The untold story of the Big Society
The last link in Butchered cows, makeshift umbrellas and a rising star – provides the starting point for observing some recent political history. We shall see that while the Prime Minister is by far the brightest Big Society star, the shock of his intense light has caused people to fall off their chairs and to cry out the names of Karl Marx, Attila the Hun and Mother Theresa.
Co-operative Communities is significant because, after long years of going astray, wasting opportunities and completely losing the plot on this front, it marks Labour’s turning point in facing up to the political challenge presented by the Big Society. “It is not enough for us to expose the policy weaknesses of the Coalition on the ‘Big Society’. To be a credible Government in waiting we need to clearly set out our own compelling vision for how we build a good society built on the values of mutuality, solidarity and reciprocity.”
Three years ago, journalist Martin Bright suggested Gordon Brown should latch onto Labour’s co-operative and mutualist tradition to provide “a definition of progressive Brownite politics”.
While Gordon dithered, out of the blue, on 8 November 2007, David Cameron cheekily seized hold of that tradition, and, to boot, in Manchester, its very birthplace.
Proclaiming “the post-bureaucratic age”, he announced: “The age of the omniscient civil servant is past. The age of the active citizen is now.” And, as a sign of his commitment to co-operation and mutualism, Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement.
Just a week later, in his ‘Government to People’ speech to the Young Foundation, Cameron effectively announced the abolition of the Audit Commission in the context of a localist drive to empower communities. “We will give local communities greater power over planning and licensing decisions…. We will cut back the bloated inspection regime – typified by Best Value and the Comprehensive Area Assessment – which just gets in the way of councils trying to do their job.”
As Cameron got into his stride, staking out more and more of this territory for the Conservative Party, the Labour Government stupidly dumped its empowerment legislation.
This fuelled well-founded suspicions, at last now regretted by Labour in Co-operative Communities, that it was not genuinely committed to empowerment because it had become too statist.
Cameron’s court (we’ll find out more about them in future observations) must have drawn breath as they watched their opponent withdraw from the battleground. On 10 November 2009, Cameron proved his absolute mastery of the field with a seminal speech on The Big Society, which enunciated his philosophy and set out a fresh programme for government.
Labour fought back, gathering senior mutualists for a meeting at No.11 Downing Street on 8 February 2010. But it was too little too late. The party looked sheepish as it tried half-heartedly, and all too obviously to climb onto someone else’s bandwagon.
In March 2010, Cameron announced his Big Society Plan as part of the Conservative’s manifesto for the general election. “Creating the big society…. is our positive alternative to Labour’s big government – and what I hope will be a proud legacy of a future Conservative government. Indeed just as the past six decades were about building the welfare state, I hope the next decades are about creating the big society – which has the potential to be just as transformational for the country.”
On reading this speech, commentator Melanie Phillips fell off her chair and promptly denounced Cameron as a ‘Transformational Marxist’: “The British Conservative party has signed up to the revolutionary Marxist politics of Saul Alinsky and his seditious strategy of using ‘community organisers’ to turn the people against the state and against the bedrock moral and social values of their country – and it is almost certainly too ignorant, lazy or stupid to realise that this is what it means.”
But the distance travelled by Cameron and his court in their drive to occupy the furthest reaches of the Big Society, has annoyed people who, as well as being prone to falling off their chairs, are also Conservative MPs.
David Davies derides the Big Society as little more than an exercise in cynicism: “The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.”
Other members of the party are instinctively disturbed by it all, suspecting that something sinister is indeed at work. Perhaps, in future observations, we can peer in that direction, but only after we have delved into what the Big Society means for regeneration.
Let’s end by considering how Cameron’s court can hang onto the vast domains they have conquered. The Community Right to Build and the Community Right to Buy, along with a spawn of other localist initiatives, are small policies. But the Big Society is a big promise that needs big policies to make it ‘transformational for the country’.
Cameron’s mantra – “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state” – worked well as a rallying cry while his hoard swept all before it. But without radical policies on a scale sufficient to match his truly revolutionary rhetoric, these words, through Galileo’s telescope at least, are becoming distinctly opaque.