Gina Davidson: Big Society has turned spiteful

YOU know I’ve always thought that, in general, people were nice. Good folk, who wanted the best for themselves and everyone else.

Obviously there were the occasional exceptions to that rule – the bullies, the racists, the homophobes, the bankers, the Tories who introduced the poll tax – but all in all I have lived 41 years with the idea that the majority of folk just want to get on with their lives and, like the Hippocratic oath states, do no harm.

Perhaps that was naive, but it feels like there’s been a serious shift, a hardening in attitudes. We appear to live in a country where people are encouraged by those who should know much, much better, to hate others, to be envious, to destroy lives.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

From the absolutely appalling online abuse received by academic Dr Mary Beard after she appeared on last week’s Question Time, to the apparent growing belief that people struggling to live on benefits are all just worthless work-shy shirkers; from the little Englander mindset which has potentially set the UK on a course to leave the EU, to the Atos reports which state disabled and ill people should be working right before they die; and now the encouragement of Lothian and Borders Police to tell tales on anyone you think might be doing a bit better than they deserve. . . it’s all a rhetoric of spite and envy, to polarise people and opinion. It makes me despair.

What has happened to generosity of spirit? The kind of spirit which started the welfare state, the NHS, that believed in free education for all? Has it really been replaced by a miserly, mean, narrow, blinkered view on the world and everyone in it?

People are rightly still furious about the way the banking crash has affected the economy and their lives. So many have lost jobs, homes and lifestyles they worked hard to achieve. Some have managed to find work, many have not. There was a time when having to rely on the crutch of benefits to see you through the hard times was accepted. Now it seems anyone claiming any kind of government help is regarded with suspicion.

There is no doubt some people do not want to work, but they are the same people who didn’t want to work before this era of austerity kicked in. Not your neighbour who happened to lose their job through no fault of their own and is desperate to get back to work. So why treat them as if they are a leper?

Yes, there are plenty of people who live beyond their means, but does it mean they’re selling drugs to fund a jet-set lifestyle? That’s what this new idea by Lothian and Borders Police, this charter to “shop thy neighbour”, would have you believe.

Drug dealers are a blight on communities, and it is understandable the police want to lock them up, but to ask people to call in if they think someone has bought something they shouldn’t be able to afford, leaves me ­incredulous.

You can imagine the calls: “He’s got a bigger telly than me, 50 inches, and I know for a fact he cannae afford it”, or “There’s no way that family should be buying a new car, there’s on’y wan o’ thaim working” or “They’re all on benefits, the bloody scroungers, how come they’ve got iPads, it’s no right?”

It’s easy to get caught up in it. I can understand that, there was a time when I raged about the fact we didn’t qualify for a single tax credit when apparently Nick Clegg did, until my more sensible, rational, other half pointed out this was actually a good thing.

But to encourage this envy, to ask people to “grass” on others, to twitch at the net curtains and call in with all and any spurious “evidence” of out-of-means living, Lothian and Borders should know better.

Not that I was ever convinced of the “Big Society” idea, but it feels as if this policy, and others, has turned that wholly on its head. Why can’t we just accept the fact that we’ve all got different priorities when it comes to spending money? Some people will shop in Lidl for food and splash out on hi-tech equipment. Others wouldn’t dream of buying a non-organic spud, but are happy to walk around in decades-old anoraks. How does anyone know what’s really going on in someone else’s home or bank account?

This is a recipe for rumours and scare-mongering, witch-hunts and victimisation and Lothian and Borders should not be encouraging it.

I don’t want to be preachy, but one of the ten commandments says you shouldn’t covet your neighbour’s wife, but surely you shouldn’t covet their flat-screen telly either?

Get moving

CONVINCING Dame Elish Angiolini to lead an independent investigation into the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal is quite a coup for Edinburgh City Council.

The former Lord Advocate has a fiercely forensic legal mind and a common touch, and perhaps just as important, is a parent of two children herself. She will no doubt bring much empathy to her inquiries – which will also make her all too aware of the desperate urgency there is in those who are suffering to have their questions answered. The sooner she begins, the better.