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Trumpet voluntary

James Cary


It's always galling when politicians unite and start clubbing private companies for wasting money. MPs have been calling on G4S to forgo their £57m fee after their high-profile Olympics blunder. But G4S's main error is that they weren't anywhere near clever enough to get away with wasting such a small amount of money. The politicians, masters of misdirection, know how to waste much more with much greater subtlety.

Let us remember two numbers. When the games were won for London, the budget was £2.4 billion. Bafflingly, VAT and the security costs were omitted from this. But when the games were held, the budget was £11b. You have to admire the cheek. In June 2012, the government had the nerve to announce that the games were under budget by £476m, omitting to mention the original budget had been inflated by £9 billion. And then there's the imaginary economic benefits that they always claim, and yet have not one shred of evidence for.

I'm not arguing that the Games should not have been held. But it's worth remembering that the costs were wildly underestimated. And the costs would have been even greater were it not for the army of volunteers (as well as the army of actual soldiers on security) who were rightly applauded for their efforts. They were a marked contrast from the posturing magnanimity of the corporate sponsors who only put in £2b of the budget, although you'd assume they'd paid for everything given the fawning praise and thanks they received at every turn.

One legacy of the Olympics is, perhaps, the shot in the arm that it has given to the idea of  'volunteering'. One could be forgiven for thinking that this idea could be folded into some kind of political philosophy. But of course it already has been. It was called the Big Society. It's a decent idea, albeit ill-defined and half-baked. It sounds something like this: 'Real change is not what government can do on its own; real change is when everyone pulls together, and where we all exercise our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our communities and others.' These are reasonable words.

But David Cameron said them. He's an old Etonian who became prime minister so we have to despise them. The very words 'Big Society' are associated with Tories, private wealth, public schools, powerful friends and tax avoidance. 'The Big Society' is just a fig leaf for tax cuts so the wealthy can all go out and buy a slightly bigger yacht. So whatever they say, we're against it. At least, this is childish attitude taken by many of the people I follow on Twitter, many of whom are witty, influential opinion-formers.

When certain news stories crop up, vitriolic flaming jibes are fired at the straw men of The Right along the lines of 'Where's your stupid capitalism now?' and 'The market will never help people like these.' Their assumption is that the Right believe that the unfettered market will solve all of society's ills and that they therefore cannot believe in volunteering or the Big Society or even the state. But the Right understands markets - including the limits of market, just as it understands the limits of the state. Or at least it should.
Matters are not helped by statistics presented in a profoundly unhelpful way.

The charity Carers UK and the University of Leeds, estimated that 6.4 million people in the UK are providing care for ill, elderly or disabled loved ones. That's one person in ten and no great surprise. They went to say that this voluntary care would otherwise cost the state 'a staggering £119 billion every year'. Why would you put it in these terms, unless you thought that the state should be caring for every single person for every hour or every day? Not even the most unreconstructed socialist would argue for this dehumanized state of affairs.

Caring for an elderly parent, or someone who is ill or disabled, is serious task. It is a something we can chose not to do. But doing it is not ultimately 'saving the state money' or even volunteering. It's called being a parent, or a responsible child, or a brother or sister, friend or neighbour. Ultimately, it's being human - or at least being the people we were created to be. Christians do not have the monopoly on volunteering, but we do believe in a God of grace who freely gives of himself. And you cannot put a price on that.

James Cary