Sometimes political writing seems to assume that most people are selfish and that there’s very little point in appealing to their altruism, because it may not exist. This leads to the conviction that only power can achieve any degree of justice, ignoring those who used to be referred to as “people of goodwill.” In the absence of goodwill, I believe, not much justice will ever be achieved, because small good things provide a basis for the larger ones.
“A small good thing” is the title of a marvellous story by Raymond Carver, in which a baker offers the bread he has just baked as a small good thing to a couple whose child has died. It is amongst the greatest things ever to have been written by an American because it expresses a profoundly democratic kindness.
There are traditions of civic kindness in the UK which should never be ignored in political thinking.
The lady who often serves me at the till in Tescos is a skilled first-aider who works with St John’s Ambulance to provide effective help at one of the local football stadiums. She does this with great cheerfulness, relishing the responsibility and the chance to use skills that are not often called upon in her daily work at Tesco. She is proud to be offering this unpaid service which is in no way inferior to any paid service that could be provided.
There are many similar traditions. I was talking last week to a man whose son is one the local lifeboat crew. He reminded me that not only does the crew give their work free of charge, but that the Lifeboat Association has to raise the funds for the vessels, which cost in excess of £1m. Many lives are saved every year. The mountain rescue service is another example of skilled labour proudly given for free. The Citizens Advice Bureau could not begin to provide its vital service to people in need without its trained volunteers.
I use the word traditions of these and many other forms of voluntary service because each one has a history, a modus operandi and an organisational structure which expresses a distinctive ethic, reminding citizens that there are some things that money cannot buy.
A local lawyer surprised me recently with an account of the quite extensive work that her firm does free of charge because it is for public or indiviidual good. She indicated that colleagues valued the opportunity to do such work, and gave it as much energy and skill as any paid assignment. This is a crucial benefit in situations where legal skill is essential but cannot be afforded.
There are other professions and trades who contribute free labour for specific causes. I know a medical doctor who provides a months work free of charge every year to a hospital in central Africa. He says it allows him to remember why he became a doctor.
I detest the paid fundraisers used by large charities. The use of them signals that the charity in question has lost its vision. But here, at Sainsbury’s today, is the man whose son is quadraplegic raising money for a small local charity that arranges holidays for such children. He is very grateful for the NHS but knows there are things it can’t do. He and his wife manage to find time from the ceaseless tasks of caring for their lad to administer an imaginative ancillary service, that requires substantial funds.
People say the old neighbourliness is disappearing but I saw countless instances of it in a Dundee housing scheme, where mums would provide free child care for other mums in difficulty. An older woman coming back home from hospital was overwhelmed with neighbours bringing her cooked food. Another older woman took into her house a boy whose parents had thrown him out after he was caught sellong drugs.
People who do these things are the salt of the earth, preventing society from becoming altogether rotten, and showing that kindness is possible, real and beneficial. They create hope that justice also can be done, for justice is more than kindness, but never less.