No one had heard of “The Big Society”, before the 2010 election except for a few political hacks and those closest to David Cameron. Following his original speech on 10th November 2009, the Big Society came to prominence during the election campaign and was dismissed by many as a pithy political slogan to justify the cuts that were to come. Some within the Conservative Party even thought it was a distraction in the election. (Cameron, 2009)
The truth is there is nothing new in the Big Society. We have heard it all before. Douglas Hurd was talking about something very similar in the “Active Citizen” in the 1990′s. He had been talking about it apparently since 1983. The idea led to an essay and a few philosophical discussions but went no where.
It’s not surprising no one remembers it, after all he was promoting the idea in another era of “austerity”, massive cuts, rolling back the state etc etc in the 1980′s and then . . . . massive cuts and rolling back of the state in the 1990′s!
We were told in the election campaign that the “cuts” would be to public servants and bureaucrats who we were told didn’t do anything. Cutting red tape as there is so much slack in the system.
The cuts have hardly started and all we hear about is the most vulnerable being effected and the poor taking the brunt of the flak along with the demonisation of the poor on “benefits” and those with disabilities. Two reprehensible articles have been written in the Daily Mail recently with massive inaccuracies with the obvious intent to rile the middle-classes against those “benefit scroungers”, doing the Tories bidding for them. Quite pathetic. (Chapman, 2011)
Now we hear that The Liverpool City Council have announced they are pulling out of the Big Society as they are getting no co-operation from the government and are experiencing how the cuts are biting, in effect derailing any Big Society ideas.
Yesterday we heard that the Big Society “Tsar” Lord Wei has decided to reduce his hours, but has assured us that he still believes in the project. (BBC website, 2011)
If we peruse the twitter chatter or the news stories each day we can get overwhelmed by the pain people are feeling already. Those on disability facing cuts in their allowances that allow them to live a humane life and to have opportunity; the mentally ill being made ill through the new re-assessment procedures; the closing of many Citizen Advice Bureaux drop in centres; charities making redundancies to cover funding losses; selling off our forests to the highest bidder; the closure of sure start and so on and so on.
These are early days, we haven’t seen the majority of the cuts yet but it is clear where the axe is falling, on the poorest communities and those the government thinks won’t fight back, or be able to fight back. Patronising to the last.
In two years time it is clear that the voluntary sector and charities will be providing less services than they are today as the squeeze hits them. There is a misconception about how charities operate. They do not rely on unpaid volunteers alone. To run a charity they have to employ people in the professions and have to compete for funding. So when funds reduce from a strapped for cash public and less government funding, jobs are lost and services they provide cannot improve, expand or indeed may contract. This is the opposite of the “Big Society we are being told about.
It is also rather annoying that the USA keeps being brought up as an ideal model to follow for philanthropy. The reason that there is a culture of philanthropy in the US is that there is little state intervention and they do not believe in a social democracy. Yet with the philanthropy comes massive divisions in society; 42 million without health care; homelessness and the 3rd biggest gap between the rich and poor in the world according to the UN. Is that the society we want to create?
The UK is not perfect by any means but we are a different culture and have different ideas on what constitutes a civilised society hence the anger with Bankers and MP’s expenses.
The reality does not meet the rhetoric of David Cameron and the Big Society. It is not a new idea, but the rehash of an old one, that had vanished without trace on several previous occasions and no doubt will again.
We all have short memories. In 1997, the reason Labour obtained a landslide victory was because of the state of our public services. Do we want to go back to those days?
Is David Cameron’s Big Society in trouble? I don’t think it ever got off the ground.
BBC website, (2011),Big Society Tsar reduces hours, [online], BBC website, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12343830
(Cameron, 2009, The Big Society, [online], Conservative Party website, available at http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/11/David_Cameron_
Chapman, J. (2011), The great disability free for all:Half of claimants are not asked to prove eligibility, [online], Daily Mail website, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353111/Disability-benefits-Half-claimants-asked-prove-eligibility.html