From Nanny State to Big Society

David Cameron

More on the Big Society and David Cameron’s announcements today. Useful analysis from Norman Smith Chief political correspondent, BBC Radio 4:

The ‘big society’ is David Cameron’s Big Idea. His aides say it is about empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism. Perhaps no wonder then that Tory candidates during the general election found it difficult to sell the idea to voters. So why is David Cameron returning to this theme ?
In part because he does view it as his answer to Big Government – but there are also more basic political motives. First, its about providing a different agenda to the day by day litany of cuts, cuts and more cuts. Second, it is – as Eric Pickles has acknowledged – about saving money. If people are doing things for free then you don’t have to pay public servants to do them for you.
So beneath the grand sounding philosophy there is hard nosed, practical politics behind the ‘big society’ message.

What I find interesting is the examples given of local people co-ordinating their own bin collections or running their local school.

Surely the big (and by ‘big’ I mean the most expensive and damaging) challenges are relational and societal. The big challenges are around how we best support carers to care for their parents, spouses or children; how we recognise the early onset of dementia; how we as a society encourage our children to thrive educationally, morally, psychologically and spiritually rather than perpetuate a cycle (for some) of underachievement and disruption.

What should be right at the heart of the big society is not people looking out for themselves but people looking out for other people. Encouraging local people to run their local pub or post office is great – it can be a valuable tool for social cohesion and prevent isolation for many in rural areas. What’s most important, though, is how we are fostering an environment in which people care for one another in our society, and finding new and creative ways to enable this rather than consider it an ‘optional extra’ to our already busy and stressful lives.

At the moment, the Big Society idea just feels too individualistic – surely it needs to be more than about ‘giving something back to society’?

If Cameron’s big idea continues to fail to strike a chord with the electorate then there’s a significant possibility that the Big Society will morph into a fancy and expensive funding stream for VCS organisations only, and not the intended social revolution.

Wise words from Nancy Doyle:

The Voluntary Sector does not exist to compete on price with government in the delivery of services, we exist to be a prophetic voice, speaking out to protect the rights and wellbeing of those facing disadvantage, we speak to government not for government. At this time Id suggests the Voluntary Sector should be proud of its ability to deliver, but as increasing opportunities are presented, approach them with a dogged determination to preserve quality, not seek to win contracts at any cost. A truly strong society requires investment in public services and investment in community projects, let’s be the voice reminding government of this, not the donkey who bears the burden of diminished funding for key services.

UPDATE: Jason Clark has pointed to some useful resources for thinking about all this, especially Luke Bretherton’s book, ‘Christianity and Contemporary Politics‘, that lists a number of dangers for churches in engaging with these issues:

  1. Co-ercive: Churches are forced to stop religious practices and identity to enter into partnerships, losing their focus on people as whole and spiritual being, and losing integrity in the process
  2. Mimetic: Becoming like the state and other professional bodies, seeking to be ‘effective’
  3. Normative: The people in churches who take the lead in these partnership become professionalised, and distant from the church communities that enable their partnership in the first place

He concludes with some ‘rules for faithful engagement’ in political life:

  1. Listening to scripture to discern what goods in common we have locally and with our neighbours
  2. See the ‘local’ as the distinct place of church in this for action, compared to global
  3. This action is associational as opposed to legal and bureaucratic
  4. This involves the church as a legal, physical and social institution, formed by it’s worship life. Worship is political and reveals our social relations
  5. Such actions take seriously ordinary life, with work, home, civic life, neighbours etc
  6. Actions involve ‘generative contradiction’ not saying yes or no to the status quo (sometimes yes, sometimes no). Work in partnership but also criticise government when needed
  7. Action does not look to the state or market in first instance to address concerns, but rather ‘self organisation and mutual support’


Big Society or big gaping gap where services once were?

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

I know what you’re thinking, catchy title.
Since writing my ‘relationships that heal society’ post back in February, there has been much talk of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

In many ways, this was presented as the UK Conservative Party’s lynchpin policy that launched their election campaign. But it isn’t wholly unfair to describe it as a wholesale flop. People didn’t get it. I still don’t think people have really understood it. Maybe it’s too ‘conceptual’ an idea to capture the imaginations of the British electorate in an era of soundbites?

Whilst this is one aspect of Conservative policy I have a bit of time for (in headline at least), I have become increasingly concerned by the tone that this policy has been taking in recent times. My biggest worry, echoed by a recent Observer article, is that the big idea underpinning this coalition government may simply be code for not doing very much at all.

open quotesIs Big Society code for not doing very much at all…?close quotes

Far from sweeping away Britain’s social problems with a tidal wave of social responsibility, civic pride and community action, it may just be that we end up with less. And less I fear, for the most vulnerable in our society. Faced with at least 25% cuts to public services, the real issue now may not be debates around the extent to which the state should ‘interfere’ in people’s lives, or whether we should ‘help people to help themselves’, but rather, whether we will have any public services at all beyond the ‘DIY services’ of a Tesco Value state.

We are, undoubtedly, entering a time in the UK of unprecedented opportunity for the Third Sector, and the UK Church in particular, to step into the breach and play it’s mandated part in healing society of its deepest relational and societal wounds. I firmly believe that now is not the time for retrenchment into a blame game pointed squarely towards our politicians.

Yet how does the Church do this? How do we learn a new language of prayer and action that enables us to once again earn the right to speak up for the powerless in society, and stand alongside Local and Central Government in the process of re-imagining what interactions with citizens looks like? How we can help nudge society toward a greater sense of social and moral responsibility for one another – a love for one’s neighbour?

Any thoughts?