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What's the big thinking behind The Big Society?

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.” David Cameron, Liverpool, 19th July 2010.

Well, I call it the biggest steaming pile of political horse manure ever to be dumped on the British people since John Major launched his ‘back to basics’ campaign in the early 1990s. If the ‘Big Society’ were genuinely an important departure in social policy and political culture, the speech would provide some kind of coherent intellectual backdrop, right? If this new initiative were about to be piloted in a number of local authorities around the UK, there would surely be plenty of detail to grapple with?

Let’s take a look at what Cameron actually said about his Big Society.

“It’s about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders.”

We can take the first idea as a reference to Michael Gove’s madcap scheme to let do-gooders and wackos set up so-called ‘free schools’. Some of these schools may indeed turn out to be ‘great’. Others, I imagine will turn out to be bloody awful. Remember, in theory, anyone is allowed to set one up. They don’t need any experience of education and are not obliged to teach a curriculum that most people would recognise as being mainstream. As parents, we’ll probably have no meaningful way of judging the performance of one school over another any more. It will be like comparing Conservative blueberrries with Lib Dem oranges.

As for the second and third ideas about businesses and charities, I don’t see anything here that doesn’t already exist. I used to sit on the board of a charity that has been helping for years to rehabilitate offenders in conjunction with other partners in the statutory and voluntary sectors. Businesses have been actively involved in getting people back into the workforce for some time too. There have even been documentaries on the telly about it.

So far, so meaningless.

Next comes a marvellous piece of political doublespeak from Cameron:

“For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn’t work. We’ve got the biggest budget deficit in the G20.”

Err, excuse me? Do we really have the biggest budget deficit in the G20 because of too much government? No. We have the biggest budget deficit in the G20 because governments – Tory and Labour alike – were too pathetic in their regulation of the banking system. This led to a massive state-funded bailout of the financial institutions in the wake of the financial crisis. We are paying now for the inadequacies of the state, rather than experiencing the consequences of its excessive interference.

These excerpts of Cameron’s speech pretty much sum up the standard of intellectual debate which underlie his grand vision. I can’t see anything here that an averagely bright GCSE sociology student couldn’t pick apart in the period after double maths.

Happy that he’s covered all bases at a theoretical level, Cameron then moves on to discuss the practicalities. He admits there is ‘no one lever’ that we can pull to create The Big Society and suggests ‘three strands’ of activity. The first one is ‘social action’.

“The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action.”

The idea of people giving time and money on a voluntary basis is not new. It’s called charity. My feeling is that the only people rallying to this particular cause will be the ones who already do. And unless government fosters and supports the culture of voluntarism with cash, we have absolutely nothing that doesn’t already exist. My wife works for a charity which receives money from a council to deliver a vital service to the public at a local level. Almost certainly, there will be less money for these organisations to play with in the future rather than more.

The second strand of the Big Society is ‘public service reform’. Getting rid of centralised bureaucracy, giving professionals more freedom, letting charities run public services. I’ve heard it all a million times before. It will either turn out to be bluster or it will descend into anarchy. (We’ve already had a taste of this agenda with the proposed abolition of Primary Care Trusts and the handing of power to professional GPs. Because family doctors can’t manage budgets while also telling people to drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol, they’ll end up forming consortia to run and commission services. In effect, they’ll recreate the PCTs but in a confused and incoherent form.)

It’s on his third strand – ‘community empowerment’ - that Cameron really gets into his stride. He manages one sentence. He tells us that we need communities with ‘oomph’. It’s a word that starts with two round zeros and manages to convey a third, which I guess sits between the Eton-educated Prime Minister’s ears.

From then on, the speech deteriorates into an incoherent ramble which involves Grange Hill’s Phil Redmond, people running their own bus routes and taking over local pubs. Given that pubs are in private ownership anyway, they hardly represent the big government that Cameron and his Lib Dem cronies seemingly despise. But then nothing really has to make sense when you’re making things up as you go along. As Cameron himself concludes:

“It’s about pushing power down and seeing what happens. It’s about unearthing the problems as they come up on the ground and seeing how we can get round them. It’s about holding our hands up saying we haven’t got all the answers – let’s work them out, together.”

In boom times, it would be comical. In our world of austerity, God only knows where it’s all going to lead.

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