So much for a nation of volunteers

Evangelists of the Big Society would have been dismayed by the annual meeting of my local parish council last week. Once a year, a community of almost 1,500 people has the chance to comment on the running of two villages. This year there were important matters to discuss – plans for a major development nearby, priorities for new housing, changes to some common land used by parishioners.

There were 15 there on the night. Take away from that number serving councillors and those of us who were there to report on particular matters, and the public attendance could be counted on the fingers of one badly mangled hand.

At one point, the chairman reminded the meeting that there remained a vacancy on the council. There was much staring at the floor. I, and probably others in hall, thought of meetings about holes in the road, or the great litter crisis, and reflected on how those who volunteer tend to be regarded within the community – not with gratitude but with low-level suspicion. Busybodies, probably. Do-gooders. Or nimbies, out for themselves.

It is a general picture. In many parts of the country, the local council elections of 5 May will be rendered largely meaningless by a lack of candidates. Of the 550 parish and town wards in Norfolk and Waveney, for example, 90 will be decided on polling day. In some areas, not a single person volunteered to stand. There is a similar pattern in other parts of the country.

If a soundtrack for our times were released, it would surely have to be entitled Apathy in the UK. The same lack of interest in local elections has been evident in the bleary indifference to the question – rather important, one might think – of changing Britain’s voting system. A reporter in Chesterfield had difficulty finding anyone with a view on the subject.

“The way they have explained AV, it’s like solicitors’ talk ,” a bored non-voter eventually told him. “It’s too complicated and looks as if they are hiding something. As for Clegg. Well, if he were on fire, I wouldn’t chuck a bucket of water on him.”

Even the pomp and silliness of a royal wedding, usually an excuse for a wallow in nostalgic sentimentality, has this year failed to get Britain off its bum. A few half-hearted street parties have been organised, but most people will spend the day slumped in front of the TV or (rather sensibly, in my view) ignoring the whole thing.

Of course, the blame for this national ennui and cynicism is always elsewhere: the MPs, the bankers, the recession, Nick Clegg. The Archbishop of Westminster has blamed the cuts. This array of tired excuses is wearing thin. It is a year since the electorate voted in a government which favoured volunteerism. Since then, levels of community involvement have, if anything, declined. Perhaps we should simply admit that the British are, by nature, slobbishly anti-social. Distrustful of authority, we prefer to maunder on pointlessly about the unfairness of life rather than do anything about it.

We will protest – we are rather good at being against things – but, as soon as there is any suggestion that the best way of improving a situation is to become involved, then we drift away, muttering excuses. The less we do ourselves, the more we moan about what is not being done by others.

Television reflects the same small-society priorities: how to make money from antiques, how to decorate our homes, what to stuff into our mouths at dinner time. We pride ourselves on our generosity but the giving is of an easy, showy kind – splashing the cash in a TV charity-fest.

It might just be argued that social apathy reflects a nation of proud individualists. If that is the case, we might at least have the grace to complain a little less about the society which we have helped to create.

Independent, Tuesday, 19 April 2011