The Big Society: mirage or miracle cure?

I like to think I do my bit.  You know:  pick up litter now and again; drop a few coins in a charity box; help old ladies (and gents) across the street (should they want to be helped of course).  Barbara Castle said this is a kind of socialism; small acts of human decency bringing us together.  I wonder what socialism’s first lady would have made of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’?  I hate to presume, but my guess is she would have said “Blimey, what a pile of tosh”.  Or something a touch more eloquent.

The problem with the ‘Big Society’ is not in the principle – looking to civil society, voluntary partnerships, social enterprises and to the goodness of the human spirit for the answers to some of our social problems is hard to  disagree with.   It’s the fact that this is dressed up as something radical, new, different – when it’s nothing of the sort.  As a Rochdale boy, I feel duty bound at this point to remind our Dave of the co-operative movement – started in the mid-nineteenth century and still doing rather well at a co-op near you.

It’s in the detail that this idea really falls apart.  There are some rather quaint ideas (a community right to buy your local pub!) but it’s no miracle cure and there’s perilously little flesh on the bones.

National Service for 16 year olds?  It exists already, I’ve done it, it’s called Community Service Volunteers.  What’s new?

Charities providing drug treatment?  This happens already.  But it’s a risky solution.  What happens when no charity exists in any given area or the volunteer can’t make it in – who helps then?  Who provides the funding?  The state, I presume.   If not, you’d end up with a patchwork of provision and most likely an absence where its most needed (i.e. with the most chaotic and damaged of individuals).  A recipe for disaster.

Giving more data to local people?   OK, but who compiles it, how is it checked, who responds to requests for information?  Surely this means more bureaucrats (i.e. more ‘state’, not less!).

And, that – aside from lots of warm words about ’empowering’ people – is about it (apart from ‘free schools’ which I’ll blog about separately).  Uninspiring isn’t it?

You only have to read Nick Clegg’s speech at yesterdays launch to see the glaring vacuum at the heart of this policy.  It’s hilarious.  He can clearly think of absolutely nothing to say, other than to make a ridiculously overblown claim that the Big Society is the same as liberalism (I can hear John Stuart Mill twisting and turning as I type).  He does tell a story about a ‘wonderful, wonderful’ man in Sheffield who picked up litter (like me!) and became a kind of modern-day Pied Piper. Good on him.  But, that’s the point – loads of people are doing this stuff already and, beyond saying what a good chap he is, what difference are Clegg’s words going to make?

Now, I’m up for a bit of people power, doing your bit, looking out for your neighbour, whatever else you want to call it.  But don’t tell me it’s a new idea, or a Tory invention.  In reality, the Big Society is the work of a salesman.  Other than by the power of his exhortation and a few little policy trinkets  here and there, Cameron has very few ideas  about how to bring about what he has said is a culture change.  Such a thing is incredibly difficult to engineer, particularly by hot air alone.

No, the Big Society is not what it seems.  It’s a post-Thatcherite ploy, designed to kid people that they don’t need good Government, that they can do it all themselves.  The slightly more sinister edge to this is this implicit message (which will become louder as this Government gets it’s feet under the table); if things go wrong and you can’t fix the problem, it’s your fault.    We shouldn’t fall for the con trick that tells us Government’s main purpose is to remove itself from people’s lives.   Providing good public services is a vital part of the solution.  Like Nick Clegg, I can’t think of much else to say about the Big Society – there’s not much there when you look closely.



Filed under Cameron, Conservatives, Lib Dems, Policy

8 responses to “The Big Society: mirage or miracle cure?

  1. Peter Reynolds

    I don’t know how you can stay so cynical! Give the boys a chance!

  2. Sceptical, not cynical. Well, OK, maybe just a bit cynical.

    But do feel free to try and persuade me the Big Society really is a Big Idea and not just a smokescreen for a wholesale retreat of the state, with the message “sorry, can’t help any more, over to you…”.

    • Peter Reynolds

      Everything Nick Clegg said today (see my post above) was part of The Big Society. It’s an ENORMOUS idea containing many mere Big Ideas within itself!

      It’s not “sorry, can’t help any more, over to you…”, it’s “it’s up to you, try that way, let me give you a hand”.

      • Right, really confused now. Clegg didn’t mention ‘Big Society’ once in his speech today, so, while you think constitutional reform is part of the ‘Big Society’, Clegg doesn’t appear to. Clegg also didn’t mention constitutional reform at all at the launch of the ‘Big Society’ at No 10 the day before. So surely these are very much seperate things?

        Clegg does have some ideas – and concrete policy – on constitutional reform. Whereas the ‘Big Society’ still leaves me baffled…

  3. Peter Reynolds

    Don’t be deliberately facile. They just need to tune in and get on message with each other, start using the same terminology. It’s about being a Big person, taking a Big perspective, not being small minded and petty…

    • Thanks for that Peter. I have my doubts about the greatness of the Big Society as an idea and I think there is a gap between Cameron (who thinks he is onto something) and Clegg (who is less keen and didn’t connect his big ideas – constitutional reform – to the Big Society). That’s interesting and revealing. But I fully respect that you understand this to be a significant move. I don’t plan to throw any insults back – however, it is a real shame if you characterise anyone who disagrees with you as facile, small-minded or petty.

      • Peter Reynolds

        That’s not what I meant! Sorry for not making myself clear.

        I meant that you shouldn’t, at this early stage, expect complete consistency in their message because they’re still refining it. I thought you were nit-picking at unnecessary detail.

        I didn’t mean that you were small minded or petty. I meant that the Big Society is about Big Ideas not about the sort of small minded, petty detail that leads, for example, to endless complex legislation (Labour). The Big Society is about small government – that’s where constitutional reform connects with community action.

        I apologise if I offended you. Here’s me, a writer, making a complete cock-up of getting my point across!

      • No offence taken but thanks for your apology. I remain a Big Society sceptic, but let’s see…

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