It's been Big Society Week
here at the Disraeli Room, with a range of interesting thoughts and debates on this would-be Big Idea. However, these debates (both here and elsewhere
), have been so variegated and disparate as to raise questions about whether the Big Society at its epicentre has any specified content? Or is the Big Society at risk of becoming just another political MacGuffin?
Taking the Conservative manifesto definition as seminal, a Big society is one where "the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control." On this account, some form of social progress is the end and society is the primary means, while the state takes on the responsibility of “society-building.” But as the debate following my recent post on unions
showed up, even if we accept this premise, we may still be talking about very different societies when we talk about the Big Society. Specifically, three very different priorities seem to be at play:
1. Voluntarism – facilitating charitable and social action, especially in the delivery of public services
2. Local civic involvement – encouraging and empowering individuals to effect their neighbourhood or community
3. Association – encouraging the formation of groups and networks as an end in itself
Obviously these three priorities are not mutually exclusive, indeed it seems safe to contend quite the opposite - that these may be overlapping and mutually reinforcing policies. That being said, there is a real danger in conflating these priorities, both from a political and from a policy angle.
Beginning with policy, it is worth quoting at length the specific Big Society manifesto pledges that the Conservatives have committed themselves to:
1. Establish a new Big Society Bank, using money from unclaimed bank accounts to leverage hundreds of millions of pounds of extra finance for neighbourhood groups, charities and social enterprises;
2. Introduce a National Citizen Service, a new volunteering programme to help 16 year olds develop their skills, mix with people from different backgrounds and get involved in improving their communities;
3. Promote the delivery of public services by social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups, encouraging them to get involved in running things like Sure Start;
4. Introduce a fair deal on grants so charities and voluntary organisations can make a competitive return when providing public services, just as private businesses already do;
5. Fund the training of an army of independent community organisers to help people establish and run neighbourhood groups;
6. Launch an annual Big Society Day to celebrate the work of neighbourhood groups and encourage more people to take part in social action;
7. Lead by example, transforming the civil service into a ‘civic service' by encouraging civil servants to volunteer and participate in social action projects;
8. Cut the bureaucracy and paperwork which currently stifles charities, including reforming the criminal records checks system and making Gift Aid easier to use
9. Develop a new measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action;
10. Empower communities to come together to address local issues; including enabling parents to open new schools, letting neighbours take over local amenities like parks and libraries that are under threat, giving the public greater control of the planning system, and enabling residents to hold the police to account in neighbourhood beat meetings;
11. Use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to donate more time and money to charity; and
12. Restore the National Lottery to its original purpose, cut down on administration costs and make sure more money goes to good causes instead of Ministers' pet projects.
Depending on what the term “neighbourhood groups” is intended to refer to above – presumably not local athletic clubs, trade associations, prayer groups or even “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” that David Cameron's Big Society speech pledged to renew – it is likely that the entire gamut of Big Society commitments falls entirely into the categories of prioritising civic engagement and, especially, voluntarism.
This points to the political danger of conflating engagement and voluntarism with association. The vast majority of people seem to accept unquestioningly that modernity is irreversibly linked to the atomisation of society – typically even those who paradoxically reject “nostalgic fantasies of a Golden Age”. People no longer spend their lives in the same community, in the same profession or even job, around their extended family or even their own children. We don't join many organisations, we don't know many neighbours and we're lonelier. As most audits of social capital show, we have become a wealthy society by divesting ourselves of mobility-limiting communities and social commitments. And we appear happy to use the same wealth to further isolate ourselves.
Much of our growing need for services and volunteers stems from our inability as communities to self-regulate, to self-police, to care for our elderly family members, to support our neighbours. By focusing their Big Society policies on bringing people out to volunteer (which Britons already do at astonishing levels
) or to deliver essential services, rather than on addressing disassociation, the Conservatives have left themselves open to claims of building what their political opponents have referred to as 'the DIY Society' instead.