I’m commenting far too much on my original blog-post, which is self-indulgent and untidy, so I thought I’d start a new one to reflect the fact that Cameron himself has now got into the discussion with his piece in the Observer: “Have no doubt the Big Society is on its way”.
In his article, the PM declares himself ‘upbeat about the torrent of newsprint’ about the Big Society (despite the fact that so much of it has been negative), presumably in much the same way as his Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove has decided to be ‘delighted’ to be spanked by the courts for his ‘abuse of power’ over the cancellation of BSF.
He goes on to – as he puts it – address the critcisms head on. But his comments don’t deal with any of the previous objections I have raised. He says the Big Society has three strands:
1) “devolving power…so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny”. Nowhere does he address the fact that neighbouhoods are not homogenous communities with shared interests, but diverse groupings with interests in conflict. This devolution bypasses democratically accountable local government and puts power in the hands of those who are already well able to mobilise their existing resources.
2) “opening up public services” by which he straightforwardly means making public servants redundant and replacing them with other workers (quite possibly their newly redundant selves!) on worse terms and conditions; ‘putting trust in professionals’ – except, of course, those professionals who will be replaced by unskilled volunteers or unqualified paid staff (cf teachers in free schools).
3) “encouraging volunteering and social action” – well great, but how? Like many people, I already volunteer, but the time I have available to volunteer has shrunk now that I have had to take on the work of colleagues whose jobs no longer exist; cuts are decimating the funding to voluntary sector infrastructure groups; the transition fund won’t be able to replace what has gone.
“Big Society” says Cameron “applies to many areas of policy” Well, call me cynical, but of course it does. That way, any time something appears to be going well, Cameron can claim it as an example of ‘Big Society’ success. So, if government cuts and privatisation take your post office away and you don’t get together with your neighbours and save it, that’s your tough luck, but if you do find the time energy and resources to do so, that’s a victory for Cameron’s big idea. If any special interest group without a clue wants to set up a school, that will be allowed, but if local government professionals (of the type that Cameron’s not so interested in trusting) have developed a school commissioning strategy that serves the needs of a whole area rather than one privileged group, they’ll find resources syphoned off to one of Gove’s vanity projects and any number of obstacles in their way. As for the claim that: “… if someone wants to help out with children, we will sweep away the criminal record checks and health and safety laws that stop them”. both as a children’s services professional and as a parent, I don’t want the children I’m responsible for to be unprotected as a result of a relaxation of the laws and systems that help to keep them safe. What is he thinking!
Was Cameron talking about social responsibility before the cuts: yes he was. Why? Because the cuts are (principally) ideological. The Tories would be ‘breaking up the public sector’ (Francis Maude on Question Time this week) whether or not the bankers had drained the economy of resources. Cameron is right: the Big Society is not a cover for the cuts, in fact the cuts provide pseudo-economic cover for a set of ideologically driven changes that will increase pressure on the vulnerable, remove power from democratically accountable local government and place it in the hands of those who already have access to time, money and other resources.
Cameron says that big government failed to prevent the widening inequality gap over the last decade. This is true. What he doesn’t note is that there is strong evidence to suggest that the gap would have been even wider had it not been for the range of redistributive policies which were implemented and which his government is so determined to reverse.
Bless him: he then references Balsall Heath. This is so like his notorious election-campaign claim (‘I met a black man once’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1267000/David-Camerons-40-year-old-black-man-criticises-Tory-leader-inaccuracies.html ) only this time he’s saying ‘I went to a sink estate once’… He’s right about one thing though – people do have the ‘compassion, flexibility and local knowledge to help their neighbours and communities’, but nothing he’s doing will increase or assist that. He’s just going to preside over a signficant increase in individuals and communities who more desperately need that help. Meanwhile, of course, he’ll be showing compassion to his own neighbours and ‘community’: to people like himself, who he will gladly allow to evade and avoid tax and take home vast bonuses, generally accumulating an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth.
I don’t want to see any good intentions stopped or smothered – yet I have seen nothing but stopping and smothering since the very earliest days after the election last year. Cameron says: This is not another government initiative – it’s about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with those around you to improve things. Well, people were already doing all those things both in their professional and personal lives and this government has only made that more difficult. Where local activism is surviving or even thriving, it’s because it is ‘our society’, Mr Cameron, not your ‘Big Society’; it’s got nothing to do with you at all.