Tesco’s Strawberries and a Big (Green) Society

This post was written by Richard on July 20, 2010
Posted Under: Food,Green Party,Public Sector,Tories

There’ve been some interesting posts around about the launch of the Big Society, from Harpy Marx and Anna Raccoon’s pieces on how it’s all to be funded, to the typically naive optimism of Left Foot Forward. Ed West at the Telegraph has an interesting spate of religion-bashing, though not half so daft as the knee-jerk ‘the muslims are everywhere’ approach of Harry’s Place. And as Reuben pointed out yesterday, A Very Public Sociologist does a good job of defending the idea of an actual big society.

However, what’s slightly gone under the radar is how we’ve been preparing for all of this for a while. What’s genuinely interesting is that no matter how see-through the Coalition’s vile politics are, the rise to counter-power seems stagnant and silent. Let’s re-cap on what the Big Society means, which I think I can do it in 2 points:

1) Stop Paying People for Doing Useful Jobs
The idea of pushing volunteering isn’t to instigate a tradition of community support, but is a way of stopping paying people for public services. Out with the librarians, in with the volunteering middle classes.

2) Give People with Useless Jobs More Control
The whole push on community control over all aspects of life is to make sure that private business can get a say in any of it. This way we can not only sell off parts of the state that would otherwise be really difficult (hospitals, the post office, schools, the remaining housing), but it also means that we can set up community trusts and boards which business execs can sit on, and control ‘local’ ammenities like pubs and newsagents.

However, the underlying ideology of all this is a bit more complicated and pernicious. It’s not just a recycling of One Nation Toryism, or anything entirely new either. Rather, I think the idea can be seen in a lot of green-austerity gumph quite clearly. As a good material example, here’s Tesco, the ruler of our stomachs:

militaristic jingoism

I saw this advert next to the 303 in Camberwell, a great arts space. We’d just been preparing various things for this year’s climate camp. What struck me was the pared down, austere feel of that little egg-box-punnet, the grey typeface used for even the usually brightly-coloured Tesco logo in the bottom right hand corner. Along with this, the clear One Nation circular sticker, with its slightly cuddly Union Flag, and the bold, imperative EVERY LITTLE HELPS motto. And of course the prominence of the word ‘British’ in the top left.

The whole advert is an appeal to WW2 British romantic sentimentalism, a vision of those glorious 1940s were ‘we’ all pulled our socks up and did what was best. There’s a real pride in doing with a bit less, but for a greater good. And it’s this same raw nationalism which engenders any sympathy for the big society of volunteering, all pitching in, no matter how crap the situation or out come.

I’ve seen this a lot in elements of the green movement, especially with Green Party members and think tanks, which push the idea of a big society based on ‘us all pitching in’, support the idea of the necessity of business in the face of climate change; the idea that we need capitalism on our side in this fight. So it’s typical that here we have Tesco’s natural image of native British strawberries jostling with militaristic austerity jingoism.

I’m not claiming that the suited-up members of the green movement got us into this ideological mess, but we need to look hard at how it is that, faced with the total decimation of a welfare state it took the best part of a century to win, the vast majority of people who have so much to lose (including the professional middle classes, e.g. journalists and civil society moguls) seem ready to tighten their buckles and buy their strawberries rather than make a red strawberry flavoured mess all over McKinsey‘s latest scheme. (Oh, sorry, I mean the Tory Party’s).

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Reader Comments

I think the first point is extremely important. The use of volunteer librarians etc. will not only effect those who lose their jobs. All public sector workers who ever dare ask for a pay rise will face a two pronged assault. On the one hand they will face a moral hurdle – along the lines of “look these community spirited types are working for free”. Materially, any labour negotiations will be conditioned by the reality that they could be replaced by the kept wives of the local elite.

Written By Reuben on July 20th, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

I’m not convinced that Ravey Davey isn’t sincere on this one. It reflects genuine, old-fashioned Conservative values – I think it’s far more about a change in how we live than a short-term money-saving idea. If it saves a few bob at a time of shortage, that would be a bonus, but if it’s implemented solely with that aim, it will be a failure.

This is about something far more fundamental than money. It’s about getting people involved more than it’s about getting them to volunteer. It’s about getting people to take responsibility, rather than relying on the government. Big Society is the flipside of the Labour coin of Big Government, and designed as an antidote to the Blairite nanny-state.

I have a horrible feeling that you’re right about how it’ll turn out, but I think this is one of those rare good ideas governments have – and, like all the others, it will be implemented so poorly it will seem like a bad one. I’m reminded of the one good idea Labour had in a decade – the Police Community Support Officers. In principle, it’s a great idea – a complementary force to do the old-style Dixon of Dock Green community involvement. In fact, we just ended up with untrained, cock-sure, officious jobsworths who couldn’t hack the real police force.

Written By Dave on July 20th, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

It’s not an antidote to anything, and there’s no good intention held by its architects. wake up dave.

Written By Richard on July 21st, 2010 @ 1:20 am

Ah, a fully reasoned response there.

Really, I’m amazed that you can talk about a ‘movement’ in the same paragraph that you slate ‘big society’ – can you not see that they’re part of the same thing?

Written By Dave on July 21st, 2010 @ 2:15 am
Sarah Hewson

When I first heard about the Big Society I was relieved. Relieved because I thought this might be – as Dave describes it: the ‘antidote’ to the nanny state. Society in this country has become so insular, selfish, shallow, materialistic and ‘me, me, me’, ‘my rights’, ‘what’s in it for me’, blah blah blah. People don’t even know, or even care who lives next door to them any more. Generations are now growing up with no knowledge of what it feels like to get involved with something meaningful and make a difference – and to feel counted. It’s THAT that gives us our self-worth and fulfilment – and NOT unlimited handouts by the state while we rot from apathy and low self-esteem.

I know it’s easy for those who can’t see past the end of their own nose to assume it’s a way of the government to ‘take’ something from people that they might not want to give – because they’ve probably never tried it before. An example is ‘James May’s Toy Stories’ where he gets a reluctant bunch of school children to roll up their sleeves and help him build a giant life-size Airfix Spitfire or a life-sized bridge made of Meccano. Many of the children don’t want to be there, or see why they should be there, and are more concerned about getting their shoes scuffed or their hair out of place. Once they’re involved though they change their minds, and by the end of it it is actually the most reluctant and awkward of kids who are in tears about what they’ve achieved and how (surprisingly) fulfilled they feel about being part of a team and seeing something through to the end.

The Big Society is more about a change in social attitude than anything else. It’s about sowing the seeds of a united and civilised society that actually cares about each other and what’s going on within it. It might just be the route to happiness, and we’re never going to know unless we give it a go.

Written By Sarah Hewson on February 14th, 2011 @ 10:15 am

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