Last week David Cameron hosted a visit by the Dutch Prime Minister. Not to be outdone, I had a meeting yesterday with the deputy mayor of The Hague. He gave me (my first ever diplomatic gift) a lovely fountain pen.
The deputy mayor wanted to know about the Big Society, but he ended up teaching me something about job creation and citizenship. Ten years ago The Hague city government had a bright idea about how to deal with their jobless young. They drafted them into low-paid posts as park attendants and lollypop ladies.
The result was predictable but not, apparently, predicted. All the volunteers who used to help out in the park and at the school gates were made redundant by the army of young people on government schemes.
Now The Hague is looking to the Big Society for ideas on how to inspire citizen activism – and we are considering making the mistake they made ten years ago.
As the youth unemployment figure passed the million mark this week there are calls from all quarters to create jobs artificially, funnel the jobless young into temporary posts (whether paid or voluntary) designed to teach them the habits of work and, simultaneously, boost the economy (and no doubt reduce the NEET figures).
Why don’t we take a new approach to deprived communities, and treat them like we do deprived countries? They are similar: demographic imbalance (too many under 18s), tiny private sector share of the economy, inadequate banking systems, poor infrastructure, and of course chronic budget deficits (welfare transfers as the equivalent of foreign aid).
Treating poor neighbourhoods like poor nations has two positive implications. It means we treat them with some honour – not as basket cases to be forever propped up with welfare spending, but as potentially independent communities, capable of self-government and self-sustenance. And it means we don’t have to treat every neighbourhood the same, but can tailor a policy approach to local circumstances.
The idea isn’t mine but Stephen Brien’s, now an adviser to Iain Duncan Smith in the DWP and formerly at the Centre for Social Justice. He points out that much of the thinking around social renewal has focused on individuals and households, whereas a salient characteristic of entrenched poverty is its connectedness: everyone you know is poor. We should regard these communities as mini economies in their own right, and attempt to kickstart them in a way we do (or should) developing nations.
It should have been Ralph’s week, with the play inspired by his life opening at our theatre in King’s Cross, performed by his ex-offender peers. Instead Ralph is lost, somewhere in the trackless wastes of underworld England, on the run from the police again. I don’t know what happened, but they want him for a new offence and he simply doesn’t trust the system to give him a fair hearing.
Ralph is an illegal immigrant. We met him shortly after his release from prison two years ago. He already had two children by British girls, which meant he wasn’t immediately deported. In reality, if not in law, he is no more Nigeria’s child than Britain’s – born in Rwanda, a child refugee, he grew up a streetkid in Lagos until he saved enough money, aged 15, to buy a fake passport and a ticket to London. He is rootless, stateless, and now almost friendless – except for us, and we don’t know where he is.
Ralph’s re-offending, if that is what has happened, is a sad instance of the common theme for ex-prisoners – except it’s not so common for us. Independent research out next week shows that our charity, Only Connect, more than halves the national re-offending rate, from two thirds to a third of ex-prisoners. And we do this primarily through arts projects, especially theatre, which engages the most chaotic and prolific offenders in a way that more prosaic projects – vocational training, for instance – simply cannot.
DAVID CAMERON IS AT HIS BEST WITHOUT A SCRIPT
It’s only a part of me that’s happy to be in a low-end hotel room half a mile from the secure zone on the penultimate day of conference, typing an article for Conservative Home – rather than on the 4th floor of the Midland Hotel, polishing the leader’s speech and feeling pretty pleased with my status in life.
But then I remember the squalor. The devastated fruit bowls. The debris of coffee cups. The air-conditioned climate, alternately too hot and too cold. The sense of staleness of body and mind. A wise old hand told me once, in the manner of one passing on a cultic secret, ‘You can’t bring too many clean shirts to conference’.
And worst of all, of course, the speech itself. By today David Cameron’s team will be on draft 15 or 20 of a speech they began in August, and by now thoroughly detest. A dozen – two dozen – people will have seen it, chipped in, suggested changes, additions, deletions, jokes. And they are two dozen people a lot senior to you; they must be humoured, honoured; their jokes must be reverently conveyed into a draft with an exculpating square bracket indicating which witless Cabinet Minister thought it up, lest DC thought it was you.
The Marxist-Leninists have taken over the government, and this might, or might not, be a good thing.
It is the paradox of localism – a plan to hand away government power is inevitably going to involve the use of government power in conflict with local interests. So the schools revolution is in practice a land grab by Whitehall of the functions of town halls. Elected police chiefs are a direct challenge to the professional autonomy of local officers.
GP commissioning tears up the networks – albeit bureaucratic and unaccountable – which manage healthcare for a community. The same goes for the giant new systems for administering welfare: the Work Programme, involving a handful of whopping private firms appointed by ministers to deliver skills training; and the Universal Credit, the new combined mega-benefit with rates and conditions set, yes, in Whitehall.
So far, so what. These are huge changes designed to break up the vested interests that stifle progress and inhibit local autonomy. Naturally enough, localism is being pushed down through the structures of Whitehall. But the result is that we are getting decentralisation within the silos. Freedoms are being given, not taken, and the danger is that the true purpose of localism – the empowerment of communities – will be lost.
I funked it. Invited on Newsnight recently to discuss whether the Cameron government had abandoned its social liberalism, I blatantly wimped out. It was during the row over abortion, and I found myself arguing that Nadine Dorries MP was in fact, a liberal, because she wanted to widen the range of advisors that a pregnant woman could choose from.
Technically true, but a moral cop-out. The essence of Dorries’ proposal was not liberal except in the most abstract sense: the fact is she wants to discourage women from having abortions. Why I couldn’t say so, and applaud, proved to me just how strong the liberal culture is, and just how weak at least one social conservative is in the face of it.
Liberalism evolved as a strand of politeness. Political correctness – the extreme of liberal non-judgementalism – has appeal because it is grounded in the attitude of decency. The rage that liberals often display towards those who question their views on abortion, for instance, or gay rights, is understandable in this context: they simply cannot believe that someone would presume to meddle in the deeply private affairs of another person. Abortion and sexuality are, by this view, self-regarding not other-regarding issues; and so others should keep out.
It’s a compelling argument but a wrong one. No man, no woman is an island; we exist by and for our relationships; even the most private act changes us, and thus impacts others; so although we should defend individual freedom and the person’s right to choose, those choices should not be beyond challenge, beyond disapprobation. There are no self-regarding acts.