Thursday, 17 February 2011

What exactly is the "Big Society"?

I ask this question because I don't really know.

Previous Prime Ministers had their buzzwords too: Thatcher had her "property-owning democracy", Major his "classless society" and his desire to get "back to basics", Blair his "stakeholder economy", "Cool Britannia" or "the third way" and Brown his "British jobs for British people". What did all these mean? To the general public, very little indeed.

The "big society" is another of these political cliches that flatters to deceive. Intended as a bold statement of the government's will to empower individuals and communities, the "big society" has become something of a joke.

David Cameron this week talked about the "big society" being his "passion". Fair enough. "It's a different way of governing, and it's going to get every bit of my passion." OK, we get you. What we don't quite get is how he thinks it's going to work. Especially when he says unhelpful things, such as "we need social recovery to mend the broken society...and that's what the big society is all about." Perhaps. Then again, it seems more like it's not society that's broken as much as the Conservative Party record player. It's utter nonsense to pretend that everything is broken - it's also insulting and condescending.

The "big society" isn't the product of a coherent philosophy. It's such a vague concept. I would have been far more grateful if Cameron had spelled out a considered and evidence-based method to create a dynamic economy while devolving more power locally. Passion has its place, but sometimes what we want from leaders is...well, leadership. And on the "big society", Cameron simply isn't providing it. A lot of bluster doesn't constitute a vision.

It's little surprise that many people are seeing the "big society" as mere cover for spending cuts. And this is because Cameron just hasn't sold his idea effectively. As a Liberal Democrat, I am broadly sympathetic with the aim to devolve power, to empower neighbourhoods and to decentralise. I prefer bottom-up to top-down approaches. I prefer local to national. I also believe that rights come with responsibilities, and that it's good for communities to have a sense of togetherness and solidarity. Come to think of it, many of my Labour and SNP-supporting friends probably think the same way.

It is worth remembering that the Tories' manifesto was entitled "An invitation to join the government of Great Britain". What the Tories haven't done is to show how many of us can be actively become more engaged with "government". How can communities such as ours in Inverclyde be genuinely empowered? How can we be supported to take more control over our own destinies? Answers on a postcard please to 10 Downing Street, London...

No-one wants top-down, bureaucratic government - except perhaps Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway or the more extreme elements of the Labour Party. In this sense, the concept of the "big society" is a welcome one. My "big society" would be one in which communities are supported, central government looms small, individuals are supported to fulfil their potential and an innovative independent sector can thrive. It would also be genuinely multi-cultural. But the kind of socially responsible "big society" that Lib Dems can support fully is one which has to be adequately funded. It's patently inconsistent to promote the Cameron vision of the "big society" while charities and voluntary organisations are having their funding significantly slashed, thus essentially disempowering them.

There is a time to roll back the state, but it can't be done in such difficult times. No vision of a bigger society can compensate for the coming spending cuts. Cameron patently fails to understand this. Also, apparently, so does Jeremy Browne who, while having some worthwhile points to make, doesn't quite grasp that the "big society" requires more than mere liberalising principles. It needs to be properly funded and rooted in a strong, growing economy. As far as I can see, the "big society" being championed by the Prime Minister will not empower communities at all but will simply result in services previously run by local authorities being delegated to a tiny number of large voluntary organisations while smaller (and local) ones go to the wall. That's not a "big society": that's the destruction of the voluntary and charitable sectors.

Cameron's "big society" might not be a smokescreen for cuts. But for many it understandably feels that way. It doesn't help that Cameron looks so out of touch with the public. Neither is the emphasis on free schools and volunteering helpful. How many of us can really find either the time or the finances to open our own school, or even grab a spare few hours to offer our services as volunteers? While many of us do volunteer (myself included) it simply isn't possible for others with already full lives. Besides, dependancy on volunteers is no way to run a business, never mind an alternative to essential services.

And so Cameron's "big society" is a contradiction, its likely legacy the destruction of the voluntary sector it claims to empower. The broad principles of social empowerment and decentralising power are laudable, but the Cameron "passion" is too vague, too lacking in detail and too obviously uncosted to be effective. Insufficient thought has been given to how to make the theory work, especially in a time of austerity and funding cuts.

I believe in smaller government and "bigger society". But Cameron's vision is short-sighted and potentially counter-productive. His "big society" is a soundbyte, even a personal obsession. To some, even within the Conservative Party, it's a joke. It's obviously a terrific gift to the Labour Party. But whether it is anything more, I don't know. I suspect the "big society" will go the same way as Major's "back to basics" programme, becoming ridiculed and derided. Which is a shame, because if more thought had been given to practical considerations as well as marketing the idea, the "big society" could have presented a broadly liberal platform from which to build fairer and more empowered Britain.

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