The ‘Big Society’ or an atomised Britain?
David Cameron ended the Parliamentary session by launching what he calls his ‘Big Society’ program and plans for a national citizen service to encourage volunteers. But what does ‘Big Society’ mean and does government backing for voluntary services really help?
The whole idea of empowering communities to do something for themselves was previously explored by Tony Blair after his huge victory in 1997. If it didn’t take off for an (at the time) popular leader during a time of economic prosperity then one must rightly be wary of its chances to succeed at a time of savage cuts in public spending.
The biggest problem with Cameron’s initiative isn’t the idea itself – it’s the vagueness with which it is being promoted (The Independent last Saturday described it as his ‘hazy vision of social regeneration’) and the lack of detail as to how these programs will work in reality.
It is understandable that most people are listening to these plans with a sense of caution. Society is very suspicious that this is really a plot to cover the government from its strong austerity measures – is the government trying to mask enforced redundancies behind a wall of newly-found volunteerism?
Perhaps the most striking thing however it the lack of realism in government thinking – the fact of the matter is that those who will volunteer are already doing so. Millions of people all around the world are already volunteering through richer and poorer so rather than spending time, effort and indeed money in building new voluntary structures, why not focus those resources on making life a bit easier for these already overstretched organisations?
Underneath the soundbite title the government is hoping to harvest a much more definitive ideology behind the ‘Big Society.’ Cameron and Clegg have bonded over desires to remake the way government functions and lift the dead-weight of bureaucracy that stagnates so much social innovation. And for these reductions in regulation and red-tape there appears to be a great deal of public sympathy.
But these subsidiary objectives aren’t necessarily the same as de-centralisation. Britain’s centrally-controlled political structure dates back to Thatcherism and her efforts to weaken local government. But despite wanting to cut bureaucracy the Prime Minister isn’t pushing any desire to re-empower these authorities – in fact the ‘Big Society’ is taking further power away from them in two big areas, education and planning controls.
The function of the government is to mediate between competing interest groups in society, but by fragmenting and removing this local authority function of mediation Cameron is potentially leading Britain towards a very atomised society. The result may well be a rise in problematic local antagonism with very little accountability to anyone if or when it all goes wrong.