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Columnists

Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowThe 'Big Society' has become a fresh political battleground at Westminster. Shrinking the state by galvanising more resources from private citizens is central to the prime minister's approach - both to running the country and to keeping his own party together.  

But the strategy is beset with disagreement. For a start, civil servants keep telling ministers privately that claims about saving money through involving the public more in running communities ('localism') and national services are either uncosted, untried, untenable … or all three.

A large swathe of the public remains unconvinced, too. Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols has accused the concept of having 'no teeth', while saying cuts hurt the poorest. Cue a Downing Street reception to charm faith leaders and claim that Jesus invented the Big Society - a gaffe which the otherwise sympathetic Jubilee Centre described as 'unfortunate'.

Then there are Tory right-wingers. They are suspicious of the voluntary sector, hanker after a less-encumbered tax reduction agenda, and worry that this namby-pamby 'caring' stuff dilutes the pure milk of a wealth-driven society. In response, Mr Cameron has written in the Telegraph that Big Society means 'the grip of state control will be released.'

Last but not least are the Liberal Democrats, who - pushing harder within the coalition following their election mauling in May - are seen as a political wedge for problems with the NHS reforms, and are protesting against decentralisation of public services - for the same reason as civil servants are warning about it.  

The upshot is that the government's White Paper on public service reform is late, with further consequences for legislation and the struggles around it.

Five months ago Mr Cameron declared that the paper would 'signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given model of public services'. But with money being slashed from civic organisations, the chief route is privatisation and the onus on public bodies is to prove that they would be better. Disguised costs, commercial confidentiality and masked loss leader bids make that very difficult indeed. So the axe looms larger.

The right is delighted by this. The embattled health secretary has renewed the fight for his changes, saying the alternative will be an NHS crisis (code for 'unavoidable cuts'). Thatcherism is back, cry the unions. Everyone else is queasy, not least in those parts of Britain where the pain will be greatest and the resentment highest.

That remains key to the huge switch-around in Scotland. Here the key phrase is not 'Big Society' but 'referendum'. The new SNP administration is busy figuring out how to calibrate plans for a poll on Scottish autonomy, possibly without even using the word 'independence'. The outcome is unlikely to be a clean break, but could well be another decisive power shift.

Simon Barrow