Monday, 14 February 2011

Big Society, Big Misunderstanding?

The Big Society was supposed to be David Cameron’s great philosophical innovation, the great legacy of his premiership. Yet it has had a beleaguered existence to date Met by incomprehension, scepticism and mockery at every turn, it is surely only the enthusiasm of the Prime Minister that has carried it this far. In the past weeks it has sustained further blows, with Liverpool City Council dropping out of a pilot programme and Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, head of Community Service Volunteers, claiming it is being fatally undermined by government cuts. Where lesser men would have given up, Cameron has sought to prop up the big society once more, insisting in The Guardian that the big society is alive and well.

It’s not often that I feel pity for the Conservative leader, but in this case I have to confess feeling a little sorry for him in the way that his grand scheme has been wilfully misunderstood and misrepresented. This isn’t to say I agree with it, but the scheme deserves to be criticised on its own (de)merits.

The lazy stereotypes: it is a return to Thatcherite anti-statism; it is a Panglossian positive spin on savage public spending cuts or it’s trying to deprofessionalize important occupations. The problem is that the notion of the big society has become too entangled with the government’s cuts. While there is a legitimate argument to say that the cuts are in practice inconsistent with the big society, the two are at least theoretically separable. So, for example, we might say that the big society is a good idea, but not one which must be delayed until the government feels it can afford to back it properly financially. What I want to look at here is whether the big society is a good idea, independent of the immediate political context.

While Cameron was trying to resurrect the big society, Ed Miliband was sticking the boot in with an Independent column linking it to the cuts which “speaks to [The Conservative Party’s] ideological heart. It really believes that a small state will produce a Big Society”.

This is something that Cameron explicitly denies. In the 2009 Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, one of the clearest expositions of the idea, he insisted that despite the problems of state intervention, “it doesn't follow that smaller government would automatically bring us together again”. The novelty of his position is that it rejects the previous Conservative orthodoxy that government intervention in all guises is restrictive and an unwarranted encroachment of liberty. On the contrary, he insists that the state is crucial and necessary in “actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal”. This admission gives lie to the idea that Cameron believes that the government can simply withdraw its support and expect its functions to be spontaneously taken up by the public. On the contrary, one of his central beliefs seems to be that the government has inadvertently created passive, self-interested citizens: “Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state”. Having got us into this mess, it appears that only the state can get us out of it.

My understanding is the Big Society is essentially about the empowerment of citizens as a response to this atomisation and submission. The theory is that the best way to so empower people is to give them responsibility. Again, the appeal to ‘responsibility’ is redolent of old-style conservatives objecting to bailing out the poor and the needy. But this is misleading. Responsibility here means being trusted to carry out the tasks of the centralised state on its behalf. Think of it this way: would you be more motivated working for a boss who micro-managed your every move, or one that gave you broad targets and a large amount of autonomy in achieving them? In Cameron’s words, “Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly”.

However, the idea of outsourcing the functions of the state leads us to the charge of amateurism: the Big Society means volunteers doing the jobs of professionals. Yet a more charitable interpretation of the Big Society ethos would be to acknowledge that David Cameron is fully aware that certain jobs need to be carried out by qualified professionals. In these cases, the Big Society ethos demands we question how much autonomy these professionals have in their jobs. While the media has generally portrayed the Big Society as trying to encourage volunteering, it seems to be as much about empowering state employees to use their own initiative, and to have a stake in their positions. This is why cooperatives like John Lewis, which shares this philosophy, have been consulted in plans to ‘mutualise’ public services. At the same time, the general public are also promised empowerment in the form of greater transparency and accountability in public service provision.

Armed with this broader understanding of the philosophy of the Big Society, we can see its mark all over this government’s policy. Its healthcare reforms can be understood as an effort to change the role of doctors from passive recipients of NHS largesse to a more active, engaged and autonomous role. Free schools not only harness the public spirit of their founders, but encourage decentralised, services.

Understanding the government’s philosophy is not to condone it, though. Even if we accept that Cameron is acting in good faith, we can object to his vision on a number of grounds. To begin with, the need for a Big Society presupposes that we accept a rather pessimistic diagnosis of modern British society and the effectiveness of the state. Many would deny that public services are in the dire state that is sometimes portrayed. It is also debatable whether the state is such an inhibiting influence on people.

Further, the Big Society argument seems to forget the strengths of a centralised state: coordination and redistribution. Decentralising services means more of a postcode lottery: what you get and how good it is depends far more on your location. It also makes it harder to move resources from rich areas to poor.

The peculiar thing is that these are the sort of arguments that are being made against specific measures, such as free schools and NHS reform. Yet few have linked either the government policies or opposition to them to the Big Society, which is perceived to only be about volunteering and suchlike, rather than an overarching government ideology. In their review of The British General Election of 2010, Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley comment on the irony that “the Big Society was a Big Idea, of the sort which pundits always call for” and yet it was ridiculed and misapprehended by those same pundits. Perhaps it’s my bias as a Political Theorist, but I agree that politics should be about grand schemes and visions. That makes it a shame that, despite its faults, the Big Society has not been noticed as such.

1 comment:

  1. Also posted here:
    alongside lots of other interesting current affairs articles.