Thursday, 4 September 2014

Let's #knitforBrooks!

"The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others."

Yes. Those words are from the first speech of the new Minister for Civil Society.

Just in case you didn't quite get that - this is the Minister for Civil Society:

"We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics. Some 99.9% do exactly that. When they stray into the realm of politics that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money."

Which is interesting, isn't it?

Exactly what, we might ask, does the Minister for Civil Society think 'civil society' is? And what, we might also ask, does he think 'politics' is?

It seems he has a quaint notion - perhaps he's watched too many period dramas - of 'civil society' as a little bit like a crudely stereotyped Women's Institute meeting (I've met the Women's Institute, and they're not like this, honest) where lots of little old ladies sit around knitting, chatting, and perhaps sometimes going out and giving a poor, homeless person a cup of tea and a sandwich.

'Politics', on the other hand, is clearly a professional activity for highly-trained people like himself, making important decisions and doing the real work of running the country - interrupted every 5 years or so by a brief collective ritual involving the rest of us.

Or perhaps that's how Brooks Newmark would like it to be. But of course, it's not quite like that, is it?

'Civil society', if it's a 'thing' at all, is all of us. Citizens. Little old ladies and homeless people, the Brooks Newmarks of the world and irritated vicars, and many, many more. And everything we do is political: our choices at the supermarket, and our conversations online; which neighbours we make friends with, and what we gossip about at the school gate; our choices to conform with the rules, or protest against them; who we give our money to, and what we spend our time and energy on... All of it knits the social fabric - aha! - in particular ways, nurturing what we value, excluding what we don't, making its little ripples through our social and economic relationships as far as people we don't know and will never meet.

What arrogance from a 'professional politician' to think that only people like him do 'politics'! And what naivety - I'm assuming, generously, that it's nothing more sinister - from the 'Minister for Civil Society', to suggest that 'civil society' should shut up and not dare to ask questions, or make criticisms or constructive proposals, about the social fabric that entangles all of us.

A little while ago, many of us sent pants to Iain Duncan-Smith, after it was discovered that he was struggling so much with his MP's salary that he needed to claim for his underwear on expenses.

So why don't we knit something for Brooks? Why don't we, as it were, sock it to him?

A bit of banter with a Quaker theologian friend Rachel Muers this morning suggested a number of possibilities:

Rachel Muers How about everyone who volunteers or works for a charity knits a square and writes a piece to go with it -"in the time it took me to knit this square, my charity has/I could have..." It would be better if they actually stopped doing what they normally do in order to knit ("we went back to knitting like you said") - but then large chunks of the social fabric would fall apart. Social fabric. Ah, I think we have the metaphor...

Rachel Muers Alternative suggestions: some sort of knit-in protest in Parliament Square; knitted puppets turn up at his next event to talk about what charities and civil society organisations do...

So who's up for it? Brooks Newmark would be ashamed of me, but I'm afraid I can't knit, yet. But I know some people who can, and I'm up for learning.

What do you think? Squares or socks?

But I love Rachel's suggestion of what we send with it. Something along the lines of:

"Dear Mr Newmark. I work/volunteer for xxxxxxx. As you suggested, me and my colleagues/fellow-volunteers went back to knitting - for a bit. In the time it took me to knit this square, my charity has/I could have done xxxxxxx. We're part of your 'civil society'. And we can't help being political, even if your government's Lobbying Bill would prefer we shut up. So here's a chunk of the social fabric that would fall apart without us. Do let us know what you're thinking of doing with it. Yours sincerely..."

And we love a good hashtag...

#socialfabric #knitforBrooks #sticktoyourknitting #sockittohim #politicalfabric #stitcheduppolitics #uncivilsociety... The possibilities are endless! (Although I guess one's probably better than lots!)

Who's in?!