First published in Huffington Post
The Big Society has been in the news once again only to take another beating, this time from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams has waded into what should be a debate about state and society, but is instead a wholly predictable moan-a-thon by the left-liberal commentariat. There’ll be more on him later but suffice to say that I for one would have welcomed the input of the supposedly cerebral Williams, if he could have got the discussion beyond the petty politics of the parish pump.
Quite literally in the case of London’s first parish council, in Queen’s Park, since they were abolished half a century ago. Not that this throw-back to the parochial past is all that different in content to the municipal mumblings of their big borough kin. Like every other local authority mission statement those behind it promise a ‘safer, healthier and happier’ time for their new residents. One Westminster councillor, nevertheless, has welcomed the parish as the ‘start of a brand new era in localism‘.
Sadly, he could be right. This sort of thing, bizarrely, tends to be lauded as an example of the Big Society. In fact there is nothing ‘big’ never mind new about the local approach. Add to this the substituting of the long-forgotten notion that it might have something to do with people not depending on the ‘support’ of the state in favour of the politics of the top-down Nudge, and things get very confusing. For all the protests to the contrary – this, the policy-makers’ favourite new buzzword, in fact describes essentially the same paternalistic, nannying, top-down, ever encroaching Big State that it is supposed to do away with. In truth the enthusiasm for Nudging is for something little more than a contracted-out, behaviour controlling, and consequently even more autonomy inhibiting version of the same thing. So not only is the Big Society not big, it has nothing much to do with ‘society’ either.
But the coalition shouldn’t get all the blame for this. As Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange says: ‘The idea has long roots’. As does the community organising movement that Amol Rajan gets so excited about. But why are they in the ascendant now? Could it be that until relatively recently they were eclipsed by the more substantial stuff of politics? The convergence of Blue Labour and Red Tory on this narrowest of middle grounds is not something to be celebrated. It is the logical outcome of the Third Way anti-politics of the post-cold war period. Little has changed in the over nearly quarter of a century since. I suspect Slocock, principal author of the Big Society Audit, is a secret Nudger too. In much the same way that Rajan thinks communities need organisers, she wants charities and other small voluntary sector groups to fill the ‘big society gap’ where society-proper – that is, you and me – should be. It should be ‘given more power’ says Slocock to, like that old lager commercial used to say, get to the poorest, most deprived parts that other openly state-sponsored programmes can’t.
The Big Society was never meant to be a government programme or the long list of bullet-pointed initiatives that Patrick Butler details. The one-and-only point was that it was supposed to get rid of the stifling culture of a meddling illiberal state and let us – the people – get on with it! In practice, for all the anti-statist mythology encouraged by its supporters and indulged by its critics, the coalition has if anything done the opposite. Even if one were to accept the low horizons and modest ambitions – which I don’t – it seems that few have any faith in communities themselves. Trade unionists think that they are so feeble that public spending cuts are ‘destroying‘ them. A rather self-serving argument if ever there was one. And now, far from raising the discussion to a higher plane, the Archbishop of Canterbury has also intervened on behalf of the meek masses. The Big Society is, he says, ‘designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable’. The vulnerable – a group that the great and the good ill-define the better to hide behind them. You get the Big Society you deserve I suppose.