What do Jeremy Paxman, Simon Hoggart and Tessa Jowel have in common? They don’t know what ‘big society’ means and nor do most people in Britain according to multiple polls, in fact only 1 in 4 young people had even heard of the concept.
When David Cameron launched this idea in Liverpool last July he wasn’t exactly clear in his definition, he said it was about “liberalism… empowerment…freedom [and]… responsibility”. All rather non-specific, vague and potentially ok sounding concepts. He moved on to say that it was where people “don’t always turn to officials… or central government for answers to the problems they face, but… help themselves and their own communities”. The big society, he said, was the clear alternative to the previously favoured centralised governing style and he referenced free schools, charities to rehabilitate offenders and businesses training workers as examples of this new big society. It represented, he claimed a liberation of power “from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”.
Since July, this rather all encompassing concept has been taken to mean the growth of civil society and reducing the size and activity of the government. So if big society is about the growth of civil society, then what do we mean by that? Academics, such as Kent Buse, define civil society as “the part of society between the family/household and the ‘sphere of government”. Another rather large concept. Many things therefore can be civil society groups, so long as they’re bigger than a household but smaller than the state. They could be a football team, a trade union, an NGO and even, if you take the definition completely literally, a criminal gang. Although I’m not sure Mr Cameron would include gangs in his big idea. In a similar vein to the Tea Party movement in America, the focus is on small government, big everything else. If you extrapolate this idea to it’s end point the government should only be involved in doing things which the market can’t do.
It seems a doubly pleasing, coalition friendly way of cutting taxes and public services, which is not new, but what Tory ideology has been saying for years. But this time it’s wrapped up nicely in wooly liberal language about freedom and liberty. We know what this really means, shrinking public services will hurt the poorest hardest and the notion that civil society will plug this gap is deluded and misplaced.
Firstly, is it right for voluntary sector and businesses to fulfill the functions that the state currently does, in providing health, education and social services? These actors can do some good, but they also tend to give rise to fragmented services and distorted labour markets. The services actually delivered tend to be unequally distributed, led by availability of volunteers or purchasing ability of the consumers, rather than need. Evidence from lower income countries where civil society is more involved in health service provision tells us that services become fragmented, with different NGOs performing similar but different activities. The big society champions tell us that services will be more accountable with elected police commissioners and hospital boards. But in places like America where they elect many more people, such as Mayors, local governors, senators, and such, all that happens is less people vote, not more. When you’re being asked to vote for a new person every ten minutes election fatigue sets in and turn out at all elections drop. In Britain at present less than a third of people turn out to vote for their local councils, yet we only vote for two main bodies; councils and Parliament.
Secondly, assuming we wanted them to, could volunteers and businesses actually give us what the state currently provides? This notion that we all will suddenly realise we have hours and hours spare to volunteer, to provide services that the state used to provide is a little off. I wish I could wave a magic wand and give myself a few more hours in my week but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Even David Cameron’s cabinet buddies, who were all trotted out to declare how many charities they volunteer for (mostly bit sitting in honourary positions on executive boards rather than actually doing anything), have quietly whispered that they are cutting back on this activity. Particularly since as many of the vital structures that support and facilitate volunteers are being lost in the current budget cuts. As Johann Hari pointed out on 10 O’ Clock Live last week; American states which have higher taxes and spend more, also have more volunteers. We also know that market led activities is what leaves us in a place where we have more drugs for erectile dysfunction and baldness than we do for diseases which kill millions of people, showing us that we cant leave it up to big businesses, who ultimately look out for their shareholders.
So the ConDem coalition wants civil society to do more. Perhaps tomorrow, and in the coming days and months David Cameron will see a the face of civil society that he might not like because we are big society, and we think his plans to ruin the NHS by giving it away to the private sector, stinks.