David Cameron’s latest attempt to arouse some enthusiasm for his ‘passionate mission’ to promote the ‘Big Society’ should be put into perspective. Consider this:
Charities that are supposedly at the heart of his mission will lose £5bn through cuts. The 2008 bailout of the banks cost the taxpayer £117bn, averaging £5.500 per family. Last week, in his ‘Project Merlin’ peace deal with the banks, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that it was time ‘to move from retribution to recovery’. Barclays is to pay £4.5bn in total remuneration to 22.000 investment bankers employed by its investment wing, Barclays Capital. £2bn will be paid in bonuses. CEO Bob Diamond will receive a bonus of £9m. Royal Bank of Scotland, 80% of which is publicly owned, will pay £1.3bn to executives. That’s the background. It should not be, and has not been forgotten by the general public. Most people are very angry and remain completely unconvinced that the ‘Big Society’ amounts to anything other than a meaningless sound-bite at best and a cynical deception at worst.
The notion is now in big trouble. For months the government has been trying to get the idea to fly but it has stubbornly refused to leave the ground. Ministers have struggled to explain what it means, which is not surprising as some of them have no idea themselves. Now, faced with high-profile desertions by those who were supposed to have been signed up to it, the prime minister is floundering. Suzie Leather, chair of the Charities Commission, told Cameron ‘if you cut the charities you are cutting our ability to help each other. That is what the ‘big society’ is all about. So you are pulling the rug from under that.’ Leader of Liverpool City Council, Joe Anderson, prized as a high-profile enthusiast for the scheme, has just pulled out, with a letter to Cameron on February 4th announcing that ‘the council can no longer support the ‘big society’…as a direct result of your funding cuts.’ Anderson writes: ‘How can the city council support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups.’
Cameron is so worried that he has decided to re-launch the scheme. From someone with his PR background one might have expected a smooth, hard-hitting, convincing performance. Whatever one thinks of his politics he has a reputation as someone sympathetic and responsive to the public mood. To many he sounds persuasive despite the suspect smoothness associated with the PR man. But this time he sounded completely, even comically, unconvincing. In both his article for The Observer (13.02) and his speech to an invited audience at Somerset House in London (14.02) his performance was muddled and meandering. The strength of his conviction failed to convince. The Big Society, he proclaimed was something about which he feels passionately. It is ‘his mission’. The fact that something on which he has staked so much is proving such a flop should worry him and his supporters a great deal. You can be sure that when political leaders start to tell us over and over how passionately they believe something, they are getting desperate. Cameron is beginning to sound like Blair. Blair never tired of telling us how firmly he believed that what he was doing was right, as though the strength of his self-belief was sufficient justification for his actions regardless of how much evidence there was to the contrary. Thatcher, another ‘conviction’ politician (albeit one from whom Cameron wants to distance himself) firmly believed in the need for a ‘poll tax’. The failed attempt to impose it helped to end her career. Her successor, John Major, firmly believed that the British people needed to ‘get back to basics’, meaning basic Victorian standards of probity and moral rectitude, only to see his government overwhelmed by sleaze. And who now is able to explain with any assurance what Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was all about or how transformative his promotion of ‘Cool Britannia’? They are remembered, if at all, either with anger, as in the case of the poll tax, or as empty phrases ‘signifying nothing’.
When Letter from the UK first visited this subject some months ago, it was suggested that the idea of the ‘Big Society’ may have been prompted by Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there was no such thing as society. Hers was a philosophy of possessive individualism in extremis. In attempting, towards the end of the party’s thirteen years in opposition, to re-mould, or detoxify the Tory brand, Cameron was concerned to distance himself from the Thatcherite right wing. He couldn’t do this effectively without abandoning her views about society. The concept of the ‘Big Society’ is intended to do that. It is also intended to counteract what is denounced as Labour’s supposed commitment to the Big State – top-down over-centralization. The encouragement of localism, community-based initiatives, charitable organizations, neighbourhood watch schemes, residents’ associations – indeed, the whole voluntary sector, is unexceptionable. But it offers nothing new. In this sense the ‘Big Society’ already exists, and, despite often meagre funding, has, until now, functioned effectively. Of course, there is room for more and stronger local initiatives that will empower people, like the ‘people’s co-operative’ singled out by Cameron for special praise. This venture, inspired by a successful people’s co-op in Brooklyn will, if it succeeds, provide a cheaper and healthier source of supply to the local community, utilizing the voluntary labour of the community. But, the likelihood of such ventures succeeding depends largely on availability of funds. And there’s the rub.
Some critics have argued that this is a ‘good idea at the wrong time’, suggesting that if it were not for the unprecedented cuts in government spending that are decimating the public sector, the ‘Big Society’ would be a great success. This misses the point. The scheme has been launched now for a very good reason. It is intended to persuade people that with a bit of effort they can work together to provide the services they will lose in the tornado of cuts about to decimate local services up and down the country. Local government budgets are to be cut by 15% to 25%. Citizens’ Advice Bureaus and public libraries will close as will the Sure Start centers for young children. Front-line services of all kinds are to be seriously reduced; streets will be cleaned less frequently; parks will be unsupervised. Every voluntary organization is under threat, resulting inevitably not just in the impoverishment of local communities but in large scale redundancies as councils lay off thousands of workers. As has now been made abundantly clear by representatives of the voluntary sector and local government, there is no way that the ‘Big Society’ can begin to make good the damage that will be inflicted. Whether Cameron really believes what he says is neither here nor there. His ‘passion’ for the idea doesn’t alter the fact that it will not and cannot work. That is because it flies in the face of the reality inflicted by his government. The ‘Big Society’ can only serve the purpose of providing a fig leaf for the cuts. This is not, as claimed by the diminishing band of BS advocates, the cynical dismissal of a decent idea. It is the only reasonable conclusion in face of the facts.
Unless this conclusion proves to be mistaken, which is doubtful, then the ‘Big Society’ is destined to go the way of the other ‘initiatives’ mentioned above. But there is something puzzling about the way Cameron desperately clings to it. He says it is his ‘mission’ – using, once again that tired old phrase so beloved of leaders trying to dignify their mediocre ideas with a profundity they do not deserve. He has staked his reputation on it. This suggests that it has become something of an obsession, rather like Blair’s conviction that he was right to invade Iraq. It may very well turn out to be his undoing.
As the ‘Big Society’ joins the litany over-hyped, over-blown pseudo-concepts, it is tempting to look for a more truthful substitute that accurately describes the real distribution of power in Britain today. Set against the civil society there is an entrenched power elite, or ruling class, clearly represented by the members of the present cabinet. What is happening now is nothing less than an intensified re-distribution of wealth from the poorest sections of society to the most wealthy. Nothing provides clearer evidence of this than the way the bankers who brought the economy to the brink of disaster a few years ago, have been allowed to return to business as usual, while the rest of us have to tighten our belts and pick up the bill. The society favoured by the government and the power elite whose interests they represent, is not the big society. It can be accurately described as The Big Business Society – or, The Big Bankers Bonuses Society. Let’s coin the phrases – they may take off.