I’ll do anything for the Big Society…but I won’t do that

A year ago, many questioned David Cameron’s commitment to the Big Society project. Today his commitment to the principle cannot be under the same suspicion, however, his commitment to its implementation can.

Since the formation of the Coalition in the weeks following May 6th the Prime Minister has had numerous opportunities to drop the Big Society slogan and focus his political energies on other, more publicly salient projects; Forestry, HS2 or the NHS for example. Instead the Big Society has had approximately 3 (4 if you believe some critics) re-launches and Mr. Cameron seems determined to continue to expend political capital on the Big Society in the hope that it will eventually gain traction with the public. In sticking with the Big Society brand Mr. Cameron and his team are either in the process of pulling off a political masterstroke or falling into the trap of sticking within a pre-election slogan that has outlived its purpose.

Whitehall

Will Whitehall be asked to re-assess its priorities Photograph: Guardian: Sandy Stockwell/Corbis

The fact that Number 10 continue to invest politically in the Big Society indicates that the principle does indeed mean something to those at the top of government. However, this political investment has not translated into material or legislative investment. The dominance of the Treasury has a lot to answer for here. In all major legislation and White Papers introduced by the Coalition to date the focus has been on how the proposals will modernise public services, secure the future of Britain’s private sector and reduce the deficit. Commitments to the development of community cohesion or the capacity of the Third Sector almost always feature as an afterthought and changes to public sector procurement rules to favour smaller, more local organisations seem a long way off and will involve difficult conversations at a European level. And Europe remains a complex issue for a Conservative Party still deeply divided by the issue of Europe and the Coalition as a whole.

If the Big Society is really going to take root across the UK, the Prime Minister may have to begin to move it up the legislative programme and be willing to address some of the big barriers to the concept. These barriers include the dominance of the private sector in public sector procurement, the lack of adequate advice and support services for new community groups and a culture referred to by Ed Miliband as ‘take what you can’. The Big Society and a reduced public deficit do not have to be in conflict with one another, but the government’s current approach to the relationship is placing the success of the former at risk. In rhetoric Big Society is still the big game in town but in reality it has never really reached anywhere near the top of the government’s legislative agenda.

The idea of a ‘take what you can’ culture is one that perhaps has some merit behind it. The other side of the Big Society coin is public perception. Even with the vast quantities of political capital invested in the idea, Big Society is increasingly coming into conflict with a society in which individuals are increasingly driven to maximise their own position relative to those around them. In principle it is easy to see why a society in which neighbour helps neighbour and community groups undertake basic local tasks such as cutting the communal grass or gritting the street and driveways appeals to the public. It is however the reality that in 21st Century Britain, more people now work longer hours in a more competitive environment than was the case in the past. This has fundamentally altered the work-life balance to suggest that activity undertaken outside of work must have quick, easily perceptible and direct benefit to the individual. The upshot of which is that individuals would be happy to benefit from the Big Society, but are unwilling or unable to contribute to it or, in fact, already do but cannot give any more.

Whist I am unsure of Mr. Miliband’s ‘take what you can’ culture and I admire the genuine belief in Big Society shown by Mr. Cameron, it is perhaps undeniable that for the Big Society to flourish the British public and those at the top levels of government need to re-assess what they are willing to give up in pursuit of a better society.

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About richardcressey

Sheffield University graduate, working in local government, obsessed with cricket, politics and surfing the internet for interesting stories, informed opinion and funny cat videos.

Posted on July 3, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, Party Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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