shop in Clapham Junction and the furniture store in Croydon. And it explains why Londoners were probably more dazed and confused than they were even in the aftermath of the 2005 bomb attacks.

For me, one of the more fascinating trends to emerge from the ash, rubble and broken glass has been the reactionary commentary from previously liberal young people about town. A few weeks ago, they would have been crying into their Chardonnay about a bloke being pushed over at a G20 demo and bleated about students being ‘kettled’ by cops at a demonstration. But as soon as their own world is threatened, they want the police to use water cannon and plastic bullets.

Am I too cynical when I say that some middle-class Londoners have for too long taken pride in living in ‘edgy’ parts of the city, showing faux solidarity with the dispossessed urban youths of nearby council estates? They laugh off the problems of knives and guns and drugs, for instance, because it’s cool to live in a city where this kind of stuff goes on. Your friends admire you because they think you’re oh-so-urban. In reality, you’re sipping cappuccino and drooling over Grand Designs. You’re a few streets away from the action geographically and a million miles away in every other sense, because that’s the way you really like it.

Suddenly, the Metro-reading, gym-going, bike-pedalling classes have had their bluff called. Peaceful co-existence with the locals has been blown apart. The chavs have taken over and smashed things up. And no amount of brooms will ever sweep that fact away.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The tough questions over press regulation

We hope for catharsis in the News International crisis and some kind of moral cleansing of the nation. I’d be the first to agree that heads need to roll, but is it really the tactics of journalists at the News of the World that are the problem? Or could it actually be their outrageous choice of targets? Let me put it another way. We didn’t really care too much about the illegal hacking of phones when we thought the victims were celebrities and politicians. The explosion of rage has been prompted by our discovery that hired investigators were deleting the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl and listening to the conversations of people who’d lost relatives through war or terrorism.

Much investigative journalism depends on deception. This may be a difficult idea to accept, but it’s undoubtedly true. After all, when people are involved in wrongdoing, they rarely declare it publicly. Remember the recent Panorama exposé of the abuse going on in a home for people with learning disabilities? It was made possible by a journalist posing as a member of staff and secretly recording the behaviour of the nurses and so-called carers. Going undercover in that home was a brave and commendable thing to do. It wouldn’t surprise me if some undercover investigations involve deceptions which might technically break the law. But if they reveal a greater evil and expose people who need to be brought to justice, then I’m in favour.

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you. Someone tips off a journalist that a group of men are involved in trafficking underage women into the UK for prostitution. It’s possible to hack into the men’s phones and, in so doing, we’re able to find concrete evidence that they are guilty of a serious crime. Should we worry that the hacking of the phones is illegal? Surely the potential jailing of the sex traffickers is a clear-cut case of the ends justifying the means?

And if you don’t agree with me in the above case, my argument would be that you would have some threshold of crime at which you would reach the same conclusion. Murderers, rapists or perverts preying on kids. Genocidal soldiers in times of war. What if phone hacking could provide proof of serious crime? Are we still against it?

At this stage, you may be wondering if I’m an apologist for the disgraceful goings-on in the tabloid press. Far from it. I’m as shocked and angry as the next person. But my anger is not over phone hacking per se. It’s with the way it was seemingly used in a completely cavalier and ubiquitous fashion to target people who had committed no crime whatsoever. As the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has suggested, the tactic seemed to be the journalists’ default reaction to every single story. A culture developed in which the reporting became dependent on ‘the messages'.

I think there’s an interesting parallel with the recent history of Wikileaks. How exactly did Julian Assange and his mates get hold of their material? It’s been supplied by people who have passed it on illicitly and probably in breach of various laws and regulations. It’s true that some commentators and politicians – particularly in the United States – see the leaks of information as unacceptable. But does the general public think the same way? No. By and large, we are delighted that so-called ‘hacktivists’ have been able to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of the political classes, who say one thing publicly while proclaiming the opposite on secret cables.

If a hacker reveals something serious and significant, then we applaud him. If he simply makes mischief and publishes the financial details of the ordinary person in the street, we rightly condemn him. So it’s not the hacking itself that we judge to be morally wrong, but the end to which it’s put.

Should phone hacking be illegal? Instinctively, I believe that it should. As a general rule, everyone has the right to privacy. Does this mean that all phone hacking is equally bad at a moral or ethical level? Probably not. If we’re honest, we know we care far more about Millie Dowler and her parents, who suffered a terrible tragedy, than we do about multi-millionaire celebrities, who could easily afford enhanced security for their phone systems and email traffic.

For the moment, this is all one big blur. Eventually, however, after whatever public enquiry is concocted, we’re going to have to reach conclusions about further regulation or legislation. At that stage, we need to find a formula which stops the press intruding on the lives of the innocent, but doesn’t prevent it from exposing the hypocrisy of the powerful.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Night time is the right time for volunteering in the Big Society

Sheena Easton summed it up perfectly in her 1980 classic ‘9 to 5’ (or ‘Morning Train’ in the US to avoid confusion with the popular Dolly Parton number). In a stirring paean to work-life balance at the beginning of the Thatcher era, the songstress tells us that her beau ‘works all day to earn his pay, so we can play all night...’

One of the biggest problems with David Cameron’s so-called ‘Big Society’ is that it requires people to work all day to earn their pay and then work all night for nothing. An added complication is that Sheena’s lover would now be labouring from 9 to 8, rather than 9 to 5. He’d probably also have to catch up on a few emails of a weekend. What a way to make a living, as Dolly would no doubt observe from her Tennessee mountain home.

We can see that the ‘Big Society’ is an idea that might have taken root in a bygone age when people had steady, predictable jobs and could give up a few hours of their spare time to a good cause in the local community. At a point in history when women were more likely to stay at home, maybe the ones with well-to-do husbands would get involved in charity work to ease the drudgery of domesticity and childcare. But look at how we live today. Men and women alike find themselves in transient jobs, multiple jobs, part-time jobs. They are always on call, working even when they’re technically supposed not to be. And let’s face it, women have it worse, because they may well still end up doing the vast majority of cleaning, cooking and nappy changing.

I write as someone who has done a lot of voluntary work over the years. In my teens and twenties, I was heavily involved in political parties and campaigning organisations, largely at the expense of a normal social life. For relatively short periods, I sat on the board of a charity and was governor of a further education college, neither of which were paid. I’ve even done voluntary work at 2 o’clock in the morning as an Independent Custody Visitor, responsible for checking up on the welfare of detainees in London police stations. Anti-social hours went with the role because if independent inspectors were to arrive at predictable times, it rather defeats the object of the exercise.

Right now, I’d be reluctant to do any of these things. I run my own small business and can work the equivalent of six days a week quite easily. Any time I take out for David Cameron’s Big Society will inevitably be at the further expense of my wife and kids. And that, in my view, would be a big mistake.

So who can actually make the Tory-led coaltion’s Big Society idea work? There are only two groups of people that qualify. The first comprises those well-meaning, under-employed busybodies of the Hyacinth Bucket variety. Trouble is, they’re already doing voluntary work, so aren’t an untapped source of labour. And while they might step in to run a community library that’s being closed in the barrage of cuts, they’re unlikely to want to help someone to the toilet in a local care home when the budget for care assistants is slashed.

The second group is the unemployed. Figures out today show that youth unemployment is higher than it’s ever been, with a fifth of 16-24 year-olds out of work in the UK. I suspect that this the true conscript army Cameron intends to deploy in defence of the Big Society. The jobless will be forced to do unpaid work in exchange for their benefits and take the place of people who were previously paid. Instead of offering minimum wage to someone from the Philippines to work in the social care sector, we’ll use youngsters from Fazakerley and Finsbury Park instead and we’ll let them survive on benefits. There will be no prospect of progression to a real job. In this respect, Cameron and Clegg are pushing through a structural change in our society more profound and disturbing than anything managed by Margaret Thatcher in the days when Sheena Easton topped the charts.

Yet, strangely, the one thing that really strikes me about the Big Society rhetoric is that it lacks any intellectual ballast. Politicians obviously simplify ideas for public consumption, but these soundbites are often the expression of some kind of underlying philosophy. Thatcher, for all her faults, was an avowed free-market monetarist, inspired by the theories of Hayek and Friedman. Blair was a born-again social democrat and communitarian. You can read books on that kind of stuff too, if you’re so inclined. (I might even still have something by Amitai Etzioni somewhere in my garage.) ‘Big Society’, however, is just a pile of horse manure dumped on a road marked out by cones kindly left by that woeful footnote in British political history, John Major. You’ll remember that Major talked a lot about getting ‘back to basics’. Spend as long as you like in a university library and you won’t find a ‘basics’ section. It was a vacuous idea dreamt up for a government which had no notion of where it was going and a Prime Minister who appeared to have had his charisma drained in an unfortunate hospital mix-up.

Cameron says he doesn’t care if people don’t understand his Big Society. My feeling is that people understand perfectly and they can see right through it. On the other side, there’s a glimpse of what the UK will be like in five years time. Government services slashed. Charities told to pick up the pieces, but lacking the funds to do so. And a band of unwilling ‘volunteers’ – disproportionately young – sent in to fill the gaps.