Tuesday 13 April 2010

All power to the soviets?

The Big Society and the political class

The Conservatives’ new ‘Big Society’ slogan is intriguingly open to interpretation, and certainly more thought-provoking than Labour’s f-word infested Stalinist Cornflakes advert of a manifesto. While the Tories’ actual manifesto seems little more convincing than Labour’s, there is something to be said for the recognition that it is wider society, and not the political class, that must ultimately take responsibility for political and social change.

There are two major problems with the Conservatives’ approach, however. The first is that it sidesteps the many things the government can and should be doing, abdicating responsibility before the party even forms a government. The second is that governments can’t create or even foster civil society, which is defined by its independence from the state. The political class is the worst-placed section of society to start talking about this.

On the first point, the Tories are no more willing than Labour to face up to problems we face as a society. While Labour laughably propose a new industrial revolution fuelled by little more than ‘rights’ and ‘choice’, the ‘efficiency-saving’ Tories seem to think just about everything beyond tinkering with tax is better done by someone else. When it comes to education, for example, they ‘have faith in people’ to do what needs to be done. On the BBC’s Today programme this morning, William Hague basically said that while Labour had both failed to provide our children with a decent education and prevented parents from doing anything about it, the Tories will also fail to provide a decent education, but they’ll stand aside and let parents sort it out.

It’s a funny sort of election pledge, but it points to the second and deeper problem with the Big Society idea. We don’t have strong civil institutions, or even much of a basic sense of solidarity, and these things can’t be magicked out of thin air, least of all by the government or political parties. Quite the reverse. Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party once drew strength from the institutions of a ‘big society’, whether churches and local clubs or trades unions and other activist movements. Over the past generation, both parties have systematically cut themselves off from their withering social bases, to become professional spin machines run by a separate political class.

If there were anything of substance to what David Cameron is saying, he would be able to point to his own party as evidence: there would be schools run by the local Conservative association, Tory social clubs taking on responsibility for social services and so on, and lively Tory debating societies discussing his manifesto. But in reality the Big Society is no more than an advertising slogan dreamt up by wonks, and so all he can point to is a ‘voluntary sector’ that is in fact largely dependent on the state.

Nonetheless, on this occasion the wonks have at least dreamt up an interesting idea. And while Labour have responded by appealing to the statist instincts of the British left and (shamelessly) branded the Big Society a right-wing attack on cherished Old Labour values, there is nothing necessarily right-wing about preferring independent civil institutions to state ones. One wonders how the Tories would respond if public sector workers really did form cooperatives to run their services. There’s the germ of a radical new economic policy here too…

In fact, Cameron’s Big Society is less about freeing society from the state than using the state to generate a fake civil society. The manifesto also talks about using insights from behavioural economics to manipulate people into donating to charity, and about developing ‘a new measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action’, while its proposed annual Big Society Day sounds even more Stalinist than New Labour’s Cornflakes. If nothing else, though, all this at least shows Cameron is right about one thing: the political class has had it, and changing society is up to us.

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