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Faith and community
15 November 2012

A big society or a bankrupt NHS – the choice is ours. Boles was wrong to castigate Phillip Blond

In an interview in last week’s Spectator, the Conservative MP and Cameroonian cheerleader, Nick Boles, expressed some bracing views on the ‘modernisation’ project that he himself was a part of:

  • “Boles concedes that ‘for classic, relatively low income, Midlands and northern towns and cities there was something missing’. He blames this on the modernisers being ‘very carried away with – which were very much the media-zeitgeist – the chocolate oranges in W.H. Smith and some of the environmental messages and the work/life balance stuff and all of that. We got side-tracked a bit from what is now clear should be our proper concern… we didn’t have a strong economic message.’ They were, he says, perhaps ‘overly obsessed’ with university-educated professionals in Cambridge, and not attentive enough to ‘the hard-working strivers’.”

Some fair points here, but who, in particular, does Boles blame for this failure of vision? David Cameron? George Osborne? Himself? No, none of those. Instead, his scapegoat of choice is the political thinker Phillip Blond:

  • “He moves on to the Cameroons’ flirtation with ‘Red Toryism’, a mix of social conservatism and economic communitarianism. Or, as Boles puts it, ‘That Phillip Blond nonsense we indulged in… Phillip Blond and others… sort of hoodwinked us into thinking there was some interestingly new type of Conservative who wasn’t obsessed by costs and making people’s wage packets go further…”

Let’s leave aside the reality that a “mix of social conservatism and economic communitarianism” is a pretty good description of voter values in “relatively low income, Midlands and northern towns.” Let’s ignore the fact that Blond defined the Conservative mission as creating “a capitalism that works for the poor”, when the Cameroons were still chasing those “university-educated professionals in Cambridge”.  Let’s even move on from the blindingly obvious truth that turning rhetoric into reality is the job of government ministers, not think tank directors.

Instead of all of that, let’s remind ourselves that what used to be the central idea of Cameronism – the big society – is still of central importance to the future of our nation. Furthermore, it is important in terms of practical outcomes, not just in a philosophical sort of way. Take, for instance, the issue of healthcare and its long-term impact on our public finances.

Over the coming decades it is predicted that, as our population gets older, the diseases of old age – such as dementia – will place ever greater demands on the NHS. Thus, if we are not be overwhelmed by the financial consequences, we need solutions and we need them soon.

But what relevance does the big society have here? Well, we do need more volunteers to get involved with the fight against dementia, as David Cameron called for last week; but, apart from that, isn't the main challenge one of scientific research?

Perhaps not. Harry Boothby is a dementia researcher, and in a significant article for Standpoint, he argues that though conditions such as Alzheimer’s are linked to physical changes in the structure of the brain, the extent to which people succumb to these changes is influenced by social factors:

  • “Another longitudinal study being carried out in Chicago has recently published findings linking the density of a person's social network to their vulnerability to plaques and tangles. At post mortem it was found that the individuals with dense social networks were less severely demented than their counterparts with smaller social networks even though they had the same tangle density in their brains.”

It should be stressed that this is an observation that applies across a population, not to each and every person with dementia. Furthermore, our understanding of the relationship between chronic medical conditions and social factors is clearly in its infancy. And, yet, it is not unreasonable to suggest that an atomised society of increasingly isolated individuals is, both metaphorically and literally, an unhealthy one.


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