I can’t decide whether David Cameron’s new Big Society idea could become a Big Disappointment or a Big Bully.
Right now, nobody quite knows if the idea is anything more than a damp Steve Hilton marketing squib. And the idea of letting people run their own post offices, libraries and bus services – in just four trial areas of Liverpool, Eden Valley, Windsor and Sutton – is hardly a ‘revolution’.
But whatever it is, Big Society sounds an awful lot better to me than Big Government – unless Big Bureaucracy tries to run it.
One thing I do know is that this isn’t a cost-cutting exercise, as BBC blusterers claim (not having any other arguments). Conservatives have been talking about it for decades. “Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it,” said Margaret Thatcher in her famous “no such thing as society” speech. And Douglas Carswell was getting traction for his “localism” agenda long before anyone mentioned cuts.
Yet even Margaret overblew the government role. “No government can do anything except through people,” she went on to say. No, no no, Maggie: we don’t want government doing stuff. We want it to clear off so we can do our own. When Alexander the Great visited the philosopher Diogenes, who rejected worldly things and lived in a barrel, he asked what, with his wealth and armies, he could do for the thinker. “Stand out of the sun,” said Diogenes.
That must be the basis of the Big Society. Get out of the way of local activism, don’t try to lead it. When I read of a Big Society Bank to finance local groups, a National Citizen Service, a government-aided Neighbourhood Army of group leaders, state funding for social entrepreneurs, departments using charities to deliver programmes, or civil servants being obliged to ‘participate’, my toes curl.
That’s not unleashing local activism: it’s nationalizing it. Government’s ideas will prevail over the groups it funds and leads. The bureaucracy’s rules and values will be imposed on them. Then the voluntary sector will become just part of an even more intrusive state.
Voluntarism is strong: charities’ income is £28bn, and 611,000 people, one in 50 of us, work in 62,000 voluntary groups. Government should stand out of the sun and let that activism thrive. Things like CRB checks on parents who help out with school field trips or football teams, or health and safety rules that thwart charity duck races and village cheese-rolling, are exactly the kind of Big Bureaucracy that eclipse this local involvement. We need to clear all that clean away.
David Cameron is right that government needs to change itself to allow social activism to reassert itself. But if he thinks social activism is something the state can direct, the Big Society will become a Big Disaster.