Wandering around The People’s Supermarket the other day, in (yet another) attempt to make it clear what he means by the Big Society, the Prime Minister, with cameras whirring and microphones in range, let something slip.
It happened when he turned to the founder of the supermarket. With what appeared to be genuine curiosity – a real attempt to unearth the secret of this particular endeavour – Cameron asked him: “where did you get the idea from?”
At this stage it is necessary to reveal, in case you’ve missed the Channel 4 programme of the same name, The People’s Supermarket is a co-operative.
The founder, of course, was very polite and chatted about wanting to make a difference, helping out in the community, and the like. All very pleasing to the Prime Ministerial ear, I’m sure.
But, with a little time to prepare, and a deep breath, the answer to Cameron’s query may well have run something along the lines of:
‘Well, Prime Minister, it’s based on the principles of 19th century co-operation, shaped by one of the founding fathers of socialism, Robert Owen; it draws heavily on the principles set down by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 who gave birth to the modern co-operative movement in this country and world-wide, thereby establishing many thousands of voluntary, democratic organisations which are set up to meet the needs and secure the welfare of their members and the community in which they operate.’
A missed opportunity, perhaps. It would have been worth good money to see the look on the old Etonian face had that been the response, particularly if there had been time for a few words on the long-standing affiliation between the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Party.
The fact that Cameron asked the question reveals a certain ignorance of (one of the) origins of his supposed ‘big idea’. It also shows that his interpretation of it – of what constitutes the Big Society in action – is highly selective, based on political principles, rather than anything like objectivity.
This allows him to endorse an enterprising ‘one-off’ like the People’s Supermarket, but prevents him from seeing the obvious connections between the model being used by the supermarket and the co-operative (labour) movement as a whole.
It allows him to argue for more voluntary association – people banding together to provide services or to improve their environs – but prevents him from recognising anything of worth in a rather popular association that goes by the name of a ‘trade union’.
It allows him to argue for free schools – to be set up, he says, by parents determined to make a difference to their community – but prevents him from ever recognising the remarkable, selfless contribution parents already make to their community schools; raising funds, organising fairs, reading with children, helping out at clubs.
That said, much of the Big Society rhetoric is hard to contest, a statement of the obvious (who would ever say that people should take less responsibility for their own lives?).
But the real problem comes when he picks and chooses what passes the Big Society test; his political prism distorts what is right before his eyes. Such a shame: if Cameron should shake off his prejudices and embrace his inner socialist, he may win more people over to his Big Society plan.