Big society…or big dream?

Image from Jan Gavin’s post, ‘Support for the coalition crumbling’

David Cameron’s speech has left a lot of listeners starving for substance. Reiterating his pledge to this “different way of governing”, the Prime Minister gave a confident speech, calling the coalition’s much-hyped Big Society slogan his “absolute passion”.

However, the web was ablaze with listeners who had little reverence for the Prime Minister’s big idea. One Tweeter commented: “Tories stress that bigsociety and cuts are separate issues. Yes, but refusing to acknowledge that latter undermines former is just stupid”, whilst another pointed out the uncomfortable fact that “20 out of 43 libraries in David Cameron’s own county face axe”. Tweeter Barc_alpha summed up the dissatisfaction across the web, saying: “The problem with the BigSociety is the belief that communities can be created – they already exist but need enabling with support, not cuts”. The most popular response has been the circulation of Guardian political cartoonist Steve Bell’s comic take on the Big Society Bank.

But with all the Prime Minister’s passionate talk of the Big Society and the clear dissatisfaction with the idea, the question foremost in the minds of most people is…well, what exactly is the Big Society?

The whole point is essentially a simple one: to give British people more control over their local communities by keeping government out of their lives and encouraging more volunteering and philanthropy. However, for all its simplicity and its appeals to the better angels of people’s natures, the implications, even at this early stage, are far from simple and could affect the lives of Britons for decades to come, just as Margaret Thatcher’s policies radically shaped the face of Britain. However, as philosopher John Gray has pointed out, even Thatcher didn’t dare to touch the welfare state but the current government seems keen to take Thatcher’s Victorian/Methodist dream to areas where even its formidable originator feared to tread.

The essential contradiction is how to get an increase in volunteering from people with families and jobs and whilst cutting welfare and funding to many voluntary groups. The contradiction was highlighted further by Tory peer Lord Wei of Shoreditch, the coalition’s ‘big society tsar’, who – much to the coalition’s embarrassment – reduced his voluntary time on the project from three days a week to two, telling his that this would allow him to see more of his family and friends, a dilemma that already plagues millions of Britons.

One of the chief practical implementations of the Big Society has been to hand control of libraries to volunteers, a decision that has sparked outrage amongst many voters and attracted the ire of Philip Pullman, the author of the celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy, who penned an impassioned polemic attacking the cuts to local governments and its effect on libraries.

As with many of the Tweeters quoted above, much of the criticism has gone towards saying that at best, the Big Society is just a hollow slogan that is devoid of genuine content and at worst, an impassioned cover for more – and increasingly unpopular – spending cuts.

What concerns us most here at Bold Creative is the upcoming £100m cuts to the youth service budget,which will result in the loss of 3,000 jobs and the closure of youth centres around the country. There is something to be said for avoiding the excesses of centralised government, but pursuing its converse to the extreme means that many little societies will be strangled in the name of the Big Society. This would be a case of putting an abstract political ideology over the concerns of the British people, something the coalition has worked hard to deny. Perhaps they protest too much.

Look out for our series on the Big Society. Meanwhile, feel free to have your say.


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