David Cameron’s Big Society: The Big Mistake

by Marc Geddes

Photo By Andrew Parsons

In my last blog post I have established the key outline of the Big Society; it aims to fundamentally reshape our relationship with society and the state. The ideal is to effectuate autonomy. As my title here suggests, however, I wish to argue that the Big Society will be a big mistake.

I do not wish to argue that the Big Society is a cover for cuts. I believe that David Cameron is wholly committed to the Big Society. No, my argument is more substantive – I believe that the Big Society is fundamentally flawed because it will entrench social differences, it will blur the lines of accountability and local government, and add a further layer of bureaucracy.

Divisive Citizenship

The appealing aim that voluntary organisations would extend the social ethos of citizens is a flawed argument. The obvious problem is this: with growing voter apathy and a disenchantment with participation, why is the government focusing on substantive community powers? Giving the community more powers is good if there are the demands to effectuate it. In many instances, however, this has been challenged. A MORI poll (2009) has found that only one in 20 want to be involved in public service provision and one in four want to have more of a say. It is one thing for the government to offer more autonomy for local citizens, it is quite another for those citizens to take up the offer – and it in this case, locals really aren’t crying out for more power.

A related problem is that of legislative reality. The localism agenda has so far not proven to be substantiated a great deal within the framework of the law. Despite the (delayed) publication of the Localism and Decentralisation Bill, there is still a lot to be seen in terms of effective autonomy. With the possibility that citizenship classes are scrapped, what incentive will there be to conceptualise a strong sense of citizenship? Formal powers are a good thing, but resources will be needed to make this a reality.

Accountability

No amount of money will be able to further the aims of the Big Society, regardless of cuts to public spending. How would the national government of the day decide who deserves monetary assistance?

Discrimination is an important issue that must be voiced, and leave governments two options. The first option is that of zero-sum commitment. All voluntary groups, regardless of aims or methods will receive a financial contribution. This would allow for a non-discriminative, yet expensive, approach. So expensive, in fact, that it would be impossible to fund. The Big Society Bank will never get the funds together, given the complete lack of commitment to it so far. This leaves us with the second option: discriminate funding. But which groups and how? Would religious groups get funding, but not atheist societies? Would Unite Against Fascism get funding, but not the English Defence League?

This second option is ultimately an issue about accountability. As Anna Turley points out:

‘[T]he fragmentation of local public service delivery that could result from policies such as free schools, elected police commissioners and GP commissioning could weaken the influence of representative democracy at the local level, undermine the role of councillors as civic leaders and limit the scope of financial savings through service integration.’

Giving different groups different powers will result in a strong blurring of the lines of accountability. This would threaten both local and national representative democracy, in which services that are outsourced will end up outside the Freedom of Information Act. The government will be less accountable, and less transparent.

Big Government

David Cameron has already explained that a strong state is needed to achieve the Big Society; a smart state that will allow us to reshape our relationship with our communities. However, if Cameron is serious about the Big Society, then has hugely underestimated just how far the state will have to go.

The government will need to become a colossal regulator. It will need to: decide who gets how much funding; dispute claims and counter-claims; legislate on what makes a good citizen; enforce ‘good citizenship’; ensure that local groups are held to account; publish data to ensure transparency; provide checks and balances for groups; establish principles by which voluntary groups must organise – need I go on?

Voluntary groups lack a substantive sense of democratic legitimacy, because the demos has not bestowed this upon them. The result is that the national government will have to do it, creating an extended arm of the government. The inevitable consequence will also be a huge centralisation of power. This is something for which we already have evidence: I have blogged elsewhere how the Home Secretary will have more power vis-a-vis police; the Education Secretary will control schools; and, the Health Secretary will be able to directly interfere with how the NHS is run – without the need to consult parliament.

The problems are unpalatable. The Big Society falls between two stools: it fails because there are no resources available, or it fails because it necessitates big government. We must abandon the Big Society – despite its hopes for social capital, trust and community engagement. The question remains: what is the alternative? This is an issue to which I will return at a later date.

mg

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