Bit of a serious title today – but I think the topic is serious too.
Gordon Brown finished off an interesting article the other day with this phrase:
Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.
The article was about the dreadful mass-kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by extremists. It describes a situation which in no way is comparable to the UK. However, even so, I am minded to remember these stories on the Big Society and compare and contrast in the following way.
For starters, when in 2012 David Cameron said the arrival of food banks proved the Big Society was putting its best foot forward – “First of all let me echo what he said about volunteers and people who work hard in communities, part of what I call the ‘Big Society’, to help those in need” (further observations six months later from the Guardian here) – I don’t suppose those he imagined to be in such desperate need were going to be his political and business sponsors and cronies. But exactly this, so it turns out, would now seem to have been the case all along:
An investigation has begun into the use of taxpayer-funded grants by the charity set up to lead David Cameron’s “big society” initiative.
The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.
News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.
I have to say I was suspicious of the Big Society idea and its concrete implementation from quite early on. As long ago as 2010, I suggested that:
Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?
Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid. Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power. And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.
So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude? I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.
As a by-the-by, then, and in bloody irritating hindsight, it would seem that the aforementioned “ambush of ideas” – designed not only to forestall fears of the abandonment of compassion by the state and all its works (and that many of us suspected would be the case from 2010 onwards) but also to proactively fill the deep pockets of Cameron & Co’s ideological partners with the public dosh thus leveraged – was indeed sprung on us, for a precious four years during which the Tory right have operated with a calculated impunity.
Yet what is most galling about the whole process is that precisely this clicktivist activation of our democracy – from the efficient and hugely competent organisation of food banks to online petitions to virtual communities of mums, the disabled and the poorest in society, quite unwilling to take all this rubbish lying down – has been advertised by Cameron & Co as a demonstration of everything they’ve been looking to unleash in the British character.
Yes. Despite the #gagginglaw, the #bedroomtax, the destruction of so many disabled support mechanisms, #DRIP’s appalling process and colluded agreement, the scapegoating of immigration, benefit recipients and the poorer in society in general, the destroying of the NHS, Legal Aid and other parts of the welfare state, the fiddling of unemployment figures and economic data and so much more … despite all of this, what’s been and what’s to come, we’re all supposedly so much freer than we were before because – precisely by the art of Coalition magic – we’ve all become incredibly engaged with the very essence of what it is to be a democratic citizen. That is to say, the very fact that we’re demonstrating day after day is proof of the Coalition’s pudding of ideological wisdom and strategic ingenuity.
And this proof I describe? Where does it lie?
In the levels of activity that manifestly exist, of course.
This brings me back to Gordon Brown’s conclusion that I quoted at the top of today’s post. And here I paraphrase and amend slightly:
Democratic citizens should be able to participate in a society, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.
For that, dear reader, is where we stand right now. There are levels of activity and levels of activity. What Cameron & Co have done to our democracy is not to democratise, free up or unleash a natural instinct to participation. If only that had happened, we wouldn’t be in the mess we currently find ourselves in.
No. What Cameron & Co have done is transfer to a wider society, impose upon a broader citizenry and implement aggressively the destructive dynamics that all Westminster’s politicians eventually become accustomed to. And whilst I’m sure Ed Miliband’s heart is in the right place when he suggests that people are bussed to Parliament to take regular part in a carefully controlled PMQs, created (I suppose) for the acceptable face of the voting populace and plebs out there, he really does need to go much farther than that: it’s not the people who should be allowed gingerly into Parliament but Parliament which needs rapidly to understand the noxious effect its traditions are having on a nation of once already sincerely participative and constructive subjects – people brought up to believe in collaboration, and who’ve been retrained in a sadly Pavlovian way to use “social-media screech” as a placebo for true political involvement and consensus.
Our democracy is not healthy at the moment, simply because so many of us are screaming our pain. It will, however, of this I am sure, one day revert to a rude and welcome wellbeing when, finally, we get the political class we deserve – that class, I mean, which comes ultimately from the people themselves, and understands – from personal experience – that noise and communication are not things we should ever carelessly confuse.