“While people like the idea of the big society, they are too busy doing other things to make it happen.”
Ben Page of Ipsos MORI
Apart from getting the result wrong in about half the cases and all the Elections, research companies sometimes seem to go out of their way to be treated like wide-eyed adolescents. Either that, or the above quote from pollster Ben Page was a deliberate attempt to be ironically obvious. Anyway, this corker from Ben made me laugh out loud, and reminded me of the reaction of one witness to a crime I was trying to persuade to testify last Autumn.
“I don’t wanna get involved” said this chap, “but if you wanna clean this town up then I’m very happy for you to do it”.
Thanks like anything, chum. But it is of course what almost everyone’s experience has been in every culture for the last 5000 years: whether exemplified by the Good Samaritan or Gary Cooper in High Noon, a good man is hard to find when the bad guys are coming.
It’s part of research’s job to state the obvious, but I’d feel better about (one of) my former professions if that were merely the precursor to something useful later on in such reports. It certainly wasn’t in this case. Po-faced to the end, the Ipsos Mori study – based on numbers and focus groups – concluded:
‘Large proportions say the public should be more involved in local and national decisions, but only 5 per cent want active involvement and even fewer – perhaps 2 per cent – have actually done so in practice.’
Or put another way, “You jump into the cesspit, and I’ll hold your coat”.
But there are two old and important lessons to learn all over again from this research. The first is ‘watch what people do, not what they say’. This is where a good, intuitive Tory strategist would’ve chucked out The Big Society on day one: apart from the fact that it’s too dense a thought for the knuckle-draggers, it just ain’t what people want to do in their spare time. They might – if the culture hadn’t fixated them on material comforts for the last sixty years – but not if they’re working their knackers off ten hours a day just to stand still. Only sad people want to be Councillors and MPs.
Talking of whom, the second lesson to relearn from these results is that fey, middle-class, starry-eyed and not-quite-real politicians are going to have exactly those kind of ideas. Just as Michael Foot, Bertrand Russell, Lord Longford and his silly niece Harriet Harman entertain potty ideas about human nature on the Left, so too liberals like Blair, Cameron, Dame Joan Bakewell and Nick Clegg can’t get their heads around one simple notion: life’s not like that.
I remember groaning when Tony Blair said he would ‘shame’ feral yobs with ASBO orders. I remember throwing a slipper at the telly when Patricia Hewitt said she expected GPs to use whopping pay rises to invest in their surgeries. And I remember seething when I read some of the NHS buying practices leaked to me by a kind soul in 2008. Each of these could be summed up in the two words ‘utter naivety’.
Please don’t mistake this for cynicism. I’m not your Thomas Hobbes fan, not me. It simply goes back to my mantra: ‘It’s the culture, stupid’. Until the economic aims, familial behaviours, banking practices, closed elites and amoral media are changed by being placed in a culture that isn’t ‘totally relaxed in the company of the filthy rich’, public-spirited and honest folks in public life will remain few and far between. The Frank Millers will ride into town, shoot the sheriff dead…and then ride out again – unmolested by policeman too busy falsifying their crime stats to notice, and lots of townspeople holding coats behind sofas.