The Big Society: A mess in the making

Posted by Alexander Hay

This half-baked, penny pinching scheme will do more harm than good

The Big Society may come at a higher price than Cameron claims

If you want something then you need to pay for it. This is most true in the case of public services where, leaving aside the issue of efficiency, the money you put in does rather reflect what you get out. Those schools and hospitals don't pay for themselves and well paid staff running them tend to be more motivated than those who are paid badly.

These need, as said, to be paid for, however. Since debt is a bad thing, this means more tax, which the public tends to blanch at. The only other possibility, therefore, is to make cuts so the country doesn't go bankrupt.

This leads to quite an impasse. On the one hand, we have a government with a commitment to cutting state aid and saving money and on the other hand, we have a public that doesn't like having to pay for things, but are very happy to have them. What's a Prime Minister to do?

In David Cameron's case, it's the Big Society where, hypothetically, the state reduces funding and retreats in an orderly fashion as the voluntary sector, and a now socially conscious Joe Public, move in to fill the hole left in its wake. The only problem with this idea is that it doesn't work.

Firstly, Liverpool City Council - one of the four areas chosen to pilot the scheme - said it was to withdraw because those same government cuts that ushered in the Big Society would also cut funding from the same voluntary groups that it was meant to empower.

Meanwhile, Hammersmith & Fulham Council - hailed by Cameron as an example of the Big Society in prototype form - slashed spending on homeless shelters, meals on wheels, youth clubs and housing without there being any safety net for those who lost out. Still, council tax went down, which was probably the only thing that mattered. The Big Society, meanwhile, didn't surface. No spontaneous outpouring of generosity occurred, no give, all take.

Three main problems therefore emerge. The first of these is that the voluntary sector still needs money. Even if you're an all-volunteer force who work out of your homes, you still need money to print things, set up and run an organisation, and indeed find some way of supporting yourself if what you're doing is full time or close to it. Few people have the time or the money to do this, unless of course their organisation was getting enough funding to pay them.

Secondly, the Big Society is not something that's as yet been proven to work. It is an ideological construct, how someone would like the world to work as opposed to how it actually does. Since ideology has ruled the roost in government since before Cameron did his A-Levels, it's inevitable that we have politicians who put the purity of their ideas before reality's demands. In that sense, the Big Society doesn't have to work - it's a fig leaf for the real battle here, which is the government's aim to reduce 'The State'.

Which brings us to the main problem here - it's a bad idea. Rather than slowly trial the Big Society from grassroots up, the government wants to press ahead right away. This is akin to grabbing a toddler, hurling him or her into the deep end and then waiting to see if he or she will manage to learn to swim quickly enough. It's half-baked, as evidenced by the fact that young people are being 'asked' to volunteer for work while they're on the dole. There's nothing big about a society that presses its economic casualties into unpaid work. Beyond that, how does the government know its plan will work? There have been no consultations, comparisons to similar schemes across the world or any attempt to work within the traditions of volunteering in the UK.

The only valid argument for the Big Society would be a libertarian one - where people are empowered by being taxed less and by genuine altruism as big government contracts. But even this is undermined. There is something authoritarian and preachy about the Big Society, the way it assumes that the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor should be subject to the mercy of their social betters. When those 'small government' types complain about the tyranny of the state, what they really mean is that it isn't their kind of authoritarianism.

And that is the problem with the Big Society. It's either a fig leaf for spending cuts or an ideological hobby horse for those who consider the state to be fundamentally harmful. As a solution for providing public services or making things better, however, it remains little better than a charity case itself.

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Alexander Hay

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