The theme of the Big Society has found its way into a wide range of contexts in the last year or so. Reactions have been varied; but we should not be distracted from recognising that – whatever the detail of rationale and implementation – it represents an extraordinary opportunity. Introduced during the run-up to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, it has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which ideals can be realised. And this in turn has bred a degree of cynicism, intensified by the attempt to argue for devolved political and social responsibility at exactly the same time as imposing rapid and extensive reductions in public expenditure. The result has been that 'Big Society' rhetoric is all too readily heard by many as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.
But cynicism is too easy a response and the opportunity is too important to let pass. As the financial crisis of the last few years became more serious, a good many voices were being raised to say that the traditional map of British – and indeed global – politics had become obsolete. The apparently irresistible advance of largely unregulated financial transaction had been tolerated by left and right because of its apparent ability to secure high levels of individual prosperity and a satisfactory, if not exactly spectacular, tax income to support national defence and welfare. It had, of course, done little to liberate struggling younger economies or deeply indebted countries, but a modest degree of government-to-government aid, allied with exhortations and some conditionalities around more transparent governance, was part of the routine expenditure of administrations in the developed world. But this had in effect loaded the responsibility for both individual and social welfare on to a set of feverishly active but very fragile instruments and had to a greater or lesser extent shaped the fiscal possibilities for elected governments. Thus it had also vastly increased the actual insecurity of both individuals and societies: variations in the financial market had the potential to change the value of the savings and pensions of millions. And when those variations became substantially more feverish than usual as a result of an accumulation of reckless debt-trading, the result was dramatic, and its longer effects are now dictating policy on health, education and much more.
Strictly economic remedies and alternatives of various sorts have been much discussed. But along with this, there has been a more clearly political response – political in the sense that it asks questions about the proper location of power, about where the levers of change and control lie in society. And this in turn generates a crucial set of questions about political ethics or political virtue: if we need to explore where power lies, we need also to explore what we want power to do and why. It is in this context that discussion has been developing about – for example – the proper definition of wealth and well-being, about individual and communal goals, about the sort of human character that is fostered by unregulated competition and a focus on individual achievement, and about where we derive robust ideas of the common good and the social compact. It is in this context that the 'Big Society' theme has to be understood.
'Character': another term that is easy to treat cynically, because we readily associate it with caricatures of clergy and schoolteachers talking about 'character-building' activities – i.e. usually unpleasant or strenuous things that no normal person would actually want to do left to themselves. But there is a growing recognition that we do after all need the language of character and of virtue; and no amount of exhortation to pull our weight in society (big or otherwise) is any use without some thinking about what kind of people we are, want to be, and want others to be; what are the habits we want people to take for granted, what are the casual assumptions we'd like people to be working with? We have as a society allowed those habits and assumptions to drift steadily towards a preoccupation with the individual's power to maximise choice, so that 'freedom' comes to be defined as essentially a state in which you have the largest possible number of choices and no serious obstacles to realising any of them. And politics has accordingly been driven more and more by the competition to offer a better range of choices – a marketising of public discourse thoroughly analysed by many observers in the last decade or so. But as our current debates seem to indicate, we have woken up to the fact that this produces a motivational deficit where the idea of the common good is concerned. It is interesting that part of the repertoire of a certain kind of reactionary journalism is the abuse of 'bleeding-heart' liberals or reformists or whatever; as though the idea that empathy might be a proper driver of action and change is automatically laughable.
The point about empathy is that it implies a particular kind of emotional awareness. It lets us know that what we feel is not just a private affair: communication with others is possible because emotions can be shared in language and imagination. And the conclusion is that I am able to learn more about myself from others – to have my horizon extended by listening to the words of others, to develop a sense of different possible worlds and different ways of understanding or seeing myself. What I feel, and my capacity to externalise what I feel, are not the end of the story – arguably not even the beginning of the story. They must lead into a real mutuality of concern. And 'character' is one of the words we use to describe what happens when we begin to construct a serious, long-term account of who we are as persons, in conversation with others, instead of staying within the territory of what we think we are sure of – our own felt life – and assuming the absolute priority of this in our policies or decisions.
There is now a substantial literature on the development of emotional intelligence, some of which has thrown into sharp relief the ways in which social and relational signals in early life can create long-term distortion of the capacity for empathy, sometimes, it is argued, in ways that are neurologically traceable. And, if we pursue the connections within this research, empathy is linked with the capacity to inhibit those unquestioned emotional responses that can, unchecked, result in wreckage; with the capacity to see an integrated picture of the environment in which immediate emotional response is not everything. Iain McGilchrist's bold and wide-ranging writings on the functions of the hemispheres of the brain make the point very forcefully that a culture in which one kind of cerebral function is disproportionately privileged over the other – where analytic functions predominate over more holistic perspectives – is in some trouble. If we live in a milieu where a great many signals discourage empathy and self-scrutiny, and thus emotional awareness, we shall develop habits of self-absorption, the urge for dominance, and short-term perspective. Our motivation to change anything other than what we feel to be our immediate circumstances will be weak, because our sense of ourselves as continuous, reflective agents will be weak. And the clear implication of all this is that without an education of the emotions – which means among other things the nurture of empathy – public or political life becomes simply a matter of managing the competition of egos with limited capacity to question themselves. It will amount to little more than the kind of damage limitation that arises when we have nothing robust to appeal to except universal entitlements.
Back to the public questions with which we began. These thoughts about empathy are meant to underline the fact that the relocation of political decision-making from state to locality may be worthy or desirable in itself, but is doomed to failure unless it is accompanied by some sustained thinking about how character, and in particular civic character, is formed, and how a system of social relations can be shaped by the mutual recognition we have just been thinking about. One modern writer said of the moral exhortations of Christian faith that they could not be understood just as simple and universal commands to which we said yes or no, because they presupposed a specific kind of human awareness that took time to grow; they were 'addressed to people who do not yet exist'. The same might be said of exhortations to civic responsibility. It is at this point that we can see most clearly the connection between 'Big Society' language and those institutions that still prize and try to nourish character, above all the communities of faith, and very specifically – I make no apology for foregrounding this – the sometimes fragmented or marginal but still visible communities of the established Church, with its commitment to continue its presence in every locality in the nation.
The Church is frequently seen as a divided, fractious and inward-looking body, and there is far too much that makes this a fair assessment in many circumstances. But its central images and commitments rest on something very close to the empathic recognition that we have seen as essential to social vitality. The familiar language of the 'body' as a focal image for Christian community carries with it the acknowledgement that no one element in the social order can know itself accurately without knowing its dependence on others and also its responsibility towards others. Mutuality is written in. And whatever the routine perceptions of the Church in some vocal quarters of modern British society – dismissive, hostile, patronising – it remains true that it is still expected to behave in accord with this, and so to value in a particular way whoever comes to its doors. I have a vivid recollection of sharing years ago in an event organized by the National Union of Mineworkers at a time of intense pressure and uncertainty, and being told by a very secular speaker on the same platform that I was there to remind others of all those who did not have the institutional solidarity of unions to support them and so depended on the solidarity offered by the Church – the elderly, the children, the disabled, those who had never worked, all who were beyond the arithmetic of social 'usefulness'. It was a salutary insight into how much implicit theology there is in parts of our society to call the Church to account.
But for the Church to step up to these expectations, it needs to be a place in which the formation of character, the enabling of human recognition, is of first importance. And I would venture to say that this is its primary responsibility in the present context. It is right that the Church should be challenged – along with other civil society networks – to build the capacity of local communities to solve their problems. It is definitely not right for this to be a matter of hiving off moral questions to the private sphere. If the Church is in the business of building character and empathic maturity, it will be building the character of citizens – that is, of people who have the power to vote and thus in some measure to shape public policy. There may be an attempt to delegate public responsibility for 'welfare' (I use this unhelpful word advisedly, as representing what seems to be the attitude of some to the question) to those who may be expected to feel the responsibility more acutely than some others. But if the Church is actually nourishing empathy, mutual recognition, then it is nourishing people who will continue to ask difficult questions in the wider public sphere, questions – for example – about how the priorities are identified when cuts in public expenditure are discussed, about the supposed absolute imperative of continuous economic growth, or about levels of reward unconnected with competence in areas of the financial world.
Both Church and other institutions such as the academy, when operating freely and confidently, and are understood for what they are in society, are committed to enabling what I have been calling 'recognition', the awareness of a common human location and task that limits our suspicions and our tendency to self-protection and allows us to compare with one another what it is like to be human – and so to clarify what we can and cannot do together. A 'Big Society' programme that does not acknowledge the absolute importance of nourishing this recognition (which also includes nourishing trust in public life and its institutions) is a waste of time. If, on the other hand, it works with an awareness that good 'localism' can, with the right kind of statutory support and resourcing, play back into the debates and decisions of the national polity, it might yet achieve something remarkable.
The least happy outcome would be if the split between a moral private sphere and a pragmatic public sphere, virtuous 'community' and neutral 'government', were reinforced. The best outcome would be if the virtue of the local and voluntary genuinely inspired a different kind of national politics. Thus, instead of hiving off the building of sustainable community to voluntary bodies (leaving central government to balance the books however they can), a localist agenda could revitalise pressure from below on government and statutory bodies to re-engage with a morally robust programme for the common good, nationally and internationally. By a 'morally robust programme', I mean a realistic debate about taxation, about investment in a real not a virtual economy (i.e an economy that actually produces things and specific services rather than paper profits alone), about the appropriate rewarding of work in health and education, about the support offered in public policy to children and families, about the extent of commitments to the development of poorer economies and much else. And somewhere near the centre of these concerns might well be, in the immediate future, the urgent question of how we develop the proposals around a 'Big Society Bank' that have now been set out in the Government's strategy for Growing a Social Investment Market, with the promise of capitalisation from 'dead' assets in bank accounts and a further injection of £200 million from the main British banks. Such capitalisation will provide resources for projects developed with the help of specialist intermediaries. And one obvious challenge and possibility for voluntary bodies (including for this purpose the churches) is to assist in connecting visionary projects with the sort of advice and support they need to become 'investment-ready'. This and other proposals for encouraging social investment have some real potential for allaying at least to some extent the feared social cost of the current cuts. This is one area where turning elevated aspiration into monetary reality may now be a serious possibility.
The mention of international development issues raises some further searching questions in relation to the Big Society vision. We are told that centralism is to be deplored and that the heart of true and transformative politics is the building of local capacity. As we have seen, this broad-brush position may need some qualification; but insofar as it recognises the dangers of directive centralism in creating a dependent rather than a creative political culture at every level of society, insofar as it gives a proper place to the development of political virtue in actual persons, it is a serious and attractive vision, which a Christian theologian has many reasons for applauding. However, it is just those reasons that will make the Christian theologian pursue the issue of global power relations as well as local. If it is the case that the workings of the global market take power decisively away from local economies (and locally elected governments) there is a question to be asked. As things stand, the defenders of the globalised economy claim that it is only the operation of the market that will finally liberate local economies to lift themselves out of endemic poverty; and in theory they have much on their side. In practice of course, things are very different. Both hidden and overt forms of protectionism are present; indebted countries have regularly been pressed to deal with their debts by accepting a particular style of liberal deregulation from international financial institutions, with the frequent effect of distorting a country's productive capacity and driving up the prices of essentials (though these drastic techniques are not quite so popular with the World Bank and IMF as they once were). Whatever the current system, it cannot reasonably be presented as one that delivers substantial decision-making power to local agents.
The position of power
The priority is to keep a clear focus on the need to guarantee that power in the global economy does not simply continue to flow towards those who are already secure and wealthy. What I am here arguing for is a thoroughly coherent account of what 'Big Society' ideals might mean, in such a way that the theme of a transfer of power is pursued at every level, national and global. One important thing to bear in mind is that we can easily be misled into thinking that the suspicion of centralism must involve a systematic hostility to state provision of services. But if we approach the question by way of thinking about where power lies, we have to consider carefully those areas in which local effectiveness can be sustained only by the broader public provision of infrastructure. National transport networks are the obvious example; but the same principle applies to all those aspects of common life where justice requires us to avoid 'postcode lotteries' – in other words, those aspects of common life where national parity of standards guarantees that no-one's local liberties or possibilities are unduly limited by contingent local factors to do with prosperity, mobility, local natural resources and so on. In this light, there is no alibi for the state in securing equally excellence, so far as is humanly possible, through the national resourcing and monitoring of health care and education, not to mention pensions and disability provision, housing security for the destitute and the care of children in every context where they are present.
There would probably not be much disagreement about this, expressed in these terms; but we need to spell it out with the greatest possible clarity in the present climate. Localism does not mean the dissolution of a complex national society – let alone a complex international network of societies – into isolated villages. It means, for one thing, the familiar principle of 'subsidiarity', so important in Catholic social thought – the principle that decisions need to be taken at the appropriate level. But an implication of this that is not often enough brought out is that there are issues appropriately dealt with at state level – not least because local freedom to take effective action depends on such issues being addressed at more than the local level. Similarly, pursuing the analogy with the international situation, local economies will not blossom and function as they might without attention to the terms of international trade and finance. It is vacuous to suggest that a national economy, once introduced to the saving truths of global capitalism, will at once begin to produce and spend and save its way out of poverty by its own efforts only. If it is entering an already slanted, protectionist environment, and still more if it has inherited unpayable debt contracted in the past, it will need something from the international instruments of finance to secure and strengthen what it can do. And, as already noted, even microfinance initiatives will need some measure of international regulation and quality assurance if they are to be long-term agents of empowerment.
We look for and, I hope are willing to work for, a society in which the bonds created by civil society groups, including very particularly the Church and other religious bodies, guarantee – so to speak – a thick-textured social life, in which people have many communal identities enriching their experience, from the more functional (like belonging to a credit union or a political party, a neighbourhood watch or a food co-operative) to the more imaginative and creative (a choir, a sports club, a Bible-study group). Out of those identities will come the energy and empathy to be ready to organise communities for mutual security and support. At the same time, the world is getting 'smaller', not only in the sense that communications bring other people's reality closer to us all the time, but in the sheer practical impact of changes elsewhere in the globe on local conditions, most particularly in economic matters. Unless we can think intelligently about what really does need doing and can only be done at national and international level, localism risks becoming a rather sinister programme in which every local community sinks or swims according to its immediate local capacity. This is not only a morally and theologically insupportable picture; it is also a wholly unreal one, given the more and more sophisticated kinds of interdependence that bind us.
The localism that is gaining traction at the moment reflects a deep impatience with what some would see as the legacy of Fabian corporatism – the belief that the state is invariably best placed to be the immediate provider of all services, with the result that what I called a moment ago the 'thick texture' of social life is impoverished, a proper civic pride is flattened out by a uniform bureaucracy, and 'public service' is reduced to the servicing of this bureaucracy. The reaction against this has been powerful in British politics since the eighties – though it has been accompanied by a paradoxical increase in bureaucratic surveillance and control, through the vehicle of the regulation of various activities and the pressure for compliance with regulatory standards in areas where they were previously informal. But this reaction itself has generated some damaging mythologies about state and community. The combination of a starry-eyed conviction of the market's ability to maximise everyone's welfare and a suspicion of professional vested interests produced not a localism of community and plural texture of belonging, but an attempt to squeeze all social activities into the terms of market exchange. Being a citizen was what guaranteed you the vote; being a consumer was what guaranteed you local and personal freedom.
The Big Society vision, so far as its content can be teased out, seems to represent another and potentially more promising reaction, recognising the dangerously 'thin' account of humanity produced by this mythology. And the remarkable opportunity of this moment in political history is that it is possible to think and talk about a social model that is neither Fabian nor Friedmanite, neither statist nor consumerist. My concern is that we use this opportunity to the full – and particularly that we do not treat the enthusiasm around some sorts of localism simply as a vehicle for disparaging the state level of action to secure the vulnerable, nationally and internationally. It is welcome that there is a concern to think about relocating power; but, as we have seen, for this to work well depends on being reasonably clear as to what you want power to do – which includes the 'backwash effect' of serious localism in re-energising national and international policy, to the extent that it is building real civic virtue.
This a chapter from ResPublica's collection of essays, entitled "Changing the Debate: The Ideas Redefining Britain".
Throughout July and August 2011, ResPublica will be publishing chapters from the collection on The Disraeli Room blog, encouraging other thinkers, politicians and members of the public to join the debate and contribute to the development of ideas.
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