When David Cameron first uttered the phrase ‘the big society’, even my jaded ears pricked up by a micron or so. Did he mean, I wondered, the rollback of government? Had some wonk in a focus group accidentally chanced across the idea that the voter might actually prefer to have less state-funded botheration in her life rather than more? Of course, now we know that what the Prime Interferer intended was to turn half the workforce into a sort of mass unpaid internship, this seems laughable, but it’s still instructive to note what happens when small groups of individuals strive to maintain their own communities without the harness of centralised government.
I’ve owned a 40-foot narrow boat for over ten years, seven of which I lived on the canal.
This type of domicile is a legal grey area, and I had a small piece published on the subject in Standpoint last year. In a nutshell, boaters are the greenest people outside of eco-fanatics living like self-righteous Hobbits in solar-powered bunkers. The sound of applause and encouragement from the public sector, though, is far from deafening.
Now, a group of boaters in and around London's Lea Valley are being actively threatened with the type of social cleansing which will soon spread to other canals if successful there. Included in the target area are boaters who are raising families afloat. British Waterways [BW], who administer the canals but think they own them, are answerable to DEFRA, which should give you an idea of the level of competence at play here. BW is one of the high-profile logs on the so-called "bonfire of the quangos", and is seeking to escape the flames by taking on charitable status. Before it suffers this indignity, however, it wants to settle some old scores.
Under cover of the Olympics and the desire to rid the area of brothels, squats and other socially undesirable dwellings, BW is seeking new powers to remove the right of boaters to live as they choose on the waterways. Though this should not be seen as one of the Evil Tory Cuts™, it has to be said that boaters tend to have a very left-wing default position, and it won’t stop them doing just that. A blog which flagged up the plight of the Lea Valley boaters, for example, was criticised for displaying a "No to AV" button despite the help it was offering. But this attempt to rid the canals of everyone but families on expensive hire-boat holidays and weekend boaters with shiny brass chimneys and yachting club caps goes right back to the glory days of the Blairocracy, although it's accelerating under the current coalition.
Boaters, though, are a resourceful bunch, and are fighting back with meetings, press coverage, legal consultations, alternative plans for waterways development and a general attitude that they are not going to take it. Canal dwellers probably do as much for the upkeep of the towpath as BW, and my boat licence pays BW to do their work. I've seen boaters moor up and immediately clean the rubbish off the towpath, something I've done myself. You get the occasional headbanger who attempts to turn the canalside into a cross between a car-boot sale in Albania and a Gdansk shipyard, but generally boaters are attentive to their local environment and, as mentioned, the lifestyle is so green you could play snooker on it.
Governments of our modern, third-way, neosocialist, trickle-up variety hate this kind of autonomy. All those people with no addresses. How can they be fined for putting the wrong recycling in the wrong bin? What are they doing growing their own vegetables and producing their own heat? What if they evade the census, on which I have not appeared since I was a small boy. How is the nanny state supposed to function, intrude and hector if the children are learning to walk by themselves?
So, three cheers for the big society. Just don’t be foolish enough to actually try it.