Sunday, 7 August 2011

No Such Thing As The Big Society

David Cameron's Big Idea is the so-called "Big Society". Originating in the Conservative manifesto, it is now central to the Coalition Government's Agreement and objectives, setting out
"to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people."

The Idea, which at one point Cameron attributed to none other than Jesus Christ, is underpinned by five pillars - more powers to local communities, more powers to local councils, encouraging volunteering (including suggestions that volunteers run post offices and pubs), supporting the development of mutuals and co-ops, and more openness in government's workings. And of course, it needs its own special, Tory-placeperson team to promote it - the Big Society Network.

The stench of Tory ideology suffuses the B.S.
All seemingly vaguely laudable, were it not for the background of massive cuts in public spending and the inevitable wiff, or more appropriately, stench of anti-state ideology in the Government's thinking and actions. It is also very cynically selective in terms of memory and facts, on several counts.

Firstly, this week, the False Economy Project showed how the cuts in spending are impacting seriously on many of the very charities that are meant to deliver the Big Society . This year alone, £110 millions in public funding is being cut from their grants towards running a huge range of services, from social care to educational services to support for young offenders.

Central Government in the Gauleiter-like form of Communities Secretary Pickles has attacked local councils for cutting grants to local charities. He callously ignores the fact that (a) the cuts are being imposed on local government by Central Government and (b) thanks to the ongoing Thatcherite agenda adopted by all Governments since the 1980s, the voluntary sector is no longer voluntary in any traditionally  recognisable sense. Rather, in many cases, charities have become the third arm of providing (at low cost and no-profit) a wide range of public services. Consequently, the Conservatives' cuts to local government will inevitably harm charities - most public funding to charities is channelled via local councils.

It was with Care in the Community in the late 1980s, followed by the "voluntarisation" of social housing, that there began a substantial contracting out of public services to the voluntary/charity/third sector. And as that continued under major, Blair and Brown, the sector itself changed massively. For example, in social housing, from being a small, local or specialist movement in the early 1980s, it has been purposefully developed by Tory and Labour Governments into a number of increasingly large groups of national or at least regional businesses, far removed from its original purpose. But it is at least still not-for-profit and it is a key provider of services, so to suggest that somehow it would not be affected by cutbacks in public spending is ingenuous to say the least.

But the other factor is the collective amnesia about how many of our public services were established in the first place - many of our hospitals and GP services long preceded the NHS; and not thanks to the random generosity of Victorian philanthropists as Received Wisdom might claim. Rather, these and other public services were established by the actions of millions of men and women, joining together through trade unions and mutual societies to establish voluntarily the services the community needed for its health and well-being. Alongside this, through political action and the Labour Movement, they agitated, ultimately successfully, to have these provided by the state rather than by voluntary action. Why? Because rightly, in a society with the means ours has, health, housing and other basic needs should be a right, not something obtainable dependent on the strength of local mutual aid societies.

The Tories cite mutuals as a way forward for the Big Society. If these were replacing privately owned businesses, fine. But where they have had a great chance to rekindle the mutual spirit, by turning the nationalised banks into mutual building societies run for people rather than profit, what have they done? Along with their Lib Dem allies, the Tories have announced they will sell off the good bits back to the private finance sector to apparently rebuild confidence in Britain! It seems we are all happily confident in the efficacy of private bankers once more - it's the rest of us who are the problem now.

The fact is that the charitable works that Cameron and Osborne laud from a century ago, probably in the mistaken belief it was all about nice industrialists rather than the mass of people, were done in the absence of public services. They were done from necessity and shared need to fill a huge gap in the well being of society. What they are doing now - closing services, shutting post offices, making people redundant - is the opposite. It is taking the ultimate objective of the charitable works of the past - the creation of a secure society - and dismantling it.

The consequences of such barbarity, of returning the welfare of millions to the randomness of the Victorian Age, when life was short and brutal, a Pandora's Box is being opened up. With the Thatcherite nostrum of looking after the self first and foremost, the riots in Tottenham last night, and now this evening in Enfield, may be just a glimpse of a terrifying future for us all. With youth services and other public facilities in that area slashed and unemployment rising, whilst no excuse for the violence, it serves as a serious reminder of what can happen when the value of society is discounted and the social contract torn up, regardless of the deceitfully honeyed words so knowingly whispered by H.M.'s Executioners.

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