I wrote quite a bit, whilst it was still a buzzword worth buzzing about, on the subject of the blessed Big Society. I even suggested at one point that it had been deliberately conceptualised to favour one self-interested section of society – those semi-retired white males and females of independent means who always seem to appear on parish and local councils – over the rest of us.
The strategy would go as follows: devolve all sorts of powers down to the localities themselves, and then make it impossible for anyone who had a life to live to be able to participate in the sudden flowering of democracy. How easy would it then be for a certain profile of local people (a profile which, quite coincidentally, would just happen to coincide with that of Tory voters) to take charge of all things local. How easy would it then be for them to introduce a certain ideological colour of blue to our erstwhile pleasant and very green land.
But that, now, is all behind us. No one speaks any more of the Big Society. It is dead. And probably just as well. Except that, today, I’m looking to resurrect it.
Rick writes consistently on the subject of the peak state. This from the other day, and this from about a year ago, bear witness to the fact that the state is not the expanding universe we assumed to be the case: in this, human experience does not mimic science. (Perhaps shortly we will discover that, in fact, our physical theories of life and everything will also need to be revisited. Fred Hoyle may yet have the opportunity to dance joyfully on his own grave.)
Now I have no professional criteria to be able to decide if Rick is right or not – but his arguments and his evidence are hardly counter-intuitive; especially in a world where they force us to see countries as credit cards. So for the purposes of this post, let’s assume the state has, indeed, peaked. What, then, can we do about it? Can we do anything at all?
Cameron is a bit of a wally, to be honest – a pretty sad man who’s managed to single-handedly misspend the tremendous trust his party placed in him just about as much as his own Chancellor has single-handedly misspent our national goodwill.
A PM, in fact, who has rapidly ended up at the fag end of his days far sooner than any of us expected. Not so much a PM of afternoon glow as an AM of early morning hangover.
And yet for all of that, there is still something of his project which remains in my mind and makes me sad. The Big Society’s conceptualisation was diffuse and uncertain, that is true. But his task was almost certainly impossible, for what it would have really required to properly work would have been a revolution of a quite unconservative cut. This is how I suggest it could have gone, in seven (possibly fascinating; definitely revealing) steps:
- Give everyone a basic income, as per these kinds of ideas (a kind of universal credit, in fact).
- Encourage people to voluntarily form local community groups around existing organs (NHS trusts; local councils; CABs etc), especially in areas of practice where they had existing knowhow or interest.
- In a first instance, identify roles which could be “outsourced” to citizens easily.
- Put into place a massive person-by-person training scheme to train people up in training others, especially in the activities to be initially “outsourced” and especially in their areas of existing knowledge.
- Get those with knowledge to train those with less.
- Suggest, with all of the above, that everyone could learn something from everyone – and everyone could teach something to everyone.
- Finally, call it the Big Society, as – simultaneously – you make appeals to Britain’s wartime spirit; the fact that we’re all in this together; and a mountain of other inspiring markers in the sand/soundbites/platitudes.
Any of the above ring any bells of any sort? Well, they do to me – even though, right now, the bells toll for thee and me.
Imagine, if you will, that Cameron in particular had embarked on a far more radical plan to change the nature of the state. If instead of just aiming to fill the pockets of his corporate sponsors by contracting its public size – with all the bitter legacy of citizen suicide, poverty, homelessness, human misery and accusations of corporate graft he’ll now be leaving behind him – he had chosen for his legacy to circulate around contracting out its services to the very people themselves.
In such a scenario, even IDS himself would be a people’s hero of very 21st century instincts, as the state was wound down, wound up and – finally – handed over to the people whom it would both begin to serve and be directly served by.
What empowering instincts these would have been. What devolving environments these Tories would have left behind them.
And yes. Cameron’s initial instincts (in some small way, at least; in some very private and honest place) were almost certainly these, as he fumbled, flipped and flopped with a flagship policy which utterly failed to convince absolutely anyone, precisely because his ambitions – whilst astonishing – were nowhere matched by a corresponding competence. The Big Society could have been a far more revolutionary, lasting, One-Nation-like and truly prime ministerial narrative – capable, that is, of assuring Cameron’s place in history – than any cruel, toff-engendered, class war off Eton’s playing-fields, conducted against the lazy, shirking, chav-like inhabitants of this hoodie- and immigrant-infested land of criminal prejudice.
Almost three years after the event, we could all be in such a better place, couldn’t we? A place of a wonderful new politics.
As it is, Cameron’s blown it – for him, of course, without a doubt; but more importantly, for the rest of us too.
A self-inflicted sucker punch of the most collateral kind.
And what’s more, not only unneeded but also gratuitously unnecessary.
So what next? Time to get really radical? Time to turn this world they’ve turned upside down, upside down all over again?
In a pretty unavoidable way, I think any government which follows Cameron’s (as, indeed, Rick clearly shows us) will have no alternative but to consider such alternatives. Social-democratic and neoliberal evolution have, seriously, lost their way. And the only choice left us, a historical Hobson’s choice if there ever was one, will be that revolution (of some kind) I allude to.
Time not to ameliorate where we can, but disrupt where we need to.
Only using very 21st century tools and mindsets to do so.