My thanks to the reader in (I think) Belfast who was kind enough to write in sympathy with my loathing of excess television, but also my apologies. I try to reply to the reasonable, wellwritten correspondence I receive, even when it’s hostile, but this gentleman’s letter had been opened less than an hour when my three-yearold conscientously put it in the recycling bag, and it was whisked away to save the planet, doubtless in the nick of time, before I’d noted his name and address.
But small children are like that. As soon as they can walk they start wanting to help, dutifully transferring piles of clean clothes from the ironing bin to the laundry basket, lifting heirloom dinner plates from the dishwasher with their fingertips and so forth. Why it should make them feel grown up, when the average adult performs domestic chores with a heavy heart and much resentful muttering, and only as displacement or through fear of their spouse, is a mystery. But it goes deeper than that: the tots crave inclusion through responsibility, and the worst thing parents can do is tell them to leave it alone because they don’t know what they’re doing and are just getting in the way. That will only cause feelings of frustration, rejection and uselessness, a poisonous cocktail that can result in a life-long indolent sulk. So while we draw the line at letting our daughter loose with the power drill, or calling on her assistance when our guests need another bottle of bubbly opened, we do let her rally round with the low-risk stuff, and clearing up the consequent damage. It won’t be long before we’re grateful.
This, of course, is just treating children like the soon-to-be adults they are, on the principle that if you want people to behave responsibly they must be given responsibilities, and it is as crucial to the philosophy of government as to that of parenthood. In both cases a culture of dependency undermines independence, and never is this more horribly manifest than when the two overlap, and the state tells parents that it knows better than they how to bring up their children: if just two succeeding generations believe that lie, then the wisdom of the family is lost, the lie becomes true, and the state has made itself indispensable to a few more blighted lives.
But this is not just about boxticking health visitors and statutory, vomitiferous cocooning in the back seats of cars. More general examples are every where, from people who are so browbeaten by the cult of “expert” officialdom that they check the sell-by date on a pot of cream in the fridge instead of sniffing it, to those who call out their GP for the common cold, to the third generation of professional benefit claimants who have been brought up to believe that the state is obliged to provide for them, and complain of its parsimony.
I’m all for the Conservative, now Coalition, idea of the Big Society; those who carp that it’s just about saving money are not wrong, but I would argue that it’s about saving money it was no business of government to spend in the first place, and the hard times brought about almost entirely by Labour’s ideological drive for national bankruptcy have suddenly made the dream of a philosophically consistent faction an urgently necessary mainstream policy.
My only worry is whether there are enough stalwarts, unweakened by all those years of ratchet statism, left in Britain to make it work. The people who rose to the war effort 70 years ago were schooled in the Depression and understood the ethic of working harder and more cleverly for less; but when Nigel Lawson liberated the nation from an oppressive tax regime in 1986 a generation unused to having control of its own money went bananas, and created a credit boom and bust. Inviting people to take more responsibility for their own communities, the things they want to happen in their own villages and towns, in their schools and on their streets, is a thumping good idea, but there has been precious little opportunity for citizens to learn the skills needed to make such a shift in power workable, and not just over the last 13 years.
In other words, there are going to be a lot of broken plates. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it in the long run. If we stick with it, we might all become adults again.