Snow scuppers Cameron’s “big society”

It began as a flurry: a flake here and there, drifting on the wind. Soon it was falling faster and more heavily and beginning to settle. Before we knew it, we were in the midst of a media storm, headlines falling thicker by the hour. "Frozen Britain grinds to a halt," gusted the Daily Mail; "Why can't Britain cope?" drizzled the Daily Star; "Britain must get to grips with the weather," blustered the Times. Must it?

One journalist on the Guardian emailed another journalist on the Guardian to ask whether, if she came in to work that afternoon, she would be able to get home that night - and he promptly posted the completely dull email on his live Snow Blog. It was a novel form of snow blindness; journalists dazzled by their own significance. A television reporter filed an entire prime-time report about her inability to get to work. Whatever was getting stuck last week, it wasn't the drivel of journalists.

And among it all, the old canard: that all the other countries manage in the snow, so why can't we? Well they don't, actually. I was in Wyoming in the United States last month for the first snowfall of winter and everything ground pleasingly to a halt for two days. It was just like Britain, but with a bigger multiple pile-up on the interstate.

Gritted teeth

Amid the English slush, one small voice of sanity skidded from studio to studio, doing his best to spread a bit of grit. The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, sensibly, patiently and repeatedly pointed out that this amount of snow at this time of year was unpredictable; there was plenty of salt; there wasn't a lot more the government could do; and it would be expensive to have entire fleets of snowploughs (and their drivers) on standby for four months of every year.

So we were warned not to drive "unless absolutely necessary". We were warned to take the train home early. We were warned to keep warm. We were warned not to follow our satnavs blindly. We were warned not to walk on frozen lakes and ponds. Even the London Cycling Campaign felt compelled to offer its two penn'orth: "If you are cycling in the snow, ride slowly and take extra care. Use the central, gritted portion of the road where possible. Remember to face forwards." Actually I made that last sentence up - but only the last one. "Big society"? We are more like the big nursery. If I were David Cameron, contemplating my vision for a co-operative, responsible and self-reliant society, I would have been shivering from more than the cold last week.

One gust of snow, and the "big society" and its limitations are revealed in all their glistering illusion. In my village, stalwart attempts to clear a path to the pub were repeatedly foiled by fresh snow, freezing temperatures and new ice. It looked like a Cameron dream: the villagers out with their spades, working together (at least at the posh end of the village) to dig out the road. But as I write, it is a slick of ice and everyone is waiting for the council gritters to arrive. They will not come; there is no funding. Last year there was grit; this year, nothing. All the money has been poured into potholes after last year's snow.

Still the airwaves ring to the tune of people demanding that somebody - the government, local authorities, Hammond - Do Something. "Better planning!" demands the AA. "Get a grip," demands the opposition (tricky on all this ice). Clear the roads, renew the trains, open the schools, get Boris back from Zurich to sweep the runways: in other words, be a big government. Have an urgent review, wave a big wand, or at least a big spade. For the big society is too little to fix an icy path. Is this really the country where individuals are going to take over from the state to take care of the most vulnerable people in society?

Ace with spades

The other day I was reading a report about charitable funding. You have to take most reports on the subject with a large pinch of salt; people do not tell the truth when surveys ask them about how they give to charity. Some patterns, however, are known. For instance, women are more likely to donate than men (though men may donate more). Professionals and people with degrees are more inclined than manual workers and the lower-qualified to give to charities working overseas, environmental organisations and campaigning groups such as Amnesty - status giving.

Generally, however, people give to areas in which they have personal experience. So, pet owners often favour animal charities, somebody whose relative has had cancer will be more likely to consider a medical charity, women with dependent children support children's charities, and so on. People donate to things they know, or to people who look like them. And that is bad news for the poor, who not only are dull and unmodish, but cannot afford to donate to one another.

So, who in the "big society" will be looking after them? Will there be chaps with spades in Blackburn and Southend-on-Sea? The Third Sector Research Centre has been examining which charities rely most on big government, as opposed to individual largesse. It found that the ones most reliant on public funding are those working in the most deprived areas of the country, and which specialise in work that is decidedly unfashionable - with the socially excluded and vulnerable, the mentally ill, victims of crime, people with learning difficulties, or ex-offenders and the homeless.

These are the charities likely to be hardest hit by government cuts, the social gritters in the most vulnerable parts of Britain. And that is the trouble with the "big society", I thought as I slid my way to the pub: chaps with spades are all very well, but sometimes you need gritters and a snowplough.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus