Oy, Dave! Down here!
By now we’ve probably all heard of the phrase The Big Society being used by David Cameron and his coalition government. At best we might have a warm fuzzy feeling about what it means, at worst we haven’t got a clue either what it is or how it can be achieved. Somewhere in the middle is a suspicion that, if we say ‘yes’ (without really knowing what we’re saying ‘yes’ to) we are about to be programmed by an Orwellian bunch of ex-public school kids and a sprinkling of American academics.
Scepticism aside, I’m going to look at one or two achievable factors that mean we don’t have to wait to be told by the grown-ups in parliament how to create a Big (little) Society nearer home.
Firstly we need to assess who we are and where we’re coming from. Clearly this is a job for sociologists, psychologists, and Mr and Mrs Poinsettia who lives at number 43 and have very twitchy curtains. So let’s keep it simple.
A cat food manufacturer came up with one of the most enduring tag lines of the 20th Century. ‘Eight out of ten owners say their cats prefer it’. Eighty/twenty is also a broad enduring economic (Wilfredo Pareto) balance in the sense that eighty percent of the profit of your average company is earned by twenty percent of the customers, eighty percent of the land is owned by twenty percent of the people etc. There are, of course, exception to these big brush strokes, but funnily enough they usually come in at twenty percent!
How is this relevant to us as a micro or macro society? Because I believe cats number one to eight are fundamentally good hearted, instinctively generous and polite people who understand that a team is greater than the sum of its parts. Cats nine and ten are included but are the exception that prove the rule. Cat number nine will never entertain an idea of unfounded origin (NIH or ‘not invented here’, as my old dad would say). Cat number ten understands precisely what the other cats are on about, but for their own reason, choose to remain outside the broader philosophy of good community. It gets a bit complicated should somebody ‘corner’ cat number three or their kittens. They may temporarily appear like cat number ten.
Secondly, we all need a song sheet to sing from. I can already hear cat number nine getting suspicious, but at this stage I’m only offering to lend them my car, I’m not telling them where they have to go with it.
Whether negotiating a deal with a driver at a zebra crossing, a business transaction, across the dinner table with the family, or planning a military campaign, if we all knew where we, and all the other b****** were coming from, we could actually rub along quite well together. If this all sounds either a bit vague or a bit pink and fluffy, just bear with me because it can and does get very specific, and even road kill is pink and fluffy for a while.
The wheel has already been invented. Try as we might to improve it, we keep coming back to the round type that’s secured in the centre.
I’m suggesting that there are six spokes of our song sheet/wheel. These six basic tenets are not a just a philosophy, process or system, they are a ‘way’. For ease of reference I’m going to call it The Milland way. They are Observation, Intervention, Communication, Immunisation, The Cathartic Experience, and finally, ‘What’s the best or worst that can happen’? With a little further explanation it quickly becomes apparent that we do these things already. We’ve already taken ownership of the things in our cupboard. Entertaining the idea of the song sheet and a further metaphor, we can, if we so wish, empty it out, look at things again, discard what we don’t need, and put it all back in a way we can get at them when we need to. Before I get down to some specific examples I’d just like to point out two things. Firstly, our national economy seems to be dictated by both our individual and collective mood. If we’re worried, we don’t buy, invest or invent. If the financial markets are worried they turn their backs on us and the institutions we rely on. We know this, and so we obviously need to start thinking outside the box.
Here’s a ridiculous idea for you.
Thanking somebody when they have stopped for you at a Zebra Crossing is one of myriad routes to economic success. A ludicrous thought at first. But let’s assume I’m the driver of the car who’s just pulled up at the Zebra crossing to stop for somebody. They walk across and don’t bother acknowledging my self-imposed delay. Should they thank me by law? No, by law I should have stopped. Is it polite to thank the driver? Yes, it’s how I was brung up. Does it get to me. Yes, a tiny weeny bit. How do I feel if they do thank me? It lifts me a little. If a youngster thanks me, it lifts me a lot. In other words, if my numerous other daily interactions with my fellow citizens lifts me a little, I am going to be happier. And if I’m happier etc…..extrapolate. Multiply this tiny example by a billion and I hope you’re beginning to see where I’m going. If the pedestrian was familiar with The Milland Way and the six tenets, they would acknowledge that the driver is fulfilling their part of the drivers code (Observation). They don’t normally thank the driver because they’re exercising their legal right, but this time they’re going to (Intervention). They thank the driver (Communication). They’ve heard that even the smallest of actions can have an accumulative effect on the big picture (Immunisation). They are going to be absolutely honest with themselves about what they want society to be and their part in it (The Cathartic Experience). They move on. Maybe nothing has happened, but there again, maybe it has (What’s the best or worst that can happen?). At the very least there may have been an acknowledgement by all concerned that ‘we’re all in this together’. With a little bit of practice one can map the six tenets onto a thousand different scenarios.
Let’s stay with the ludicrous. You’ve had your pint of beer in the pub and you’re up to the legal limit to drive. You pop to the loo before you go but when you get back to bid your farewells, your friend has bought you another pint of beer. Go through the six tenets re the life changes brought about by losing your driving licence, killing somebody, getting killed etc.
A child could be inspired to use the six tenets to become the managing director of their own lives, stop a bully, save a friends’ life by the roadside etc.
Secondly, from A & E departments, coroner’s reports and public enquiries through to lost time at work, a small reduction in domestic or industrial accidents would save us billions and billions of pounds.
A young fit labourer on a building site may rightly be pleased with their ability to whizz up and down ladders at high speed or carry heavier loads, defend their friends or family from violent intervention. The problem is, if they continue operating like that, they’re heading for a wheelchair, where any ability to aid their weaker brethren or children is more or less nullified. It can be suggested to them, but more importantly, they can come to the same conclusion themselves.
Our society is comprised of a glorious eclectic mix of people. The critics of using a similar song sheet would suggest that the task would be like herding cats. I agree. At this level The Milland Way stops being a method of me not cutting myself with a sharp knife, and one of herding cats in the back of a truck going up the M1 i.e a philosophy. Most cats are included and travelling in the same direction, with only twenty percent either trying to get off or are left behind waiting for a truck with their name on it.
I believe that the ultimate selfish act is to do something unselfish. A baby is totally egocentric. A toddler starts to bring us little presents because they enjoy our reactions. Driving is the largest daily participation activity in modern society. One extra act of courtesy (Observation, Intervention, Communication), however irksome, benefits us on three levels. One, we know that our act is a demonstration of a ‘we’re all in this together’. Two, we know we will benefit from eight out of ten people allowing us to go first, eight times out of ten. Three, liken our traffic system to a blood circulation system and it doesn’t take much to work out that the ‘body’ would operate faster and more efficiently leading to directly to better economic health (Immunisation, The Cathartic Experience, What the best or worst that can happen?).
Any one six of the tenets can be the dominant factor in different situations. One of my favourites is that of the Cathartic Experience. If one of a gang of youths on a sink estate were to realise that they were bored with their life of parochial thuggery, The Milland Way suggests that they keep quiet about it. Don’t say a word. Just decide where you think you might want to be (or where you want your kids to be), quietly seek out a possible source of inspiration, and privately take the first step. It’s a cinch by the inch and hard by the yard. We so often don’t do things because we don’t want to be publically ‘dug out’ and possibly ridiculed or excluded.
From road signs to advertising, I’m ‘nudged’ on a daily basis by a not so liberal paternalist society. I accept responsibility for this by not kicking up a fuss about paying my taxes, buying a shiny new bauble which will make my life complete or not phoning up Radio Five Live to vent my spleen. I accept that if I let David Thaler and Cass Sunstein into my head then I also have to take full personal responsibility. But while all this ‘top down’ psycho wizardry is going on I find myself contemplating a huge social void. That people like me (blue collar, family man, wouldn’t normally say boo to a goose) have to start singing (or meowing) from the same song sheet, so that, if the kind of big (and economically successful) society I would want my kids to live in starts to emerge, it can only come from the ground up, not the other way around, and when all is said and done, eight out of ten isn’t a bad pass mark. I was invited up to meet David Camerons’ Behavioural Insight Team in Whitehall. They were very nice to me, but talk about rabbit and headlights…….
There’s good and bad news when examining the origins of The Milland Way. The good news is that it’s been sourced by a real live ‘blue collar’ Lock keeper (on the River Avon just outside Bristol). It doesn’t get much more ground floor than that. The bad news is that it’s been sourced by a real live ‘blue collar’ Lock keeper with no letters after his name and who hates long words.
The Milland Way – Copyright G.Milland – All rights reserved