Big Society: there’s more to politics than the PTA

There are some good instincts behind the Lib-Cons' BS agenda. But it risks reducing politics to the level of community cakebaking.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics UK

Last weekend, like millions of parents across Britain, I attended the summer fair at my child’s school.

And along with – maybe not millions, but surely thousands – of parents across the country, I didn’t just attend the summer fair, but was part of the PTA (Parents and Teachers Association) committee that organised the thing. It was a big success, people had a lovely time, and our school now has more money for the kids to do fun stuff.

Did I feel like a better citizen because of it? No, I mainly felt knackered. When the PTA met for a celebratory debrief, did we discuss how we were empowering ourselves and shaping our community? No, we mainly ate cakes and wondered how to flog the leftover prizes. Did we quote Mahatma Gandhi at each other: ‘We must be the change we want to see in the world’? No – blimey, the PTA is made up of a great bunch of people and all that, and we’re quite ambitious when it comes to beating last year’s profits on the cake bake, but that’s about as far as it goes.

If mentioning Gandhi seems preposterous, it’s only because he has become adopted as the poster-child for the Lib-Con coalition government’s Big Society initiative. Although it’s not a government initiative, apparently: ‘The Big Society Network is an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area’, explains the website, which is merely ‘delighted’ that prime minister David Cameron has ‘hosted a great event to help introduce the Big Society Network’. (You’ll have seen this on the news, more accurately reported under headlines like ‘Cameron’s Big Society plan’).

The BSN (as it fondly calls itself) wants to ‘create a new relationship between citizens and government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done’ – to which ‘partnership’ it will ‘add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.’

Now I don’t want to nit-pick, but to describe a chair with two legs as ‘sturdy’ seems a bit like wishful thinking – particularly if one of those legs consists of a prime minister, a government adviser and a communications expert, and the other has only just heard that it’s about to be ‘empowered’. More to the point, organising the summer fair at my daughter’s school – or a Big Lunch in the middle of my road, for that matter – is not going to bring about social change. For that, we need politics. You don’t get that in PTA meetings – and you wouldn’t want it either.

My problem with the Big Society is not that I care too little about community spirit, or volunteering. Having kids means that local community suddenly becomes very important: you are at home a lot more, so you see it; you rely on other people to look out for your family, and so you end up looking out for other people, too. I live in a small town, my kids go to a local school, and there is something strengthening and, well, just nice about the way in which people pull together across generations and social classes to make things work.

And I care about volunteering. My daughters go to Rainbows (baby Brownies), which is run by two wonderful, kind-hearted but admirably strong-willed elderly ladies whose mission is to take a bunch of six-year-old girls and give them lots of fun and games while instilling in them a sense of old-fashioned decency and – yes – community. It’s absolutely great, and a task that I would be far too scared to undertake myself. From a parent’s point of view, volunteering means that other adults step into your child’s life to give them a richness and experience that you cannot necessarily buy or provide yourself.

So there’s something about the Big Society agenda that I like. It wants to promote communities and volunteering. And it seems to be inspired, at least in part, by an unease about the way in which people have been pushed, both by previous government initiatives and cultural trends, away from the support of their communities and towards a greater reliance on the state. The undermining of these informal relations is a problem that I have written about both in relation to parenting, and in relation to community volunteering. On that basis, I’m pleased to see policymakers trying to address some of these issues.

But informal relations won’t be rebuilt by the government making them a substitute for politics – and this is what I’m afraid is the logic of the Big Society agenda. According to this new initiative, street parties aren’t about food and fun, they’re about active citizenship. ‘The Idea’ of Big Society is not about kids going camping or the elderly getting out more, but about signing up to some overblown quote from Gandhi.

The Big Society is not about just letting community spirit flourish through getting rid of stupid regulations so that people get on with what they want to do, and, even in our individuated times, what they do anyway. The government seems to have a more interventionist approach, talking about giving ‘citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want’ through such weird schemes as raiding dormant bank accounts to enable people to build their own old folks’ homes, or something.

In short, the Big Society agenda politicises community involvement. This is a surefire way of thwarting genuine community spirit, which is an informal, cultural phenomenon that suffocates under the instrumental agenda of government. It’s also a cop-out from facing the challenge of political reinvigoration. The PTA is not parliament, and community fundraisers do not remotely resemble politics. These local things are about rolling your sleeves up, pitching in and not arguing with people: there is no scope for ideology, for debate, for the interrogation of wide-reaching social problems that we badly need today. That’s how it should be for the school fair, but absolutely not how we bring about social change.

‘We must be the change we want to see in the world’ implies that we should not aspire to do anything beyond cake baking, and we shouldn’t aspire to be anyone more than the person running the beer tent. To sign up to the ‘Big Society’, you’d have to be thinking really small.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called for a new politics, but said we shouldn’t expect it from the Lib-Con government. Mick Hume slammed the Lib-Con coalition as a cowardly cabal. Daniel Ben-Ami pointed out that economic growth is an alternative to austerity. spiked writers reviewed the main UK parties’ General Election manifestos. Elsewhere, Rob Killick explained why cuts are not the answer to everything. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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