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Bigging Up Society

Nick Spencer

Just how big - and how new - is David Cameron's much-heralded Big Society? As Britain navigates a storm of cuts Nick Spencer looks below deck on the government's flagship policy and finds some familiar ideas…




David Cameron seemed to get on well with the Pope. He had to, of course. In spite of what Stephen Fry and Peter Tatchell would have liked him to say to the Holy Father, the Prime Minister knew that there was precious little to gain and much to lose from reminding His Holiness of the very real differences between British government policy and the Vatican's. In circumstances like this you hold your tongue and say nice things.

Except that there appeared to be a genuine affinity between Cameron and Benedict or, more precisely, between Conservative ideas of the Big Society and Catholic Social Teaching. Each person in society has responsibilities, Cameron remarked in his farewell address. 'Obligations and opportunities [come] from what Cardinal Newman described as the "common bond of unity" that we all share.' This common bond was 'an incredibly important' part of the Pope's visit. More saliently, 'it's at the heart of the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain … we can all share in your message of working for the common good and that we all have a social obligation to each other, to our families and our communities.'

Cameron did not actually namecheck the Big Society. He knew that to do so would have been a partisan faux pas of the highest order. But for those with ears to hear, the link was made. All of which invites the question, is there much shared ground between papal teaching and Conservative policy? Is the Big Society a 'Christian' idea or, less contentiously, is it an idea that Christians should support?

For those who are not familiar with the Big Society, there is another word to describe it. It is 'society'. This isn't meant to be facetious. I have a great deal of sympathy with the thinking that informs this Conservative flagship policy.

However, it is not new. Indeed, the big idea behind the big society is so old and so bleedin' obvious, that it is a mark of how far we have come as a culture that anyone should need to articulate it, let alone imagine it to be groundbreaking. If you want a description of what the Big Society is, it is basically people doing things for one another because they want to rather than because they are paid to.

In a speech in Liverpool in July this year, in which the prime minister re-launched the idea after the election (and after many commentators thought it had been quietly dropped because it did not resonate with voters on the doorstep), Mr Cameron described it as being about a 'huge culture change'. He then proceeded to describe a situation that would have been familiar to more or less everyone in the country 50 or so years ago. This was a situation in which 'people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace don't always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.'

Not, one would imagine, earth-shattering. And yet, partly because they don't wish to be accused of wanting to turning the clock back to a mythical golden age in which everyone knew, loved and helped everyone else on their street, and partly because such behaviour, although common, is not the norm today, the Big Society has become the big idea.

This big idea is a long way from being a fully worked-out policy but it is certainly more than just rhetoric. Three elements in particular stand out. The first is decentralisation, reducing bureaucracy and transferring power and financial autonomy from central government to local communities so that they feel able to manage their own affairs. The second is transparency, furnishing said communities with the information they need in order to solve the problems on their doorstep. The third is finance, creating a Big Society Bank, through dormant bank and building society accounts, which would help fund social entrepreneurs, community activists, charities and voluntary groups to do what they want to do. Between them, these ideas will, the Conservatives believe, enable people to run local parks, pubs, libraries and post offices; to plan the look, size, shape and feel of local housing developments; to develop local transport services; to generate their own energy supply; and to hold the local police to account.

How, one might ask, could anyone oppose this? What possible problem could there be with local people running local services for other local people (assuming you can get the League of Gentlemen stereotype out of your mind)? This is what living together in community means. Who could possibly object to it?

Some people do. Sometimes those objections are self-evidently facile. When Labour MP Chris Bryant damned the idea as 'an attempt to get government on the cheap', one is tempted to ask whether he thinks government on the expensive is better. At other times, such as Unison's objection that 'the 'Big Society' is 'intellectually flawed' and a throwback to a 1950s Britain that never existed', the objections are clearly self-interested - in a way that is entirely proper for a union whose duty is to look out for the welfare of its members.

Silly and self-interested objections aside, there are deeper and more serious problems with the idea. They are not insurmountable. They may not even be material. It may simply be that living in a (big) society means living with certain problems, just the way living with a big state does. The Big Society makes no more claim to utopianism than big statism does (arguably less). Yet, if this is to be the way ahead over the next parliament and beyond, it is worth exploring in a little detail what bumps there may be in the road.

We can spot some of those bumps by looking at the Big Society from the vantage point of Christian - specifically Catholic - social teaching, in a way that will conveniently allow us also to see the similarities and differences between the political visions of Westminster and the Vatican.
In his most sustained exposition of the Big Society, delivered as the Hugo Young memorial lecture in 2009, David Cameron described the kind of decentralisation he had in mind.

'We will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible … Where it doesn't make sense to give power directly to individuals, for example where there is a function that is collective in nature, then we will transfer power to neighbourhoods … Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government…'

This is a textbook description of the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, first articulated in a Papal encyclical of 1931. This states that 'just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice … to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.' (Quadragesimo Anno, #79) So far, so good: Conservative and Catholic teaching in perfect harmony.

Pope Benedict emphasises subsidiarity because he, like his predecessor, has serious reservations about the state's tendency to overpromise, interfere and dictate. But, again like his predecessor, he is also highly critical of the tendency of the market to do exactly the same. In a particularly clear passage in his most recent encyclical, 'Caritas in Veritate', Benedict spells out how 'the human being is made for gift', and how there are three different kinds of giving in society. One is 'giving in order to acquire', which is 'the logic of [market] exchange'. The second is 'giving through duty', which is 'the logic of public obligation.' Both of these are vital elements of our common good but they do not exhaust the nature of giving. There is a crucial third element, of giving for the sake of giving, or 'gratuitousness' as Benedict expresses it, a kind of giving that is fundamental to human nature and to the successful flourishing of any society.

It is this kind of giving that lies at the heart of the Conservatives' big idea. The Big Society is about people spending time, energy and money on projects in their community because they believe it will make things better for everyone. They may also feel that they themselves will benefit from such activity. No one is pretending that a pandemic of altruism is about to break out. But they will not be giving of themselves 'in order to acquire' ('the logic of [market] exchange') or giving 'through duty' ('the logic of public obligation'), so much as giving to build up the common good.

By placing the Big Society in this three-fold framework - giving to receive, giving through duty, and giving for the common good - we can be a bit clearer about the challenges that lie before it. For people to give for the common good, to contribute to society for the sake of it, the other two types of giving - the market and the state types - must be functioning properly. In other words, if the Big Society is to work properly, so must the state and the market.

To their credit, the Tories clearly recognise this - or, at least, they recognise half of it. Conservative pronouncements on the Big Society are peppered with admissions that rolling back the frontiers of the big state will not mean that the frontiers of the big society will automatically roll forward. 'A simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong,' Cameron observed in his Hugo Young lecture. Hence the recognition that the state must and will help individuals and communities to contribute to the Big Society, such as via money (the Big Society bank), information (data transparency) and expert advice ('we will make available officials from the Department of Communities and Local Government').

But if the state is to play a supportive role in the formation of the Big Society, so must the market, and this is where we run into potential problems. Recent decades have witnessed the intrusion of the market into many, previously well-guarded, areas of our life. The monomaniacal emphasis on economic growth has meant that fewer and fewer households have (intentionally) non-working members at home. Domestic jobs, including child-rearing, have been out-sourced on a vast scale. Job mobility and a long-hours work culture has helped weaken geographical roots (not to mention put enormous pressures on family life).


All this serves to weaken the local 'human resources' that are necessary to any future Big Society. If you want (or expect!) people to step up to the plate and give generously of their time and energy for the health of their local communities, you'd better hope that they are not too busy or exhausted from work to do so. At the moment the signs do not look good. As Unison asked pointedly, 'who is going to do all the volunteering when men and women now both have to work to pay the household bills and the increased taxes that the coalition government is imposing?'

It is the same at one step up, at the level of local communities. Over the last 40 years thousands of local communities have been badly weakened as shops, pubs, banks, and amenities have closed. At the same time, certain market sectors, especially the crucial grocery sector, have contracted enormously, so that the vast majority of the sector is concentrated in a few, immensely powerful hands. In the words of the critically-supportive think tank, the New Economics Foundation, the Big Society 'pays no attention to forces within modern capitalism that lead to accumulations of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of others. Nor does it recognise that the current structure of the UK economy selectively restricts the ability of citizens to participate.' This combination of weakened communities and stronger retailers is not conducive to the Big Society.

A concrete example might help. A few years ago I wrote a piece for Third Way in which I whinged about Tesco. They wanted to build an inappropriate and massively out-of-scale supermarket in my home town that, as far as I could tell, no-one wanted. (OK, I may not be the most objective witness but in the public meetings I attended there were on average 100 people opposing the plans for every one who wanted them.) Anyway, the application was turned down by local councillors. Joy.
And then, two years later, Tesco reapplied. There was another long, wearisome campaign in which local people tried to argue against the company's slick, expensive PR machine. Second time round, the planning officer rejected the application and Tesco withdrew it before the council did the inevitable and turned it down again. Joy. Again.
And now, a couple of years on, they are applying for a third time. Such companies do not give up. The middle-class suburban paradise in which I live offers rich pickings and the company has almost bottomless coffers and an inexhaustible will to carry on fighting in the teeth of local opposition. Who do you think will win in the end?
I return to this sorry saga not only because I like whining about Tesco but because it illustrates the problem facing the Big Society. It is all very well for David Cameron to say that 'we will strengthen civic institutions that already exist - like local shops, the post office and the town hall.' But if that means standing up to big business and giving local communities genuine authority to decide what happens over issues of local development, will he have the courage to do it? Michael Sandel, the BBC's 2009 Reith lecturer, recently observed that we have moved from having a market economy to being a market society. He is right. And a market society does not sit easily with a Big Society.

This, then, is the biggest political bump in the road before the Big Society: not reforming the state so that it helps rather than hinders local community activity but - much harder - reforming the market so that helps. There is, however, an even bigger bump, which is this. At heart, the Big Society is not really a political idea. It's a cultural one. Government can prepare the ground for social activism and prevent nasty weeds from colonising it in advance, but it can't make the seeds grow.
Again, to their credit, the Tories recognise this. 'This is not the work of one parliamentary term, or even two,' Cameron has said. 'Culture change is much harder than state control.' But recognising it is not the same as being able to do much about it. Conservative policy gurus must be praying that such a culture change - volunteering and responsibility instead of consumerism and entitlements - takes hold. It may but if it does it will present them with another problem.
The uncomfortable fact is that a disproportionate level of such Big Society activity is done by religious groups. As Ed West wrote for the Telegraph, 'volunteering is, and always will be, dominated by religious groups, almost all of which have views that are incompatible with the moral ethos of the elite; some of them have views that give me the willies, let alone Dave's new Independent-reading friends in the SDP.'

Devolving genuine authority away from the centre is a perilous business - which is why pretty much no post-war prime minister has actually done it - for two reasons. First, it risks uneven provision of services. Everyone knows that some areas (wealthy, educated, middle-class ones) will have a surfeit of Big Society activity, whereas other, poorer ones will have a deficit. Even if the government has the willingness to address that, it is not obvious how they may do so.
One way would be to give support to those groups - again, mostly religious groups - that are prepared to cross postcode boundaries and work for the common good of poorer areas. But this points to the second risk in devolving power. Doing so risks putting that power into the hands of people who, as West observes, are deeply distrusted by many of the bien pensants who stalk Westminster. Does the government have the courage to take that path? Does it, for example, have the courage to allow such religious agencies to work according to their own criteria, for employment or service provision, rather than centrally-determined criteria? Will it allow a homeless charity, for example, to recruit staff according to its religious beliefs, if it feels that it needs to do so in order to preserve the ethos of the organisation? Will it allow the Catholic adoption agencies, to choose another (live) example, to pass homosexual couples that want to adopt on to other agencies rather than deal with them themselves, if they feel that that is what they must do according to their conscience? This will be the acid test for how serious the government is in devolving authority.

For their part the churches too must be careful. Having a government that is falling over itself in its desire to secure religious participation for a flagship policy must be very tempting. But the temptation is double-edged. The church's great commission is not to build the big society, still less to rescue a broke government. A number of years ago, at the start of the Oxford movement, which sought to re-invigorate the early Victorian church and insist that it was more than a pliable arm of state, one young Turk, Frederick Oakeley, remarked contemptuously, 'as if the purpose of our Lord's coming were merely to instruct men in this or that duty, or to make them respectable members of society.' They are words worth recalling today.
The Church, then, like the government, faces challenges if the Big Society is ever to be more than a pipe dream. These challenges - coupled with growing anger about cuts and the attendant cynicism that the Big Society is merely perfume to disguise the impending public sector bloodbath (the Big Society roadshow was recently cancelled because of such hostility) - mean that the road before the Tories' big idea is steep as well as bumpy. It would be a great shame if nothing were to come of it as its ambitions are entirely laudable. But I won't be holding my breath. n