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.