I only set up this blog a couple of weeks ago and am thus a relative newcomer to the Big Society Conversation. However, over the last few days I have been starting to do my homework and take a look at what is being said and who is saying it.
The result of my investigation has led me to the conclusion that David Cameron is a very clever chap indeed. Almost everyone out there getting excited about The Big Society and wanting to get involved, probably didn’t vote Tory. Try and find the dyed-in-the-wool Tory supporters for this initiative and they are pretty muted and thin on the ground. I suspect they see the Big Society as up there with hugging hoodies – something ‘he’, supposedly, had to do to get elected. However, ask a Labour supporter what they think, and they will tell you that if they had ditched Gordon Brown and appropriated this term themselves, they would still be in power.
It is a brilliant strategy, because it has allowed Cameron to neutralise the opposition, adopt the mantle of ‘the caring Conservative’ so crucial to distancing himself from the Thatcher government and provides the cover under which he can drive through a neo-liberal agenda far more radical that anything Thatcher herself ever contemplated. I am a PR professional of some 25 years standing and I take my hat off to him.
One of the themes emerging within the Big Society Supporters Club is the need to depoliticise the Big Society and not be partisan about it. You can see where this comes from. It is born out of the frustration of non-Tories that the Tories have stolen their ground. It is similar to the accusations of policy theft that the Tories levelled against New Labour when they first came to power. I think this idea is very misplaced, for two reasons.
First, there is nothing wrong with politics – we haven’t had enough of it in recent years. If you remove something from politics, you run the risk of removing it from democracy.
Second, I think we need to get political about the Big Society very quickly indeed. As this article (http://projects.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/09/tale-councils/) by Ben Toombs highlights, when the rubber hits the road, it emerges that there are potentially many different versions of The Big Society and these actually correspond to quite different political philosophies. The Suffolk approach is quite clearly the Big Business Society. We can see this because of the lack of engagement that has taken place to date between the Council and the community and voluntary organisations that, allegedly, are going to assume a large part of the burden for delivering services. If the intention was actually to have these groups play a significant role, to proceed thus far without this engagement is insanity – tantamount in a business sense to having created a new product and launched the ad campaign before having designed the factory to make it. In all probability the intention in Suffolk is to transfer large sums of public money directly to private sector companies and while community groups may receive more money, this will essentially be the crumbs from Serco’s (et al) table – the stuff it wasn’t profitable or desirable for business to do.
The Lambeth approach that Toombs describes comes from a different place entirely. It is rooted in the idea of creating active citizens as the pre-cursor to the reshaping of service provision, rather than simply off-loading existing services to a (possibly non-existent) community of the (probably not very) willing. Interestingly, Toombs presents this as evidence for the view that the Big Society needs to be taken back from the Conservatives (de-politicised). Personally I draw the opposite conclusion. I believe it shows the need very clearly to expose, and debate, the politics that sits underneath the all-encompassing concept.
Debate that is informed by political conviction is a good thing. It is not something we should be afraid of. I am comfortable with taking a stand which says my opposition to The Big Society in Suffolk is framed not just from practical concerns about the competence with which the process is being imposed upon me but also out of a suspicion that it is neo-liberal ideology, rather than practical concerns about cost savings and deficit reduction, that is than driving the process.
I see The Big Society as yet another example of Cheque-Book Government – writing a cheque and hoping someone else will solve the problem for you. Government is becoming the equivalent of the absent father, whose contribution to assuming his responsibilities extends only as far as pushing some money at it and then running away. Let’s have that, albeit highly political, debate.