‘Big Society’: catchphrase for an age of small politics

UK prime minister David Cameron’s bs Big Society ‘mission’ can carry on because neither government nor opposition has any bigger ideas.

You know that David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is bullshit, I know that the Big Society is bullshit, (almost) everybody knows that the Big Society is bullshit. Even Tory MPs refer to their leader’s pet project ambiguously as ‘BS’, while Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson suggests less ambiguously that it is ‘a pile of piffle’, and former New Labour spinmeister Alastair Campbell tweets, in response to the government’s latest Big Society relaunch, that ‘on ne peut pas polir un turd’.

So why then does the prime minister keep coming back to relaunch his bs Big Society more times than Take That, only without the screaming fans? And why has nobody else really been able to nail or bury it, so that such a piffling turd of UK politics can still push Egypt or the economic crisis out of the headlines and dominate media discussion for days?

The surprisingly long shelf-life of Cameron’s Big Society must be more down to the failings of the opposition than any dynamism of its own. There are two common lines of attack from the Labour Party and its media supporters: that the Big Society is too vague a concept, and that it is just a cover for the cuts in public spending. Neither seems very big or clever.

To call something like the Big Society vague is like suggesting that the Liberal Democrats are a bit on the spineless side. Of course the Big Society is vague, unclear and incoherent. It is as incomprehensible as New Labour’s self-defining brands – such as Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ and his ‘Stakeholder Society’ – and as woolly as new New Labour leader Ed Miliband’s own slogan about representing the ‘squeezed middle’, a
nonsensical social category he seemed to redefine half a dozen times in as many minutes once put under the media spotlight.

This is the nebulous nature of all top-down political initiatives these days, designed so as not to tie a leader down to any firm positions or endorse principles he does not have. From Blair through to Cameron, these so-called big ideas are largely public-relations exercises in distancing a party from its own past, and from the old politics of left vs right. Hence Conservative leader Cameron’s Big Society is a deliberate rhetorical counterpoint to his predecessor Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there is no such thing as the S-word. It is intended to show that the new non-Tory Conservatives are in the centre, borrowing language from the communitarian left to create what the Americans call an ‘apple pie’ issue – who could really be against the general idea of a friendlier, more cooperative society? -  that they hope might mean all things to all people. Which is another way of saying it will mean nothing much in the real world.

The pathetic thing is that when Cameron said this week that the shapeless blancmange of the Big Society is his ‘mission’ in politics, he was probably telling the truth. This sort of stunt really is what top-level politics has been reduced to. And getting the media and political class to talk about it has become a ‘mission’, an end in itself. Thus the old Tory buffer Francis Maude could seriously claim at the weekend that the Big Society had been a success, not because it had achieved anything to date, but because people had taken some notice of it for longer than they ever did with Blair’s Third Way. Hurrah! Yet he was right in a way; that is how they measure success these days.

As Cameron and Co relaunch and re-relaunch their Big Society to try to keep ahead of the Third Way in the ‘legacy’ stakes, it conjures images of the New Labour spinners on the BBC satire The Thick of It, desperately trying to whip up some interest in their ‘Fourth Sector’ initiative by inventing words and slogans even as the media are gathering for the launch. But let us not complain about the Big Society being vague. It could not be otherwise. Let’s see it instead as providing a crystal-clear picture of the incoherent state of our entire political life today. The Big Society turns out to be the embodiment of the very small politics of the age.

The other near-universal argument from the opposition is that Cameron’s Big Society is just a ‘cover for the cuts’ – telling people to do more for each other in order to excuse the withdrawal of state funding etc. This might seem to make sense, but in fact it confuses two issues. The cuts in public spending would be going ahead regardless of which mainstream party was in power, and whether or not Cameron had ever muttered the dread words Big and Society. There is no ‘cover’ for the all-party politics of austerity. The fact that these cuts are being imposed alongside the rhetorical inflation of the Big Society does not necessarily mean there is a causal relationship between the two. Indeed, Cameron and his think-tank wonk Philip Blond, the ridiculous ‘red Tory’ blowhard, can claim that they were banging on about the BS back in the halcyon days of the financial ‘boom’.

It is really the politics of the playground today to claim that unless you are talking about the cuts all of the time, you must be part of the cover-up. See the bizarre conspiracy theories, now accepted as good coin in many apparently sane circles, about how the royal wedding has been plotted solely in order to distract the nation from the closure of libraries and reduction of council services. It seems a wonder somebody didn’t accuse the Egyptian protestors of diverting attention from the cuts.

This argument confirms the narrowness of what passes for opposition politics today, that debating the precise scale or timing of spending cuts is all there is to talk about. It also reveals the opposition’s patronising assumptions about the public, whom they seem to think are dim enough to be duped by anything from the flash of a royal wedding dress to a sound byte of Cameron’s posh-boy-in-shirtsleeves speech.

Worse, it might be more accurate to say that the loud ‘it’s a cover for the cuts!’ argument re the Big Society is itself a ‘cover’ for the fact that the opposition has actually got nothing big to offer as an alternative to the government’s policies. New Labour is as deeply committed to the politics of austerity as the Lib-Con coalition, apart from some quibbles about the timetable. As Cameron’s acolytes delight in pointing out, there is only an estimated one per cent difference between the cuts implemented by the coalition and those proposed by Gordon Brown’s Labour government before the election.

Trying to make fun of the admittedly risible Big Society is easier for the opposition than coming to terms with their own role in creating the narrow-minded politics of austerity. And at the same time, in the absence of any other big ideas, Miliband and Co have made clear they are trying to dream up their own variant of the BS. Maybe they should call it the Fourth Sector.

No doubt there will be Tory councillors spouting about the Big Society when it comes time to make big spending cuts, and there are plenty of moral entrepreneurs of both religious and secular bent ready to offer us righteous lectures about how the Big Society means we all need to give up our spare time and do more for others. They should all be given short shrift. But we should also recognise that if the Big Society means anything beyond an unfunny catchphrase, it is more about politics than economics. It is another step towards outsourcing the state’s tasks to third parties, sometimes even at a financial cost. This is an abdication of responsibility that gathered pace through the Blair and Brown eras, as the state seeks to cope with a crisis of authority by wriggling out of its traditional responsibilities at the same time as poking its nose further into areas of our lives that are none of its business.

There is a need to repose some big questions to get to grips with what initiatives such as the Big Society say about politics today. One key issue to examine again will be the role of the state. Contrary to the impression often given, and despite the deep spending cuts, the Big Society marks not a withdrawal but a reorganisation of state intervention and control across society. For example, the Big Society’s proposal to deploy professional organisers to ‘assist’ community groups, and to reward those that meet Whitehall’s standards, ensures that the authorities retain the final say over allegedly ‘grass-roots’ initiatives. Just as the Coalition’s ‘nudge’ agenda marks the development of New Labour’s ‘politics of behaviour’, so Cameron is trying to develop further the Blair-Brown school of indirect social control in a state-ridden society where the authorities want to make ‘volunteering’ compulsory. The record suggests that these attempts to solve the problems of a fragmented society by state diktat only make matters worse.

Anybody who seriously wants to see real autonomy and solidarity, and people taking matters into their own hands, should take a step back from what passes for political debate today and ask some more fundamental questions about the state and society. We are told that the choice is between Cameron’s Big Society or the Big State. Right now the big problem is that we are getting both, when we surely would be better off with neither.

Mick Hume is editor at large of spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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