We all laughed at the Big Socahteh during the election campaign but Dave hasn’t let go of it. He based his conference speech on the concept and people all over the political spectrum are beginning to take it seriously. Even Martin Bright, who sees more than most, writes that: ‘I am not offended by the Big Society. I don’t see a lot wrong, in principle, with this kind of ultra-devolution. There is an anti-authoritarian element to some of the thinking that should be hugely attractive to those who have supported the co-operative movement, for instance. Indeed, if they had any sense, Labour politicians would start moving into this territory, arguing that they are the party that really understands the Big Society on the ground.’
Bright’s comments are nothing compared to those of Matthew d’Ancona, who has truly seen the light:
Cameron’s notion of the ‘Big Society’ seems so baffling to so many: it refers to all the stuff that stands, or ought to stand, between government and citizen, but to which we have become blind. The most radical passage of Cameron’s speech addressed this squarely: ‘Citizenship isn’t a transaction – in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and it matters what you think and you feel and you do.
So to get out of the mess we’re in, changing the government is not enough. We need to change the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society.’
Far from being woolly or mysterious, the Big Society is a clear, simple and powerful idea: a project in which the state is tamed, not dismantled; power over public services is dramatically devolved; and non-governmental bodies and charities are recruited to socially useful ends. The fact that we find this so strange says more about us than it does about the concept: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves.’
Forget the weirdness of an party that has always called for getting the government off our backs, and which ran on a civil liberties ticket, inviting everyone to ‘join the government of Great Britain’. (As Suzanne Moore remarked: ‘This is a Government supposedly committed to a smaller State and yet what it is actually proposing amounts to a massive experiment in social engineering.’) The passage quoted by d’Ancona is the most thought-provoking part of Cameron’s speech and, having thought about it, I prefer citizenship to be a transaction more than a relationship.
Citizenship is about being part of a thing greater than yourself. But it is also about autonomy and having the space and time to pursue your own interests and desires. One of the reasons I support redistribution of wealth is that it gives people this autonomy and reduces their dependence on work. Progressive politics is meant to bring time and freedom to the poor as well as the rich. And there is nothing left-wing about working all day to throw taxes onto the furnace of the deficit, then spending the evenings and weekends filling potholes or attending council area meetings. I know loads of people volunteer and do a great deal of good and I’ll salute them, but it must remain a choice and not an obligation. This sounds selfish and maybe it is, but only in the sense that wanting your personal space and a social life is selfish.
Again, we should learn from the American constitution, which guarantees the pursuit of happiness. The mark of a civilisation is that it gives you this pursuit, if not the actuality.