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councils to publish every item of expenditure above £500 so they can be held fully to account. This is the real heart of what building bigger societies is about – the right people at the right level in the right places and with the best ideas having the information and authority to get on with it. We plan to take this as far as we can. In a new Localism Bill to be published this autumn, I will aim to give communities three crucial “rights”. They will have the “right” to save an asset they hold dear, such as a library or a lido. They will have the “right” to acquire an asset they are still convinced has commu- nity value – such as a pub or a police station under threat of closure. And if they see a public service they believe they could run better, more creatively and with more social impact, they will have the “right” to do so. For some, this could mean taking over the tower block they live in because they have got ideas to improve it, not least because repairs are never done. For others, it could be the local church saying they want to run a day-care centre for elderly people because they can do it with twice as much love for three-quarters of the cost and a tenth of the bureaucracy. There are those who doubt that our con- sumer culture has got what it takes to build a big society. I disagree. Insights from the new discipline of behavioural economics show that people in markets are not antisocial. In fact, citizens develop social norms for the way that they make decisions – without being told to so by the state. One example is the practice of tipping in restaurants, which takes place even though there is no legal requirement to do so. Such social norms have an impact on how much television we watch, how much we volunteer and how much we give to charity.

opportunity to assist in building the cultural architecture that surrounds us and “nudges” the development of the social norms we embrace. Improved social norms –the English Catholic bishops might call them “civic virtues” –have the power to change society. It is vital that government should work with this force for good rather than against it. The Prime Minister has established a special team in the Cabinet office to put this approach into the mainstream of government policymaking. So, the Pope was right to call for a new


conversation to establish a powerful com- mitment to social justice and the common good. In our own way, we are setting out to refashion the conversation for our times. But we believe that a vital part of that conversation should be to further the principle of sub- sidiarity. We are convinced that justice is best built when small groups and individuals are set free to be themselves. Radically turning back the tide that has flowed against them for so long is the challenge of building a Big Society. The Churches and the whole realm of wider civil society are key to that task.

■Greg Clark is Minister for Decentralisation and Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells.

ecognising we are social beings means that Churches, government and every other institution in soci- ety, at every level, have the


‘Trees are protective, as good parents are; they become companions and friends’

For weeks now, builders have been at work outside the primary school that stands opposite my morning bus stop. They are labouring behind a six-foot wooden fence, so it has been hard to see what they’re up to, even though generations of small fingers have poked out the knotholes here and there. It seems that they are making a

playground, full of climbing frames and swings in bright colours. They are running late, and now the hammering and drilling goes on most of the day. There was a playground here before, as it happens. It consisted of a lawn of thin grass and an old, bent hawthorn tree. The hawthorn predated a one-storey school building and was almost the same height, comfortably to scale. In spring it bore beautiful dark-pink and pale-pink flowers, like a bride. In May its small, toothed leaves were the brightest green in the street. On hot summer days, when the

French windows of the classroom stood open, it cast a flickering shade on the small desks and cooled the air. In autumn it was red with berries that drew birds. It has gone now, of course, the first thing to be bulldozed when the improvements came.

I looked out on trees from my childhood classroom: distant hollies trained by Victorians into a high, gloomy hedge. Nonetheless, I still dreamed with them. If they had been as near to me as that hawthorn, I would have been regularly lost among those speckled blossoms, making myself as small as a bee to loll and play in them and sniff their strange, fresh scent, or would have imagined voyages on their leaves as the wind rampaged among them. The petals would lie like confetti on the grass. When I saw that the tree had gone, I felt a terrible sadness for the loss of that leaf-tempered sunlight, for the rugged old trunk with its deep cavities that could hide sweets or rings or mysterious notes, for the meshing, prickly branches with their arching grace. But I felt particular sadness for the children who would

come back for the new term, and find it gone. For there is something else, too, that trees provide. They are protective, as good parents are; they become companions and friends. In my childhood school playground each tree was someone’s camp, where we cooked pretend meals in the roots and scratched our own codes on the bark. In games of chasing and catching we retreated each to our own tree, the safe place. Nor is this just a child’s game. The

poet Rainer Maria Rilke once felt so protected and supported by a tree against which he was leaning that he went into a trance in which he seemed to step from life to death. I myself have been astonished to feel the warmth, like a body’s heat, coming from trees under which I’ve sheltered from the rain. Their silent protection can enfold us as surely as a pair of arms.

Some months ago, a kind reader sent me information about the statue of Our Lady of Clonfert, in the west of Ireland, wondering if I would like to write about it. This medieval statue of the Virgin and Child, made of wood and painted with at least 10 layers of paint, is said to have been found in the nineteenth century inside an oak tree, in which it had perhaps been hidden during some spell of religious suppression. The Virgin has a face of tenderest, dreamy contemplation; the child Jesus is pulling at her long hair. When the tree was cut down by the woodsman, the story goes, it began to bleed, because one arm of the Virgin had been severed. The piece now has a place of honour in the local church. I loved the story, but wondered whether I could possibly write anything without seeing it or touching it, or visiting the wood it came from. Now I think I can, for there is a deep wonder here, and to my mind it involves the tree as much as the statue. Local people believe that the tree grew round the statue like a mother, enfolding and protecting the heavenly Mother who usually enfolds and protects us. And the tree thus became, from its secret burden, a holy thing, blessing the whole wood and all who wandered past it, though few knew how. Yet this is just an extreme and

lovely example of the virtues inherent in all trees. They carry holiness in them. They sanctify the scene and nourish us, as much in city streets as in the groves of Ireland, and as much in the dust and havoc of a primary-school playground, if they are left alone.

2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 11

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