Civil empowerment is an admirable ideal - but it may require a broader definition of civil
And they're off.
Posters are being printed, manifestos unveiled and election narratives locked in. In the Labour Corner, “Keep Calm Carry On” Keynesianism
. But, in the Blue Corner, the question remains: will this be the election of ”the Big Society” or DCI Cameron and a return to the 1980s
The vision of the Big Society, an empowered civil society coupled with a society-building state, was laid out most clearly in David Cameron's Hugo Young Lecture last November
, which praised the bygone “vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another; the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” and a commitment to “strengthen civic institutions that already exist - like local shops, the post office and the town hall. But ... also create new ones.” More than just a vague aspiration, this vision was populated with an initial set of concrete policies last month
While many have eloquently advocated a return to a less socially liberal ”traditional conservatism”
, the Big Society was a truly bold political narrative and one that finally put clear water between New Labour and the New Tories. Perhaps more to the point, it put clear water between the New Tories and the Same Old Tories, famed decriers of society in 1987
and inducers of ballot box jitters in 2010.
The Big Society is an idea that hinges on a political willingness and ability to rebuild the civic, religious, political and social middle in modern Britain, in order to foster new and existing institutions capable of challenging both the power of a ceaselessly centralising state and the individualism of a tirelessly atomising citizenry, and to restore the civic participation which has tapered away drastically over the latter half of the century, following steep declines in the membership of almost all major civic institutions – from political parties to churches to trade unions.
It is the latter case that is testing the Tories' mettle, as the rapid return of trade unions – from BA and National Rail
to civil servants and teachers
– to the political foreground is raising the issue of which kinds of civic associations the Conservatives are prepared to support and why. While the Conservatives have sought to bolster their Thatcherite credentials by unequivocally opposing industrial action and trade union influence, they should pause to consider the role that unions play in the “vibrant panoply” of organisations that make up the Big Society. Unions provide some of the best examples of voluntary social organisations that continue to challenge both the state and an individualised society for collective social ends. As Seamus Milne's article in the Guardian
notes, the marked decline of trade unions (membership peaked in 1979 at over 13 million, and has since dropped to 7.6 around million in 2007) has corresponded to an equally marked decline in the share of national income going to wages – from 65% in the 1970s to 53% today. Notwithstanding, the political influence of trade unions has recently secured: full employment rights for temporary agency workers, a governmental retreat on the part-privatisation of Royal Mail and an end to the European Working Time Directive opt-out.
The Conservatives are right to point out that the experience of unchecked trade union power has had serious drawbacks - most obviously in the staggering of the UK economy with trade disputes and inflationary pressures in the 1970s. However a commitment to giving meaningful power to any organisation - be it a union, a church, a guild, a bank or an environmental group – to effectively challenge or defend the status quo on behalf of its voluntary members means accepting less control for the central state and a diversity of (often conflicting) interests gaining influence. This is not only consequence of a strong civil middle, but its goal.
The Big Society will need to include organised workers too.