On Saturday 17 July between 8pm and 9pm the ‘Dunwich Dynamos’ cycled away from their London Fields assembly point. The fastest would reach Dunwich beach on the Suffolk coast at around 5 the next morning. Three friends in their early-20s made good time that night reaching Sudbury and the Suffolk border by 3am. Accelerating down a hill, one hit a pot-hole and was thrown onto the road, badly cut and shaken up. The bike itself was a complete write-off.
Their first call for help was to the ambulance service. There was plenty of blood but it wasn’t spurting. It would be an estimated eleven hours wait for assistance. Their second call was to a taxi company who clearly weren’t interested in picking up three young men by the roadside at that time of night. No turning out if you hadn’t got an address. Things did not look promising.
Then out of the darkness came a homeward-walking party-goer, much the same age as them, definitely the worse for wear. Hearing that their only chance to get some transport to A&E was to be at an address, he phoned his mother: what parents have to put up with! She got out of bed, got in the car, found them in the dark, picked them up and took them all back to her home. A taxi then consented to take them to A&E in Bury St. Edmunds.
A modern day version of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Two services to the public passed by on the other side before an exemplary stranger helped them. There is an important difference. The startling point of the parable was that the Samaritan rescuer was for listeners the ‘enemy’, the despised ‘other’, a member of a neighbouring cult rivalling the Temple in Jerusalem. A contemporary version would perhaps be a kindly Protestant on the Falls Road during the Troubles helping a bleeding Catholic, or a Muslim with ultra-conservative views aiding an unveiled Muslim woman. No, the cyclist who fell by the Suffolk wayside is just a story – a true one involving a family member – about sympathy and kindness.
We are surprised and delighted by personal kindness especially from young people. Yet on public transport far more often than not the young are on their feet, matter-of-factly and immediately, for an elderly person or pregnant women. And they are accepting of difference whatever it is, willing to respect others and include them in their activities. Though it does tend to be older people, not exclusively, who visit the sick and imprisoned, care for the frail and feed the hungry by replenishing food banks.
Actions to further social justice – fairness as it has become known politically – are rarer. Giving to food banks is more common than campaigning to make them redundant by ensuring that wages and benefits cover the costs of nutritious meals. Anyone who has ever fundraised will know how difficult it is to persuade donors to support work upstream to bring about change that will reduce the need for personal charity. This kind of work is so easily seen as ‘politics’, the domain of government while person to person charitable giving, in one form or another, is seen as the true domain of civil society, NGOs and Churches.
The problem with this division of labour is that political parties which believe in small government have of necessity to believe in the ‘big society’. More and more preventable misery and misfortune can then become the responsibility of the personalised domain of charity, the domain that is least equipped to prevent poverty and increasingly unable to act as a government-substitute in dealing with the consequences of poverty.
Our present overlapping crises are destined to remain our reality for the foreseeable future: climate change, inflation in food and energy costs, growing social divisions, mass migration, war in Ukraine, pandemics. In this context a drive for small ‘lean’ government becomes acutely dysfunctional, leaving government unable to respond effectively to the magnitude and urgency of the present need for action.
Once progressive taxation and ‘redistribution’ become toxic ideas liable to damage the electoral chances of political Parties, we begin to give up on the idea that politics is about the advocacy of social justice and the implementation of policies that bring it about. Going back to the story of the cyclist hitting a pothole in the dark, we end up relying on spontaneous acts of kindness to make up for the impossibly overworked public services, including the NHS, when we should be demanding that Government also provide Local Authorities with enough money for all their services, including filling in the potholes.
Politics is not, of course, the domain of personal kindness as those appealing for kinder, gentler politics acknowledge. It should be about working for social justice and fairness. The role of civil society is to exert the kinds of pressure on politicians that oblige government to implement legislation that fulfils this defining purpose. And, pace Mrs. Thatcher, the Samaritan story is not about the Good Samaritan having enough money to pay for lodging and care for the man who had fallen amongst thieves. It is about a politics at ease with difference that strives for a just society, not a them-and-us society that relies on exclusion.