The Big Irony

First published in Culture Wars

In her foreword to The Big Society Challenge, published by the Keystone Development Trust, Elizabeth Truss MP exhibits the opportunism that gives the Big Society a bad name. For her it’s a way out of crises – whether its MPs expenses or bankers bonuses –  and a way to pass the buck. ‘It is no longer assumed that experts and politicians can make technically correct decisions’ she says with not inconsiderable understatement. Still, the notion that the state should play an ever greater role in our lives needs to be challenged. This view –  which has intensified under the coalition with its Nudge agenda – is built on a diminished sense of people’s capacities to make their own decisions and run their own lives.

While I wouldn’t doubt the paternalism of Big State, the paternity of the Big Society is much disputed. According to editor Marina Stott, within Conservative Party ranks at least, it began with a Policy Green Paper in 2009, and a Hugo Young Memorial Lecture later that year. Cameron talked about ‘social renewal’ and a new ‘agitating’ role for the state. Early last year, the Big Society’s constituent parts – public service reform, community empowerment and ‘mass engagement and philanthropy’ – were revealed. But it wasn’t until last year’s (not to be confused with this year’s) re-launch that he tried to define it. ‘You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society’, he said.

Call it what you like, there is a growing disconnect between the vague rhetoric hinting at the possibility of an independent citizenry running its own affairs, and the announcement of some very top-down policy-making. So we have a National Citizen Service for 16 year olds, 5,000 community organisers, community-friendly ‘civic servants’, and a Big Society Bank. On top of that we now have a Minister for Civil Society charged with stimulating ‘social action’, and a Minister for Decentralisation to make sure there is no over-officious meddling. (All we need now is a Ministry for Silly Walks and the project will be beyond parody.) As Ben McCall, one of the book’s contributors, says, it is ‘all top-down and national, for a rhetorically bottom-up and localist agenda’. Far from heralding the liberating cultural shift envisaged, the Big Society has prompted a wave of initiatives from a political elite that couldn’t be further removed from the society people actually live in.

The more you look into it the more apparent it becomes that this ‘big idea’ is nothing of the sort, and in every other way is precisely the opposite of what it purports to be. For all its radical pretensions, says Mark J Smith of the Open University, the Big Society has much in common with the pessimism about human nature that characterises traditional conservative thought. And for all the wide-eyed talk, there is an underlying hostility to truly transformative change, and deliberate substantive interventions in wider society. Nevertheless – to my surprise, not to mention my disappointment – by the time I got to Smith’s second chapter on ‘Environmental Responsibility and the Big Society’, it became apparent that this was intended as a recommendation not a criticism.

Anne Power, at the London School of Economics, explains how the civil rights movement inspired community initiatives in the late 1960s, and how by the mid-1970s this ‘very short initial phase’ of self-sufficiency gave way to the state-led grants that are so threatened today. Then she too, having made an important point about the ‘hand-holding’ that was to follow, takes refuge in the localist ethos and an evident distaste for ‘gigantesque interventions’. In keeping with this outlook that second chapter of Smith’s goes on to argue that ‘we are now more willing to embrace’ obligations, duties and responsibilities that we might previously have shunned. People ‘recycle household waste, maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid behaviour that is harmful or annoying for their neighbours’.

Is this petty moralism, so typical of environmental thinking, really what the Big Society is all about? If social entrepreneur Robert Ashton, with his triple-bottom-line, pro-fair trade, conservative anti-capitalism is anything to go by, then yes it is. We ‘need to make do with what we have’ he declares, after all ‘less material wealth can often deliver greater spiritual contentment’. Tim RT Jones, of social investment firm Allia IPS, echoes this contemporary prejudice. Making money is bad. GDP is a poor measure of our well-being. Etc etc. Far from this oft-repeated view being interrogated, it is taken as given throughout the Big Society Challenge. In the final chapter, Jess Steele, of Development Trusts Association declares that it is not ‘power-over’ that we need but ‘power-to’. The important thing isn’t to seize control but ‘for groups of local people to be allowed to make our own change, using whatever resources we can collectively marshal’.

Putting aside the fact that this ‘power-to’, make-do-and-mend, money is the root of all evil mentality doesn’t get us very far, the notion of people being more involved and having more say over things still appeals. Nevertheless, notes one contributor, Colin Wiles, there is a ‘certain paradox in central government telling people to take control of their own lives’. Chanan and Miller, of consultancy PACES empowerment, think we need ‘super’ community organisers, professional paid-up members of the Big Society to coordinate things. Other contributors, thankfully, seem to have more faith in us to get on with it ourselves. Steve Wyler, of Development Trusts Association, calls for a ‘debate about the capability and potential for ordinary people’ to run their communities. Yet even he thinks that it is government that should ‘create conditions for independent civil society to flourish’.

Then there are Neil Stott and Noel Longhurst of Keystone Development Trust and University of East Anglia, respectively. They also note ‘a degree of irony about the central state attempting to impose a big idea about how local communities should behave and organise themselves onto local communities’. But what is doubly ironic is their own argument that ‘poor places are fragile, fraught and fearful’, and that the poor don’t have the resources to ‘organise themselves’ or build their own ‘community infrastructure’. This is the same diminished notion of people’s capacities that justifies such top-down impositions in the first place. David Wood and Sylvia Brown of Rural Action East and Action with Communities in Rural England, repeat an all too familiar refrain. It ‘will not occur spontaneously’ they warn, not without people getting ‘ongoing support and help to develop their own capacity’.

But the supposed dependency of the general public is nothing compared with that of the ‘independent’ sector itself. Social enterprise, for instance, the sexy new kid on the voluntary sector block, is still ‘regarded as woolly, confused, small-scale and grant dependent’ says Andy Brady of Anglia Ruskin University. Ashton is right when he says that social entrepeneurs tend to ‘survive only with subsidy and support’ and are not necessarily the beacons for the Big Society that they are made out to be. Reportedly 40% of them receive half their funding from state sources. These self-appointed ‘civil society’ leaders so critical of the ‘year zero’ of the Big Society advocates, nevertheless seek the continued patronage of the state.

All of which means, for those of us who initially held out some hope for it, that the Big Society has little to offer. As far as getting to grips with some of the problems associated with it, The Big Society Challenge is a good introduction, if a somewhat mixed bag. There are insights to be had, if not necessarily the ones that your supposed to take away. I can’t help but conclude, for instance, that advocates and critics of the Big Society seem united in their underlying hostility to people’s autonomy and their ability to exercise it without ‘support’. Far from representing a challenge to Big State, the Big Society is providing a new rationale for institution-building and state-led activity in the community. And far from offering opportunities for the enterprising, it appeals to elite prejudices about people’s incapacities and about the way we live our lives. After the briefest and most casual of flings, I can only conclude that we’re best off without it.

The Big Society Challenge can be downloaded free from the Keystone Development Trust [PDF].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.