Melanie Phillips

15 February 2011

A noble idea -- but in danger of being a Big Flop

Published in: Daily Mail

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So now we all know what the Big Society is. Or do we? After panic in Number Ten that David Cameron’s Big Idea was merely causing irritation because no one knew what on earth it meant, the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday was supposed to spell it out.

But are we really any the wiser?

The Big Society, said Mr Cameron, was his ‘absolute passion’ and his ‘mission in politics’. Good. It offered a ‘different way of governing’. Very good.

Accordingly, he wanted people to take more responsibility for their own lives. Absolutely splendid. But how was all this to be accomplished?

The Number Ten website tells us that the Big Society means a ‘massive transfer of power from Whitehall’ through ‘existing public service reforms and encouraging people to get involved in their communities’.

But getting involved by doing what, precisely? Well, taking responsibility. See what I mean? It’s an explanation that seems to chase its own tail.

Because it’s all so vague, people think the Big Society is just spin to cover up the cuts in public spending.

That particular charge, though, can’t be right: Mr Cameron alighted upon this Big Society idea when he was still in opposition. But the reason he did so hardly offers much reassurance that his ‘mission’ rests on a solid base of thinking.

In opposition, Mr Cameron was vulnerable to the charge that he was merely a political opportunist who stood for nothing except gaining power. He had to find a Big Idea to define his vision. But he had a problem.

On the one hand, he wanted to reposition the Tories as a party of social conscience. On the other hand, he knew he could not afford to break with the core Conservative belief that state control was a bad thing. So he came up with the idea that big government should be replaced by the Big Society – which detached the idea of a collective social project from the state.

The real beauty of this wheeze was that it offered an appeal to both Left and Right at the same time.

Conservatives have always supported the insight by the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke that the health of a free society depends upon the ‘little platoons’.

These are all the social institutions that stand between the individual and the state – family, churches, voluntary organisations, mutual aid societies, professional associations. It is these ‘little platoons’, said Burke, which provide the cultural glue that keeps a society together.

But in recent years, elements on the political Left have also arrived at a very similar conclusion, believing that the only way to ‘empower’ the most disadvantaged in society is to give them control over public services and their local environment.

This necessarily pitted such Left-wing radicals against the very state whose control over people’s lives they had once championed. Education authorities, town hall officials and welfare bureaucracies were seen as meddlesome barriers to making the improvements that poor people actually wanted to their lives.

At their best – in places such as Birmingham’s Balsall Heath or London’s Bromley-by-Bow – such initiatives were tremendously moving and inspiring, with people rebuilding shattered communities and emerging out of sullen depression into can-do optimism.

This was the milieu in which Mr Cameron’s principal guru and former community activist Steve Hilton had worked. Thus, under his influence, the Big Society was born.

At its core is a really good and truly radical idea: the end of an over-mighty state that demoralises people and saps both altruism and personal responsibility.

It harks back to the great heyday of British liberalism in Victorian England, which saw an astonishing flowering of philanthropic and voluntary associations. Through these ‘little platoons’ of civil society, people came together to create a better world.

As a result, by the turn of the 20th century social problems such as violent crime, mass drunkenness and illegitimacy were all significantly reduced so that Britain became a more civilised and tranquil society.

This magnificent civil society, however, was swept away by the arrival of the welfare state. Voluntary giving and personal responsibility were replaced by the culture of rights and entitlement that followed from the belief that the state was more beneficent than the voluntary world.

This is Mr Cameron’s first and greatest problem. For the Big Society cannot spring up unless the welfare state is actually dismantled.

And for all Mr Cameron’s trumpeting of a ‘massive transfer of power’ from the state to the people, his public service reforms amount to nothing of the kind. The great top-down edifices of health, education or welfare remain in place.

Even the charities that Mr Cameron is so heavily promoting have themselves become an arm of the state upon which they so overwhelmingly depend for financial support – as demonstrated by their unedifying wailing about cuts in government funding.

The one big change, making police forces accountable to local people, is ironically the one area where power should not be transferred, since one of the few ineradicable responsibilities of the state is surely to safeguard the security of the citizenry.

The real point, though, is that people only want to contribute to a society when it binds them together by a cultural glue.

It was no accident that in the Victorian era, those great voluntary organisations were overwhelmingly Christian – because people were inspired by nothing less than the goal of saving people’s souls. But today, Christians find themselves under the cosh of political correctness.

The Prime Minister’s claim that power is being transferred to the people surely rings particularly hollow for those Christians who find themselves arrested, prosecuted or sued when they dare to challenge the shibboleths of ‘lifestyle choice’ to which Mr Cameron adheres.

Not only is this cultural glue dissolving, but so too is the key sense of sharing in a national project.

The real point, though, is that people only want to contribute to a society when it binds them together by a cultural glue

The heyday of the philanthropic society was when Britain bestrode the world as a great power – and believed in itself as a result. But not only has it now lost its empire, it is also losing its very sovereignty to Europe.

Apparently, ministers have only just woken up to the fact that half of the UK’s laws are now made in Brussels or Strasbourg. Well hello boys and welcome to Planet Reality.

The fact is that you can’t have a ‘massive transfer of power’ from Whitehall to local communities when Whitehall itself no longer has much power because it has massively transferred it to Europe.

All of which is why it is so difficult to find any substance to the Big Society.

There is a really good, indeed noble idea buried here. But for it to work, Mr Cameron has to bite various bullets he has so far shown every inclination to dodge.

He has to start defending the key cultural bonds of ‘faith, family and flag’ which he currently ignores, scorns or undermines; and he has to conduct a fundamental reform of the welfare state.

Unless he does so, his Big Society risks being seen as nothing more than vapid political positioning – and turning into a Big Embarrassment.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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