If you are a member of the tracksuited classes – unlikely I know – and live on a council estate or in a tower block, you are somewhere on a slippery slope between deprivation and depravity. To put it bluntly, you are a Baby P or a Shannon Matthews waiting to happen. Or, at least, that is the prejudice indulged by commentators (not naming names) and policy makers alike.
And yet, for all the vile underclass bashing that has become so fashionable in liberal circles of late, we have in this country what can only be described as a “dependency culture”.
What should concern us is not so much the moral failings that some would have the welfare state implicit in, or even the drain on the public purse that it necessarily exacts – but rather the tragic waste of human potential that a culture of dependency creates. But the welfare state is only a small part of what is a wider problem of dependency.
Such is the esteem in which communities – “broken” or otherwise – are held these days, that more and more of us are seen as rather troublesome and inadequate.
So apparently prone are we to addictive and abusive behaviour, that many of us – so we are told – are heading for emotional as well as financial meltdown as the credit crunch bites. So while the recent welfare reforms suggest a hardline approach to the workshy, there is a rhetorical ambivalence elsewhere as to whether it is altogether a good idea for people to be independent.
There is, for instance, the ban happy approach to bad habits – be it smoking, binge drinking, or saying “bad” things in public.
And there is the slightly more subtle way in which choice and control are taken out of people’s hands, by “nudging” us in the right direction. Whether it is attitudes to junk food, recycling or energy use, we are clearly not to be trusted to make all sorts of decisions for ourselves. The message seems to be that we are actually rather pathetic creatures who don’t know what’s good for us and who willfully disregard the welfare of others.
But surely the government never tires of saying how it wants to involve people in decision making and hand over more power to people in their communities? Even the Conservative leader, David Cameron, describes himself as a “confirmed localist” who would like to see greater devolution to local neighbourhoods. Surely this represents a vote of confidence by the political class in our capacities not only to hold our local representatives to account, but to take control over our lives and act in a publicly spirited manner?
According to a press release announcing the publication of the New Opportunities white paper, no more will it be a matter of “residents having initiatives done to them”. From now on, the government wants to “empower communities to respond locally to the problems they face” and to “help themselves”.
In this same spirit, some of the initiatives announced as part of the local government reforms do seem to suggest that we will have more say over how things are run – and that can only be a good thing. Plans range from public hearings to participatory budgeting, from question time-style debates in town halls to requiring councillors to respond to petitions.
But it is the content of those public deliberations, rather than the form that they take, that is all important, that tells us what the authorities really think of us plebs. It is what we’re to be trusted with and what we are being asked to make decisions about that really matters.
If the kinds of things politicians want to engage us in at the moment are anything to go by, then the terms of engagement will be narrow indeed. Despite the rhetoric of “strong and prosperous communities” and “communities in control”, it is a parochial vision of community life that the government apparently has in mind.
Instead of an opportunity to transform neighbourhoods for the better, there is a top-down opportunism, a desperate attempt to make politics out of anxious communities, out of people’s already heightened insecurities about neighbourhoods falling apart.
As the white paper says, for all the New Opportunities that are just waiting for pepole out there, there are some who are just too used to disadvantage and too lacking in the confidence to do something about the dire straits they find themselves in.
Because “lower expectations and low self-esteem can hold people back”, you might reasonably conclude that they can’t help themselves and will, after all, need to have more “initiatives done to them”. In which case, this is not so much New Opportunities, as a confirmation of what I would describe as the New Dependency. By new, I mean there is more to the problem of dependency than that familiar 1980s folk devil, the welfare scrounger.
Indeed, we need to challenge a prevailing official prejudice of our own times that is far more damaging and pervasive – the self-fulfilling prophecy that deems us all as increasingly inadequate and potentially beholden to the state and its appointed experts for “support”.
While there are some very real problems in our society and in our political culture – problems that need fixing – we would be foolish to invite more intervention into our lives, on account of this diminished view of ourselves as broken, fragile, needy individuals who just can’t cope with life anymore. That really would put us on the slippery slope to dependency.