This is not another government initiative

So the Big Society is going to get one last push. It was felt to need one. Paul Mason (BBC Newsnight’s economics editor) said:

I’m finding it common among non-politicos these days that whenever you mention the “Big Society” there’s a shrug and a suppressed laugh – yet if you move into the warren of thinktanks around Westminster, it’s treated deadly seriously.

Mason sees this as evidence of a “complete disconnect between the values and language of the state and those of the educated young.” As if determined to prove him right, David Cameron comes out with this piece of third term Blair-speak:

For too long, our country has failed to have a proper debate on how we can make our society stronger and give people more power. Now it is happening. And not just in the thinktanks of Westminster and newspapers of Fleet Street. The big society has been a topic of discussion on a wider basis – from being on the agenda at the General Synod to being debated in front of a live television audience.

It’s pretty obvious that the Big Society has had no positive impact at all on people’s lives generally. The potholes on my street are not being fixed by armies of volunteers. I haven’t knocked on my neighbours’ doors in an attempt to get a new district charity up and running, and no one has knocked on mine. We came up with chairs and quiche for the Big Lunch, yes, but that’s something different.

There have been changes, though. Existing charities have had their state funding cut – they’ll have to re-apply for ‘contracts’ – so for those who volunteered to help out with things some time ago, the Big Society is about being told to do less. It’s the same for local authorities. And I think this is the point. British politicians have their pet projects; the Tories especially. John Major had his national sports academy, Blair had his city academies. And I think you could make a case for privatised rail. These things are still going (with the exception of Railtrack, which got re-nationalised). It’s possible that the Big Society bank will still be going in twenty years’ time. ‘Pet project’ suggests harmlessness: it’d be better to describe these projects as exercises in patronage, where the degree of harm is to do with things like size, take-up, and complexity. Sport: harmless; arguably good. City academies: mostly harmless. National rail infrastructure: decidedly bad.

There’s nothing new about patronage, nor is there anything new about the conditions that traditionally attach. The patron must be satisfied that the recipients are deserving: that they won’t go against the patron’s own ideas about how these things should be done. With the Big Society, the patronage avenues – the scope of the ‘charters’ and the ‘contracts’ – have been defined through the obsessions of the Tory press over the last few decades. Schools. Health and Safety. Local Authority social work. Now, some of the right sort of people, with the right ideas, will be allowed to set up their own state funded substitutes. But perhaps they’ll improve things, and should be allowed a chance? Not if you believe that giving things a chance should be a matter of majoritarian decision-making, and at a local level where possible. Without an acknowledgment of the role of local democracy, the attempt to paint the Big Society as ‘localism’ just doesn’t wash. Big Society advocates talk about empowerment but fling mud at the institutions of local representation: they describe elected council leaders as ‘fat cats’ and local authorities as places where ‘power is trapped’. Established charities don’t fare much better: they’re described by Shaun Bailey – Cameron’s ‘ambassador’ for the Big Society – as ‘civic unions’. The attitude looks well entrenched; the main thing stopping Michael Gove doing end runs around local authorities on schools is the constitutional limit to that sort of behaviour. So I think the death of the Big Society is best understood as the death of a rebranding exercise, not as the end of a policy. The erosion of existing local institutions and the establishment of things like free schools will continue until there’s a change of national government.

(Note: the Americans have something similar: the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.)

(And see also this, at Next Left.)