Big Society: an idea whose time has past

Just for the moment, let’s believe that Mr Cameron’s big idea about the Big Society is genuinely more motivated in concern for the way civil society functions than it is a cunning wheeze to cut public expenditure.

That probably came out more cynically than it was meant to, because there are serious issues to be thought about here. One does not need to subscribe to the “ain’t it awful” school of sociology to be concerned about some aspects of modern British society. It’s hard even to mention some of them without being accused of a range of offences against liberal sensibilities, from feminism to gay rights via a pleasant excursion along the byways of anti-racism and secularism. Part of the problem here is that asserting that some of the functions of “traditional family life”, for example, are critical to society’s broader health is often seen as a commitment to such family life as being the only possible vehicle for those critical purposes. So in what follows, I am trying to point to a few of these important functions, rather than to express a view about how they should be delivered, or via what structures. My selection is purely for illustrative purposes, and there are lots of others, of course. So by way of being merely examples:

  • Children need civilising. We find it very unfashionable to express it so baldly these days, but it’s a fundamental truth all the same. Left to their own devices this is not going to happen.
  • We need to have broadly accepted rules of engagement for the conducting of our relationships with others, and we need a means of enforcing them when they’re violated.
  • We need to have some sense of commonality with those we live amongst.
  • We need to have a sense of contributing to the common good, and a means of doing so.

I do not think that all these functions are being successfully delivered in our society today, and insofar as this is what Mr Cameron means by a “broken society” then he has a point. Unfortunately his prescription for dealing with these issues is hopeless right from the beginning. The big society as thus far articulated at least (and in truth that’s not very far at all) seems to consist of letting people set up their own schools, take over in some unspecified way the provision of public services, and chum the police along whilst they’re on the beat. Forget for the moment the considerable stumbling block presented by the fact that there’s no reason at all to suppose that, even if these remedies were implemented, they’d fix any of the aforementioned broken things, just who does Mr Cameron imagine will have the time or the resources to implement them anyway? The front runner on the “I’m going to invent my own school” side of things is Mr Toby Young, gourmand resident somewhere between Wandsworth’s ever-so-desirable commons. And that is as far as the idea will reach into “commons”, I’m prepared to wager.

No, Mr Cameron, your big idea is predicated on a society that simply no longer exists. We don’t have enough people of independent means, a social conscience, and an understanding of what needs to be done to get stuck in to the self-help agenda. Late 19th century social conditions can’t suddenly be conjured up at the beginning of the 21st. If your big society takes off at all, it will take off for the likes of Toby Young. Some of the scaled back resources of the public sector will be syphoned off to subsidise his pioneering efforts. Mr Cameron, wittingly or not, is about to usher in a new era of Robin Hood but in reverse, stealing from the poor to give yet more to the rich.

Thus I have less argument with (some aspects of, anyway) Mr Cameron’s diagnosis than I do with his anachronistic prescription. There is a lot in our society that cries out to be fixed. Some of that brokenness is due to the loss, for example, of effective family life for many of our children without a new way of providing the important functions that families at their best delivered. It is true that as a society we have sub-contracted too much of our communal life to state provision. Too many of our communities aren’t places where the social rules of engagement are respected. The Big Society just doesn’t happen to be a credible way of fixing those things.

And in any case, Toby Young has already shown us via his participation in Come Dine with Me that he can’t organise even a simple dinner party without constant support from his all too long suffering wife. I sure as hell wouldn’t have sent my kid to his chaotic school.


9 thoughts on “Big Society: an idea whose time has past

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Big Society: an idea whose time has past « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog --

  2. An interesting article but it contains two things that need correcting.

    David Cameron started talking about and looking into what could be achieved through better engagement with civil society prior to the banking crisis under the last Government that contributed to the need to make huge cuts. So I think linking Big Society inherently with dealing with the budget problems isn’t necessarily correct or helpful.

    The second is the assertion that Big Society cannot work because “We don’t have enough people of independent means, a social conscience, and an understanding of what needs to be done to get stuck in to the self-help agenda.”

    I have been lucky enough to meet and work with people from across the social and economic spectrum – some immensely wealthy, some indescribably poor. If you think that those who have nothing don’t have the means, conscience or understanding to help, you really misunderstand them. The very poorest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet have also been the most giving, helpful and generous – in time, food and spirit. And by poor, I mean living nomadic lives, with food enough for most but not all of the year, in winter temperatures of minus 20 and below with no money for heat.

    If David Cameron believes that the human condition allows us to feel compassion and do good and that he can do something to facilitate that, I think that’s something worth trying. Much more positive than just sniping anyway – and where has that got us so far?

  3. I spent yesterday evening in the company of a load of people who do believe (to varying degrees) that social action works. The cynic in me is converting – I just want to rename it the JFDI society as we spend too much time waiting for permission to act from some official or other. And James is right. And those communities – the ones my colleagues see every day – they’re full of people who’d love that permission (and maybe a little support).

  4. @James. I acknowledge that David Cameron’s talk of broken Britain and increased engagement from citizens pre-dated the financial crisis, but even then he articulated it as part of his ideological commitment to “small government”. So I think he has always linked the idea with that of curbing public expenditure: it’s just that the deficit has given him an added sense of urgency.

    I am not saying that poor people can’t be generous, and it makes little sense in my view to try and draw parallels across wildly different societies. Britain is not nomadic, nor is it a subsistence economy. David Cameron’s approach is not doomed because he’s misunderstood the human condition. It’s doomed because it requires social and financial capital that Britain’s poorest do not have.

    @Simon. I simply don’t agree with you that what is holding back Britain’s poorest communities is a lack of permission. It’s a lack of wherewithal. Single parent families, households that depend upon multiple poorly paid jobs to survive, etc. simply do not generally have the time, or frequently the spare energy, that’s required to go around setting up free schools. The Toby Youngs in our society do, and that is why they’ll be the net beneficiaries of this innovation.

  5. One of the flaws with the Big Society it’s that it’s merely a promising idea. It hasn’t yet been worked out in enough detail to constitute a plan. Yet, it seems it’s what we’re all going to get. Marching forward without an adequate plan is what toffs usually do when entrusted with the care of others, and whether it’s Tory or Lib Dem, we are governed by a union of toffs right now.

    The other connected problem is that the Big Society’s proponents seem to have to rely on arguments based on exceptions. There are people who have made a difference to their communities in a way councils cannot, but there doesn’t seem any reason to believe that we can generalise about how society might work based on these individuals.

    I’ve heard passionate claims about what can be done, but the examples all depend on the contribution of a single extraordinary person. How many of these people are there, and are they evenly spread throughout our society?

  6. How depressing a view of life and your fellow humans @Martin and @Billy Gotta-Job have. So, to sum it up then, poor people are feckless and don’t care, toffs are evil and nasty?

    That may be your view but, to be honest, I continue to have a belief in people, what they can achieve and their genuine kindness. The vast majority of people are ready willing and able to stand up and be counted, to do something to make their communities and the world a better place. The people that hold us *all* back are the ones who would rather sit and make chippy comments about ‘single parent families’ and other target groups of the Daily Mail.

    • @James – if you can genuinely find a place either in my original article, or in my responses or Martin’s comment, which seriously puts forward the view that “poor people are feckless and don’t care, toffs are evil and nasty” then please point it out. Unless you can, then I’ll be obliged to conclude that you are perhaps indulging in a spot of projection.

      On the contrary, what I am actually saying is that self-help requires spare capacity in both time and resources. Poor people are poor because by definition they have none of the latter and, far from being feckless, they are often still poor despite working longer hours than their richer counterparts which robs them of the former.

      It seems that your view is that the only thing holding everyone back is those of us honest enough to point to reality rather than sentiment. Apart from the fact that I’m mightily surprised to find that the chains shackling the poor consist actually of nothing other than my lack of optimism on their behalf, I really do think it’s going to take more than positive thinking to unbreak our society.

    • James – You choose the word belief, and that is my point. Is a belief a sufficient foundation for eroding public services and replacing them with the Big Society programme?

      Given that you’re relying on a belief, aren’t you taking a big risk on behalf of the people who RELY on those services? What happens to those people if your belief turns out to be incompletely right? Some communities might suit the Big Society, but a fair government should cater for ALL communities.

      It seems horribly self indulgent to rely on unproven beliefs when considering the needs of people within a society.

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