A Big Society with small ambitions

The jury is out on whether David Cameron’s flagship initiative will really reduce the role of the state in our lives.

Dave Clements

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Topics Politics

The one thing everybody seems to agree upon about the Big Society is that they don’t really know what it is.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has described it as ‘incomprehensibly vague’, while another commentator describes it as little more than a ‘flimsy bit of branding’.

It’s not just the liberal press that is struggling. At a recent debate, seemingly crammed with young Tories eager to find out what the Big Society is all about, Eamonn Butler – director of the Adam Smith Institute – confessed that ‘nobody knows what this Big Society thing actually means’. Bizarrely, even the supposed architect of the Big Society, Nat Wei, claims not to know what it is. He even makes a virtue of not knowing.

Wei has, however, elaborated here and there on what it might mean. He says it is about doing things ‘in small ways that all add up to make something bigger’. It’s also a way of dealing with the ‘multiple crises’ of our age emanating from ‘Westminster, the Square Mile and the media village’: the MPs’ expenses scandal, bankers’ bonuses, and the fallout from the BBC’s ‘Sachsgate’ furore.

For the prime minister, David Cameron, the Big Society is an opportunity to ‘fill an enormous spiritual and social hole in our country’. With this in mind, the ‘state will assume a new role as an agitator for social renewal’. But in addition to a hint of moral conservatism, there is the rationing reminiscent of the Thatcher era. So public services will be ‘cheaper to deliver… while bringing communities together’. Cameron ends up agreeing, rather hopefully, with Wei: ‘It might even restore people’s trust in the political process’, he says, while no doubt solving all the other problems Wei raises, too.

For others, however, the Big Society is really all about public spending cuts. In my own experience, while Cameron is right to describe those of us working in the public sector as ‘weary, disillusioned puppets of government targets’, we have been made wearier still by the prospect of spending-cuts in the region of 20 to 30 per cent in local government. Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband says the government is ‘cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society’. And if anyone should know about cynical linguistic manipulation, it’s a former New Labour cabinet minister.

But what the cynics forget is that Cameron’s enthusiasm for the Big Society predates the economic crisis. Indeed, he described himself as a ‘convinced localist’ (as did the other party leaders) long ago, and campaigned on the Big Society before going on to become Conservative Party leader. As Amelia Gentleman argues, the Big Society is ‘designed in part to address the notion of a “broken Britain” and the country’s “social recession”, which the party has been campaigning on for months’. Cameron himself, alive to the accusation that he isn’t as nice as he makes out, said recently that those who ‘think this government is just about sorting out the deficit’ are ‘making a big mistake’. The Big Society is, says one commentator, Cameron’s ‘quest for an ideology’.

Yet, during the recent General Election campaign, the idea met with near-universal indifference. The Big Society was mentioned only ‘fleetingly’ by Cameron during the televised debates, says Gentleman, and behind the scenes senior party members were concerned that the Big Society was ‘crashing on the doorstep’. Nevertheless, as one of the excited invitees to a meeting with ‘grassroots community organisers’ at No.10 put it, ‘the first joint outing on [a] policy issue by the new prime minister and deputy prime minister’ was on the Big Society. Cameron and Wei have since announced the creation of ‘vanguard communties’ and the appointment of 5,000 community organisers. They also unveiled Big Society savings accounts and the raiding of dormant bank accounts to stuff the coffers of the Big Society Bank that is supposed to fund all the community activity that they hope to stimulate.

But is this really the new ‘big idea’ that Cameron claims it is, or have we heard it all before? While he claims it for the Conservatives, it reminds others of the pre-Fabian tradition of trade unions, mutuals and friendly societies. Jonathan Freedland, for instance, urges Labour not to throw out the baby with the bathwater because they have, he says, ‘a decent claim of paternity’.

Freedland has a point. While it is a long way from the nineteenth-century self-help movement, the Big Society is remarkably reminiscent of the previous government’s community-building and volunteering initiatives. They might have called it something else – ‘double devolution’ and the ‘Big Conversation’ spring to mind – but in policy terms there is little between them. Even in the run-up to the election that got them kicked out of office, Labour was planning to seize the ‘moment for mutualism’, and advocating the creation of ‘cooperative councils’ to hand over assets to the community and to run services themselves. Since the election, quite understandably, Tessa Jowell has fumed at the ‘brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place’ when she was in government.

So for all the seeming newness of this new ‘big idea’, the parties basically agree that it is a good thing – even if they’d prefer not to admit as much. But is all of this really a good idea? While there is nothing wrong with rethinking the way public services are provided or having a broader debate about who is responsible for what – indeed, it is urgent that we do so – there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about what lies behind the Big Society rhetoric.

For example, we might question the dependency of the voluntary sector, which runs so many of our public services, on government money. While it is hoped that the Big Society Bank raises ‘hundreds of millions’ when it opens next year, the sector as a whole already receives a third of its funding from the state (for now at least). This is estimated to be somewhere in the region of £13billion. As the chair of the Charity Commission explains, the voluntary sector is not going to be in a position to ‘fill all the gaps’ as public services are cut. In fact, it is as likely to be a target of those cuts. While the new turn will create opportunities for some social entrepreneurs, it may well bankrupt many others.

Having said all that, as Freedland insists, ‘there’s a good idea in there, screaming to get out’. This could be an opportunity for the rest of us to claim the Big Society for ourselves. The idea does seem to speak to the old-fashioned notion that people can come up with their own solutions to problems and that government doesn’t need to step in all the time. While it looks unlikely that any more money will be found – quite the opposite in fact – it is, as Wei argues, an ‘opportunity to be resourceful’. We don’t need the patronage of the state to create for ourselves what Cameron describes as ‘communities with oomph’ – even if the examples put forward so far sound very small-scale and rather oomph-less.

There’s also a bit of a contradiction going on here. Cameron professes a ‘profound faith in my fellow human beings and a healthy awareness of the state’s limitations’. Yet while he complains that ‘Labour don’t believe change can happen without pulling a lever from on high’, he is not averse to pulling a few levers himself. What are all those community organisers if not 5,000 levers being pulled from ‘on high’, and do those ‘vanguard communities’ really need civil servants (or ‘civic servants’ as Cameron calls them) parachuted in?

As Butler said at the Big Society debate, the problem is that attempts by the state to lead social activism always end in failure. Like the ‘devolving’ New Labour government before it, there is a tendency to extend the state into more areas of our lives, not less, and all (ironically enough) in the name of letting go. I’m willing to take them at their word for now, and to test the limits of this not-so-new idea. But if the autonomy of individuals and their communities just to get on with things unencumbered continues to be put in doubt, then so will the Big Society.

Dave Clements works in social care, writes on social policy issues, and is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exagerrated. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He will be speaking on the subject of the Big Society at the Institute of Ideas Social Policy Forum in London on Thursday 29 July.

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