The ‘Big Society’ or big society?

Everyone, it seems, is cheering the demise of “the Big Society”, and even Cameron seems to be dropping the capitalisation. The left think the concept is ideological cover for “cuts” and the right just think the whole thing is amorphous bollocks. Libertarians deplore the whole thing as Blairite “third way” crap by which politicians attempt to manipulate the people.

They’re all right.

Over and above the cuts necessary to deal with the horrendous deficit bequeathed the nation by the previous Labour administration, it should surprise no-one that Tories think a smaller state is better, which means taxing, and spending less. Charities and the like will bleat about losing funds. How can you, they argue, demand that civil society achieve more, even as councils cut charity funding. Of course this is part of the point. A charity dependent on state or local Government funding isn’t charity any more than the police are: it’s an arm of the state. Meanwhile the right argue what’s the point of cutting spending, only to hand the same money to people outside the state who have their own agenda better to let the charities function in the market. However, for far to many politicians, “The Big Society” allows them to be seen to be doing something with tax-payers’ money – in this instance giving it to correctly branded organisations of varying merit – which doesn’t subsequently demand too much of politicians by way of oversight. Funnily enough, this was the approach of the Labour Government to the “third way” organisations which are now screaming about “cuts”. So, much of the Big Society’s failure is merely a continuation of the failure of the Labour project under a different brand.

It depends on what the big society means – and it is more likely to work if it is, indeed as the left suggest, a cover for cuts. The whole point of a big society is that the state should cease to be the first port of call for people in solving every problem. Once people lose the habit built up in 13 years of absurdly interventionist Government, of expecting every community group to be funded by the state, every campaign group’s expectation of an open ear to calls for new legislation, every branch of Government’s expectation of seeing its annual budget grow, people will seek alternative provision first, and in most cases, find it better than bureaucratically delivered, top-down services delivered by central or local Government.

Even areas which are to remain state-financed, such as health and education will help in this process: GP fundholding means the local GP rather than an distant bureaucracy ‘The NHS’ will be responsible for healthcare. Likewise Free schools will allow the local education bureaucracy to wither as more schools escape the miserable embrace of Government. Don’t think your school is working – open another. This means, in time, the direct umbilical chord of service provision direct from Government will be broken, leading people to think, and blame, locally for the success or otherwise of their services. If you’re buying your education with a voucher, you blame the school for poor performance and crucially have the option of going elsewhere, rather than simply blaming ‘the Government’ for crappy service provided which you’re expected to simply endure.Don’t rate the education your local school is providing? move your child to another. Don’t like how your GP operates? find a different one. Hopefully the expectation that “the council” should provide every service will likewise wither, and people will self-organise into community groups to achieve things without getting Government too deeply.

Not only will this eventually mean more responsive services, it will free government up for delivering roads without potholes and other things they’ve forgotten with the expansion of their role into providing “outreach” services.

The Big Society – Government encouragement of initiatives to persuade the people to take on roles for free previously paid for out of taxation – will fail. The if the ‘big society’ however is simply that which will grow into the space vacated by Government, then it will happen organically, naturally and without any input from government. Indeed government intervention will be resented. People just aren’t in the mood to help the state. Instead, rather than state-funded “charity” which should wither, to be replaced by genuine, independent charity and community organisation operating without the facilitation of the state. Cameron should stop talking about the big society for a year or two, until that process is underway and there are examples of local groups delivering services without much input from Government to demonstrate the people no longer expect the state to step in to solve every problem.

So. The ‘Big Society’ is dead. Long live the big society.

4 replies
  1. lost_nurse
    lost_nurse says:

    "GP fundholding means the local GP rather than an distant bureaucracy"

    Really? Because I'm betting it will mean Serco and United Healthcare, with a side-order of twats from McKinsey & co.

  2. lost_nurse
    lost_nurse says:

    that differs from the NHS as currently constituted how, exactly?

    Insomuch as AL's plans are simply a continuation of NuLav's… it will be worse. This isn't a carefully considered transition to a Dutch-style social insurance model – it's a cherry-pickin' yardsale, with predictable consequences for the messier end of acute care.

    Anyway, back OTT: I'm sorry, but the Big Society rhetoric is utter bullshite. And if I were Dave, I would be careful to avoid such tripe at this particular moment in time. Cutting expenditure is one thing – garnishing the process with flowery bollox is quite another(I think we agree on this, though).


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