Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fleshing out the Big Society

I see that on Liberal Democrat Voice Chris White, leader of the Lib Dem opposition on Herts County Council has taken a swipe at the ‘Big Society’ dismissing it for having ‘meatless bones’ and amounting to ‘not very much at all’.

Now don’t want to pick a quarrel with Chris, who I generally regard as a kindred spirit. But I do get frustrated at the tone of begrudgery that many Lib Dems adopt when discussing the Big Society. More generally it is symptomatic of a Lib Dem intellectual cringe towards the other parties – as soon as they adopt our language and ideas we decide that those ideas can’t have been very good after all. So I will just outline why I take a more benign view the Big Society and the debate surrounding it.

In a modern liberal democracy any new idea is likely to be limited in scope. If Francis Fukayama’s proclamation of the End of History after the Cold War was mostly wrong-headed, there was a kernel of truth fighting to get out – that utopian ambitions for organising society were discredited and the best that the western democracies can hope for is to manage our existing system better. So any guiding principle of any democratic government is going to be about what it chooses to emphasise and prioritise not about turning the world upside down. Viewed in that light, the Big Society can be a useful way of thinking about the coalition’s agenda.
As Chris acknowledges, there is much that is Liberal in the language of the Big Society. Indeed in my view it belongs more to modern Liberalism than anything else. Back in the 1980s when I was cutting my political teeth, the divisions between the parties seemed to be as follows. Labour wanted to see a compassionate society with a high level of public services, and saw the state as the only possible vehicle for providing them. But their approach was patrician, they tended to be suspicious of the third sector, community organisations and anything get gave citizens more direct power. They seemed inclined to believe that the state and its experts knew best in all things. On the other side, the Conservatives seemed ideologically at war with the public sector, believing that services, if provided at all, should be delivered by private companies.

By contrast Liberals shared many of Labour’s aspirations, but were sceptical of their 'one size fits all’ attitude towards public services. Community politics meant that public bodies should be accountable to the citizens they served, and needed to engage with voluntary and community groups and the like. The mantra was about giving power back to people rather than concentrating it in the hands of benevolent but paternalistic politicians and experts. Of course things have moved on since the 1980s. New Labour’s advocacy of a ‘stakeholder society’ was symptomatic of a move away from paternalism, and whether through pragmatism or conviction the Conservatives under Cameron have abandoned much of their anti-public sector rhetoric. So both parties have moved towards our worldview.

Therefore, whether or not one likes the specific term ‘Big Society’, we should be attempting to lead the debate and put Liberal flesh on the bones. ‘Volunteering, mutualism, localism and letting people get on with it’ are not a bad starting points for thinking about a healthy society –though they must go hand-in-hand with, not replace business prosperity and strong public services. Chris argues that ‘comfortable conventions of self-confident middle class households cannot be seen as a template for what may be needed in run down estates’. But surely deprived communities would benefit particularly from a spirit of self-help, where people can make their voices heard and where there are active community organisations to speak up on their behalf. Perhaps making sure that poorer and excluded groups have as sharp elbows as the affluent middle classes is a vital part of building a Big Society.

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