The Disraeli Room

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The Big Society in a Small Country

19th April 2013

Is the Big Society more Welsh than English? asks Dan Boucher

It has been suggested that the Big Society is essentially an English affair. I do not agree.

The basic thesis of my latest book, The Big Society in a Small Country: Wales, Social Capital, Mutualism and Self-Help, is that not only is the Big Society relevant to Wales in the sense of providing much needed practical policy solutions to pressing problems, it actually has the potential to achieve a far better fit with Welsh than English culture. Indeed, the Big Society actually provides Wales with an opportunity for renewing its traditions and national identity. It is a fundamentally ‘Wales affirming agenda’ and one, moreover, to which Wales is very well placed to add value.

When considered in the context of the broad sweep of history, Wales is often characterised as a ‘community of communities’, a nation and culture best understood from the bottom up than from the top down. The cultural roots for this go way back, finding expression in the fact that, although Wales enjoyed a nationwide law from the eighth century, it actually struggled with the idea of a common executive and was for the most part ruled by a series of different princes covering their own patches of Wales. When Wales was then annexed to England and there was no ‘Welsh’ government as such and, the Welsh language – of such pivotal importance to Welsh nationhood – was banned in all contexts apart from church and chapel, there was a real sense in which Wales withdrew into a church and chapel which came to be dominated by non-conformity, which was again characterised by a profound decentralisation. Mindful of this tradition it is not surprising that Wales has a reputation for nurturing the leaders of localism in both thought and practice. For example, the founder of the co-operative movement Robert Owen came from Wales as did one of the key leaders of the syndicalist movement Noah Ablett, who in 1912 published his celebrated The Miners Next Steps.

Given this backdrop, it is surely very odd that if one thinks of Wales politically today, one immediately thinks of the Labour Party and pioneers of the Big State like Nye Bevan. Why is this? We cannot understand Wales today unless we answer that question, and we find the answer in the inter-war period.

The Welsh economy grew significantly as the coal and steel industries expanded, reaching a peak in 1913. In the post-World War One world, however, the situation changed dramatically as, among other things, oil increasingly took over from coal. By the General Strike of 1926, life was really tough and historians detail how south Wales went through a period of economic suffering unparalleled in the UK and which lead to, among other things, ‘the great exodus’ as 430,000 people left Wales looking for work elsewhere. It was in the furnace of this extraordinary problem – which arose as a result of having allowed our economy to be run in deference to a crude market fundamentalism with no diversification – that people not surprisingly became desperate and willing to turn to an extraordinary solution. People heard what sounded like the very attractive gospel of the Big State and it was embraced not only by Labour (which pre-1918 had been far more open to big society policies), but also by many people in Wales.

The legacy of this decision made in extremis is still very evident today.

The size of the state in Wales today is mind boggling. By some measures the public sector accounts for as much as 70 per cent of the economy – deeply worrying when one remembers that most economists start getting nervous once the public sector gets much bigger than 40 per cent. Indeed, such is the size of the state that it is five years since Peter Hain, the then Welsh Secretary, publicly acknowledged that the Welsh economy needed rebalancing and a bigger private sector.

The Big Society in a Small Country argues that what one is prepared to do in extremis is not the best guide to the heart of any culture and that the decision to embrace the Big State, although totally understandable, has had the long term effect of partially disinheriting Wales from a key aspect of its identity. To this end, and mindful of the very real problems that Wales faces today, the Big Society policy agenda is deeply relevant for Wales.

The practical problem is that many of the Big Society policy levers are devolved and thus controlled by the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay, which remains in love with the state. Now, with a higher proportion of Labour/Co-op parliamentarians in the National Assembly for Wales than any other UK law making body, it will come as no surprise that they have a social enterprise action plan that says the right things, but where is the delivery? There is nothing comparable with the political will we witness in the ‘community right to provide’ initiative being taken forward by Francis Maude in England that is allowing services previously provided by the state to become mutuals. Wales is also cut off from the ‘community right to challenge’ provisions in the Localism Act, which allow community groups in England the right to bid to take over the provision of services from local authorities. Moreover, according to 2010 figures, the co-operative economy is smaller in Wales than in any other part of Great Britain. What would Robert Owen make of that? At the end of the day it seems to me that whilst Welsh Labour are prepared to make positive noises about Big Society initiatives like co-ops and time-banking, when push comes to shove, their ultimate loyalty is to the Big State and in this regard they are actually not the best guardians of Wales’s political interests.

In this context, the Big Society presents the Welsh Conservative Party with an extraordinary opportunity to seize the initiative and develop policies that are more Welsh than those of Labour, more Welsh in the sense that they connect more directly and more effectively with the policy challenges in Wales today, and more Welsh than those of Labour in that their promotion will involve the renewal of Wales’s traditions and identity in a way that statist policy never can.

Dan Boucher is the author of The Big Society in a Small Country: Wales, social capital and self-help. Publisher: Institute of Welsh Affairs, ISBN 978-1-904773-66-5.

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