Cameron's Big Society

I spent last night listening to the satirical comic wanderings of Rory Bremner political impressionist extraordinaire. And though most of me was ‘splitting sides’ at the witty one-liners, the theme of austerity measures was enough to make me ‘split hairs’ instead.

One of the most striking gags that featured throughout the BBC live radio performance was when fellow comic Andy Zaltzman stated that the ‘Big Society has captured the people like a baby spider catches an apache helicopter in its web,’ and unfortunately, the negative response rings true. Prime Minister David Cameron claims that the “new proposals aim to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will “take power away from politicians and give it to people”.

However, commenting on Cameron’s ‘big society’, Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, the UK’s largest public service union, said: “Cameron’s “big society” should be renamed the “big cop out.” […]The Government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.

“Public services must be based on the certainty that they are there when you need them, not when a volunteer can be found to help you.” And there was a similar rhetoric in terms of humour in which the comedians suggested that anyone could open up a school, an army, and even a militia group to solve Britain’s problems. If this is the case, then essentially the public will be acting as a civil service and the government in turn should have reduced wages.

No doubt, a sense of community spirit goes a long way without all of the cliché labels. In ‘The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace,’ Scott Peck argues that the almost accidental sense of community that exists at times of crisis can be consciously built. And though it has not necessarily been exemplified in the way Cameron envisages, the current occupations are symptomatic of “community organising.”

According to the ‘Building the Big Society’ manifesto, “It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem.” And so it seems that the Con-Dem coalition are attempting to repair the damage caused by the financial crisis on the back of the welfare state, despite the cuts ensuring that the public sector are the worst hit.

The issue that seems to perplex me is what the incentive is for citizens to actually want to be part of the ‘Big Society.’ Apart from a rather disgraceful revival of the ‘British Empire Medal,’ described as the working- class ‘gong,’ it’s likely to offend those working in the voluntary sector. The Government in this case is acting as the middle-man whilst reaping the benefits. I remember a similar strategy used during the end of the Tony Blair days. When the idea of ‘extremism’ was prevalently used, Blair had said: “The government cannot alone root out extremism in Muslim communities and defeat the terrorism it creates.”

And a comparable reaction ensued, accusing Blair of having done little to win Muslim “hearts and minds,” as well as alienating these communities. If the government are supposed to be a representative of the public, yet are unable to approach the people in which they are supposed to support; I have to question whether the constituents voted into parliament actually come from the ‘Big Society’ or ‘high society.’

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About suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a 25 year old writer, journalist and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC. Winner of the Emma Humphries Memorial Prize in 2007, also shortlisted for the Guardian Mary Stott Prize in the same year, and more recently longlisted for the Guardian International Development Award. Has worked in China, India and the UK and currently writes on a freelance basis. Works as a digital producer for ITV News, but views are all her own.

10 responses »

  1. Passing the buck is one of those perennial threads running through Conservative policy. There was Thatcher with her barmy assertion that “there is no society” and then Major with ‘back to basics’ and the idea that: “It is time to return to core values, time to get back to basics , to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for the others, to accepting responsibility for yourself and your family – and not shuffling it off on other people and the state.” In helping us to help ourselves, he then set up ‘The Cones Hotline’!

    Dave Prentis is right, of course. It is the ‘big cop-out’. But that’s been another long-standing trend. Once upon a time the government had many obligations, but then it sold most of those off to the private sector. And now ‘the citizens’, are supposed to filling in the remaining cracks, until sooner or later, you really have to wonder why we need any government at all. The answer, of course, is that what remains is increasingly there to serve and protect the interests of the ruling elite. Government by the corporations, for the corporations, and against the people.

    To halt this trend requires proper regulation of the political system. The most obvious and immediate step being that we ban all corporate lobbying of MPs. And let’s forget about this issue of disclosure, because no one in government should be receiving any kind of pay-offs from business or ‘charities’ full-stop – it’s an outrage. Our demand should be simply this: “you are working for us”, because unless and until our politicians are forced to accept their responsibility to us, things can only get worse.

    • suswatibasu says:

      The issue of expenses is a dangerous trend that keeps occurring, and needs to be addressed. I agree there needs to be better regulation, and it should be administered by other powers and not those in the House of Commons or House of Lords who are part and parcel of this whole elitist system. It’s so shocking that the Liberal Democrats have the audacity to demand more money through the voting system.

  2. John Durrant says:

    The ‘Big Society’, a top down approach to solving complex social problems will always be rejected by those it is supposed to serve, and has been received with so much cynicism that I see it ambling along until the next flavour of government abandons it to the expense of everyone who had become involved out of genuine good will.

    I’m attempting to create a ‘bottom-up’ approach to finding ways for communities to solve some of their own problems at http://www.favabank.co.uk, I think that solutions like this will evolve over time to allow people to work together to get things done in communities. Government taking money from communities (in the form of taxation) and then giving it back via ill conceived programmes such as the Big Society are just going to lead to inefficiencies and injustice.

    • suswatibasu says:

      I just had a quick look at Fava Bank, and it seems such a wonderful, harmonious idea. No doubt, community spirit goes a long way. What I am trying to establish is what the government’s role is in the Big Society. Whilst people volunteer their time to others, the Government are penalising people and then reaping the benefits. Schemes such as this are a good idea, I just think that parliamentary privilege needs to be reduced to ensure the Government aren’t exploiting the public and allowing bankers to continue gambling with people’s futures.

      • John Durrant says:

        Thanks for your comments….

        My personal view is that government attempts at social engineering will tend to fail, for a whole host of reasons, and I would question the extent that government tries to fix society. Certainly there are people in government with benevolent intentions, but some would argue that many social policies have unintended consequences, so that the net effect is sometimes a degradation of society, at great expense.

      • suswatibasu says:

        Agreed, I also think that government schemes would fail because they are out of touch with common society, earning as one of the top 3% per cent in the country. They have absolutely no understanding for the rest of the 97% suffering under the cuts, earning an average wage.

  3. But we will have to have government, right? Of one kind or another. Because unfortunately, and whatever happens in the near future, we will still be needing a police force and the military, not to mention the fire service, hospitals, prisons, roads and a million other things. So surely the choice is only whether these services are provided publicly or privately. And I’m not in favour of ‘social engineering’ either, but I hate the ‘free market’ solution just as much, if not more, because I don’t want to live in a society that doesn’t protect the individual with rights to free healthcare, a social security system and education for all. Whatever we choose, it ought to expand the safety nets that made our society civilised.

    Over the last three decades, all of our governments having been flogging off our national assets one by one and, in the process, have diminished state governance in favour of corporate governance. There appears to be no end to what will be privatised. All of this has been done in the name of liberalisation, although it actually has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with money and power.

    So it’s not that we simply need less government. We need better government. We need democracy in the true sense – government that represents the people. A bottom-up model may work but I’m not sure quite how. Organising an entire nation on a bottom-up basis sounds tricky to say the least. Nor am I sure how such a model can be established without suffering bloody revolution, except perhaps through a transitional process of adapting the current top-down model.

    What we need then, at least in the short term, is to break the hold that a few powerful individuals and corporations have over our supposed representatives. And given that all our political parties are utterly sold-out, I think we almost certainly will need the birth of a new party. This new party might then seek to devolve the excesses of government power into the hands of communities. For example, letting schools and colleges be run by the teachers, and hospitals by the doctors and nurses; instead of the multiple tiers of vastly over-payed, inefficient and counter-productive management. Top-down and bottom-up – a genuinely realisable compromise.

    • suswatibasu says:

      True, however whilst the government is still ‘handing back the power to communities,’ they are cutting funding from the welfare state, which seems a little contradictory. It would make sense that the government provides adequate funding to communities to accomplish this, but in actual fact they are making the public pay it out of their own pockets to support one another. It’s true we need a ‘better government’ especially one that doesn’t essentially exploit the people and reap the benefits, and one that doesn’t gets paid an amount that reflects the 1% top percentile, for ‘not doing their job.’

  4. That’s absolutely correct but then, as you already pointed out in the article, the ‘Big Society’ is really cover for the ‘Big Cop-out’, not to mention the ‘Big Sell-off’ with businesses like Capita gobbling up a few more chunks of the public sector. It’s all just a ‘Big Con’ basically, because the truth is that all our most influential and powerful politicians now have such close ties with the finance and business elite that they work for them and not us. As comedian George Carlin put it, “It’s all just a big club – and you ain’t in it”. So I can’t imagine how anything good will come out of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and only excuses for more Thatcherite (i.e. neo-liberal) cutting and gutting of our services. Even the name is a clue, isn’t it…? ‘Big Society’… in these days of acronyms I’m surprised more people haven’t noticed the altogether smelly abbreviation!

    • suswatibasu says:

      Absolutely, it is all rather a bankhanded way of privatising areas that should remain part of the public sector such as ‘Free schools’ and the NHS, turning everything essentially into a business. True, the Big Society is a patronising acronym for the ‘Broken Society’ from the point of view of a very elitest government.

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