We are the big society

David Cameron illustration.

David Cameron is chock full of ideas. But are they as straightforward as they initially appear? Image: Dan Strange via Flickr.

If you’ve been paying any attention to British politics, you may have heard the phrase The Big Society. Prime Minister David Cameron coined it as one of his election catchphrases. In a nutshell, the Big Society (yay) is the antithesis of Big Government (boo).

It’s citizen power, volunteerism, community action, sisters doing it for themselves!

In policy terms, that means creating a national network of volunteers, giving parents the right to start their own schools, and making police accountable to local communities. There are also long overdue plans to clear away the dense thicket of health and safety regulation that get in the way of community projects.

This is good news.

As an example of how messy that regulation has become, there’s a little park around the corner from where I live. Last year a developer proposed building houses on the site. Local residents weren’t having it. We wanted to hold a festival in the park to get the community together and tell the developer where to stick his plans.

We set out to have the event, which required a 30 page park use form. We were also told it may take sixth months to get permission. Oh, and we’d need public liability insurance. If we wanted to do any kid’s activities we’d need criminal record checks on any volunteers to the tune of £80 each ($125). The police would need to clear the road. We couldn’t serve any food or drink.

Hmm, that’s if you do it officially.

Instead, residents just camped in the park with their kids, had a barbecue and a great time. The authorities didn’t catch wind of it until the photos appeared in the local paper. That’s the big society in action right there.

Power to the people

The real power in society always lies with the people.

“A small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world” as Margaret Mead put it.

The government’s role is to support and facilitate rather than to organise and do everything for us. That principle will be enshrined in law in a ‘Localism Bill’ that expressly devolves power to local areas and gives a bunch of new privileges to community groups.

This has got to be good news for Transition initiatives – we’re all about taking responsibility at a local level. And anything that builds community builds resilience. And why stop at schools and police? Let’s make local food and local energy generation happen. What if government supported local currencies? Imagine being able to pay your council tax in local money, for example.

The fine print

This is all potentially exciting, but there’s also another agenda at work here.

Britain’s new coalition government came to power knowing that they needed to make large scale cuts to public spending. That’s always unpopular, and the Big Society has been a positive spin – the government is stepping back so you can take the power!

“The big society is not about creating cover for cuts,” said Cameron in a recent speech. “It’s about government helping to build a nation of doers and go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better.”

If I may be so bold, I’d like to consider myself one of those doers and go-getters,. Yet so far my experience of the new government has been mixed.

Next week I’m hosting a Transition event on my street called Get Cosy. It’s all about energy efficiency and making your house warmer.

A few days ago the key partner, the Energy Saving Trust, phoned to say they could no longer attend. Their community support team had lost its funding with immediate effect.

I recognize the need to cut spending, but is cutting community support teams really the best way to, you know, support community?

The joke’s on us

More worryingly, a friend who works with autistic children tells me that the local government team that works with kids with learning difficulties has also lost their funding. That’s a vital and highly specialized field. The charitable sector can’t just instantly take up the slack.

Recently I was at a resident’s association meeting where we learned there’s no funding for the new playground we’ve campaigned for.

It’s now a running joke. Every time we hear that funding has been cut or jobs are being lost, someone says “It’s okay, the Big Society will do it.”

I’m not sure if this is what David Cameron was hoping for.

A seat at the table, and the gavel

The other factor to remember is that The Big Society isn’t just made up of citizens and community groups – it also includes business.

As you’d expect from a Conservative led government, that means a new round of government functions will be taken over by the private sector. I’ve got no philosophical objection, but consider this: the government recently created a new advisory panel to draft health policy on obesity and nutrition. It includes cancer charities and nutritionists. But business also gets a seat at the table. So in a country where one in four adults is obese, McDonalds, PepsiCo, and KFC get a hand in writing health policy.

In short, I’m kind of skeptical of The Big Society, but I’m an adamant supporter of the big society, if you catch my drift.

Cover of John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band's Power to the People.

John Lennon was on to something. Image: dermon.com.

Citizens are always getting themselves organized and making good stuff happen. Sometimes politicians notice and sometimes they don’t. If we’re entering a new era of cooperation, great. If it means stripping out government involvement and replacing it with new opportunities for big business, it will work against community resilience and leave us worse off than before.

Cameron’s Big Society is above all an invitation, so this is a proactive thing. We can make of it what we will. Assuming we get a level playing field with business, there could be all kinds of new possibilities. The government has recently withdrawn subsidies for bus travel, for example. It might not be profitable enough for a business to run without that support. But imagine a Transition Town forming a co-operative and putting in a bid to run the local bus network.

So I guess we’ll wait and see. And by we, I mean us. Society. It isn’t something that has to be created and given a snazzy name. We’re already here.

We are the big society.

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  1. Adrian says

    I too am suspicious about the Big Society, as you say the government says one thing but does another.

    My wife volunteers for a breast-feeding support group in Gloucestershire. The group provides a fantastic social network, meeting once a week at a childrens centre. It supports women and babies in a healthy and non-commercial activity with long term economic savings.

    The childrens centre targets incentivise against the breast-feeding group. Plus, the Gloucestershire breast-feeding network has lost funding and all Gloucestershire groups are being shut down.

    So the support is cut and with it goes the free work provided by the volunteers.
    This is tragic and it seems not uncommon these days in the new Big Society..

  2. Simeon Jackson says

    I agree, on the whole, but I’d also like to extend this, if I may. Business are actually an essential part of society which is often overlooked, not by government (the government always give business a look-in), but by local communities. If community projects got the support of local businesses, and local businesses got the support of local communities, there would be much more power to create stronger communities.

    I have been in support of the Big Society concept ever since I heard of it, and I think the most important part of that is removing the red tape. That, in a way, needs to be done before removing funding, but with the economic condition as it is, there were bound to be more cuts than anyone really wants. What I am glad about, to some extent, with the coalition government, is that they see their role not just in terms of directing money to one department or another like the previous government, but in empowering the people themselves to take the initiative. Whether it happens like that, as you say, we’ll have to wait and see.

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