“Big Society” is a term well chosen for its ambiguity. As a name, either for a vision or for a set of specific policies, it gives away little that might help us decide how to react to it. Is ‘big’ good? one wonders. Or not? Should I enthusiastically support the idea, or vociferously object? Shall I just hover doubtfully? Who knows? The confusion continues when one begins to read the various pages the Internet has available to explain the idea. ‘Empowering local people… taking an active role in their communities… charities and social enterprises…’ These are good things, aren’t they? Right? So why do I still feel queasy about all this?
It’s a (perhaps unfortunate) fact that the Internet also makes it possible for me to express these Mixed Feelings even in their embryonic and underinformed state. The following snippet of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead seems relevant…
(A good pause. ROS leaps up and bellows at the audience.)
(GUIL jumps up)
ROS: It’s all right—I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists.
So here we are, with a bunch of queries about David Cameron’s vision of “Big Society”—or, at least, about what this web page (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/content/big-society-overview) says on the subject.
- “It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities,” says the Cabinet Office’s website. This statement acknowledges a distance between the one and the other without proposing to do anything about it. In theory, surely, the whole system of representatives of smaller and larger areas ensures some kind of continuity and mutual involvement of people with other people across the country, connecting the most local doings with the most overarching national and international affairs. In practice, of course, this system might not work perfectly well. But the rhetoric that openly distinguishes, almost opposes, Whitehall and the people, seems odd and perhaps unhelpful.
- “Our public service reforms will enable charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services…” (emphasis added). It’s not entirely clear to me what such competition has to do with ‘helping people to come together to improve their own lives’, or whether it would necessarily ensure that everyone would get equal access to the highest quality services. In other areas of life, after all, the most successful competitor is sometimes the one with the best advertising campaign, not the best product or service.
- “Encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society” sounds like a good thing, but part of me cringes at the idea of all the people who work so hard for their communities being patted on the head by the government and told to keep at it. This is probably ungracious and suggests that I also mentally distinguish people and politicians (see above) which I don’t think is a good thing.
- We wouldn’t want to develop a vision for our local communities and forget to be concerned for the rest of the world. Local volunteering and social action isn’t the only thing that UK charities do: there’s a lot of activism and campaigning that goes on, and needs to go on, and there’s something rather circular about the various charities badgering MPs with letters and petitions and etc, asking for decisions to made for the increase of justice on a global scale, only to have the PM publically approving their good work. The praise must be appreciated, but probably less so than useful action addressing the problems the charities are trying to deal with. “And when it comes to the great humanitarian crises – like the famine in Horn of Africa,” Mr Cameron said in his King James Bible speech, “again you can count on faith-based organisations, like Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, Jewish Care, Islamic Relief, and Muslim Aid, to be at the forefront of the action to save lives.” There’s something a little condescending, I think, about this you can count on them attitude.
- It would be regrettable if more cuts are made to public services than the country’s charities and social enterprises and so on are able to make amends for. That complaint has probably been widely made already.
- Local volunteering, social action and decision-making will be easier for some to engage in than others, depending on the community and their other commitments. Also, people in general will need motivation to get involved: it helps to enjoy the volunteering you do, and to feel confident that it’s useful and makes a worthwhile difference. These are challenges, though perhaps not insurmountable challenges, that would need to be faced to ensure equal participation in a “big society”.
In conclusion, here’s a link to a website by some people who seem to know what they’re talking about: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/cutting-it
And here’s a song from Bugsy Malone which is not relevant, but I like it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ9KtuRHXRc