Saturday 9 October 2010

The Big Society

The best day on BBC Radio 4 is Friday, as this is the day Radio 4's two best programmes are broadcast. These are The News Quiz and Any Questions? The former often contains cutting political points disguised in humour, the latter the same without the wit. Yesterday both dealt with "The Big society" following David Cameron's conference speech. Both asked "What actually is it?" and the panellists on both came up with good replies. I particularly liked Andy Hamilton's (News Quiz) vision of the elderly fireman you had to carry up the ladder and then he forgets what he went up there for.

Claire Fox on Any Questions? had a good critique of the principles and practice of the Big Society. For the Conservatives,  Ian Duncan Smith came up with one of the most meandering, blather-ridden contributions I can recall on the program, to try to explain what the government meant by the phrase.

Nevertheless, there are a number of important points I can think of relating to the big society idea which no-one made (not even the gratutiously offensive Dr David Starkey), so here they are.

It is a very fine idea to empower people to take a more active part in their communities and in society as a whole, but it must be understood that what people actually want is always political at some level, and usually controversial. People in general don't and can't go around just doing vague "good" for no motivation and no reward. For most voluntary activities, people's motivation is that they want to change things, for the better as they see it. If government wants a Big Society, which I take to mean encouraging what is usually called "civil society",  that is, collaborative unpaid productive activity, then they have to understand that this means letting go of the centralisation of power that is such a big feature of the British political system. There is little sign of the present government wishing to do this, as there was of the last, which of course went hell-for-leather in the opposite direction.

The things people working in voluntary organisations in the civil society generally want are actually mostly annoying to government – that is their purpose! What about trade unions? Surely they are a classic example of Big Society organisation, but I don't hear Cameron praising them! Then there are people who organise protests through the green movement. I put a fair amount of my time unpaid into campaigning for better facilities for cyclists, to encourage a modal shift towards greener travel in the UK. I do this because I believe in it. I haven't got time to be a part-time policeman or fireman as well. This kind of activity is, I believe, core Big Society stuff, but somehow, not what Cameron or Duncan Smith are thinking of. People do these things because they want to effect change, but they are generally frustrated by the unresponsiveness and centralisation of the British state. The only way to encourage people to take a more active part in their society is by giving them more actual power, which means democratic and institutional reform.

To take a pretty uncontroversial example, a group of people near me want to improve the local park, and organise an annual festival there to raise money to try to do so. They want the council to contribute to this and to be an equal partner. But councils in England have no power to do anything much. They are so completely circumscribed by national legislation, they basically have no independence and cannot raise much of their own cash or decide how to spend it. This is totally contrary to the model of real localism I see operating in France, Italy and other EU countries. One of the main things we need to encourage a Big Society, which will generally mean local activism, is to liberate local councils, allow them to spend money, raise it, and make mistakes. We also need local authorities at a much more local level to deal with these little issues like park and roads. The London councils covering 200,000 people plus each are totally inappropriate as the lowest level of government. We need something more like parish councils, covering something like a single London postcode, true local government, with genuine powers. If the present government starts to concede things like this, I will conclude they are serious about the Big Society. Otherwise it is all wind, like Blair and Brown's meaningless "stakeholder" rhetoric.

The government seem to want a kind of cuddly, fangless Big Society which doesn't press for change and which is non-political and non-controversial. They do not seem to be thinking about radical civil society, they seem to be thinking about something to do with running essential services. Get real! Civil society can't run the essential services. The essential services require people who will be totally reliable. You can only get this by paying people the proper wage through a full-time job with a proper contract, implying the threat of dismissal if the job is not done right. This is basic, economic common-sense. Does Cameron possess any of this?

The only definite suggestion I have heard coming out of the government's Big Society talk is that of Special Constables (part-time police) getting reduced-rent council housing. The Big Society idea has thus already become utterly confused. This would not be volunteering, it would be paying indirectly for a job to be done in the normal way. You can't make people volunteer. As soon as you try to coerce them using financial levers like reduced rents, or other benefits, you are operating the normal employment market economy again in disguise. Volunteering means what it says, it has to be unpaid, so it has to be what people want to do for their own reasons. It cannot fill gaps in basic government functions.

There is much mileage in reducing the legislative bureaucracy that prevents individuals from doing useful things voluntarily, like helping out with activities in schools without being jumped upon as a suspected pedophile, or in guaranteeing organisations and people in them against being sued when they try to do environmentally-helpful things like fixing people's bikes, or organising rides or walks or hikes on which people maybe could get run over or fall off cliffs. The state could reduce the fear of consequences of things going wrong for people organising things like this, and this would help make society a bit bigger.

The basic trouble I suspect is that Cameron et al see the Big Society in opposition to the Big State (that they always accuse New Labour of believing in), and don't acknowledge the State as being an integral and central part of Society. Thus is their intellectual confusion born, and from this proceeds the emptiness of their slogan.