By Sam Tomlin
David Cameron, we were told in a 2011 parliament publication, ‘has placed the Big Society project at the centre of his political agenda’. The vision was bold, if a little fuzzy in practical application: ‘the term describes the Government’s intention to open up public services to new providers, increase social action and devolve power to local communities.’
So fuzzy in practical application that the same report, just a year or so after the concept was introduced, suggested ‘There is little clear understanding of the Big Society project among the public, and there is confusion over the Government’s proposals to reform public services.’
If that was the truth in 2011, it is certainly the case today. The battle has now all but been lost as the coalition enters its final stages. The term (‘BS’ as many have renamed it) mostly evokes ridicule around the country and in various opinion outlets.
A former adviser to Cameron has now criticised the PM for narrowing the vision of the Big Society, as the Conservatives are more interested in “bashing burglars and immigrants” in response to UKIP than promoting the harder task of broader societal change.
Empowering communities of course is a fantastic thing, and you will find it hard to find a politician or opinion former who suggests otherwise. There are many examples of entrepreneurs and activists already doing much of what was discussed in the concept. So why has the Big Society failed to capture our imagination?
It is the failure to realise that in order to get a sufficient number of people to care enough about their community, we first need to address our dominant societal values, namely neoliberalism which has dominated much of western society since the Thatcher/Reagan experiment began in the ‘80s.
What Big Society proponents failed to understand is that a vision of the collective spirit required to develop thriving, connected, vibrant and caring communities is incompatible with this intensely individualistic anthropology. It is ironic that many Tories support the neoliberal agenda while at the same time promoting ideas like the Big Society – an internal inconsistency which Conservative ideology has yet to resolve.
Is it any surprise that people have not leapt to the challenge of creating stronger links within their communities when they are battered with adverts whenever they watch TV or walk down the high street that promote the idea that your own personal prosperity is all that counts in life? That if you live in a poor community your one aim is to be ‘upwardly mobile’ and move to the leafy suburbs, taking with you your talents so desperately needed to improve your area? Much better watch X Factor in the safety of my home (castle) or go shopping than engage with those around me to develop a vision for how to improve our local area.
Such reality is the result of the dominance of neoliberalism, as is the cult of ‘busyness’. In a society where accumulating as much wealth as possible is the aim, we are encouraged to spend much of our week working (for money), usually away from the community where we live, depriving said communities of desperately needed time and skills required to address many of the problems that exist. Any spare time we do have is either spent socialising or relaxing (i.e. not doing Big Society type things). (The New Economics Foundation’s work on promoting a shorter working week is of note in this area.)
Finally, with the failure of the Big Society, severe cuts have abandoned many poorer communities with almost nothing in their place. The large state does not hold all the answers, but in order for communities to be empowered, their residents first need to have food to eat, warmth in the winter and strong public services. With many people struggling to get by, this firstly creates more issues for any Big Society to address, and secondly prohibits people’s participation in a collective vision as people can only try and look after themselves and any family they might have. An agenda for empowering communities can never hope to fully abandon the state, especially when the cost of living is so high.
But even if it were assumed that a large state was not necessary (the starting point for many Tories), in order for a concept like the Big Society to work, we would have to dismantle many of the societal norms and structures which encourage a self-centred society. Part of this, of course, is ‘practising’ doing community itself – attending community meetings, finding out about local issues and simply getting to know other people in your community, their hopes and fears. This is what Big Society got right. It failed to realise there are also macro-economic and wider societal factors that also need to be addressed before such a society can be reached.