Government as absent father – DISCUSS!

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 ( 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.


4 Responses to “Government as absent father – DISCUSS!”

  1. 1 Julian Dobson November 2, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Not sure I entirely agree with you here.

    There are (at least) two different things going on with Big Society. One is a political agenda and as you say, it’s right and proper to have political debates about it. If you spend a bit more time digging around you’ll find enough of that to keep you entertained till Christmas.

    The other, which is where I’m coming from, is an agenda of social action and community empowerment (interestingly, this is one bit of terminology the coalition have stuck with). Where Big Society is used as a tag for social action, it’s broadly similar to many of the ideas advanced under New Labour – especially David Blunkett’s concerns with ‘civil renewal’.

    My argument here is that politicians are quite poor at working with communities. There are many reasons for that, but one of the most important is that whatever they claim to the contrary, they are generally in the business of accumulating personal power rather than helping others to empower themselves. Hence the need for social action to work outside the political process while remaining engaged with it.

    • 2 richardstacy November 3, 2010 at 8:01 am


      I guess my concern is the extent to which the former can disguise itself within the latter. The Lambeth example would seem to me to be an example of genuine social action and empowerment, whereas what is going on in Suffolk appears to be something else all together.

  2. 3 Ben Toombs November 18, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Hi Richard,

    Sorry to leave it so long to post this!

    I think your piece, and indeed the comment you left on my RSA piece, simply highlight the dangers of the Big Society remaining open to interpretation. In the absence of an explicit intention to foster social engagement and empowerment, in the current climate the BS is bound to be associated with spending cuts and rolling back the state. That association is only going to be strengthened if it is councils such as Suffolk which are seen to be championing it. And as long as the Big Society is ‘owned’ by the Tories, non-Tory councils such as Lambeth which do seem to want to encourage pro-social behaviour and attitudes are naturally going to shy away from associating themselves with the agenda of another party, even if what they are doing aligns with it in other ways.

    Your take on all this seems to be to use the Big Society as a stick to beat the Tories with by exposing its ‘neo-liberal roots’. You may well be right in the context of Suffolk – I don’t know. But my view is that the Big Society, being a high-profile and national initiative (if that’s the right word), is actually an opportunity to encourage community engagement across the whole country, and that its very breadth has the potential to encourage people who haven’t yet taken part in community activity to ‘get involved in something big’ at the local level.

    If councils which really want to encourage such behaviour shy away from the Big Society label, the overall endorsement of it will be narrower, and its ‘pulling power’ will be weaker. The Big Society needs to be just that – big – if people are going to be persuaded to change their ways, and that means it needs to transcend political divides. If it isn’t big, and if it remains stuck in its association with cuts rather than community, we do indeed risk ending up with the neo-liberal stick you have in mind. That would be a pity, and a missed opportunity.

    • 4 richardstacy November 18, 2010 at 4:22 pm


      Thanks for the response. I think the issue that lies at the root of this one is that just because something can or should transcend political divides it therefore means it should be ‘de-politicised’. The Big Society can have many interpretations (the Suffolk versus the Lambeth interpretation) and it is only through interrogating the politics of it that we can really understand and discriminate between these interpretations.

      I don’t think anyone would want to deter people from taking part in community activity – which actually means that this objective can easily become a nice-sounding motherhood statement which politicians are so fond of adopting or co-opting in order to achieve explicitly political objectives. We have seen the way that US conservatives have been allowed to adopt concepts such as freedom and the rights of the individual and used this as cover under which to advance policies that, in reality, have little to do with such ideals.

      We must not allow the same thing to happen to the idea of the Big Society – which is why it is important that we have the political debate about the role and responsibilities of Government and the ethics and consequences of Government devolving these repsonsibilities – especially the debate about to whom these responsibilites are devolved so we can ensure that the business of Government does not simply become a profit making opportunity. This is exactly the debate that David Cameron does not want us to have – he just wants us to buy the idea that this is all about nice-sounding motherhood stuff that seems so attractive that it doesn’t require debate, interogation and the messy interference of politics (democracy).

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