The Big Society is ostensibly the centerpiece feature of the Conservatives’ policy for this election; their manifesto was titled “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain” in reference to it.
For such a centerpiece policy, it is breathtakingly vague. Nobody understands it properly, not even many people within the Conservative party. One shadow minister said: “The ‘big society’ needs to be turned into more practical, voter-friendly language. We need to turn Oliver Letwin’s Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.” When you’re using the phrase “Hegelian dialectic” to describe why something is tricky to understand, you know you’re in deep trouble.
Not many people (who don’t have philosophy degrees) are going to know that Hegel was German philosopher, one of Marx’s influences, and like the philosophy of Marx the ideas of the Big Society display an earnest idealism totally stripped of even a single iota of pragmatism.
The Big Society is supposed to conjure up an image of us as a country spontaneously coming together to fix “Broken Britain”, volunteering to fix our social ills, to cure a culture of entitlement, to restore power to the people, etc. It speaks of a social movement to bring about change, and in the face of the Big Society, the Big State will wither away.
That’s bollocks. It’s the same mad utopian dream as that of Communism.
There is no social movement, no grass-roots activism for the Big Society. Cameron didn’t even mention it in the debates, and their polling is hovering steady in the low thirties; this is no popular movement. It’s just words, words with nothing but vague appeals to working together for change. It’s all just political hot air.
The real intent, the real policy, is a return to something like the libertarian aspects of Thatcherism, or worse. The state will not be allowed to wither as vounteerism takes up the slack; the state will be hacked away with glee, cut to the bone. Provision for the poor, for the weak, will fall through the cracks as charities and volunteers struggle to cope. It’s a reversion to how things were a hundred years ago or more, before these functions were absorbed by the state. Police and Fire services were once run by dedicated volunteers, and there’s a damn good reason that we don’t do things like that any more. Similarly with social services; look at what’s happened in Hammersmith and Fulham as council provision has been stripped away. It’s ugly, so very ugly.
In many ways, the individualism inherent in Thatcherism, the belief that “There is no such thing as society” is part of the root of what is wrong with Britain today. We were told, as a nation, that we should look out for ourselves, that greed was good, individualism was king. Are we surprised that people took this to heart? That kids who grew up in that time, and in the time since, act as if they have no responsibility to anybody? There’s a thread running directly from Thatcherism to the rise of the ASBO.
I’m not saying there isn’t a place for charity or volunteering; absolutely there is. It’s a noble thing to give of your time and money for a good cause, but it should be in addition to the services provided by the state, not an alternative. The richest and strongest have a responsibility to the poorest and weakest, whether they like it or not.
The Big Society is also economically nonsensical. The wealth of nations is at least partly based on the division of labour. If I do my job well, and efficiently, it will generate wealth. That wealth can partly be used to fund somebody whose job it is to provide social services, which they too will do efficiently. If social services are performed by volunteers, then they will be performing both their day job and their volunteer work, reducing overall efficiency.
Before I’m accused of being a mad Big Statist, I’d like to point out that I am a Liberal Democrat; the first paragraph of the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution includes the words “we aim to disperse power”. The state doesn’t need to be large, monolithic and centralised, and that has been a major failure of the current Labour government, but it also shouldn’t be wiped away entirely.
The free markets and spontaneous individual action are not, and cannot, be the solution. When individual initiative is allowed to run too far, unrestrained, the consequences are usually disaster. Look at the banking crisis. Look at the Roman civil wars in the first few decades B.C. Look at the dictatorships of the world. We have a democracy because we know that pluralism, not individualism, is the way forward. We are stronger together than we are apart.