The Big Society

November 21, 2010 § 4 Comments

Whilst travelling through the US, people were surprised to learn that our Conservative Prime Minister’s big idea for Britain was the concept of the Big Society – surely a naturally progressive idea? Six months into Cameron’s Premiership, I thought I’d put some thoughts down on paper.

It’s been particularly interesting to see how the third sector has dealt with the idea. Some have embraced it with open arms, using it’s language, defining itself as naturally at home within the concept (and funding structures..). Others see it as a linguistic land-grab of their work to fit into a political agenda, and dryly point to the public sector spending cuts (and inevitable increase in private sector service provision) as the wolf underneath the sheep’s clothing.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify what the Big Society is. As Tory Minister Tim Loughton has commented,

“The trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it. What actually is the Big Society, let alone is it good or not? Exactly how big is it now or is it going to be? Is it in fact Ann Widdecombe?”

A good place to start is the Big Society Network website. Or watch it’s CEO Paul Twivy introduce it.

Paul is also the founder of The Big Lunch (which was viciously attacked in a meeting I was in recently by a leading public engagement practitioner and a former employee…). It seems to me he genuinely wants a better society. But listening to him, his vision sounds more like the 1950’s, with milkmen who had electric milk-floats and churches where the Vicar knew your name. Naturally, before The Big Lunch/Society he was in communications (ring any bells anyone?).

From what else I could find online, the team of 15 has precisely one woman on staff and fourteen men (remember – this is a community development network…), and they overwhelmingly come from management consultancy and conservative public policy think-tanks. No doubt in an effort to increase their diversity, they tried to recruit a leading queer, female environmental activist friend of mine. She said no.

So, with such a narrow view of Britain, it’s no wonder that their analysis of why a Big Society message is necessary is so hideously wrong. Take this lovely picture for starters.

Really? The reason why we have record levels of loneliness, of mental health problems, of fear of crime is because we have an over-reaching government? Our monotone-High Streets, our empty community centers, our lack of a British identity all come from a government that tries to do too much? As Shilpa Shah noted to me – surely a critique grounded in the deep and long-established causes for identity-attrition, consumerism and increasing atomisation, the privatisation and sanitisation of public space, family breakdown, rapid demographic changes within fragile communities, the criminalisation of youth, increasing income inequality, the Great Retreat Indoors and a barking steroid-enraged media stoking up fear of difference offer a more convincing understanding of how we’ve got to where we are today?

So even though some policy suggestions (a National Citizenship Service, the Big Society Bank) are things I can get behind, the Big Society doesn’t give us a compelling context of how they will make this country better.

Reading Margaret Wheatley’s Finding Our Way this afternoon pointed out perhaps the greatest flaw in the Big Society idea. If the government wants to put control of public services into the hands of communities, we obviously need communities. But do you feel like you live in one? I don’t. I just happen to live next to people, and work with others. My friends are spread all over the world. No wonder there are worries that the narrative of the Big Society is a slight of hand that’ll allow mass privatisation – just look at NHS reform.

Some other text-book issues;

  • calling itself ‘a movement’ when it’s set up by communications professionals
  • using partisan language – ‘roll back government’
  • astro-turfing – claiming they are an ‘organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens’
  • thinking that involvement (deciding how my child’s school should be run) is the same as control (actually running the school)

Perhaps this debate between Anna Coote of nef (who have a great series of ‘Questions for the Big Society‘) and Jonty Oliff-Cooper of the Big Society Network really gives you the best analysis. (Skip the BBC guy. Dull.)

As Anna says, ‘The Big Society story makes the public spending cuts possible, but the cuts make the best ideals of the Big Society impossible to realise’.

And yet, and yet…. Because of the enormity of the work that lies before us, we have to work with those we’d never usually work with. We have to trust those we have previously deemed untrustworthy and to keep our focus on the potential future, not the painful past.

§ 4 Responses to The Big Society

  • I’m involved with the co-operative movement (Calverts is a worker co-operative) and you’ve pointed up some real issues for people who are genuinely part of a movement, not something dreamed up by pols and comms people.

    If the government pulls out of social provision, there will inevitably be a response by people who need to address their social, economic and cultural needs by self-organising (co-operating). The co-operative movement knows this and is cranking up the volume to let people know that there are genuine and proven models for setting up enterprises that are democratic, accountable ad equitable. We can’t avoid talking to government, even though we know that the cuts are ideological and driven by an anti working class political programme. But the risk is that we discredit ourselves by being perceived as opportunistic.

  • David Taylor says:

    This is thoughtful, well written article but I can’t agree with the conclusion. Why do we have to work with them? We can work to get a progressive government back in power, and we don’t have to wait 5 years to do it. Next year in fact, we can start by getting Labour back in Scotland and grabbing control of major cities including Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield etc etc.

  • Tamsin Omond says:

    I’m like Ed Miliband and I have high hopes for his leadership but to believe that Labour would form a progressive government seems a little delusional. Many of my friends, since the coalition was founded, have become Labour evangelists. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely – however much we would like to believe in a left movement concerned with social justice called ‘labour’ it seems a little oblivios to forget that they contributed massively to ‘the cuts are necessary’ rhetoric that our country now is trapped in. And that they have not offered us a more coherent, or ‘opposition’ vision of government (though of course I believe that the Left could do that).

    So I begrudgingly find myself agreeing with Casper’s final premise – whilst this is what we have, let’s try and make the best of it rather than using all of our energies complaining only to find that in 4 years they have dismantled everything and people on the left did nothing, except complain and say ‘it would’ve been different under Labour – vote Labour’.

    I don’t think any of the white men in suits have a clue about how to lead a country into the future. So rather than spend too much time wondering what they’re up to I think I’ll get on with building momentum for change elsewhere.

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